The 11th of 13 children, B.K.S. Iyengar was lucky to survive a childhood marked by frequent bouts of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. "My head used to hang down, and I had to lift it with great effort," Iyengar wrote in "Light on Life," his first of 14 books. "My poor health was matched, as it often is when one is sick, by my poor mood. At times I asked myself whether life was worth the trouble of living."
Hardly the physical, mental or spiritual stuff of which yogis are made. Yet Iyengar went on to become one of the most revered gurus of our time, popularizing the ancient Indian practice in the West and earning a spot on Time's 2004 list of the 100 most influential people. Proving neither age nor agility are worthy deterrents, he taught Queen Elisabeth of Belgium to stand on her head — at the age of 85 — and enjoyed his own practice up until his death, at 95, in his home in India on Aug. 20. "He took yoga to the world," Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar said of her grandfather, who counted violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, actress Ali MacGraw and fashion designer Donna Karan among his devotees.
Like Iyengar, these inspiring fitness figures serve to remind us all that limitation is but a state of mind, small actions give rise to large movements and adversity is but the fire in which champions are forged.
His speed and grace redefined what it means to be a boxer; but Ali's humanitarianism and activism have redefined what it means to be a champion. The Olympic gold medalist, 72, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, now fights for the world's weakest. He's helped provide 232 million meals to the planet's poorest, hand-delivered medical supplies to children in the Ivory Coast and Indonesia, and secured the release of 15 U.S. hostages during the first Gulf War.
At 18, Anderson's dream of becoming a professional dancer died when she piled on 35 pounds. Five years later, she packed on 60 while pregnant with her first child. "If I didn't gain weight easily, I wouldn't be able to identify with women like I do," the trainer to the world's most famous bodies has said. The pint-sized powerhouse, 39, has teamed up with longtime client Gwyneth Paltrow to launch the Restart Project, an AOL Web series celebrating women who've healed themselves from the inside out.
When New York City-based actress Carr was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer in 2003, the then-31-year-old pledged to become a "wellness warrior," documenting her journey in "Crazy Sexy Cancer." After it aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network, a revolution was born. Eleven years and four "Crazy Sexy" books later, Carr lives happily and healthfully with her husband (and her still-stable cancer) on a farm in Woodstock, N.Y., and is developing a nonprofit organization to research Western and alternative treatments.
The original fitness queen, Fonda's 1982 "Workout" is the bestselling exercise video of all time. Now 76, the two-time Oscar-winning actress, bestselling author and political activist is as outspoken as ever, lending her star power to the Women's Media Center, V-Day: Until the Violence Stops, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential and the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at the Emory School of Medicine.
A self-described "junk food junkie," LaLanne turned his life around upon hearing a talk on the benefits of proper diet. After studying pre-med and graduating from chiropractic college, LaLanne, the son of French immigrants, realized he was "more interested in helping people before they became ill." He opened his first health studio — a gym, juice bar and health food store — in 1936, becoming a pioneer [ of the modern fitness industry at age 21. He died in 2011 at 96.
A small, sickly child, Lee took up martial arts to beef up his scrawny frame. Thanks to his grace (he won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship in 1958), skill and charisma, he became an action star in his parents' native land. However, it was his first Hollywood blockbuster, "The Way of the Dragon" (released a month after his death in 1973 at age 32), that cemented Lee's status as the world's first Asian superstar — and the most iconic martial artist of all time.
Obama is famous for those arms — and putting her muscle behind Let's Move!, an initiative aiming to solve childhood obesity within one generation. The Harvard Law School alum, 50, also teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America for the Drink Up campaign, reminding America that we are what we drink, and wrote her first book, "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America," illustrating how we are what we eat.
At the outbreak of World War I, German-born Pilates — who had used yoga, martial arts and gymnastics to rid his body of rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever — was interned in a British prison camp as an "enemy alien." Rather than bemoan his fate, he set about rehabilitating bedridden detainees, disassembling bunks and using the springs as a form of resistance, thereby conceiving of the "contrology" method that would later earn him a cult following in Hollywood. He died at 86 in 1967.
When Simmons graduated from high school in New Orleans, he weighed 268 pounds. After moving to L.A. and failing to find a gym that welcomed people of all shapes and sizes, he opened his own. To date, the king of Spandex claims to have helped Americans shed a collective 3 million pounds. His latest challenge: childhood obesity. The 66-year-old has testified twice before Congress to champion legislation mandating that physical education classes be reinstated in public schools.