The BBC is reporting that Iyengar was admitted to a hospital last week following kidney problems and was being treated at the time of his death.
Iyengar was born to a poor family in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. His father died when he was nine years old. A sickly child, he suffered from tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria and said that by the time he discovered yoga at the age of 16, he was so weak it took him six years to regain his heath.
“Yoga saved my life,” he said in an interview in 2005. “I took it for my health, and then I took it as a mission.”
Iyengar was one of the first yogis to leave India and teach in the West, starting in the 1950’s, and authored the bestselling Light on Yoga which has been translated into 13 languages.
It was in this book that he revealed the deep spiritual nature of yoga asanas, erroneously referred to as “exercises” in the West. “Some asanas are also called after Gods of the Hindu pantheon,” he wrote, “and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power.”
His style of yoga, known as Iyengar yoga, is a type of hatha yoga that focuses on the correct alignment of the body and uses straps, wooden blocks and other objects to aid in achieving correct postures.
In this interview with CNN in 2007, he explains the rise and spread of yoga in the West.
“Well, when I went to England, Switzerland, in 1954, never I thought that yoga would catch the world so fast. Though I went to the West in 1954, but I could capture the public only in 1961. So it took me seven years to build up that interest, by giving hundreds and hundreds of demonstrations to attract people towards the subject. But after 1961, I started treating some of the students who have been ailing for a very long period, and that boosted fast, so I think that the credit goes on the healing section of yoga, which took the West by storm.”
He admits that in the beginning, he settled for a user-friendly form of yoga to please the public he was trying to reach.
“First, it was only for the pleasures and the joys of the world. They all want sexual pleasures, sensual pleasures, happiness, joy. So I gave certain postures which triggers such things. And then later I told them, so you want this or do you want something more? And this was the turning point where people started getting interest on the spiritual aspect of life. It took a long time, but the transformation afterwards was very, very fast.”
Iyengar yoga is now taught in 72 countries.
He continued to teach yoga until well into his 80’s, but retired in 2003 to live with two of his six children at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute which he founded in 1975 in honor of his late wife, Ramamani.
However, he continued to practice yoga, relying on up to 50 props, including ropes and mats, to align his body into the required poses.
“When I stretch, I stretch in such a way that my awareness moves, and a gate of awareness finally opens,” Mr Iyengar told the Mint newspaper just last year.
“When I still find some parts of my body that I have not found before, I tell myself, yes I am progressing scientifically… I don’t stretch my body as if it is an object. I do yoga from the self towards the body, not the other way around.”
A CNN interviewer once asked him to explain how a mere physical position could help one realize their inner self.
“You know, my friend, you are mistaken,” Iyengar responded. “You know, it’s not a physical position. Body is an external self. Mind is an internal self. The real self is invisible. . . . Until the body is cleansed, purified, sanctified, how can you enter the gates of the soul? The body is like a fort, it’s called purusha. Pura means a fort, so you have to enter the seven gates one after the other, from the skin, to the flesh, from the flesh to the mind, mind to intelligence, intelligence to the consciousness, consciousness to highness, highness to the conscience, conscience to the self. So there are so many gates in this fort. So unless you open the front gate, how can you enter the second gate or the third gate? That’s the value of yoga. Yoga makes us to open the first gate so that the air may enter in, the cosmic force may enter in, and through that cosmic force, the other gates are entered, so that the external so-called body is one united with the internal self, the capital line which you don’t change at all.”
When asked if it disturbs him to see the crass commercialization of yoga in the west, he admitted that it does.
“It does disturb me, because yoga is a science. Yoga is a science which makes one to associate the body to the mind, and the mind to the intelligence, and intelligence to the consciousness and consciousness to the self. When such a noble subject, today, it has become a commercial presentation, it’s painful to me. . . . I don’t think that yoga is going to survive.”
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