The Yoga Pioneers - Śrī T Krishnamacharya 1888-1989
Learning about Krishnamacharya's life was a hard task until his son Kausthub Desikachar wrote a book on the legacy of his legendary father. The book was not as revealing as I would have hoped but still gave a fascinating insight into the man behind the resurrection of physical yoga. At the time of his birth in late 1888, Yoga as a philosophy was being dragged out of the wilderness by the great Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, but the physical side of Yoga was still overlooked. The physical side of yoga, the asanas, were not a common practise. If you did asana you where considered a mad man or as B.K.S Iyengar says, "In the early days, Yoga was an alien subject to the Indians also. It was not respected by scholars or the pandits (wise teacher) or anyone else. Only they were interested in the philosophical aspect, but not in the practical aspect at all. There was a feeling that those who embraced Yoga in the early days, they may be mentally disturbed or they must have quarrels with their parents. That was the imprint people had in those days, that Yoga was meant for those who are half crooked or half cracked people." Asana was associated with madness or the circus, certainly not the art of healing. This was Krishnamacharya's mission in life. To awaken the art of physical yoga from its slumber. To use it as a healing method, to first expose it to the masses and then to make it accessible to everyone and anyone. He would realise that this was his fate in around 1920, after completing his studies in Tibet. From then onwards Krishnamacharya developed, refined and formulated most of the asana's we are all so familiar with today. They may not have the specific alignment details that Iyengar pioneered later in the 60's but these asanas provided the frame work for everything Iyengar would later do.
The origins of these asanas are much debated. Academics look for proof, whilst culturalists pay little attention to what or who it was that inspired these asanas. Krishnamacharya's son, T.K. Sribhashyam, says the asanas were inspired by Narasiṃha. The half-lion, half-man incarnation of the Hindu God Viṣṇu. But does it really matter how these pose's originated? When I was a child and felt sick, my mum would often concoct the strangest remedies. All old school Kashmiri potions made from herbs and plants that I didn't even know existed. She often said the remedies were thousands of years old, she would tell me to have faith. Close my eyes. Swallow the potion and give it time to heal. More often than not they worked. In light of the fact they worked so well, did it matter whether or not she knew the origin of these great and ancient remedies? The same with the asanas. People often discuss and even argue about the authenticity of the poses. Are they 5,000 years old as Krishnamacharya says? Or did he just invent them having been inspired by gymnastics and the mythologies of Narasiṃha? Does it really matter? They fact is they work. Just like my mum's home made old school Kashmiri potions. How old the asanas are or who invented them does not make them any less effective.
A statue of Narasiṃha seated with crossed legs at a temple in India.
Krishnamacharya's star pupil in the 1920's was someone Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners will all be familiar with. Pattabhi Jois. Or Guruji as he was affectionately called. Pattabhi Jois would continue his guru's teaching all the way to his death in 2009. Pattabhi Jois may be the father of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, but there is a man behind him who is primarily responsible for the creation and development of this Ashtanga system. That is the one Krishnamacharya. He is the Grand Father of modern day Yoga. He is the man responsible for the re-birth of physical Yoga. Iyengar may have brought this art form to the west, but it was Krishnamacharya who brought it out from the dark abyss.
Looking at Krishnamacharya below (left), to me he looked like a Mayan warrior from the movie Apocalypto. He had the stern eyes, the lean physique and the imperious posture. All that was missing in that image below is a spear. As I imagine him, when he catches this spear, Krishnamacharya would burst through the screen in full warrior mode. It's my favourite image of Krishnamacharya, the grandmaster of Yoga. The irony is Krishnamacharya was indeed a true warrior. He was an invincible warrior because he contested with nothing. Krishnamacharya once said that you can only heal other's suffering if you have suffered yourself. Similarly, he was only able to teach us to use Yoga to find peace within because he was experiencing no battles of his own. He had left the battlefield of life and was a peaceful warrior looking only to bring peace to others.
Back in the early days as Krishnamacharya started to teach Yoga, people thought he was a mad man. 100 years later I am writing about him being a genius. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who one said; "There is no great genius without some touch of madness." 🙏
"Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customised vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: an unassuming five-foot, two-inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is the Father of Modern Yoga" - Yoga Journal, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya - Modern Yoga's Inventor, 2007
On 18th November 1988, Krishnamacharya was born to Tatacarya and his wife. The couple could trace their lineage back to the great Nathamuni. The son was named after the Lord Krishna (from the bhagavad-gītā) continuing the Vaisnava tradition of the family. Vaishnavism is one of the major traditions within Hinduism along with Shaivism and Shaktism. It is called Vaishnavas, and it considers Vishnu as the Supreme Lord.
Krishnamacharya was tutored by his father from home. His father came from a family of scholars and priests so education was a must. Mentoring in the Vedas and religious texts begun early on. Sadly Tatacarya died when Krishnamacharya was aged 10 and the family moved to Mysore to be with their grandfather. Krishnamacharya would study and master the Vedas, logic, the different schools of Hinduism, philosophy and the yoga sutras.
As a child, Krishnamacharya would have a strange dream where his ancestor Nathamuni would instruct him to visit the very same tree that Nathamuni himself had meditated upon (receiving the lost Vaisnava mantras). The tree in Alvar Tirunagari in Tamil Nadu was 600km away from Mysore, so travel was very difficult, especially for that time.
Above left: Alvar Tirunagari in Tamil Nadu. Above right: The Yoga Rahasya Text
One day Krishnamacharya embarked on his journey to Tamil Nadu to find the tree. It was 1904 and travel was demanding. Before he could complete his journey, Krishnamacharya passed out. In some sort of a trance state, Krishnamacharya would meet his ancestor Nathamuni. They would both recite the lost Yogic text the Yoga Rahasya (secrets of Yoga). When he came out of this trance, he was able to recite the entire treatise from memory. Krishnamacharya felt that from this point onwards, it would be his duty to continue the journey and teachings of Yoga so they would never be lost again.
Was this divine intervention? Was god asking Krishnamacharya to revive a dying art form in Yoga? Or was Krishnamacharya’s memory and thought compromised by near starvation and fatigue?
Krishnamacharya was 16 years old at this time and believed he had a responsibility to revitalise Yoga just as Nathamuni had revitalised the Vaisnava tradition. Krishnamacharya would continue his studying in all the various schools of philosophy, which at that time was an outstanding achievement. He continued to study, delving deeper into the Vedas, Philosophy, The Sutras, Grammar, Sanskrit, Logic, The Gita and a number of Vaisnava texts. He trained under some of the greatest Sanskrit grammarians at the Banaras Hindu University.
For over a decade Krishnamacharya studied these systems of knowledge in the town of Banaras and continued to travel meeting various scholars and pundits.
Krishnamacharya was desperate to continue his yoga studies so he travelled to Nepal and Tibet to seek and learn from various yoga masters/teachers. In those days, travelling was not easy. Especially for a thin, poor brahmin in British ruled India. It is said to have taken him three months to reach his destination by foot.
Once he reached Tibet, Krishnamacharya spent the next seven years mastering the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali and the rare Tibetan text on yoga, The Yoga Kuruntha. This text including adjustments for individuals, props, breath alignment in asana etc. Krishnamacharya said that he learnt 700 unique asana's from his guru. In the Yog Makaranda, on the subject of asana, Krishnamacharya wrote:
"How many asana's are there? It is said that there are 8.4 million asanas, as there are so many varieties of living beings. Ramamohana Brahmacharya (his guru) had 7,000 asanas and I have learnt 700 from him".
Upon completion of his apprenticeship and studies, he then returned to Banaras.
After his 7-year intense studies were over, Krishnamacharya’s guru Brahmacharya set his future in motion. In India the guru would often demand payment (usually a house or cow). However, in this instance all the guru wanted was for Krishnamacharya to marry, have a family and spread the word of Yoga and to make sure the British did not destroy part of their heritage (India was still under British rule at this stage and would remain so until 1947).
After some time, Krishnamacharya would get a job as the personal Yoga teacher/healer and counsellor to Sri Krishnaraja the maharaja (king) of Mysore (and his family). This was around 1925. The fame of Krishnamacharya reached the Mysore maharaja who was a sort of revolutionary. He was the first to start women's education and wanted to do what he could for the people of Mysore. The king was surprised to hear that a young man from his kingdom was being hailed as one of the greatest scholars of yoga. The king promptly offered Krishnamacharya the job after impressing the royals whilst lecturing on yoga at the local university.
In 1925 he would marry BKS Iyengar's sister Namagririammal and fulfil his promise to his guru. He also, with the help of the maharaja opened his first yoga school (yoga shala). Krishnamacharya taught boys, girls, men, and even athletes. Two of these students would become famous later in their own rights. Pathabi Jois (yellow arrow pointing at him above) and his wife's older brother, BKS Iyengar.
Above: (left) Krishnamacharya in 1925. (middle) with his daughter? (right) Krishnamacharya lived to 101 years old.
According to Krishnamacharya's children, the young men and boys were taught a vigorous style of Yoga to enhance their speed and strength. This time was before partition India so it was imperative the youth were strong and active. The yoga poses being taught originally were static. Upon developing the Vinyasa method, asana was transformed. It went from a static 'exercise' to a dynamic one. The development of Vinyasa allowed the 'exercises' (as they were being taught) to become a flowing sequence, integrating movement with breathing.
Krishnamacharya's longtime disciple A.G Mohan says that Krishnamacharya's favourite vinyasa was centered on the Warrior pose. He loved challenging his students co-ordination and balance. Mohan says; "When I did the warrior vinyasa, Krishnamacharya recommended that I bring into my mind a feeling like that of a bird. This is particularly appropriate in the devotional tradition in which the principal devotee of god is depicted as an eagle named Garuda. The eagle Garuda would also function as a vehicle carrying the lord on his back. 'As you do the warrior vinyasa, keep in mind that you are in service of the divine' Krishnamacharya would say. 'Extend your arms and look down, bring the feeling that you are above the world its various concerns and that you are close to the divine. Feel that the feet of the divine are resting on your hands'. To this, I once replied, 'This is relevant for me, but what if a practitioner has no religious beliefs?' Krishnamacharya replied; 'Still the imagery is valuable. Instead of thinking of the divine, bring the feeling that I am without fear or burden. I am not troubled by the future or the past, flying above worldly pressures".
Below: BKS Iyengar on the left and Krishnamacharya on the right both in Warrior 2.
With his vast learning in Yoga as well as other systems of Indian Philosophy, Krishnamacharya emphasised that the practice of Yoga must be adapted to the individual, and not the individual to Yoga. This deep held view was one of his most significant contributions to the field of health and healing through Yoga.
“In recommending Yoga practices, teachers should always consider an individual’s particular circumstances. Just as other activities and practices must be adapted to the changes in one’s life, such as ageing, so too Yoga practices need to be adapted as the practitioner changes”
– T Krishnamacharya’s commentary to Yoga Sūtra Chapter One verse 34
In 1934, Krishnamacharya would be asked by the Maharaja to write a book on the Yoga he taught these young students and athletes. He would write the book “Yoga Makaranda" (Honey of Yoga), a two-volume encyclopedia on yoga. The sequences in this book would form the basis of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system.
Images above from the "Yoga Makaranda", 1934
Krishnamacharya codified an ancient and very complicated science form and delivered it to the twentieth century as an art form. The Maharaja was so proud he would flaunt Yoga demonstrations under the supervision of Krishnamacharya to visiting State guests.
Krishnamacharya was very progressive for his time. He encouraged girl's education and the training of girls in yoga, often conducting demonstrations with them. In addition to this Krishnamacharya was also teaching in the Sanskrit college. In 1938, the Maharaja even sponsored a film on Krishnamacharya. An extract of it is available on Youtube here:
Krishnamacharya was now recognised the world over as an accomplished exponent of Yoga and a major influence in shaping what we see as Yoga in the West, particularly in the field of asana.
“He has developed so much in his teaching, made so many changes that I don’t think anybody can identify ‘Krishnamacharya’s style’. One person will say one thing and a few minutes later somebody else will say, no, no, this is what he taught me.”
– TKV Desikachar from lectures on ‘The Yoga of T Krishnamacharya’ 1981.
All this glory ended in 1940, with the demise of the Maharaja. His successor did not have as much interest in yoga. When all the princely states joined the Indian union, the Raja of the time and new Chief Minister of Karnataka went a step further and shut the Yogashala.
A desperate Krishnamacharya now in his late fifties had to struggle to earn a livelihood to feed his family. He was offered a job as a lecturer in the Vivekananda College in Madras. He migrated and lived there for the rest of his life.
At the age of 96, Krishnamacharya fractured his hip. Refusing surgery, he treated himself and designed a course of practice that he could do in bed. Krishnamacharya continued to live and teach in Chennai. Even though the accident prevented him from performing full asanas easily, he still practiced and performed his pranayama daily. His mind remained sharp and crystal clear up until 1989 when suddenly he slipped into a coma. Shortly after, Śrī T Krishnamacharya passed away at the age of 100, marking the passing of a great sage and teacher.
Krishnamacharya's son T.K. Sribhashyam remembers his father as an academic genius. Each day his brothers and sisters would sit together and be amazed at their fathers teachings. "All the aspects of Indian Philosophies were taught to us" he says. German film maker Jan Schmidt-Garre asked Sribhashyam the following question when interviewing him for a documentary; "What is the essence of Yoga that he (Krishnamacharya) taught his students?". Sribhashyam replied; "If I remember well he was giving three reasons to do Yoga. One is physical health. Second is mental health, that is purity of thought, courage and perseverance. Very good objectives for his students. The Third is concentration, mental concentration, almost like preparing them for examination."
Krishnamacharya never crossed the country’s geographical boundaries but trained some of the finest masters of modern yoga the world over, like BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Another of his students, Indra Devi, even took Yoga to the west, introducing Yoga to north America. Whilst his students continued his legacy and teachings, Krishnamacharya was a forgotten figure by the 21st century. No Padma awards or state recognitions came his way. Ideally, someone of his stature, scholarship and contribution deserved nothing less than the Bharat Ratna award (one of the highest awards in India). He was an authoritative reference point for anyone interested in studying yoga, classical music, Sanskrit grammar, Ayurveda, natural therapy, herbal medication, mathematics, philosophy and several other subjects.
Sri T. Krishnamacharya never abused his position as teacher and yoga master. He refused the rewards offered by the King and the Royal Courts and lived on the modest income. He even conceded his rich inheritance to his brother and sisters in order to remain true to his philosophical principles. Krishnamacharya never chased fame or wealth. His faith in god, his religion, his culture meant he was always humble. He wanted to be remembered as a simple man who only served his purpose on earth; To revitalise the art of Yoga. He didn't consider himself a pioneer or an inventor, he was merely fulfilling his obligations to his fellow man. His son Sribhashyam says that although his father was a strict practicing Hindu, he had great respect for all religious and cultures. He believed Yoga should be for everyone.
Unfortunately India failed to recognise this genius in his lifetime but with the annual Yoga Day celebrations coming into vogue and the boom of modern day yoga, the time may just be right to acknowledge Krishnamacharya’s contribution to modern day Yoga and especially his contribution towards the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. Although from what I know of Krishnamacharya, he would have been happy enough to not have received the credit he so richly deserves. He was a humble man from humble beginnings who only wanted to spread the word of yoga. Lao Tzu once said; "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled".
Krishnamacharya was a genius. A master, a teacher, a loving father, a patriot, a god fearing soldier, a leader, a visionary and above all else the undisputed king of Yoga.
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