Yoga Tradition

Yoga Journal Article on T. Krishnamacharya

T. Krishnamacharya is known to many as the “Grandfather of Modern Yoga” and as the teacher of students like T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Pattabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya was born in 1888 to a family who has roots that are traced back to the famous ninth-century sage, Nathamuni. From a young age at home and at school Krishnamacharya studied ancient Vedic Texts, Vedic Chanting, the Sanskrit Language, Vedanta and Samkhya Philosophy. He was known as a true scholar when in 1916 he traveled to the Himalayas, at the foot of Mount Kailash, where he met his Yoga Teacher. Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari who was a learned yogi living with his family in Tibet. Krishnamacharya spent more than 7 years with his teacher learning the meaning of Yoga Philosophy texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and also yogic techniques such as asana (postures), pranayama (breath regulation) and dhyana (meditation). After these 7 years of study, he came back to South India and studied Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. He also mastered Nyaya, the Indian School of Logic. He used his knowledge from the above mentioned Indian Schools of Thought, as well as his yogic training and knowledge of Ayurveda to develop a system of yoga that has been the foundation of yoga in the west.

T. Krishnamacharya taught his brother-in-law, B.K.S. Iyengar in 1939 and 1940, who went on to develop his own system of yoga called the Iyengar Tradition. He also taught students such as Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga and Indra Devi, the woman who first brought yoga to Hollywood. I am often asked why the traditions of T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are so different if they all had the same teacher. This is because Iyengar and Jois studied with Krishnamacharya early in their lives, with practices focused on strong vinyasa as is demonstrated by Jois, and also perfection of the poses, which is demonstrated by Iyengar. However, although it is controversial in the western world, Krishnamacharya has said that these practices are not appropriate for older westerners with stiff bodies. He developed a more gentle practice for what he called “householders” and westerners that is focused on breath and movement. Krishnamacharya has said that the practice must always be adapted to the student. Desikachar teaches the full gamut when it comes to yoga. If he is working with a young and lean student who has fewer responsibilities in life and can spend 2 hours per day with asana, he may teach similar to Jois or Iyengar. If he is teaching a householder with many responsibilities and less time to practice, he will teach less asana and focus more on pranayama. If he is teaching those over 60, the focus changes to meditation. The next question I am often asked is if a yogi needs to start from the beginning and do strong asana first before they do pranayama and meditation, which are much deeper practices. The answer is that you cannot go back and live a phase of life that you missed. A 60 year old is not to start with strong vinyasa, they would be asked to work with a primarily breathing and meditation practice. The practice must change in order to meet the need of the student. Any one particular practice that is given to mass numbers of people is likely not appropriate for many of those individuals. These principles are in alignment with the life-long teachings of Krishnamacharya.

T. Krishnamacharya died in 1989, just after his 100th birthday. His work lives on through his son T.K.V. Desikachar who lived and studied with his father for over 3 decades. Sri Desikachar still lives in the family home of T. Krishnamacharya in Chennai and is semi-retired so that he can spend his days translating the library of work that T. Krishnamacharya left for future generations of yogis. There are many teachings of Krishnamacharya that have not yet been exposed to the world. The beauty of this yet undiscovered body of knowledge is that T. Krishnamacharya will be providing us with yoga teachings for many years to come. He lives on through these teachings and the family that is carefully disseminating them to the world.

T. Krishnamacharya’s work was revolutionary in his time because he believed that yoga was universal to all people, irrespective of age, gender, culture, faith, abilities and interests. He is one of the few masters of m modern times who understood the whole gamut of yoga’s tools and their potentials for health and healing. For him yoga was not merely a form of physical exercise, but one that helped us in our journey towards our authentic selfs.