Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya - The Legendary Icon of Modern Yoga

Today’s update is about the Legendary Icon of Modern Yoga or you can even term it as the Father of Modern Yoga who is none other than the great Tirumalai Krishnamacharya from the state of Karnataka, India. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was a great yogi, healer, linguist, vedic scholar, expert in the Indian Schools of thought, researcher, author and in other words a great legend. It is not an easy task to write about this great yogi. I have gone through several journals in the libraries nearby and over internet. After referring to various texts and journals I realized that he was the most precious jewel unearthed not only for India but also the world. Among the books and journals I referred; Fernando Pages Ruiz’s article entitled “The Legacy of Krishnamacharya” published in Yoga Journal in the month of May/June 2001 was the best I reckon. If you go through his journal you would understand the effort and pain he has taken to gather the information about this unearthed jewel of yoga. This article is a combination of information I gathered from various books and journals over internet and libraries with a special mention to Fernando Pages Ruiz who is the real man behind the story.

It is not at all false to claim that whatever the kind or form of yoga we know today is rooted to this great man. If today, yoga is inherent part of everyday lives of millions of people across the world, it is due in large measure to pioneering efforts of T. Krishnamacharya who revived yoga in the early twentieth century. While preserving the ancient wisdom and reviving lost teachings, Krishnamacharya was also a revolutionary innovator who developed and adapted yoga practices that were as would offer health, mental clarity and spiritual growth to any individual in the modern-day world.

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 customized vinyasa or viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a 5’ 2” Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian Village.

He never crossed an ocean, but Krishnamacharya’s yoga has spread through Europe, Asia and Americas. Today it’s difficult to find an asana tradition he hasn’t influenced. Even if you learned from a yogi now outside the traditions associated with Krishnamacharya, there is a good chance your teacher trained in the Iyengar, Astanga or Viniyoga lineages before developing another style. Rodney Yee, for instance, who appears in many popular videos studied with Iyengar. Richard Hittleman, a well-known TV yogi of the 1970’s, trained with Devi. Other teachers have borrowed from several Krishnamacharya-based styles creating unique approaches such as Ganga White’s White Lotus Yoga and Manny Finger’s ISHTA Yoga and Bikram Yoga for example have been influenced by some aspect of Krishnamacharya’s teachings.

Many of his contributions have been so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of yoga that their source has been forgotten. It’s been said that he’s responsible for the modern emphasis on Sirsana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. By comibing pranayama and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it.

In fact, Krishnamacharya’s influence can be seen most clearly in the emphasis on asana practice that’s become the signature of yoga today. Probably no yogi before him developed the physical practices so deliberately. In the process, he transformed hatha yoga-once an obscure backwater of yoga—into its central current. Yoga’s resurgence in India owes a great deal to his countless lecture tours and demonstrations during the 1930’s and four of his most famous disciples—Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V Desikachar—played a huge role in popularizing yoga in the West.

Early Life:

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born in the year 1888 in a remote Village called Muchukundapuram in Chitradurga district of Karnataka State, India. His parents were Sri Tirumala Srinivasa Tattacharya, a well-known teacher of Vedas and Srimati Ranganayakamma. He was the eldest with two brothers and three sisters. He began learning to speak and write Sanskrit from his father before the age of five and claimed that at age twelve to have received the ancient teachings of Yoga Rahasya, a long lost yogic text from a version of the ancient sage Nathamuni who is said to be related to Krishnamacharya. After returning home his family moved to Mysore, second largest city in the Indian state of Karnataka and began a more formal schooling.


Krishnamacharya spent much of his youth travelling through India studying the six darshanas of Indian Philosophies—Vaiseshika, Nyaya, Samkya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. At the age of eighteen Krishnamacharya left home to attend the University of Benaras, a city of hundreds of temples also known as Varanasi. While at the university, he focused his studies on logic and Sanskrit, working with Bramhashri Shivakumar Shastry, “one of the greatest grammarians of the age”. After leaving the university he returned to Mysore and studied vedanta and learned to play the veena, one of the most ancient stringed instruments in India. In 1914 he once again left for Benaras to attend classes at Queens College, where he eventually earned a number of teaching certificates. During the first year he had little or no financial support from his family. Therefore, in order to survive he followed the rules that were laid down for religious beggars: only approaching seven households each and offering a prayer “in return for wheat flour to mix with water for chapatis or rotis – a type of bread made in India.” Krishnamacharya eventually left Queens College to study the six darshanas or schools of thought in Vedic Philsophy at Patna University.

Study of Yoga:

The yoga world Krishnamacharya inherited at his birth in 1888 looked very different from that of today. Under the pressure of British colonial rule, hatha yoga had fallen by the wayside. Just a small circle of Indian practitioners remained. But in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, a Hindu revivalist movement breathed new life into India's heritage. As a young man, Krishnamacharya immersed himself in this pursuit, learning many classical Indian disciplines, including Sanskrit, logic, ritual, law, and the basics of Indian medicine. In time, he would channel this broad background into the study of yoga, where he synthesized the wisdom of these traditions.

During all this time Krishnamacharya continued to practice the yoga that his father taught him as a young boy. Many of his instructors recognized his abilities in this area and supported his progress. During his vacation time he would take his pilgrimages into Himalayas. It was during one of these trips he decided to find Sri Rammohan Brahmachari, one of the few remaining hatha yoga masters of that age who was rumoured to live in the mountains by one of his collegue at the University of Benaras. Eventually Krishnamacharya found Sri Brahmachari in a cave at the foot of Mount Kailash who was living with his wife and three children. Krishnamacharya approached Rammohan Brahmachari and requested him to teach yoga. Initially Sri Brahmachari was hesitant to teach yoga because he doesn’t understand the language of Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya therefore began to learn his guruji’s language which was Nepali and mastered it quite easily in a very short span of time. Krishnamacharya spent seven years of his life with his teacher Rammohan Brahmachari studying the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, learning and practicing various Asanas and Pranayamas along with the therapeutic aspects of yoga”. During his apprenticeship, Krishnamacharya claimed to have mastered 3,000 asanas and developed some of his most remarkable skills, such as stopping of his pulse or heartbeats for 2 minutes. As tradition holds, the student offers guru-dakshina (a kind of gift or fee) to his master after completion of studies. Accordingly, Krishnamacharya asked to take any guru-dakshina for all the knowledge he had passed on to him. The guru Rammohan Brahmachari sought his guru-dakshina by asking his loyal student Krishnamacharya to return back to his homeland, establish a household, raise children and teach yoga. In accordance with his Guru’s blessings he married Namagiriammal in 1925.

Times of Struggle:

Krishnamacharya's education had prepared him for a position at any number of prestigious institutions, but he renounced this opportunity, choosing to honor his guru's parting request. Despite all his training, Krishnamacharya returned home to poverty. In the 1920s, teaching yoga wasn't profitable. Students were few, and Krishnamacharya was forced to take a job as a foreman at a coffee plantation. But on his days off, he traveled throughout the province giving lectures and yoga demonstrations. Krishnamacharya sought to popularize yoga by demonstrating the siddhis, the supranormal abilities of the yogic body. These demonstrations, designed to stimulate interest in a dying tradition, included suspending his pulse, stopping cars with his bare hands, performing difficult asanas, and lifting heavy objects with his teeth. To teach people about yoga, Krishnamacharya felt, he first had to get their attention.

Through an arranged marriage, Krishnamacharya honored his guru's second request. Ancient yogis were renunciates, who lived in the forest without homes or families. But Krishnamacharya's guru wanted him to learn about family life and teach a yoga that benefited the modern householder. At first, this proved a difficult pathway. The couple lived in such deep poverty that Krishnamacharya wore a loincloth sewn of fabric torn from his spouse's sari. He would later recall this period as the hardest time of his life, but the hardships only steeled Krishnamacharya's boundless determination to teach yoga.

Developing Ashtanga Vinyasa:

Krishnamacharya's fortunes improved in 1931 when he received an invitation to teach at the Sanskrit College in Mysore. There he received a good salary and the chance to devote himself to teaching yoga full time. The ruling family of Mysore had long championed all manner of indigenous arts, supporting the reinvigoration of Indian culture. They had already patronized hatha yoga for more than a century, and their library housed one of the oldest illustrated asana compilations now known, the Sritattvanidhi (translated into English by Sanskrit scholar Norman E. Sjoman in The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, Adhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1999).

For the next two decades, the Maharaja of Mysore helped Krishnamacharya promote yoga throughout India, financing demonstrations and publications. A diabetic, the Maharaja felt especially drawn to the connection between yoga and healing, and Krishnamacharya devoted much of his time to developing this link. But Krishnamacharya's post at the Sanskrit College didn't last. He was far too strict a disciplinarian, his students complained. Since the Maharaja liked Krishnamacharya and didn't want to lose his friendship and counsel, he proposed a solution; he offered Krishnamacharya the palace's gymnastics hall as his own yogashala, or yoga school.

Thus began one of Krishnamacharya's most fertile periods, during which he developed what is now known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. As Krishnamacharya's pupils were primarily active young boys, he drew on many disciplines—including yoga, gymnastics, and Indian wrestling—to develop dynamically-performed asana sequences aimed at building physical fitness. This vinyasa style uses the movements of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) to lead into each asana and then out again. Each movement is coordinated with prescribed breathing and drishti, "gaze points" that focus the eyes and instill meditative concentration. Eventually, Krishnamacharya standardized the pose sequences into three series consisting of primary, intermediate, and advanced asanas. Students were grouped in order of experience and ability, memorizing and mastering each sequence before advancing to the next.

Instructing Pattabhi Jois:

Though Krishnamacharya developed this manner of performing yoga during the 1930s, it remained virtually unknown in the West for almost 40 years. Recently, it's become one of the most popular styles of yoga, mostly due to the work of one of Krishnamacharya's most faithful and famous students, K. Pattabhi Jois.

Pattabhi Jois met Krishnamacharya in the hard times before the Mysore years. As a robust boy of 12, Jois attended one of Krishnamacharya's lectures. Intrigued by the asana demonstration, Jois asked Krishnamacharya to teach him yoga. Lessons started the next day, hours before the school bell rang, and continued every morning for three years until Jois left home to attend the Sanskrit College. When Krishnamacharya received his teaching appointment at the college less than two years later, an overjoyed Pattabhi Jois resumed his yoga lessons.

Whatever the roots of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga today, it's one of the most influential components of Krishnamacharya's legacy. Perhaps this method, originally designed for youngsters, provides our high-energy, outwardly-focused culture with an approachable gateway to a path of deeper spirituality. Over the last three decades a steadily increasing number of yogis have been drawn to its precision and intensity. Many of them have made the pilgrimage to Mysore, where Jois, himself, offered instruction until his death in May, 2009.

Instructing Indra Devi by shattering Age Old Tradition:

Even as Krishnamacharya taught the young men and boys at the Mysore Palace, his public demonstrations attracted a more diverse audience. He enjoyed the challenge of presenting yoga to people of different backgrounds. On the frequent tours he called "propaganda trips," he introduced yoga to British soldiers, Muslim maharajas, and Indians of all religious beliefs. Krishnamacharya stressed that yoga could serve any creed and adjusted his approach to respect each student's faith. But while he bridged cultural, religious, and class differences, Krishnamacharya's attitude toward women remained patriarchal. Fate, however, played a trick on him: The first student to bring his yoga onto the world stage applied for instruction in a sari. And she was a Westerner to boot!

The woman, who became known as Indra Devi (she was born Zhenia Labunskaia, in pre-Soviet Latvia), was a friend of the Mysore royal family. After seeing one of Krishnamacharya's demonstrations, she asked for instruction. At first, Krishnamacharya refused to teach her. He told her that his school accepted neither foreigners nor women. But Devi persisted, persuading the Maharaja to prevail on his Brahmin. Reluctantly, Krishnamacharya started her lessons, subjecting her to strict dietary guidelines and a difficult schedule aimed at breaking her resolve. She met every challenge Krishnamacharya imposed, eventually becoming his good friend as well as an exemplary pupil.

After a year-long apprenticeship, Krishnamacharya instructed Devi to become a yoga teacher. He asked her to bring a notebook, and then spent several days dictating lessons on yoga instruction, diet, and pranayama. Drawing from this teaching, Devi eventually wrote the first best-selling book on hatha yoga, Forever Young, Forever Healthy (Prentice Hall, Inc., 1953). Over the years after her studies with Krishnamacharya, Devi founded the first school of yoga in Shanghai, China, where Madame Chiang Kai-Shek became her student. Eventually, by convincing Soviet leaders that yoga was not a religion, she even opened the doors to yoga in the Soviet Union, where it had been illegal. In 1947 she moved to the United States. Living in Hollywood, she became known as the "First Lady of Yoga," attracting celebrity students like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Arden, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson. Thanks to Devi, Krishnamacharya's yoga enjoyed its first international vogue.

Instructing Iyengar:

During the period when he was instructing Devi and Jois, Krishnamacharya also briefly taught a boy named B.K.S. Iyengar, who would grow up to play perhaps the most significant role of anyone in bringing hatha yoga to the West. It's hard to imagine how our yoga would look without Iyengar's contributions, especially his precisely detailed, systematic articulation of each asana, his research into therapeutic applications, and his multi-tiered, rigorous training system which has produced so many influential teachers.

It's also hard to know just how much Krishnamacharya's training affected Iyengar's later development. Though intense, Iyengar's tenure with his teacher lasted barely a year. Along with the burning devotion to yoga he evoked in Iyengar, perhaps Krishnamacharya planted the seeds which were later to germinate into Iyengar's mature yoga. (Some of the characteristics for which Iyengar's yoga is noted—particularly, pose modifications and using yoga to heal—are quite similar to those Krishnamacharya developed in his later work.) Perhaps any deep inquiry into hatha yoga tends to produce parallel results. At any rate, Iyengar has always revered his childhood guru. He still says, "I'm a small model in yoga; my guruji was a great man."

Iyengar's destiny wasn't apparent at first. When Krishnamacharya invited Iyengar into his household—Krishnamacharya's wife was Iyengar's sister—he predicted the stiff, sickly teenager would achieve no success in yoga. In fact, Iyengar's account of his life with Krishnamacharya sounds like a Dickens novel. Krishnamacharya could be an extremely harsh taskmaster. At first, he barely bothered to teach Iyengar, who spent his days watering the gardens and performing other chores. Iyengar's only friendship came from his roommate, a boy named Keshavamurthy, who happened to be Krishnamacharya's favorite protégé. In a strange twist of fate, Keshavamurthy disappeared one morning and never returned. Krishnamacharya was only days away from an important demonstration at the yogashala and was relying on his star pupil to perform asanas. Faced with this crisis, Krishnamacharya quickly began teaching Iyengar a series of difficult postures. Iyengar practiced diligently and, on the day of the demonstration, surprised Krishnamacharya by performing exceptionally. After this, Krishnamacharya began instructing his determined pupil in earnest. Iyengar progressed rapidly, beginning to assist classes at the yogashala and accompanying Krishnamacharya on yoga demonstration tours. But Krishnamacharya continued his authoritarian style of instruction. Once, when Krishnamacharya asked him to demonstrate Hanumanasana (a full split), Iyengar complained that he had never learned the pose. "Do it!" Krishnamacharya commanded. Iyengar complied, tearing his hamstrings.

Iyengar's brief apprenticeship ended abruptly. After a yoga demonstration in northern Karnataka Province, a group of women asked Krishnamacharya for instruction. Krishnamacharya chose Iyengar, the youngest student with him, to lead the women in a segregated class, since men and women didn't study together in those days. Iyengar's teaching impressed them. At their request, Krishnamacharya assigned Iyengar to remain as their instructor.

Instructing his son Desikachar:

Although born into a family of yogis, Desikachar felt no desire to pursue the vocation. As a child, he ran away when his father asked him to do asanas. Krishnamacharya caught him once, tied his hands and feet into Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose), and left him tied up for half an hour. Pedagogy like this didn't motivate Desikachar to study yoga, but eventually inspiration came by other means.

After graduating from college with a degree in engineering, Desikachar joined his family for a short visit. He was en route to Delhi, where he'd been offered a good job with a European firm. One morning, as Desikachar sat on the front step reading a newspaper, he spotted a hulking American car motoring up the narrow street in front of his father's home. Just then, Krishnamacharya stepped out of the house, wearing only a dhoti and the sacred markings that signified his lifelong devotion to the god Vishnu. The car stopped and a middle-aged, European-looking woman sprang from the backseat, shouting "Professor, Professor!" She dashed up to Krishnamacharya, threw her arms around him, and hugged him.

The blood must have drained from Desikachar's face as his father hugged her right back. In those days, Western ladies and Brahmins just did not hug—especially not in the middle of the street, and especially not a Brahmin as observant as Krishnamacharya. When the woman left, "Why?!?" was all Desikachar could stammer. Krishnamacharya explained that the woman had been studying yoga with him. Thanks to Krishnamacharya's help, she had managed to fall asleep the previous evening without drugs for the first time in 20 years. Perhaps Desikachar's reaction to this revelation was providence or karma; certainly, this evidence of the power of yoga provided a curious epiphany that changed his life forever. In an instant, he resolved to learn what his father knew.

Krishnamacharya didn't welcome his son's newfound interest in yoga. He told Desikachar to pursue his engineering career and leave yoga alone. Desikachar refused to listen. He rejected the Delhi job, found work at a local firm, and pestered his father for lessons. Eventually, Krishnamacharya relented. But to assure himself of his son's earnestness—or perhaps to discourage him—Krishnamacharya required Desikachar to begin lessons at 3:30 every morning. Desikachar agreed to submit to his father's requirements but insisted on one condition of his own: No God. A hard-nosed engineer, Desikachar thought he had no need for religion. Krishnamacharya respected this wish, and they began their lessons with asanas and chanting Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. Since they lived in a one-room apartment, the whole family was forced to join them, albeit half asleep. The lessons were to go on for 28 years, though not always quite so early.

Surviving the Lean Years:

Even as his students prospered and spread his yoga gospel, Krishnamacharya himself again encountered hard times. By 1947, enrollment had dwindled at the yogashala. According to Jois, only three students remained. Government patronage ended; India gained their independence and the politicians who replaced the royal family of Mysore had little interest in yoga. Krishnamacharya struggled to maintain the school, but in 1950 it closed. A 60-year-old yoga teacher, Krishnamacharya found himself in the difficult position of having to start over.

Unlike some of his protégés, Krishnamacharya didn't enjoy the perks of yoga's growing popularity. He continued to study, teach, and evolve his yoga in near obscurity. Iyengar speculates that this lonely period changed Krishnamacharya's disposition. As Iyengar sees it, Krishnamacharya could remain aloof under the protection of the Maharaja. But on his own; having to find private students, Krishnamacharya had more motivation to adapt to society and to develop greater compassion.

As in the 1920s, Krishnamacharya struggled to find work, eventually leaving Mysore and accepting a teaching position at Vivekananda College in Chennai on the invitation received from a well known lawyer who sought his help in healing from a stroke.Now in his sixties, Krishnamacharya’s reputation for being a strict and intimidating teacher now mellowed: although he was still considered still considered strict concerning his practice and teaching, he showed a more gentle and compassionate side.

New students slowly appeared, including people from all walks of life and in varying states of health, and Krishnamacharya discovered new ways to teach them. As students with less physical aptitude came, including some with disabilities, Krishnamacharya focused on adapting postures to each student's capacity.

Krishnamacharya seemed willing to apply varied techniques to almost any health challenge. Once, a doctor asked him to help a stroke victim. Krishnamacharya manipulated the patient's lifeless limbs into various postures, a kind of yogic physical therapy. As with so many of Krishnamacharya's students, the man's health improved—and so did Krishnamacharya's fame as a healer.

It was this reputation as a healer that would attract Krishnamacharya's last major disciple. But at the time, no one—least of all Krishnamacharya—would have guessed that his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, would become a renowned yogi who would convey the entire scope of Krishnamacharya's career, and especially his later teachings, to the Western yoga world.

At the age of 96, he slipped on a damp stone while checking the mail and fractured his hip. Refusing surgery, he treated himself and designed a course of practice that he could do in bed. Krishnamacharya lived and taught in Chennai until he slipped into coma and died in the year 1989 at the age of 101. Although many considered him a yoga Master he continued to call himself a student because he felt that he was always “studying, exploring and experimenting” with the practice says Desikachar-his son.

Before concluding my post I would like to reiterate "as long as yoga lives on this planet we remember this great yogi called Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya alongside the founder of yoga--the great saint Sri Patanjali Maharshi". I hope you enjoyed this article and keep watching the space for more updates....

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