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Krishnamacharya's Legacy

You may never have heard of him, but Tirumalai Krishnamacharya influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga.

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz


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 of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch 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 the 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's a good chance your teacher trained in the Iyengar, Ashtanga, 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 1970s, 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. Most teachers, even from styles not directly linked to Krishnamacharya—Sivananda 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 Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. By combining 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—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 1930s, and his four most famous disciples—Jois, Iyengar, Devi, and Krishnamacharya's son, T.K.V. Desikachar—played a huge role in popularizing yoga in the West.

Recovering Yoga's Roots

When Yoga Journal asked me to profile Krishnamacharya's legacy, I thought that tracing the story of someone who died barely a decade ago would be an easy job. But I discovered that Krishnamacharya remains a mystery, even to his family. He never wrote a full memoir or took credit for his many innovations. His life lies shrouded in myth. Those who knew him well have grown old. If we lose their recollections, we risk losing more than the story of one of yoga's most remarkable adepts; we risk losing a clear understanding of the history of the vibrant tradition we've inherited.

It's intriguing to consider how the evolution of this multifaceted man's personality still influences the yoga we practice today. Krishnamacharya began his teaching career by perfecting a strict, idealized version of hatha yoga. Then, as the currents of history impelled him to adapt, he became one of yoga's great reformers. Some of his students remember him as an exacting, volatile teacher; B.K.S. Iyengar told me Krishnamacharya could have been a saint, were he not so ill-tempered and self-centered. Others recall a gentle mentor who cherished their individuality. Desikachar, for example, describes his father as a kind person who often placed his late guru's sandals on top of his own head in an act of humility.

Both of these men remain fiercely loyal to their guru, but they knew Krishnamacharya at different stages of his life; it's as if they recall two different people. Seemingly opposite characteristics can still be seen in the contrasting tones of the traditions he inspired—some gentle, some strict, each appealing to different personalities and lending depth and variety to our still-evolving practice of hatha yoga.

Emerging From the Shadows

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 centuries, 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.

According to biographical notes Krishnamacharya made near the end of his life, his father initiated him into yoga at age five, when he began to teach him Patanjali's sutras and told him that their family had descended from a revered ninth-century yogi, Nathamuni. Although his father died before Krishnamacharya reached puberty, he instilled in his son a general thirst for knowledge and a specific desire to study yoga. In another manuscript, Krishnamacharya wrote that "while still an urchin," he learned 24 asanas from a swami of the Sringeri Math, the same temple that gave birth to Sivananda Yogananda's lineage. Then, at age 16, he made a pilgrimage to Nathamuni's shrine at Alvar Tirunagari, where he encountered his legendary forefather during an extraordinary vision.

As Krishnamacharya always told the story, he found an old man at the temple's gate who pointed him toward a nearby mango grove. Krishnamacharya walked to the grove, where he collapsed, exhausted. When he got up, he noticed three yogis had gathered. His ancestor Nathamuni sat in the middle. Krishnamacharya prostrated himself and asked for instruction. For hours, Nathamuni sang verses to him from the Yogarahasya (The Essence of Yoga), a text lost more than one thousand years before. Krishnamacharya memorized and later transcribed these verses.

The seeds of many elements of Krishnamacharya's innovative teachings can be found in this text, which is available in an English translation (Yogarahasya, translated by T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, 1998). Though the tale of its authorship may seem fanciful, it points to an important trait in Krishnamacharya's personality: He never claimed originality. In his view, yoga belonged to God. All of his ideas, original or not, he attributed to ancient texts or to his guru.

After his experience at Nathamuni's shrine, Krishnamacharya continued his exploration of a panoply of Indian classical disciplines, obtaining degrees in philology, logic, divinity, and music. He practiced yoga from rudiments he learned through texts and the occasional interview with a yogi, but he longed to study yoga more deeply, as his father had recommended. A university teacher saw Krishnamacharya practicing his asanas and advised him to seek out a master called Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari, one of the few remaining hatha yoga masters.

We know little about Brahmachari except that he lived with his spouse and three children in a remote cave. By Krishnamacharya's account, he spent seven years with this teacher, memorizing the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, learning asanas and pranayama, and studying the therapeutic aspects of yoga. During his apprenticeship, Krishnamacharya claimed, he mastered 3,000 asanas and developed some of his most remarkable skills, such as stopping his pulse. In exchange for instruction, Brahmachari asked his loyal student to return to his homeland to teach yoga and establish a household.

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.

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.

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.

Jois retained a wealth of detail from his years of study with Krishnamacharya. For decades, he has preserved that work with great devotion, refining and inflecting the asana sequences without significant modification, much as a classical violinist might nuance the phrasing of a Mozart concerto without ever changing a note. Jois has often said that the concept of vinyasa came from an ancient text called the Yoga Kuruntha. Unfortunately, the text has disappeared; no one now living has seen it. So many stories exist of its discovery and content—I've heard at least five conflicting accounts—that some question its authenticity. When I asked Jois if he'd ever read the text, he answered, "No, only Krishnamacharya." Jois then downplayed the importance of this scripture, indicating several other texts that also shaped the yoga he learned from Krishnamacharya, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Whatever the roots of Ashtanga Vinyasa, 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.

Shattering a 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, 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. 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.

Although she studied with Krishnamacharya during the Mysore period, the yoga Indra Devi came to teach bears little resemblance to Jois's Ashtanga Vinyasa. Foreshadowing the highly individualized yoga he would further develop in later years, Krishnamacharya taught Devi in a gentler fashion, accommodating but challenging her physical limitations.

Devi retained this gentle tone in her teaching. Though her style didn't employ vinyasa, she used Krishnamacharya's principles of sequencing so that her classes expressed a deliberate journey, beginning with standing postures, progressing toward a central asana followed by complementary poses, then concluding with relaxation. As with Jois, Krishnamacharya taught her to combine pranayama and asana. Students in her lineage still perform each posture with prescribed breathing techniques.

Devi added a devotional aspect to her work, which she calls Sai Yoga. The main pose of each class includes an invocation, so that the fulcrum of each practice involves a meditation in the form of an ecumenical prayer. Although she developed this concept on her own, it may have been present in embryonic form in the teachings she received from Krishnamacharya. In his later life, Krishnamacharya also recommended devotional chanting within asana practice.

Though Devi died in April, 2002 at the age of 102, her six yoga schools are still active in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Until three years ago, she still taught asanas. Well into her nineties, she continued touring the world, bringing Krishnamacharya's influence to a large following throughout North and South America. Her impact in the United States waned when she moved to Argentina in 1985, but her prestige in Latin America extends well beyond the yoga community.

You might be hard-pressed to find someone in Buenos Aires who doesn't know of her. She's touched every level of Latin society: The taxi driver who brought me to her house for an interview described her as "a very wise woman"; the next day, Argentina's President Menem came for her blessings and advice. Devi's six yoga schools deliver 15 asana classes daily, and graduates from the four-year teacher-training program receive an internationally recognized college-level degree.

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Reader Comments

Mike Ruef

The history is incorrect. According to David White Krishnamacharya studied with Tibetans in the Himalayas. This is where he was for 9 years or more learning "real" yoga most of which had been lost due to colonialism. Could you research this and do it justice please?

Danny Neumann

Wonderful article. Thank you so much. You answered many of the questions I've been asking recently.

N K Srinivasan

Thanks for the excellent article on T Krishnamacahrya by Ruiz and for Yoga Journal for publishing in this website. I had seen him teaching yoga in Vivekananda College where he was part-time Sanskrit professor. My regret is that I did not learn yoga from him.I learned yoga from my uncle. Incidentally I am also an Iyengar and my wife belongs to Thirumalai clan. I can relate to his devotional fervor and learning from Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, a 9th cent saint of our tradition. But Yoga is for everybody in this world.

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