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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

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.

Teaching represented a promotion for Iyengar, but it did little to improve his situation. Yoga teaching was still a marginal profession. At times, recalls Iyengar, he ate only one plate of rice in three days, sustaining himself mostly on tap water. But he single-mindedly devoted himself to yoga. In fact, Iyengar says, he was so obsessed that some neighbors and family considered him mad. He would practice for hours, using heavy cobblestones to force his legs into Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and bending backward over a steam roller parked in the street to improve his Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose). Out of concern for his well-being, Iyengar's brother arranged his marriage to a 16-year-old named Ramamani. Fortunately for Iyengar, Ramamani respected his work and became an important partner in his investigation of the asanas.

Several hundred miles away from his guru, Iyengar's only way to learn more about asanas was to explore poses with his own body and analyze their effects. With Ramamani's help, Iyengar refined and advanced the asanas he learned from Krishnamacharya.

Like Krishnamacharya, as Iyengar slowly gained pupils he modified and adapted postures to meet his students' needs. And, like Krishnamacharya, Iyengar never hesitated to innovate. He largely abandoned his mentor's vinyasa style of practice. Instead, he constantly researched the nature of internal alignment, considering the effect of every body part, even the skin, in developing each pose. Since many people less fit than Krishnamacharya's young students came to Iyengar for instruction, he learned to use props to help them. And since some of his students were sick, Iyengar began to develop asana as a healing practice, creating specific therapeutic programs. In addition, Iyengar came to see the body as a temple and asana as prayer. Iyengar's emphasis on asana didn't always please his former teacher. Although Krishnamacharya praised Iyengar's skill at asana practice at Iyengar's 60th birthday celebration, he also suggested that it was time for Iyengar to relinquish asana and focus on meditation.

Through the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Iyengar's reputation as both a teacher and a healer grew. He acquired well-known, respected students like philosopher-sage Jiddhu Krishnamurti and violinist Yehudi Menuhim, who helped draw Western students to his teachings. By the 1960s, yoga was becoming a part of world culture, and Iyengar was recognized as one of its chief ambassadors.

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. 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.

For example, he would instruct one student to perform Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) with knees straight to stretch the hamstrings, while a stiffer student might learn the same posture with knees bent. Similarly, he'd vary the breath to meet a student's needs, sometimes strengthening the abdomen by emphasizing exhalation, other times supporting the back by emphasizing inhalation. Krishnamacharya varied the length, frequency, and sequencing of asanas to help students achieve specific short-term goals, like recovering from a disease. As a student's practice advanced, he would help them refine asanas toward the ideal form. In his own individual way, Krishnamacharya helped his students move from a yoga that adapted to their limitations to a yoga that stretched their abilities. This approach, which is now usually referred to as Viniyoga, became the hallmark of Krishnamacharya's teaching during his final decades.

Krishnamacharya seemed willing to apply such 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.

Keeping the Flame Alive

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.

During the years of tutoring his son, Krishnamacharya continued to refine the Viniyoga approach, tailoring yoga methods for the sick, pregnant women, young children—and, of course, those seeking spiritual enlightenment. He came to divide yoga practice into three stages representing youth, middle, and old age: First, develop muscular power and flexibility; second, maintain health during the years of working and raising a family; finally, go beyond the physical practice to focus on God.

Desikachar observed that, as students progressed, Krishnamacharya began stressing not just more advanced asanas but also the spiritual aspects of yoga. Desikachar realized that his father felt that every action should be an act of devotion, that every asana should lead toward inner calm. Similarly, Krishnamacharya's emphasis on the breath was meant to convey spiritual implications along with physiological benefits.

According to Desikachar, Krishnamacharya described the cycle of breath as an act of surrender: "Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God."

During the last years of his life, Krishnamacharya introduced Vedic chanting into yoga practice, always adjusting the number of verses to match the time the student should hold the pose. This technique can help students maintain focus, and it also provides them with a step toward meditation.

When moving into the spiritual aspects of yoga, Krishnamacharya respected each student's cultural background. One of his longtime students, Patricia Miller, who now teaches in Washington, D.C., recalls him leading a meditation by offering alternatives. He instructed students to close their eyes and observe the space between the brows, and then said, "Think of God. If not God, the sun. If not the sun, your parents." Krishnamacharya set only one condition, explains Miller: "That we acknowledge a power greater than ourselves."

Preserving a Legacy

Today Desikachar extends his father's legacy by overseeing the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India, where all of Krishnamacharya's contrasting approaches to yoga are being taught and his writings are translated and published. Over time, Desikachar embraced the full breadth of his father's teaching, including his veneration of God. But Desikachar also understands Western skepticism and stresses the need to strip yoga of its Hindu trappings so that it remains a vehicle for all people.

Krishnamacharya's worldview was rooted in Vedic philosophy; the modern West's is rooted in science. Informed by both, Desikachar sees his role as translator, conveying his father's ancient wisdom to modern ears. The main focus of both Desikachar and his son, Kausthub, is sharing this ancient yoga wisdom with the next generation. "We owe children a better future," he says. His organization provides yoga classes for children, including the disabled. In addition to publishing age-appropriate stories and spiritual guides, Kausthub is developing videos to demonstrate techniques for teaching yoga to youngsters using methods inspired by his grandfather's work in Mysore.

Although Desikachar spent nearly three decades as Krishnamacharya's pupil, he claims to have gleaned only the basics of his father's teachings. Both Krishnamacharya's interests and personality resembled a kaleidoscope; yoga was just a small part of what he knew. Krishnamacharya also pursued disciplines like philology, astrology, and music too. In his own Ayurvedic laboratory, he prepared herbal recipes.

In India, he's still better known as a healer than as a yogi. He was also a gourmet cook, a horticulturist, and shrewd card player. But the encyclopedic learning that made him sometimes seem aloof or even arrogant in his youth—"intellectually intoxicated," as Iyengar politely characterizes him—eventually gave way to a yearning for communication. Krishnamacharya realized that much of the traditional Indian learning he treasured was disappearing, so he opened his storehouse of knowledge to anyone with a healthy interest and sufficient discipline. He felt that yoga had to adapt to the modern world or vanish.

An Indian maxim holds that every three centuries someone is born to re-energize a tradition. Perhaps Krishnamacharya was such an avatar. While he had enormous respect for the past, he also didn't hesitate to experiment and innovate. By developing and refining different approaches, he made yoga accessible to millions. That, in the end, is his greatest legacy.

As diverse as the practices in Krishnamacharya's different lineages have become, passion and faith in yoga remain their common heritage. The tacit message his teaching provides is that yoga is not a static tradition; it's a living, breathing art that grows constantly through each practitioner's experiments and deepening experience.

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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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