Legend has it that Swami Kripalu was taught just one yoga posture in his life. And yet, by practicing Kundalini breathing techniques for hours every day, he came to know dozens of poses. "He would just go into spontaneous asanas," says Dinabandhu Garrett Sarley, president of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, which has 39 affiliated yoga studios. "He believed yoga was encoded in our DNA, that yoga can be learned from the inside out." Kripalu taught that, more than instruction or precise alignment, yogis need to let their intuition guide their practice. His students cultivated a free-flowing form of yoga that was as much a meditation in motion as it was a series of asanas.
While his disciples remember him as someone who laughed often, Kripalu's mood hadn't always been light: His father died in 1920, when Saraswatichandra Majmudar, as Kripalu was originally named, was seven, leaving the family of nine in debt. They were evicted from their home and Kripalu had to drop out of school. At 19, deeply saddened by his family's poverty, and questioning his own existence, he attempted suicide several times.
Before the final attempt, and after a night of prayer, a stranger allegedly read the young man's mind and, according to Kripalu's autobiography, Pilgrim of Love, reprimanded him, saying "Suicide is contemptible." That stranger, Dadaji, was a Kundalini master who became Kripalu's guru, until his mysterious disappearance a year later. Around 1940, after breaking an engagement to be married, Kripalu became a wandering ascetic.
Eventually he began to draw followers. In the 1970s, Kripalu visited the United States to teach at ashrams established in his name. The swami loved America, especially the open space. "It seems if one meditated under any tree in America, one would immediately sink into a deep state of peace," he told his disciples. "A new India is being born here in America, and I hope it grows and fulfills your needs."
Kripalu died upon returning to India in 1981. He was buried in a seated pose—the only posture he'd ever been taught.
Jaimal Yogis is a Yoga Journal contributing editor.