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Krishnamacharya – the guiding light of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga, as well as many other types of yoga in the world, would probably be absent without him: Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) saved traditional yoga from oblivion and created the basis for our present-day yoga practices. Just a myth?

The timeline of Krishnamacharya’s background

If we look into the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga, we will inevitably come across Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Like the beginnings of many myths from the traditions of yoga, Krishnamacharya was also born into a time where yoga in India falls into oblivion.

Hinduism rejected yoga, as it was seen as "atheistic" and much too body-oriented. To recognize the body as an area of experience for spiritual perception was far from the orthodox atmosphere of religion in India at the time.

The British colonial period (1756-1947) was opposed to yoga, and similarly not open, because they saw in yoga a part of Indian culture, which they sought to replace with British values they brought with them.

Also from 1539 onwards, the first Jesuit monks from Portugal came to India and the coming missionaries could gain little from yoga. Yoga in their eyes was very clearly Hindu and so was condemned as the devil.

From 1560 onwards followed the Inquisition from Portugal to India and, based in Goa, until 1774 meticulous care was taken so that the Indians were also properly converted to the Christian religion. For the Inquisition, to practice yoga was more than mere suspicion that the "old pagan” religion might still be alive. Such a heresy in India ended too often at the stake.

Krishnamacharya’s childhood

However, Krishnamacharya was born on 18.11.1888 into a family that had long been in the yoga tradition. Thus Nathamuni, the legendary author of the Yoga Rahasya, was recognized by Krishnmacharya’s ancestors. His father was Sri Tirumalai Srivinasa Tattacharya, a Sanskrit scholar and Veda teacher. Within 5 years he was initiated by the traditional Upanayanam ceremony in the Gayatri mantra, and began his formal training in the sacred texts in Sanskrit. Through his father he was also introduced into the practice of yoga.

Krishnamacharya’s Sanskrit studies

These studies were severely disrupted when he was ten, since Krishnamacharya's father died and the family had to move to Mysore. There, Krishnamacharya’s great-grandfather, H.H. Sri Srinivasa Brahmatantra Parakala Swami, was the head of the traditional Bramhatantra Parakala Mutt, a Hindu monastic university. Krishnamacharya then continued his religious studies there.

During the whole time he remained faithful to the practice of yoga and took advantage of free time to travel extensively through India and the Himalayas.

Krishnamacharya’s studies in the Himalayas (1916-1924)

Around the year 1916 he decided to seek out the legendary yogi Yogeshwara Rama Mohan Brahmachari. After two and a half months on foot, he found him in a cave at the foot of Mount Kailash. He spent seven and a half years there and learned the depths of yoga from Brahmachari. Besides the practical aspects, consisting of asana, pranayama and vinyasa, he also learned several traditional yoga books by heart. Besides the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he especially studied the texts of the Yoga-Kuruntha/Korunta by Vamana Rishi in this period.

Krishnamacharya’s time in Mysore (1924-1955)

After his return from the Himalayas, Krishnamacharya spent some time in Varanasi. His mastery of yoga soon attracted attention and Krishnamacharya came into contact with many powerful men of his time.

The 60th birthday of the Maharaja of Mysores mother brought the Maharaja, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, to Varanasi. There he also met Krishnamacharya. A friendship developed between the two men. Wadiyar became an important disciple and patron of Krishnamacharya. So Krishnamacharya soon taught in Mysore in the Vishnu temple next to the Jaganmohan Palace, in the center of Mysore. At the request of the Maharaja he wrote several books, including Yoga Makaranda, Yoganjali, and Yogasanalu. Krishnamacharya was not only a yoga teacher for the Maharaja, but also a friend and advisor on political issues.

In 1925 Krishnamacharya married his wife, Namagiriammal.

Krishnamacharya brought numerous yoga demonstrations to the people. Among other things, he is said to have voluntarily stopped his heartbeat, stopped cars with his bare hands, and lifted heavy weights with his teeth. Still impressive to this day are the videos of his Asana-Vinyasa practice.

In addition to the Maharaja, Krishnamacharya’s students from this period that are still famous today included Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, BNS Iyengar, BKS Iyengar and Indra Devi.

With the end of the colonial period, the Maharajas lost their power. Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV died and was succeeded by his nephew, Jacha Maraja Wadiyar V. The mayor of Mysore K.C. Reddy ordered that the yoga school be closed within three months. Thus came the end of an era.

Krishnamacharya’s time in Chennai (1957-1989)

After Krishnamacharya had left Mysore, he first spent about two years in Bangalore. Eventually he became a noted lawyer, whose help was sought after by those who had had a stroke, and was invited to Chennai.

In Chennai, Krishnamacharya taught yoga to his sons TK Srinivasan, TKV Desikachar and TK Sribhashyam. Srivatsa Ramaswami and AG Mohan were also his students at this time.

In 1985, at the age of 96, Krishnamacharya collapsed on his way to the mailbox. He refused an operation, but treated himself through the practice of yoga.

He practiced and taught yoga until his death on 3.11.1989. He was 100 years old and his mind remained clear until the end.

Krishnamacharya as the origin of modern Hatha Yoga

Krishnamacharya built the bridge, over which yoga was taken on its way out of the past and into our present. Despite the resistances of his time, he saved yoga as a valuable treasure for humankind.

Traditional and yet innovative, could one thus describe Krishnamacharya. Conserving old traditions, yet boldly crossing boundaries, was his motto. He was the first to teach a man and woman from West, and so he aroused the opposition of the traditionalists of his time. Although the science of Yoga had been practiced in secret since ancient times, worldwide interest for this ancient experience blossomed due to his many demonstrations. His demonstrations of asanas and pranayama are legendary.

The yoga that Krishnamacharya taught always recognized the individual person with their specific characteristics. Systematically and progressively a practice developed that was customized to the individual student. The yoga of Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, BNS Iyengar or BKS Iyengar, as learned from Krishnamacharya in Mysore, differs only superficially from the yoga that TK Srinivasan, TKV Desikachar, TK Sribhashyam, Srivatsa Ramaswami and AG Mohan, learned several years later in Chennai. One a dynamic and powerful version, called Ashtanga Yoga, the other calm and deliberate, called Vini yoga, they are still equal at the core. The students were distinct from each other, therefore Krishnamacharya took a different approach to the same yoga. However, considering the two contrary-appearing approaches to yoga, we see that each is contained within the other - Vini Yoga can be found within Ashtanga, and Ashtanga Yoga within Vini.

Krishnamacharya’s yoga was, from then on, designed to recognize the person as a whole and to assist in their individual development. Physical health and spiritual growth were equally part of the objective. Through the individually tailored practice, Krishnamacharya could achieve successful results for many diseases.

Sources:

  • Desikachar K. The Yoga of the Yogi. 2005
  • Desikachar TKV. The Heart of Yoga. 1995
  • Desikachar TKV. Yoga and the living Tradition of Krishnamacharya. 1998
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