Krishnamacharya - The Father of Modern Yoga

Updated: Jun 23

The practice of yoga has spread far and wide from its Indian roots and has become a worldwide wellness practice. Its popularity is still increasing in the Western world, with over 37 million yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone. How did this ancient art and science make its way into the hearts, neighborhoods, and living rooms of so many people? While it has been passed down through the generations by many different teachers and gurus, there is one man who can be held responsible for the global love of modern yoga. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is righteously referred to as 'the father of modern yoga'.

It is important to note that asana, the practice of yoga poses, is one part of the all-encompassing eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are yamas (abstinences), niyamas (observances), Asana (yoga poses), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As you can see, asana is a rather small part of the path. Krishnamacharya actually transformed hatha yoga, the physical practice of poses, into the central current and popular practice that it is today. He refined postures, innovated optimal sequencing, and used asana therapeutically for himself and his students. While many considered him a master, he always called himself a student and attributed his innovative teachings to his guru and ancient texts.

Krishnamacharya was born to an orthodox Iyengar family in 1888 in present day Karnataka in South India, later moving to Mysore with his family when he was 10 years old. He was already initiated as a disciple to his guru at the age of six, and learned to speak and write Sanskrit. He spent his youth traveling and studying Indian philosophy. At 18, he moved to Varanasi to attend university where he studied logic and Sanskrit. In exchange for food during this time, Krishanmacharya offered prayers in exchange for food, in accord with the rules for religious beggars. His further studies included divinity, astrology, music, Ayurveda in Bengal, and yoga under the yoga master Sri Babu Bhagavan Das.

Krishnamacharya tells of seven years spent in a remote cave, under the tutelage of a master called Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari. With Brahmachari he studied the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, asana, pranayama, and the therapeutic aspects of yoga. In exchange for his instruction, Brahamachari requested that his student return home to teach. In honor of his guru's request, Krishnamacharya returned home to poverty in the 1920s and took a job as a foreman at a coffee plantation,teaching and demonstrating yoga on his time off. Unlike most yogis who renounced civilization, he also took a wife through arranged marriage. The couple lived in such extreme poverty, that he wore only a loincloth torn from his wife's sari.

In 1931, Krishnamacharya began teaching yoga full-time at the Sanskrit College in Mysore, where he received a good salary. However, students complained of his disciplinarian strictness, a trait that he carried on through his long career, according to many of his now famous students. He has even been described as a volatile teacher. In 1933, under the patronage of the Maharaja, Krishnamacharya opened his own yogashala in the palace's gymnasium. It was during this period that he developed the world renowned Astanga Vinyasa Yoga, made famous by his pupil, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He claimed that the concept of Astanga Vinyasa came from the Yoga Kuruntha, a mysterious 5,000 year old text that has since disappeared and has not been seen by any living person. His pupils were mostly young boys and he combined aspects of many disciplines, including yoga, gymnastics, and Indian wrestling to create their daily practice. Astanga made its way to the West 40 years later, via Jois.

Jois started his studies with Krishnamacharya at the age of 12. He preserved the original teachings with great devotion, and never significantly refined the sequences. Jois claimed that he had never seen the oft-disputed Kuruntha, but also cites the Hatha Yoga Padipika, the Yoga Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita as influential in the shaping of Krishnamacharya's yoga teachings. Jois continued to teach Astanga in Mysore until his death in 2009. There are many devoted Astanga students around the world, and Astanga also influenced the incredibly popular Vinyasa style yoga which most practitioners are familiar with, as well as Bikram, Prana Vinyasa, and many others. His grandson Sharath now carries on the legacy in Mysore.

Krishnamacharya continued to spread his message of yoga via public demonstrations, which attracted a diverse audience. He even undertook what he called "propaganda trips" to introduce yoga to British soldiers, Muslim Maharajas, and Indians of all religious beleifs. He was adamant that yoga could serve any creed, culture, or socioeconomic class. Despite his seemingly open mind, he maintained a patriarchal attiude towards women. Ironically, his first student to bring his yoga to a world stage was a Latvian woman, the much revered Indra Devi.

Indra Devi was born in pre-Soviet Latvia, and a friend of the Mysore royal family. After seeing one of Krishnamachrya's demonstrations, she asked him for instruction. She was refused and told that his school didn't accept foreigners or women. With the help of the Maharaja, she was able to persuade Krishnamacharya to start her lessons, albeit reluctantly. He subjected her to a strict diet and difficult schedule, aimed at breaking her resolve. Devi, however, met every challenge and eventually became a good friend and outstanding pupil. His method of teaching Devi, modified from his styled used to teach young boys, foreshadowed his future career move into more therapeutic and healing yoga.

After a year of apprenticeship, Krishnamacharya instructed Devi to teach yoga. She studied his instructions on yoga, diet, and pranayama. She eventually wrote the first best-selling book on hatha yoga, Forever Young, Forever Healthy. She went on to open the first yoga school in Shanghai and helped bring yoga to the Soviet Union, where it had previously been illegal. In 1947 she moved to Hollywood, California and attracted many celebrity students including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Arden, and Gloria Swanson.

The style of yoga Devi shared with the world reflected Krishnamachrya's principles of sequencing. Her classes began with standing poses leading to a peak, followed by complementary poses and relaxation. The main pose of each class included an invocation or prayer, a concept she called Sai Yoga. In his later life Krishnamacharya alse recommended devotional chanting with asana practice. Devi moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985, where her yoga schools still operate.

Devi died in 2002 at the age of 102. She toured the world well into her nineties, and had a large following in North and South America.

Another well known student of Krishnamacharya was his brother-in-law, B.K.S. Iyengar, who played an enormous role in bringing hatha yoga to the Western world. He studied with Krishnamacharya for only a year. Iynegar was a sickly teenager and at first received very little yoga instruction from Krishnamacharya. One day a favorite protegee disappeared and never returned, leaving Iyengar to perform an important asana demonstration at the shala. Krishnamacharya was astounded at the boy's level of skill and began instructing him in earnest, and even had him assist classes and accompany him on demonstration tours. Iyengar told Fernando Pages Ruiz of Yoga Journal, that Krishnamacharya could have been a saint, were he not so ill-tempered and self-centered. Iyengar's apprenticeship ended abruptly after his teacher ordered him to demonstrate Hanumanasana (full splits), which the boy had never learned. True to his authoritarian style of teaching, Krishnamacharya ordered him to do it anyway and Iyengar tore his hamstrings. Krishnamcharya then instructed Iyengar to be the teacher for a group of women who requested his teaching.

The early hamstring injury is perhaps what inspired Iyengar to teach precise alignment and therapeutic applications. After leaving his guru, Iyengar studied and explored the internal alignment of asanas in his own body and refined and advanced the asanas he learned from his teacher. He modified and adapted poses to meet his student's needs and largely abandoned the vinyasa style of practice. Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Iyengar's reputation as a teacher and healer grew. By the time the 60s rolled around, yoga was becoming a part of world culture, and Iyengar one of its chief ambassadors.

While Krishnamcharya's students spread his yoga teachings and prospered, the guru himself was down to only three students at his shala in 1947. The politicians who replaced the royal family had little interest in yoga and government patronage ended. It is during this period that Iyengar believes his guru developed more compassion, as he had to find his own students without the help and protection of the Maharaja. Krishnamacharya accepted a teaching position at Vivekananda College in Chennai. As he received students with less physical aptitude, he too followed the path of adaptation and modification. He varied the breath and the length, frequency, and sequencing of asanas to help students achieve health goals. As students advanced, he would then help them refine their asanas toward ideal form. This approach is now referred to as Viniyoga, and became the backbone of his teachings during his final decades. He helped students suffering from many different ailments, including diabetes and even helped a stroke victim recover his health. Attracted to the aspects of healing, Krishnamacharya taught his last major pupil, his own son T.K.V. Desikachar.

Desikachar was born into a family of yogis, but felt no desire to pursue yoga himself. As a child, he ran away from home when his father asked him to do asanas. Still strict, Krishnamacharya caught him once and tied his hands and feet into Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose). Despite his yoga-centric upbringing, Desikachar went on to graduate from college with a degree in engineering. However, upon realizing the powerful impact his father's yoga was having on people's lives and health, he resolved to finally learn about the world of yoga. His father discouraged him from his newfound interest and insisted Desikachar pursue his engineering career. Krishnamacharya eventually relented and they began daily yoga lessons at 3:30 every morning.

During the 28 years of tutoring his son, Krishnamacharya also continued to refine the Viniyoga method and tailored practices for pregnant women, young, children, and those seeking spiritual enlightenment. As his students advanced physically, he also stressed the spiritual aspects of yoga and taught that every action was an act of devotion.

"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." - Krishnamacharya

During his later years, Krishnamacharya continued to make yoga accessible to all students regardless of their personal beliefs. Patricia Miller, a longtime student of his residing in D.C., recalls him offering alternatives while leading a meditation. "Think of God. If not God, the sun. If not the sun, your parents." This non dogmatic attitude opened the hearts of many different people to the practice of yoga and meditation.

Krishnamacharya passed away in 1989 at the age of 101 and never wrote a full memoir. What we know of him today has been shared by his students and family. Today, Desikachar oversees the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, where all of his father's yoga teachings live on and his writings are translated and published. Desikachar stresses the need to present yoga in a manner that is free from its Hindu entanglement, so that it's healing and inspiring effects are available to all people. Desikachar extends his father's legacy and connects the worlds of Vedic philosophy and modern science.

"We owe children a better future," says Desikachar. His organization provides free yoga training for underprivieleged children and adults, including those with limited abilities.

Krishnamacharya and his teachings evolved throughout his life, as has the practice of yoga as it passes through the eyes and hearts of each teacher and student. The lineages that grew from his tutelage, including Astanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga, and Sai Yoga, branched off into very different directions. However, the different styles still share the same heart. Passion, breath, and self-study are the core of this ancient practice, even as it evolves to suit our ever-changing society. Krishnamacharya was only human, yes, but it is thanks to him that so many of us can now enjoy the amazing practice of yoga.

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