Whilst in India, I was struck with how the cultural heritage and history of yoga and the lineage of yoga teaching is placed in high esteem amongst those teaching and practising yoga there. This inspired me to write the following article, which aims to explain where the yoga we practice in the west largely comes from and how the tradition is a ‘living’, evolving one, which has accelerated massively in its evolution over the last decade, compared to the thousands of years before that. I hope you enjoy reading, and would love to hear any feedback you have, as I’m sure I’ve dropped some clangers in there along the way!
The Recent History of the Living Yoga Tradition
By Becky May
Krishnamacharya’s Early Years
Almost all forms of yoga practised in the west, including Ashtanga and vinyasa krama, can be traced back in some way to the teachings of one man – T. Krishnamacharya. Krishnmacharya was born into a spiritual Brahmin family in south India in 1888, a time when yoga was unpopular and side-lined as an out-dated, obscure spiritual practice only practised by a few remaining devotees. However, there were family links to yoga and he was introduced to yoga philosophy and asanas by his father from a young age.
Clearly a natural scholar, he went on to study various aspects of India’s cultural heritage, including Sanskrit, but the seed of yoga sown by his father, who by this time had died, grew inside him. Eventually he left university and sought out one of the few remaining hatha yoga practitioners (hatha yoga has a focus on physical postures), a man called Sri Brahmachari.
Krishnamacharya meets his guru
Brahmachari lived in a cave (with his wife and children!) and agreed to take on Krishnamacharya as his student. So Krishnamacharya stayed with him for seven years, learning everything he could including hundreds of asanas and their therapeutic benefits, pranayama techniques and yoga philosophy, memorising Patanjali’s yoga sutras along the way. Eventually Brahmachari instructed him to leave, marry and have children, and to make yoga accessible to the masses.
Being a dutiful student, Krishnamacharya returned to his home, found a wife and continued to teach yoga. This was unusual as yogis at this time would normally renounce family life in order to follow their ascetic spiritual path. But Brahmachari foresaw the importance of bringing yoga to the modern, ‘everyday’ householder and Krishnamacharya was to forge this new path for yoga. During this early period of teaching, Krishnamacharya was a poor man, as yoga was still very marginalised in India and people just weren’t interested in learning. To try and stimulate more interest, he travelled to different towns, giving yoga talks and demonstrations.
The Mysore Palace years
Eventually fate stepped in, in the form of the Maharaja of Mysore city. The Mysore royal family had a strong tradition of supporting and promoting India’s cultural heritage, of which yoga was a part. In addition the Maharaja had a personal interest in the therapeutic aspect of yoga due to his own ill health. As such, in 1931 word of Krishnamacharya’s travelling yoga teaching reached the Maharaja and he was invited to teach yoga in Mysore, first at the Sanskrit college but later at the palace itself.
So then followed a very significant two decades in the history of the modern yoga tradition. In the 1930s and 1940s Krishnamacharya was able to fully commit himself to developing a more ‘accessible’ style of yoga teaching that moved away from the more extreme aspects of the practice that he’d learnt with Brahmachari (e.g. learning how to stop the pulse). Such extreme acts were only really accessible and appealing to strict devotees rather than to the average person who would need to balance yoga pursuits with their work and family life.
He was given his own yoga shala at the palace (a disused gymnasium) and had regular students, most of whom were young boys. He was often asked to have his students provide yoga demonstrations for the royal family and their guests. During this time, the yoga system Krishnamacharya developed became very focused on asana and pranayama, setting the scene for the type of yoga that most people follow today. He creatively drew from many sources, which is said to include traditional Indian wrestling and gymnastics, to devise a physical system of asana practice that would challenge his young students and help to focus their mind.
As he refined his techniques, grouping linked postures based on level of difficulty and devising a linking sequence between postures based on the surya namasakaras (sun salutations), he created what is known as vinyasa krama teaching.
Vinyasa is translated from Sanskrit to mean ‘synchronisation of breath and movement’ and krama is translated as ‘a series of steps’. Put together, vinyasa krama was Krishnamacharya’s system of teaching that followed logical sequencing of postures to gradually open up the body, leading eventually to more advanced postures when the student was ready. To maintain physical exertion and breath awareness, postures were linked together through the surya-based ‘vinyasa’ movements.
This formed the basis of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which Krishnamacharya began to develop at this time, through separating the postures into ‘primary’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ groups – these groups of postures form the basis of the different series of Ashtanga yoga still practised today. However, it took one of Krishnamacharya’s star students to fully develop the Ashtanga system of yoga and to bring it to the wider world’s attention.
Pattabhi Jois and the development of Ashtanga yoga
Whilst Krishnamacharya was teaching in Mysore, one of his top students was a young man called Pattabhi Jois. Pattabhi studied with Krishnamacharya for many years, learning the postures through the vinyasa krama system. When he then went on to develop his own career as a teacher, he utilised and refined Krishnamacharya’s division of postures into series of increasing difficulty, and Ashtanga yoga as we know it was born.
Although Ashtanga yoga comes directly from Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama teaching, the two styles are also considered to have diverged paths in some ways. Under Pattabhi’s modifications, the pace of the asana practice increased, in order to fit all of the postures from a series into one practice session, until eventually only five breaths were held in each posture. More vinyasas were included (for example after each side of every seated posture) in order to build the strength and stamina required to get through all of the postures in one go. Also, the principle of practising khumbaka (breath retention) during postures, which was integral to Krishnamacharya’s teaching, was more or less dropped, again probably to save time.
When the first western traveller hippies searching for spiritual truth arrived on Pattabhi’s doorstep in the 1960s and 70s, this marked the beginnings of the international spread of Ashtanga yoga. Mr Jois took them on as students and gradually the knowledge was dispersed back to their own countries, and eventually Mr Jois travelled to the west himself to spread his teaching further. Since then, western students have flocked to Mysore each year to continue to learn with Pattabhi until his death in 2009, and now continue to learn with his daughter (Saraswati) and grandson (Sharath).
But this story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning two more of Krishnamacharya’s students, who have both had equally pivotal roles in the spread of yoga to the wider world.
Firstly, BKS Iyengar (who was the brother of Krishnmacharya’s wife) became one of Krishnamacharya’s students for a short period. He was staying with the couple for a while, although was a sickly child, such that at first Krishnamacharya apparently didn’t pay him much attention. But then one day fate intervened again, and he had to be an emergency stand-in at one of the yoga demonstrations when another student dropped out at short notice. His commitment and ability took Krishnamacharya by surprise, and after that he taught him in earnest. Despite the teaching period being quite brief (Krishnamacharya sent Iyengar away to begin teaching elsewhere after one year), Iyengar always referred to Krishnamacharya as his inspirational guru.
The legacy of BKS Iyengar probably needs no introduction, but suffice to say he went on to develop his own system of hatha yoga, known as the Iyengar style, which focuses on the use of props and modifications to achieve perfect alignment in postures and highlights the therapeutic benefits of each posture. Certainly, it is documented that both these principles appeared in Krishnamacharya’s teachings to some extent, and Iyengar simply developed them further based on his own passion, hours of deep practice and experience from teaching thousands of students.
Iyengar’s ability to clearly communicate complex concepts through writing and speaking made him possibly the single greatest international proponent of yoga, bringing his style of teaching to the masses through his now iconic books, ‘Light on Yoga’ and ‘Light on Life’, amongst many other subsequent publications. He also travelled widely in the west, spreading his teaching further.
Krishnamacharya’s later years – viniyoga and Desikachar
By the 1940s, the golden age of yoga at the Mysore palace was over. India had gained independence and the royal family were no more. The replacement government officials ruling Mysore didn’t share the same interest in supporting the country’s yoga heritage and attendance at the shala dwindled, until eventually Krishnamacharya was forced to close shop in 1950.
At this point, he left Mysore and moved to Chennai, where his teaching took a different path. Here, his students were of all ages and abilities, not just the young, physically adept boys he had been used to in Mysore. As such, he adapted his teaching and experimented with varying postures, sequences, breathing techniques and lengths of time in postures in order to personalise the practice for each student, allowing everyone to progress at their own pace, regardless of age, ability and impairment. His vast teaching experience brought him huge success with this approach and he began to gain a reputation as a healer. This style of individualistic teaching became known as Viniyoga.
Around this time, his previously disinterested son, TKV Desikachar, began to put down the engineering books that he was studying, and notice his father’s healing abilities and growing reputation. Whilst staying with his father he saw first-hand many of his success stories and decided he wanted to learn how to do this for himself.
At first Krishnamacharya was reluctant to teach his son, but Desikachar was persistent and eventually he relented. For the next 28 years, Krishnamacharya taught Desikachar all about the Viniyoga approach, as it continued to evolve until his death in 1989 at the grand old age of 100. Desikachar continues to teach in this way from Chennai.
A living tradition
The notion of tradition in the yoga world is an interesting one. Yes, yoga stems from an ancient method of Indian spiritual practice, the origins of which are probably lost in time. There are different types of yoga documented in the few ancient scriptures we can refer to – bhakti-yoga (yoga that follows a devotional path), jnana-yoga (yoga that follows the path of knowledge and study), karma-yoga (yoga that follows the path of action and service to others) and raja-yoga (yoga that emphasises meditation and includes within it hatha yoga, which is the more physical side of yoga).
Krishnamacharya studied hatha yoga (a part of raja yoga) with his guru, Brahmachari, and then went on to take the hatha tradition in a new direction, focusing more on developing the physical and breath-control elements of the method, to make it more appealing and relevant to the masses. This trend has continued, leading to the posture-focus of Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar yoga, Viniyoga, vinyasa krama, vinyasa flow and everything in between that we see in most yoga classes today.
Any taught tradition evolves with time. Krishnamacharya brought his own innovation and intelligent creativity to the hatha yoga tradition’s evolution. Then his students, notably Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar, fast-tracked this evolution by devising their own unique methods and at the same time spreading the tradition to a wider, international audience. Now the growth of teachers has exploded across the world, bringing myriad new cultural variations into the mix, and therefore the diversity of how yoga is taught has also exploded. It is important to remember and respect where current teaching came from, but also to accept that no tradition, as long as it is still being ‘lived’, is static. Rather a tradition evolves in as many ways as there are people that ‘live’ it, and, as we are all unique, this is surely something to be embraced, provided the evolution happens with intelligence and sensitivity to the tradition’s heritage.
I would like to credit the following sources for providing much of the information found within this article and also for inspiring me to put into my own words the recent history of the yoga tradition as we know it today.
- The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya, Fernando Pages Ruiz, 2007. (The article appeared in Yoga Journal magazine in August 2007.)
- The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, J. Sjoman, 1999.
- ‘Slow Ashtanga… at home’ – Anthony Grimley Hall blog (www.grimmly2007.blogspot.in)