By Jillian Billard, July 19, 2016
Today, yoga is practiced globally by people of a vast array of ages, ethnicities, physical conditions, classes, and creeds.
Nearly all yogic lineages practiced today stem from the teachings of Krishnamacharya. His influence is so woven into the modern understanding of yoga that often his legacy as an integral figure is lost. The mysterious nature of modern yoga’s most influential forefather is further supplemented because he never took credit for his innovations on the yogic practice. To him, yoga was the work of a power higher than oneself, whether it be attributed to ancient texts or to his guru. Yet the strides he made to bring yoga into the modern age are irrefutable.
Get to Know Krishnamacharya — A Founding Father of Yoga
1. He recovered and transcribed lost works of yogic teachings that were shared with him in a vision he had as a boy.
Krishnamacharya was foremost a scholar. It is said that he spent the first forty years of his life striving to attain as much knowledge as he could. He studied Sanskrit, Vedic rituals, and philosophy.
At the time of his birth, in 1888, India’s rich traditional heritage was immensely diminished by British colonial rule. Yoga, once practiced by many, was then only practiced by a very small number of renunciates — people who willfully removed themselves from society in pursuit of higher consciousness.
As a young boy, Krishnamacharya took a great interest in ancient texts and devoted himself to the Hindu revivalist movement, which would restore India’s rich traditional heritage and practices. His father taught him Patanjali’s sutras and told him that his family descended from ninth century renowned guru Nathamuni. This instilled in him a desire to take his study of yoga further. When he was sixteen, it is said that he made a pilgrimage to the guru Nathamuni’s shrine at Alvar Tirungari. There he encountered the spirit of Nathamuni, who taught him verses from the “Yogarahasya (The Essence of Yoga)”, a lost text which he later transcribed based on his vision.
2. He realized that each student must be taught differently, and introduced modifications to accommodate different students needs.
Not only did Krishnamacharya serve to restore the lost teachings of yoga, but he also interpreted and revised the teachings in innovative ways which were more suited to the modern world. Thus we are able to integrate these practices into our daily lives so fluidly. He taught with a focus on health, spirituality, and mindfulness. Realizing that every student was different, he developed a way of teaching which allowed for individual students to utilize modifications which would be most suited and beneficial to them. For example in standing forward fold a student with more open hamstrings would receive the benefits of the posture with straight legs, while another may keep their legs bent in order to achieve the alignment with a straight spine.
3. He emphasized asana as a backbone of meditation. Krishnamacharya’s yoga was the first known practice which included a series of poses in accordance with breath.
Perhaps the most prevalent influence on modern yoga as we understand it today is the heavy emphasis on asana or physical practice, which was previously just one of the eight limbs. He posited that asana and pranayama, or breath practices, were an integral part of meditation (Dhyana), rather than just low rungs on a ladder toward meditation. He is responsible for the way in which we sequence postures in order to gain optimal benefits, which is now referred to as vinyasa yoga. He also introduced the Drishti, or gaze point, which allows one to focus and balance in poses. He standardized the pose sequences into different levels in order to accommodate people of different physical conditions.
4. He passed on his teachings to four of the most influential teachers of yoga in the west.
In the 1930’s, Krishnamacharya gave numerous lectures on yoga and caused a resurgence of the ancient practice. These lectures attracted a diverse group of people, as he stressed that yoga was applicable to people of all backgrounds, creeds, and classes. Between 1926 and 1946, Krishnamacharya ran a school in Mysore, India, at the palace of the Maharaja Krishnaraja Woyedar.
His four most known students were Jois, Iyengar, Devi, and Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar. The four popularized yoga in the west and their names are therefore more well-known to modern practitioners around the globe. Without the revolutionary teachings of Krishnamacharya, these four founders of modern yoga would not have made such immense strides. Many of their teachings can be traced back to ideas first taught by their teacher.
One of his students, whom he had taught even before he opened up his Mysore yoga shala, was renowned Ashtanga yoga creator and teacher K. Pattabhi Joi. His teachings are the most similar to Krishnamacharya’s yoga of any lineage. B.K.S. Iyengar, whose legacy is immensely renowned, was the brother of Krishnamacharya’s wife. He studied with Krishnamacharya as a boy before he went on to develop his own innovative style of yoga. Indra Devi, too, was his student, despite the fact that Krishnamacharya refused at first to teach a woman at his school. With persistence she became one of his greatest pupils and went on to popularize yoga in the west, teaching to many actors and actresses in Hollywood in the 1940s.
Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, though uninterested in practicing yoga at first, would go on to develop his own yogic practice which, like his father’s, honored the individual needs of each yogi which is now known as Viniyoga.
5. He introduced yoga to the common householder.
When he was in university studying divinity, logic, and music, he trained in hatha yoga with Ramamohana Brahmacharya, one of the only remaining hatha yoga practitioners, who lived in the Himalayas with his wife and three children. This was uncommon for a renunciate, who traditionally vowed to lead a solitary life. At the urge of his teacher, Krishnamacharya was to return following his teachings to his homeland in order teach others and to establish a household. He followed his teacher’s instructions and married. To be a yogi and a householder proved to be a difficult task, for economic reasons, but Krishnamacharya pressed onward. Though it may seem inconsequential, this was a major innovation to yoga at the time, as it transformed the practice into something not solely practiced by a few gurus, but by commoners and householders. We owe the ability to integrate of yoga into our daily lives today to Krishnamacharya.
A man of great ambition and passion, Krishnamacharya has brought yoga to the modern world. Without him, perhaps you and I would not be practicing yoga today.