Krishnamacharya was unique in many ways — as a master of yoga, as a teacher, as an Ayurvedic physician and as a scholar.
In the West, Krishnamacharya is mostly known for his contribution to the revival of the more physically oriented disciplines and practices of hatha yoga. Therefore, he is often referred to as “the father of modern yoga.”
The notion that Krishnamacharya practiced and taught yoga that was somehow “new” or “modern” is primarily due to the many distortions or misunderstandings about the link between the physical practices of hatha yoga and the meditational practices of raja yoga. He was the conservator of the ancient teachings of raja yoga.
As a master of yoga and a great scholar, he practiced and linked the physical practices of hatha yoga with the mental states of samadhi described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Let us listen to the great master on what is yoga.
Krishnamacharya: Yoga is an awareness, a type of knowing. Yoga will end in awareness. Yoga is arresting the fluctuations of the mind as said in the Yoga Sutras (of Patanjali): citta vritti nirodha. When the mind is without any movement, maybe for a quarter of an hour, or even quarter of a minute, you will realize that yoga is of the nature of infinite awareness, infinite knowing. There is no other object there.”
During my interview of Krishnamacharya in 1988, he continued to expand on his personal experience of this yogic state of samadhi.
This state of samadhi — the pinnacle of sustained mental focus and the goal of classical yoga — can be reached through pranayama. Krishnamacharya used to say that pranayama is critical among the eight limbs of yoga. The practice of pranayama is preceded by the practice of the mudras and the practice of asanas. These are truly amazing photos of the great master.
In addition to his mastery of asanas, Krishnamacharya was able to bring the involuntary functions of the body — like the heartbeat — under voluntary control. Let’s listen to Indra Devi, one of his students who witnessed Krishnamacharya’s demonstration of stopping his heartbeat in the late 1930s.
Indra Devi: “I saw him first time in Mysore and it was during, I think, during Dasara time and Sri was demonstrating to the guests of the Maharaja, his school… So he was doing yoga postures. And at the end, he said: ‘Are there any doctors in the audience?’ And so, among the guests… ‘Ok, then please come up and check. I’m going to stop my heartbeat for several minutes.’ And so he took a deep breath and just lied down on the floor and very close to me was sitting a German doctor. He came back shaking his head and said: ‘I would pronounce the man dead.’ Because he had a stethoscope and everything. And several doctors came. Then I was startled.”
He was not only a master of yoga but also had titles equivalent to doctoral degrees in all the six Vedic darshanas.
Krishnamacharya taught yoga for nearly seven decades. He started teaching yoga under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore in the 1930s. Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Pattabhi Jois studied with him during this period. Let’s listen to Indra Devi about her experience with Krishnamacharya at that time.
Indra Devi: “… and then wanted very much to go to Mysore where at that time Sri Krishnamacharya had a school and the Maharaja was the patron of school in the wing of the old Jaganmohan Palace. And so I came first just to present myself and ask permission. He had only men and only boys and only Indians in school. At that time, I was (with) a hat like this on and you know came to the yoga school … (audience laughing) Ah, he politely declined. (audience laughing) Said he only has men and only boys and only Indians and he couldn’t do this and that. But since the Maharaja was the patron of the school and I was a private guest of the Maharaja and the Maharani, so the Maharaja just asked him to accept me. So against his wish, he accepted me and his earnest kind of desire was to see me behind the door as far as possible.”
What was Krishnamacharya teaching during the 1930s? The silent film from 1938 contains the yoga practice of Krishnamacharya, his wife and children, and B.K.S. Iyengar, who was also the brother of his wife.
An analysis of this 1938 video will reveal that Krishnamacharya’s teaching was based on this principle — “Teach what is appropriate for each individual.”
Video of Krishnamacharya’s children – 5 to 7 years old
He taught jumping asanas to his children, who were 5 to 7 years old.
In an interview, B. K. S. Iyengar recalled that Krishnamacharya taught vigorous jumping movements to him.
B.K.S. Iyengar: “Well, you know it is very difficult for a boy of 14-15 years to analyze what my Guruji was teaching, what type of yoga was teaching, or something like that, you know? Well, I can say it’s like a drill system to a very great extent… So, naturally my Guruji must have thought that for these martial people, like martial art, yoga has to become a martial art to train them. So there were vigorous, rigorous movements what you call today ‘vinyasa,’ which is jumping movements from asana to asana which you have seen in my 1938 film. So, that was the way he was teaching.”
Let’s see that.
Video of Iyengar – 20 years old
Video of Krishnamacharya’s wife – 24 years old
The Acharya taught differently to his wife to strengthen the organs in the lower abdomen. Although his wife and Iyengar were almost the same age, Krishnamacharya taught them very differently. He did not teach deep backbends to his wife.
Video of Krishnamacharya – 50 years old
Now, watch the practice of Krishnamacharya when he was 50 years old. Although it appears as if he is doing just head stand, he was actually practicing the viparita karani mudra, which involves long, deep breathing and suspension of breath and bandhas with mental focus.
Krishnamacharya wrote a book called Yoga Makaranda in 1934. Part I of this book was published by the then-Maharaja of Mysore. Part II was not published. This is the file cover of the original type written manuscript of Part II. His son, Desikachar, and myself had classes together on some texts like the Yoga Sutras. During the 1970s, we reflected on and attempted to edit this manuscript but its publication did not come to fruition.
In Yoga Makaranda Part II, the Acharya not only details the methodology for each asana but also cautions against the use of force in the practice of asana. Let us listen to Krishnamacharya’s caution as recalled by Indra Devi.
Indra Devi: “And I remember in one of the classes in the beginning, when everybody was doing the paschimottanasan, (seated) forward bends. Well, with the feet on the floor stretched, and you inhale, exhale, and you touch your toes. My hands were so far from the toes that I asked one of my co-students to just to push me from the back, and Sri told me, ‘No, no, no. You can injure a rigid muscle. You will do it by and by.’ And I remember, on the floor, looking up at him and saying: ‘In my next incarnation!’” (audience laughing)
Currently, there are several misconceptions and confusions regarding the teaching of the Acharya. There is a notion, for instance, that he was innovating his teachings over a period of time. He did not. He always taught what was appropriate for each individual. The purpose and the capability of the person determined the practice. He always designed the practice depending on the person and the purpose.
To a question on “Should the asana practice be done fast and why not?”, Krishnamacharya replied that fast movements, and in turn, fast breathing will disturb the flow of prana and will result in imbalances. Slow movements with long inhale and exhale will help with proper prana flow and mental focus.
His personal practice was always with long deep breathing and mental focus. Observe the position of his head, the lower abdomen and his mental focus. He was always concentrated on the inner alignment through breath.
According to Krishnamacharya, practice and knowledge must always go together. He used to say, practice without right knowledge of theory is blind. This is also because without right knowledge, one can mindfully do a wrong practice.
He also did not mix up yoga and religion. As a Vaishnavite, he kept the wooden sandals of his religious guru. He did not keep the sandals of his yoga guru, Ramamohana Brahmachari, and never asked his students to pay homage to his Vaishnavite lineage or the padukas.
There is only one yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is also known as raja yoga. Hatha yoga, laya yoga, and mantra yoga each have four steps. They involve the practice of some of the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras, like the yamas and niyamas. They merge into the sixth limb of yoga, dharana, which leads to samadhi. Krishnamacharya with his depth of knowledge and practice was clear about these connections.
In the 1930s, Krishnamacharya tried to resolve the prevailing confusions among the then-yoga luminaries. He later recalled:
“In 1933 through 1937, some people were talking about different varieties of yoga, like hatha yoga, raja yoga, and kundalini yoga. Some said that the kriyas were the most important, and that that was (true) yoga. I was in the yoga school in Mysore, under the patronage of the king. I wrote letters to well-known yoga teachers like Paramahamsa Yogananda, Kuvalayananda, and Yogindra, saying that we should have a meeting and resolve such confusion. Eventually, however, no meeting took place and nothing came out of the correspondence.”
Currently, the confusions have become manifold with the addition of brands, labels, traditions, and lineages.
The goal of the physical practices of hatha yoga is to lead to the mental states of samadhi described in the Yoga Sutras. Absence of knowledge of the connections and the practice has resulted in many confusions and distortions. The discernment that Krishnamacharya spoke of so many decades ago is even more important now.
On November 18th, we celebrate his 125th birth anniversary. I vividly remember this day, 25 years ago on his 100th birthday, as I was the convener of his centenary celebrations. Krishnamacharya would have been extremely happy that his tireless perseverance in propagating yoga has resulted in millions of people now practicing yoga around the world. He would want all of us to carry on the ancient and authentic teachings of yoga as they have been conveyed to us by the sages.
Let the message not be lost.