The Yoga Revolution
A tribute to T. Krishnamacharya – the founder of modern yoga
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya – ever heard this name before?
T. Krishnamacharya influenced, or maybe even invented modern yoga as it is taught all over the world today and yet most of his life remains a mystery.
Born in 1888 in Southern India as member of a Brahmin family, Krishnamacharya started studying Indian philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and asana at the age of five. According to biographical notes, his father told him their family descended from a yogi and instilled a lifelong thirst for knowledge and a desire to study yoga and everything related to it in his son.
Krishnamacharya began attending University in Mysore at the age of 12 and acquired Sanskrit, Vedic knowledge, asana and pranayama and over the years earned many degrees. At the age of 18 he moved to Varanasi to continue his studies where well-known scholars became highly appreciative of his sharp mind and intellect. Krishnamacharya wanted to learn more yoga, so his teacher suggested he travel to Tibet to learn and study with one of the last remaining Hatha Yoga masters, Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. Young Krishnamacharya followed his teacher’s advice and began his quest for his guru. He travelled to Tibet on foot and found Brahmachari at his ashram – merely a cave where the yogi lived together with his wife and children. Brahmachari accepted Krishnamacharya as disciple and according to Krishnamacharya’s biography he remained with his guru for over seven years at his ashram.
While in Tibet, he studied the sutras in great detail, attained deeper knowledge of the Samkhya philosophy, learned asana and pranayama techniques and furthermore, Brahmachari taught his disciple yoga therapy. According to Krishnamacharya, while in Tibet, he mastered over 3000 asanas and developed some of the most remarkable skills, such as stopping his pulse. In return, Brahmachari asked from his student to return to his home country India, teach yoga to the people, spread the yogic lifestyle and establish a household and family.
Krishnamacharya followed his guru’s wishes and returned to India in the 1920s, to poverty and an arranged marriage. During this time, teaching yoga was not profitable at all, and India struggled under the pressure of the British colonial rule. Yoga had practically disappeared, so whenever time allowed it Krishnamacharya demonstrated the “superpowers” of a yogic body during his “propaganda trips”. He wanted to raise interest in a dying tradition by demonstrating and performing difficult and highly advanced asanas, stopping his pulse, or lifting heavy objects with his teeth.
In the 1930s he started working at the Sanskrit Collage in Mysore and for the next two decades, the Maharaja of Mysore financed Krishnamacharya’s demonstrations, publications and provided him with his first yogashala (yoga studio) in Mysore.
This was the beginning of Krishnamacharya’s most fertile period which had the most impact on today’s yoga.
During this period it is believed he developed the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, which should remain fairly unknown for another 40 years. It was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who spread Krishnamacharya’s knowledge and this particular technique all over the world.
Jois met Krishnamacharya early on, before his guru ended up in Mysore. Jois was impressed by Krishnamacharya’s abilities and attended his lectures and asked whether he would teach him asana. I guess the rest is history – Jois remained Krishnamacharya’s faithful disciple for 12 years and retained a wealth of detail from his studies. Like no one else, he preserved that work with great devotion, refining and inflecting asana sequences without significant modifications.
One might argue the true origin of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method yet it is undeniable that Krishnamacharya’s influence is definitely his biggest legacy. It was unheard of to sequence asanas and linking them to the breath (Vinyasa) like Krishnamacharya did. With Jois’s help, even today, many people are drawn to Ashtanga Yoga’s precision and intensity and travel to Mysore each year to practice at Jois’s yoga centre. Jois himself taught classes there until his death in 2009.
The list of famous yogis Krishnamacharya influenced does not end with Jois – Krishnamacharya’s list of disciples reads like the who is who of the modern yoga world! Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar, Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar, A. G. Mohan and so forth.
After learning from their guru, these wonderful yogis had the chance to travel the world and spread their attained knowledge and furthermore, bring happiness to their students.
Even though Krishnamacharya never left India, it is impressive how modern he was. In those days, it was not common to teach yoga to women, though he did and with Indra Devi, he had a diligent and very passionate student. Furthermore, he modified his lectures and asana practice to the abilities of the students and co-created pretty much every single style of yoga, not just Ashtanga Yoga, out there today.
“Teach what is within you. Not as it applies to you, but as it applies to the one on front of you!” T. Krishnamacharya
Krishnamacharya succeeded in popularizing yoga and fulfilled his guru’s wishes, without the help of aeroplanes, Instragram, Facebook or any other means of modern technology. After reading articles and books written by and about Krishnamacharya one thing became crystal clear to me – there is no doubt that he was one of the most highly educated individuals of his time, and even though he was a traditionalist, he understood the pulse of his era and changed his views accordingly.
Krishnamacharya lived to be 100 years old and up until the very end, was able to practice yoga. Even though, an accident prevented him from performing asanas easily, he practiced pranayama daily and his mind remained sharp and crystal clear up until his death in 1989. He remained mentor and teacher in Chennai until the very end.
This website would not have enough room to write a complete tribute to T. Krishnamacharya. This 5 ft. 2 man from India changed my world and perspective and I am blown away by this power alone and by his knowledge. During my research and personal yoga journey, it became very clear to me how important it is to honour the yoga lineage in order to understand yoga entirely.
"Health, strength and joy will increase a thousand fold through the mental stability obtained due to Yoga (…).”Yoga Makaranda, T. Krishnamacharya
“Yoga Makaranda – The Nectar of Yoga”, Yogacarya T. Krishnamacharya, 1934
“Krishnamacharya – His Life and Teachings”, A.G. Mohan, 2010
“Krishnamacharya’s Legacy” by Fernando Pages Ruis, published in Yoga Journal
All images: Internet
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