Articles and Interviews

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
By Navtej Johar

Where is the conflict when the truth is known,

Where is the disease when the mind is clear,

Where is death when the breath is controlled,

Therefore, surrender to yoga.

T. Krishnamacharya

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) was a legendary yogi, scholar and a healer who "never crossed an ocean, but whose yoga has spread through Europe, Asia and the Americas. Today, it is difficult to find an asana tradition he hasn’t influenced." -Yoga Journal, May/June 2002. One of yoga’s most important reformers, he led a dedicated and quiet life absorbed in continuously revising, refining and adapting ancient yoga techniques and practices to suit the changing times. Having spent seven and a half years studying the practice and philosophy of Yoga with his guru, Ramamohan Brahmchari, in the Lake Manasarovar region in the Himalayas, Krishnamacharya returned in the South of India to fulfill his guru’s command "to spread the message of yoga to the world," and in 1924, opened a yoga school at Mysore, at the behest of the Maharaja.

Krishnamacharya, a direct descendent of the 9th century South Indian yogi Nathamuni, brought great insight, innovation in the way he taught and understood yoga. The most amazing as well as inspiring factor of his teachings is that, like water in the flowing river that is never ever the same twice, Krishnamacharya’s evaluation of the human body and how yoga applied to it was always fresh. "As there are no two identical beings," he said, "we must respect every individual’s requirements." The only constant focus was on breath, the condition of which, too, is never the same as it is constantly affected by fluctuations of the mind. For Krishnamacharya, breath was both the gauge and the medium through which one stabilized the body and the mind and brought clarity and calm: "For the learned in yoga, the focus is the breath and not the dharma." He believed that to remain in the moment, a state of mind methodically acquired through an individualized (as opposed to a standardized) practice of yoga, took supremacy over even dharma. Therefore his style remained fluid and open even as it was always appropriately challenging keeping in mind the age, condition, culture and station in life of the individual.

One can actually get an idea of the wide range and capacity of Krishnamacharya’s teachings by even broadly viewing the styles of his four most famous students: B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indira Devi and T.K.V. Desikachar. One cannot but be intrigued at the seemingly contrasting approaches and styles that these disciples proceeded to teach and propagate even though they belonged to the same tradition and were taught by the same Master.

The key to understanding this apparent anomaly, however, lies, in examining the differing methodologies Krishnamacharya employed to teach each of these disciples gearing his teaching to their special individual requirements. Both Iyengar and Jois were youngsters when they studied with a relatively young Krishnamacharya. The teenage, physically capable and very elastic Iyengar was taught in the most strict and exacting manner. Jois, a little younger, was taught the vinyasa krama method, developed by Krishnamacharya primarily for active young boys. This was a method incorporating yoga, gymnastics, wresting and coordinating movement with not only breath but also drishti (gaze), focusing of the eyes and instilling meditative concentration to bring a degree of stillness and focus in what were essentially hyper active young boys. Indira Devi, a woman and a foreigner studied with TK at the same time as Jois. However, her training did not include vinyasa but in keeping with her age and physical condition, a "seemingly gentle" more individualized, lyric, meditative practice which also combined asana and pranayama. Devi was responsible for bringing Krishnamacharya's influence and this distinct style of teaching and practice, to a large following throughout North and South America.

Though, Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar, seriously took to studying with his father relatively late, while he was in his early twenties, he was fortunate not only to study directly under him for 28 years but simultaneously also observe him as he adapted his teaching methods to suit differences of age, sex, culture, illness, interest and profession. Desikachar saw his father develop very important principles of asana practice, and then change them. "It is important to modify every posture according to the individual requirements," he would say. Desikachar recalls, that "Krishnamacharya explored the limits of the breath in postures through changing the method and length of breathing, by using combinations of postures and different respiratory rhythms. For him breathing was like the wheel in a car."

Another most important thing that Desikachar studied with his father was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and more importantly how each sutra of this ancient text applies to practice.

Krishnamacharya divided yoga practice into three stages representing youth, middle and old age respectively. He focused first on strength, muscular power and flexibility; second on the practice to maintain good health and clear mind; and finally on going beyond the physical practice to focus on God, "Your Lord or mine, it does not matter, with a quiet mind, meditate with humility. The Lord, pleased, gives what you seek and happily will offer more." Bhavana (feeling) or the involvement of the heart in the meditative practice of pranayama was an important aspect for him "Regulate the breath, be happy, link the mind with the Lord in your Heart". In later years he also started to teach and incorporate Vedic Chanting both as a mode of worship as well pranayama.

Even though he spawned many brands of yoga which have literally taken the world by storm, namely Iyengar, Ashtanga and Viniyoga (as called and taught by western disciples of both Krishnamacharya and Desikachar) he himself led a quiet life. He once told his son, Desikachar, that one of the reasons he decided to stay in India was because he was not capable of understanding other cultures apart from the fact that Brahmins were not meant to cross the waters. He fiercely resisted calling yoga by any other name and attributed its origin solely to its foremost originator, Patanjali. He also never accepted any claim or authorship over what he taught, wrote or channeled; like the Yoga Rahasya text, which he attributes to Nathamuni.

To honour his father and teacher, T K V Desikachar found the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, at Chennai in 1976. With the focus on healing and therapy, the Mandiram is run in keeping with the philosophy of T. Krishnamacharya, and classes are provided at one-on-one basis so as to offer an individual-centric healing experience. Today, the KYM receives close to a thousand students every month—all seen individually.