Who was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya?

Widely referred to as the father of modern yoga and the teacher of teachers, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, is the source of the teachings that we share here at The Yoga Institute. 

An extraordinary individual, whose entire lifespan was dedicated to the study, practice and sharing of yoga, and healing others. With multiple degrees in subjects including the Vedas, Ayurveda, Astrology, Indian Philosophy and Yoga, Krishamacharaya was an avid scholar.  He was also a family man, a teacher, healer and mentor.

The Most Famous Yogi You May Not Know Anything About

An ancient system, yoga’s development can be traced back thousands of years, with key texts and oral tradition providing a precious, and often fragile, gossamer-like thread to the present day.   Its practices and processes were not linear, with varying focus and credence given to particular aspects over the millennia, and the emergence of distinct branches of yoga, including Hatha yoga (most associated with the use of the physical body in the journey towards spiritual liberation).

The political landscape in India under colonial rule, however, saw Hatha yoga fall into decline, at peril of disappearing. A small group of individuals in the 19th century, keen to see the heritage of Hatha Yoga endure, worked hard to maintain a fragile unbroken thread of knowledge continue to be passed down.

Krishnamacharya was born in southern India in 1888, and began learning and mastering the Vedic darsanas (philosophies) as a youth, and later going on to more study including Ayurveda, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Sanskrit language.

Physical postures (asanas) are scarcely referenced in yogic texts prior to the modern age.   Krishnamacharya spearheaded their elevation and refinement, and developed new asanas and techniques, including precise and therapeutic ways they could be sequenced. A key contributor to the survival of Hatha Yoga to the present-day, he left an evolutionary footprint on postural yoga, cementing the concept of an intelligent and sequential flow of movements, and linking movement to breath.

Krishnamacharya ‘s legacy goes well beyond that of elevating physical movement and breath, however. His expertise on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Sanskrit language, also helped challenge the way the Sutras were being taught. Knowing that the transmission of the Sutras relied on processes of translation and interpretation, he offered slightly nuanced ways of unpacking each sutra, based on his deep understanding of the Sanskrit language. For example, it’s common to see the translation of the second sutra as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”, and while this is not incorrect (indeed, it’s a tidy and readily-accessible way for people to learn that yoga is about more than physical postures), Krishnamacharya went deeper into the complex nature of each Sanskrit word chosen in the original text; he offered up an interpretation for the second sutra that went beyond calming an easily distracted mind, that Yoga was about developing the power of the mind, to bring select thoughts together in a clear, and laser-focussed way, helping the mind be capable of extraordinary (perhaps even supernatural) abilities.

Krishnamacharya celebrated the unique path and abilities of each individual, and at the core of his philosophy was for yoga teachers to teach what was authentically inside of them, customised to the needs and situation of the individual.  This approach to teaching is called viniyogathe appropriate application of yoga based on the needs of the individual and the situation.

Despite his dedication to academia and study, Krishnamacharya was keen for people to balance dedication to knowledge, with commitment to daily practice and self-observation. He taught that yoga was to be an experiential learning, that students would learn the teachings and apply them in their real lives. He wanted the wisdom to be passed down by people who had accumulated lived experiences of the teachings, by those who mindfully observed how elements of the teachings showed up in their own daily lives.

Passionate about sharing his knowledge, he wrote several books (including the Yoga Makaranda in 1934) but always attributed the wisdom to the divine and to his own teachers.   This resistance to take major credit for his own innovations and work – coupled with his lack of international travel and limited English language – meant that his role in helping yoga reach millions of people around the world, was not widely understood or valued until the latter part of the 20th century.

It was only in the latter part of the 20th century when his own students picked up the mantle to share yoga more broadly, their travels, teachings and writings captured the imagination of the world and inadvertently catapulted Krishnamacharya’s students to fame in their own lifetimes. These include Patabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, Srivatsa Ramaswami, A.G. Mohan, and his two sons, T.K. Sribhanshyam  and T.K.V Desikachar (the latter being a teacher and mentor to our founder and director, Michael de Manincor). 

At age 96 after fracturing his hip, Krishnamacharya declined surgery and designed a practice for himself to do while recovering in bed. He continued to teach and enjoyed sharp cognitive health right up to his passing at age 101, in 1989. He dedicated his entire life to learning, and then sharing his knowledge, and using his yogic and ayurvedic techniques to heal people.

Honouring Our Lineage

Yoga has a long and distinguished history. Even in ancient times, yoga evolved according to time, place, needs and preferences of the people, a major reason why we there are various branches of yoga (for example, some feel more drawn to a devotional type of practice, others more so to a scholarly approach). Just as there are various branches of yoga, there are multiple lineages within branches and and it is natural that branches, lineages and traditions will overlap as much as they differ.

Honouring a lineage is not like joining a club, nor does it disregard the many other key figures in the modern history of yoga, or indeed anyone’s right to resonate with wisdom teachings from any source. Such thoughts can only lead to separation and the human tendency towards judgement, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘my way’ and ‘your way’. These are not helpful thoughts.

Krishnamacharya himself discouraged the tendency to want to separate categories of yoga. He described all branches of yoga as connected pieces of the same picture, they were all part of an integrated and holistic approach to wellbeing, and indeed to spiritual liberation, stating, “There is no jnana yoga without bhakti yoga. There is no bhakti yoga without hatha yoga”.

He and his son TKV Desikachar even leaned away from the over-use of the teaching approach terminology ‘Viniyoga’, in recognition that labels can lead to separation and judgement, and preferred to view it all as simply Yoga.

We offer acknowledgement and gratitude for Krishnamacharya’s life’s works and his synthesis of so much wisdom for the betterment of humankind.

We acknowledge, honour and give thanks to those who came before, who helped to pass the wisdom of yoga on. By honouring those who came before us, we can better be a link in an unbroken chain of yoga’s rich and healing traditions. Honouring lineage connects our practice to something greater than ourselves, strengthens our ‘gratitude muscle’, and helps protect us from the hazards of over-associating with individual ego. Many believe taking time to honour lineage is also an helpful way to minimise yoga being projected and taught as little more than an exercise class.

In our classroom here at The Yoga Institute, we like to commence lessons with invocations and chants that celebrate the coming-together of student and teacher, and acknowledge Krishnamacharya and his spiritual & intellectual forebears. Additionally, each year we honour this extraordinary man on his birthday on 18th November.

Read more about our lineage and traditions here

You can watch Krishnamacharya practising various yoga techniques here and here.

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute

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