When legendary yogi, T.K.V. Desikachar, was preparing to meet his future wife's family his father kindly advised that Desikachar should not mention he was giving up his studies in engineering to work as a yoga teacher. Amusingly, this advice came from the man that is easily argued to have had the most profound influence on the modern practice of yoga. Being one of India's greatest scholars, Krishnamacharya not only gave up many professional paths to be a yoga teacher, but refused on multiple occasions to accept the head post of the Parakāla Math, an office equivalent to the Western Papacy. Though his students would become world famous, establishing yoga globally across culture and tradition, Krishnamacharya refused to be called guru, or even yogi, realizing the acceptance of these titles paradoxically would mean that he was neither. The public and his students called him Professor and he accepted himself as an acharya, a title meaning a wise teacher who has traveled far, living what he teaches. Though renowned as a great healer and scholar, his life, mission, and practice was that of a simple yoga teacher.
He was born Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in 1888, in Muchukundapuram in Southern India to an ancient brahmin family of the Vaishnavite sect which worships the many manifestations of Vishnu. His father and first guru died when he was ten years old relocating the family to Mysore where Krishnamacharya's great grandfather was pontiff of the Parakāla Math and where Krishnamacharya resumed his education. He was brilliant and earnest in his studies mastering Sanskrit at a level that would astound audiences until he was over a hundred years old. At eighteen he traveled to India's holiest city, Varanasi, modern day Benares, to study at the university level. His mastery of Sanskrit was furthered here by study with the era's greatest grammarian. He would eventually master all six darshanas of Vedic philosophy and acquire the equivalent of numerous doctorates.
He was told by yoga masters in Varanasi that he could learn even more of yoga from Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari and he undertook a pilgrimage to find him. He walked more than two-hundred miles in three weeks through Nepal to the region of the holy lake of Manasarovar in Tibet where he found the saint living in a cave with his wife and children. He remained with his guru for seven years. Ramamohan Brahmachari had mastery of seven thousand asanas, of which he taught Krishnamacharya seven hundred to three-thousand, depending on differing accounts. What he mastered during his time in the cave would marvel the world. Customarily, he did not know what he could give his guru in return for the rare gift of learning until it was time to depart, at which point the saint simply asked that Krishnamacharya find a wife, have children and teach yoga. He would return to India and spend the rest of his days doing just as his teacher asked.
Having a family was easily accomplished, but life as a simple yoga teacher was a difficult path relative to the illustrious future for which Krishnamacharya had been prepared and was his birthright as a brahmin. He and his family lived the beginning years in poverty, Krishnamacharya at one point having nothing to wear but a loin cloth made from his wife's sari. He even threw off all vestiges of his caste for awhile to work as a plantation supervisor. He eventually would assert that there were only two castes, men and women. In yoga, he radically would come to regard women as the superior of the two.
During these years he attracted a few students and was able to give a few lectures, though it was his ability as a healer that brought him to the attention of the Maharaja of Mysore who required help with a health issue. The Maharaja then employed Krishnamacharya as a yoga teacher and advisor, establishing a yogashala in his royal school and supporting Krishnamacharya's efforts to spread the influence of yoga, which he considered to be part of the mission he vowed to his guru to fulfill. It was during these Mysore years of the thirties and forties that he would impact the world in a myriad of ways merely through his simple devotion to his practice and teaching. His Mysore students would include yoga luminaries Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar, his brother-in-law.
Krishnamacharya's yoga classes at the royal palace were an adjunct to the physical fitness courses provided. In late colonial India, physical fitness and body building had become popular and an important part of youth education. This development mirrored what was happening in the West, and it also reflected the cultural development of an India on the verge of independence. In striving for independence, Indians faced the challenge of reclaiming their unique indigenous identity. Simultaneously they were forging a modern self-governing identity after a long period of colonial subservience. Physical strength had become culturally associated with the modern Indian, since during colonial rule the Indian male had often been portrayed as weak and effeminate. Strength training was a move toward empowering the future.
Krishnamacharya worked with renowned body-builders and fitness instructors who taught classes at the palace school and the practice taught in his classes was influenced by them. As the physical benefits of Krishnamacharya's classes were recognized, the youth also found that they had the option with yoga to reinforce tradition while working toward physical mastery. This was desirable in the threatening wake of modernization, and also imperative as India struggled to assert it's own patriotic identity. Krishnamacharya found himself at the crossroads of the past and future. Though he and the ancient practice of yoga were steeped in tradition, he opened himself and his practice to the future and to change. Just as he saw every individual student as requiring a specific practice based on age, health, and path sought, he also saw that yoga itself would need to be adapted for the era and the purpose of the moment.
He worked with the help the Maharaja to popularize yoga during these years, allowing amazing personal feats to be publicized. His ability to stop his heart was verified by doctors on numerous occasions and brought considerable attention to the practice of yoga. In later years when his son would ask to be taught this ability, Krishnamacharya was adamant in his refusal explaining that such a feat was only used to draw attention and now could serve no purpose for students. To inspire broader interest in yoga, his students traveled performing asanas for curious and amazed audiences. Two of the young students that toured with him during these years were B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.
Iyengar yoga, and eventually the modern Ashtanga vinyasa of Jois, would become instrumental in the popularization of yoga world wide. The differences between these two styles, as well as the differences to be found with Krishnamacharya's later style during the post Mysore years, can be explained by his emphasis on adaptability. He generally would not teach group yoga insisting that every individual would require a personalized approach. An exception to this was his work with youth during the Mysore years. In that case, group instruction was necessary and reasonably accomplished since he was usually teaching energetic and healthy young men. The aerobic style of Jois's Ashtanga vinyasa is reflective of this. Even the rhythmic breath counts of Ashtanga may be the influence of the routines Jois would have performed for audiences during his school days, the counting helping the students move in unison. Jois left his teacher at the age of eighteen to teach and clearly took the gymnastic flow that Krishnamacharya had innovated for young men, merging the modern physical culture of the time with the ancient tradition of Patanjali. Iyengar and Indra Devi, a private student during the Mysore years, pioneered the assimilation of yoga in the West. She and Iyengar developed styles exhibiting different aspects of their teacher's adapatability. Iyengar began his studies with Krishnamacharya because of a general frailty brought on by early illness. His style would be influenced by the specific practice Krishnamacharya prescribed to help the young Iyengar recover strength and vitality.
Krishnamacharya witnessed, during the Mysore years, the beginning popularity of yoga in India and the world. Other teachers were adapting the ancient practice, as well, and he had an interest in working together to present its most beneficial aspects and to resolve some of the differences being taught. During the thirties, he wrote the yogis Yogananda, Kuvalayananda and Yogindra with a proposal to meet and discuss what was being disseminated. The meeting did not take place, but Krishnamacharya's wish to work with other yogis illustrates his conscious desire to popularize the practice and to bring it as truthfully as possible to the world
After India's independence, Krishnamacharya's work with the Maharaja ended and he lived out the rest of his life in Chennai close to the Vaishnavite's ancestral home. During these later years his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, and A.G. Mohan were among his students. They practice a style taught by Krishnamacharya that is quite different from the styles originating during the Mysore years, the therapeutic aspect of the practice being emphasized in the yoga of Desikachar.
In addition to a magazine published for a time during the Mysore years, Krishnamacharya published two books, Yoga Makaranda (1935) and Yogasangalu (1941).Yoga Valli, his commentaries on the Yoga Sutras are not yet published. Yoga Rahasya is a work attributed to Krishnamacharya though he asserts that it is the work of his ancestor, the sage Nathamuni, who lived a thousand years earlier and had received the Yoga Rahasya from the divine Vaishnavite Nammazvar. The work was purportedly lost to mankind until Krishnamacharya as a young man received it in a trance from Nathamuni himself. This influential text, though not widely read today, instructed the incorporation of pranayama and asana which is central to the vinyasa krama Krishnamacharya innovated. It also emphasizes healing, yoga practice for pregnancy, and the importance of prescribing practice based on the individual, and it contains the first recorded instruction of the paramount asanas sirsana and sarvangasana.
Krishnamacharya lived to one hundred years of age teaching yoga to a few students in Chennai. He was often chided for performing menial tasks not regularly undertaken by a brahmin, such as chopping wood and washing his own clothes. He would teach his children Sanskrit as he worked in the garden which he loved. During his years with the Maharaja, he refused all gifts of land, horses and jewels, accepting only fruit, vegetables and flowers. Through his constant and humble work as a simple yoga teacher he innovated the practice and was greatly responsible for bringing the modern practice of Hatha yoga to the world.
Desikachar, T. K. V., and Richard H. Cravens. Health, healing and beyond: yoga and the living tradition of T. Krishnamacharya. New York: North Point Press, 20111998. Print.
Mohan, A. G., and Ganesh Mohan.Krishnamacharya: his life and teachings. Boston: Shambhala, 2011. Print.
Ramaswami, Srivatsa, and T. Krishnamacharya. The complete book of vinyasa yoga: an authoritative presentation, based on 30 years of direct study under the legendary yoga teacher Krishnamacharya. New York: Marlowe & Co., 2005. Print.
Singleton, Mark. Yoga body: the origins of modern posture practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print
"Tirumalai Krishnamacharya - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tirumalai_Krishnamacharya