Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is known as one of the most influential yoga masters of the 20th century, and is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Yoga.” In his long life — 100 years(!), which is another testament to the wonders of yoga for health — Krishnamacharya spread the wisdom of yoga to the West. He believed that the practice could be used to prevent and treat disease; and that yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation practices should be taught based on “what is appropriate for an individual.” This approach emphasizes the therapeutic nature of yoga as a healing modality to cultivate more balance in mind, body and soul. Krishnamacharya was also the first to consciously weave together breath with movement during the yoga practice and, therefore, can be seen as an early creator of the vinyasa style.
(For more background on vinyasa, try The Power of Vinyasa.)
While he is mostly known for his important contributions as a yoga teacher and as the guru of modern yogi legends such as B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya was also an Ayurvedic healer and scholar. As a modern yogi today, he is an essential figure in our lineage to know, honor and celebrate.
When Krishnamacharya was born in 1888 in Mysore, India, the ancient shamanic practice of yoga had been suppressed by British colonial rule, and was practiced by only a select few. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, during the time of Krishnamacharya’s childhood, a Hindu revivalist movement began to bring the classical wisdom and practices of India's heritage back into the public eye.
This revival movement was the perfect platform for a young and curious Krishnamacharya to begin his studies and eventually share his wisdom with the world. As a young man, Krishnamacharya had a thirst for knowledge and learning, and immersed himself in the studies of the Sanskrit language, Vedic darshanas (philosophies), disciplines of logic and law, as well as sacred Indian rituals and Ayurvedic medicine. Over the course of his life, Krishnamacharya wove these threads of his passions together into his philosophy on yoga, which he believed to be India’s most precious gift to the world.
Krishnamacharya’s teachings are revolutionary in that he was one of the first to teach yoga as simultaneously a spiritual practice and modality of physical healing. From a young age, Krishnamacharya studied "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" as well as the "Yoga Yajnavalkya," and much of his teachings are based on the wisdom of these texts.
(More on the Sutras in The Foundation of The Yoga Sutras.)
Over the course of his life, Krishnamacharya himself authored four books on the subject of yoga. He began by primarily instructing boys and men at the Mysore palace, and eventually began spreading his teachings across India through public demonstrations of yoga. These revolutionary and often wild-looking demonstrations attracted people of all walks of life.
Through his work, Krishnamacharya emphasized that yoga is a healing modality that can benefit everyone, regardless of age, class or religious background. At this time, however, yoga remained mostly patriarchal and exclusive of women, and Krishnamacharya was no exception to the rule (until later on in his career).
In terms of his religious beliefs, even though he was a devotee of Vaishnavism (one of the major traditions within Hinduism that worships Vishnu as the supreme god), Krishnamacharya respected and allowed his students to have their own religious, or non-religious beliefs. A former student remembers that once during a meditation, Krishnamacharya asked all of the students to close their eyes and “think of God. If not God, the sun. If not the sun, your parents.” This moment shows the way that as a teacher, Krishnamacharya valued each student’s unique self and spirit, and that they should be guided in such a way. After all, yoga is a practice of self-discovery, self-knowing and self-healing; and it is important that each yogi find the practice, the imagery, the devotion that moves them.
Ayurveda and His Holisitic Philosophy
This emphasis on finding holistic balance on a person-to-person basis was also supported by Krishnamacharya’s background in the wisdom tradition of Ayurvedic science and medicine. Yoga and Ayurveda work beautifully together to support well-being, balancing doshas, or one’s elemental constitution, through movement (asana), conscious breathing (pranayama), and meditation, as well as lifestyle practices.
(More on balancing the doshas in The 3 Doshas of Ayurveda.)
As an Ayurvedic healer, Krishnamacharya held a wealth of knowledge about proper nutrition, medicinal herbs, oils and other holistic remedies for each constitution. He also believed that each asana and each pranayama practice has therapeutic properties, and would create personalized programs including all of those elements for people, just as a yoga therapist or Ayurvedic practitioner does today.
Krishnamacharya's Worldwide Influence
It is hard to believe that during Krishnamacharya’s long life he never left his home country of India. However, threads of his teachings have spread far and wide across the globe, influencing many different popular styles of yoga practiced today.
Have you ever taken an alignment-focused class or done a Restorative yoga practice? Chances are the instructor comes from the lineage of B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the most famous students of Krishnamacharya, who encouraged him as a young man in 1934 to begin his study of yoga. Though Iyengar learned asana from Krishnamacharya, he didn’t want to pursue teaching the more vigorous vinyasa style of his teacher, and instead favored a slower, more inward and scientific alignment-based practice. People who were sick or injured came to Iyengar for this reason. He researched the affects of each asana on the body, and came up with props and modifications to make postures more accessible for everyone. In this way, he continued to honor Krishnamacharya’s deep belief that yoga is a therapeutic healing modality.
(More on this yoga teacher in Who Was B.K.S. Iyengar?)
The intense and vigorous practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa, created by Pattabhi Jois, also descends from Krishnamacharya’s Vinyasa: the fluid combination of breath and movement. Ashtanga classes can be found in studios all around the world today, for those who enjoy and benefit from a more fiery practice. For many Westerners who are accustomed to a high energy, dynamic, fast-paced way of life, classes in the cardio-centered styles of Ashtanga or Vinyasa can often be the gateway into yoga as a spiritual practice.
Another influential yoga master from Krishnamacharya’s lineage (both literally and figuratively) is his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, the creator of Viniyoga. Desikachar grew up immersed in the world of yoga. Because of that, for many years he wanted nothing to do with it (as is customary with teenagers), and wanted to pursue engineering instead. Eventually, though, his life path shifted and he decided to begin the study of yoga with his father.
Desikachar respected his father’s therapeutic and individualized approach to the yoga practice, and drew from his teachings to develop his own method, which he called Viniyoga. Similar to Krishnamacharya’s work, this practice also emphasizes the slow and conscientious application of asana, pranayama, meditation and yoga philosophy to meet each student’s desires and needs: physical, mental and emotional.
Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram center in Madras, India in 1976. This space became a place of practice, study and research of the positive affects of yoga on a wide range of mental and physical conditions, such as depression, diabetes and asthma. Because of the way he intentionally researched and applied yoga in a holistic way to help improve people’s lives, T.K.V. Desikachar is known as a pioneer in the field of yoga therapy.
Krishnamacharya's Lasting Legacy
As we look at Krishnamacharya’s long and full life, we can see the profound ways that his legacy has touched the life of nearly every modern yogi. The essence of his teachings lives on today in sacred places of practice all around the globe. Thanks to this wise yoga master, yoga has truly become a therapeutic healing practice, for every body.
(Continue reading about another influential yogi in Peace and Unity: Paramahansa Yogananda's Wishes for the World.)