K is for Krishnamacharya

T. Krishnamacharya, born 1888, died 1989 at age 100.  A wide-ranging thinker and student of yoga, he based his beliefs on extensive study, including seven years with his guru in the Tibetan Himalayas, and on numerous ancient yoga documents, two of which (Yoga Korunta and Yoga Rahasya) were passed orally to him.  He is the father of modern yoga, in that most schools of contemporary yoga flow from Krishnamacharya’s work.

Krishnamacharya put his beliefs & teachings about Hatha Yoga into his book Yoga Makaranda [Nectar of Yoga], Parts I and II, originally published in 1934.  He placed his views in the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and 8-limbed Raja yoga, but he also believed firmly in the great benefits to total health of physical yoga: “Only when we get the gain of a healthy body can we aspire for all other gains.”  

Before describing asanas, Yoga Makaranda summarizes the 8 limbs of Raja yoga and ten chakras, explaining for each of the energy centers its location along the spine, its associated body part, and its mental & spiritual qualities.  Krishnamacharya then describes how to practice yoga and begins the descriptions of physical yoga with kriyas (cleansing methods for energy channels) and mudras (techniques for directing energy flow).  [Please note that anatomical knowledge in the early 1900s in rural India was primitive by today’s standards, but this fact does not invalidate the basic approach of Krishnamacharya or other masters.]

The last half of Part I and all of Part II (about 75% of the total Yoga Makaranda) are devoted to more than 70 asanas; several asanas are included in both Parts.  Krishnamacharya introduced to documented yoga many asanas that today are considered staples, such as Triangle (Trikonasana) and Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).  These and many other contemporary poses, including most standing poses, were not widely known in yoga before Krishnamacharya and represent a significant extension of hatha yoga from the asana style of the ancient texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita.  The new asanas were also propagated by Sivananda and subsequently by students of both these gurus.  The normal hatha yoga repertoire now comprises numerous asanas that are relatively recent additions to the ancient art of yoga.  (See Unique Asanas page.)

For Krishnamacharya the key points on asanas are: principles of each asana, pranayama (breath) integrated with asanas, and vinyasa krama.  Vinyasa krama includes:  sequence of steps within asanas; sequences of asanas around the main asana being discussed; and variations of the base asana.  The number of vinyasas for a pose can vary considerably.  For example, Triangle (Trikonasana) has 5 vinyasas, Boat (Navasana) has 13 vinyasas, and a seated twist called Marichyasana has 22 vinyasas.

Detailed instructions are provided for each asana, but primarily on breathing and sequencing of vinyasas.  There is not much on details of form.  Krishnamacharya recognizes that form is important: “Everybody knows that any action performed incorrectly will not yield the right fruit.”  However, Krishnamacharya’s intent regarding form is to work with a teacher personally on specifics for an individual, almost in a therapeutic sense devoted to an individual’s condition -- therapy becomes part of an individual’s health program.  Krishnamacharya had a great interest in therapeutic yoga, as a natural accompaniment to his emphasis on individuals.  Krishnamacharya did not function much with classes of students -- his work was with individuals -- classes were reserved for introductory matters and simple explanations to groups of people wishing a summary of yoga.

Krishnamacharya left a body of written work, but much of it has not been translated into English. Some of it exists in several versions and/or unverified versions.  Yoga Makaranda, fortunately, exists in fairly pure condition and is available in English.  A later book, Yogasanagulu from 1941, describes more than 120 asanas, but a verifiable English translation is not available.

Krishnamacharya's son T.K.V. Desikachar has carried on and supplemented Krishnamacharya’s work, as has A.G. Mohan.  Krishnamacharya predated widespread use of the Internet, but the website  is a contemporary interpretation of his teachings.  Numerous other websites also address Krishnamacharya’s teachings quite sincerely but with differing degrees of accuracy.

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