I attended a yoga workshop yesterday led by Shiva Rea. Even if you don’t do yoga, you may have seen her videos. She’s definitely a rock star in American yoga! She’s studied yoga in India, and she’s incorporated music and dance into yoga, in effect making it a larger part of American popular culture. She’s learned, excellent, and a lot of fun!
Even before I became a yoga teacher, I was aware that two major styles of yoga, Ashtanga and Iyengar, were developed by men who studied with the same yoga teacher. I was curious about how that came to be. I wanted to know more about T. Krishnamacharya, the teacher of both K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar.
I read The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, by Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings, by A.G. Mohan with Ganesh Mohan, both of which shed light on Krishnamacharya’s life, especially his later years when they were studying with him. (Krishnamacharya was over 100 when he died in 1989.)
I also got The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, by Srivatsa Ramaswami, another one of Krishnamacharya’s late-in-life students. I intend to start practicing vinyasa kramas.
It’s my understanding that Shiva Rea has gone to India and studied yoga with each of these men who studied yoga with Krishnamacharya during his later years, when his teaching and philosophy had matured from life experience. Her yoga is about the fluid body, and she incorporates a lot of Sanskrit (the original language of yoga) concepts into her teachings. I’m grateful to Shiva for this; makes me want to dive deeper.
Here’s a brief summary of Krishnamacharya’s life and his early and late lineages. Even if you’re not interested in yoga, he was an extraordinary person who led an extraordinary life.
Krishnamacharya was interested in yoga from childhood and had an ancestor who had written about yoga. This was when India was a British colony, and some parts of Indian culture, including yoga (asanas) were in danger of being lost.
Krishnamacharya learned asanas from his father and from an early age began “collecting” asanas, which were only practiced in obscure places because the practice of yoga was dying out. He eventually traveled all over India, even into Afghanistan, collecting asanas, and after university (where he studied all the Indian philosophies), he went to Tibet and lived for seven years with a yoga teacher. This teacher, Brahmachari, about whom little is known, taught Krishnmacharya yoga (all eight limbs, not just asana) and how to use it therapeutically, and then told him to return to India, marry, and teach yoga.
Krishnamacharya was primarily responsible for the revival of yoga in India and its subsequent spread around the world.
Krishnamacharya taught yoga to Iyengar and Jois when they were adolescents at his yoga school in Mysore. Krishnamacharya was known for adapting yoga to the student’s needs, so he taught them yoga for young, flexible bodies. These two teachers come from the early Krishnamacharya lineage.
Iyengar, even though he was Krishnamacharya’s nephew, received less instruction than Jois did. He had moved in with his aunt and uncle as a sickly teenager and hung around the yoga classes and did chores. When a star student who was supposed to demonstrate some advanced poses in public failed to show up, Krishnamacharya had Iyengar do the demo. Iyengar did well — doing yoga had improved his health.
Before long, Krishnamacharya sent him out on his own to teach yoga — but not before pushing him into hanumanasana (splits), which Iyengar had never done before, tearing his hamstrings. From this, it seems apparent that in his early years of teaching, Krishnamacharya was quite demanding, tough, and arrogant. (I’ve heard that Iyengar has injured students as well. I’m happy to see yoga teaching evolve completely away from using force.)
Cut off from his teacher, Iyengar continued to teach himself yoga as he was developing his teaching practice. He focusing more on holding poses in alignment, whereas Jois taught what Krishnamacharya had taught him and called it Ashtanga. This is how the fluid Ashtanga and the more static Iyengar styles of yoga came into the world through two students of the same teacher.
When India became independent, the yoga school in Mysore shut down, and Krishnamacharya moved his family to Chennai and taught yoga there. In this later period of his yoga teaching career, while still teaching the vinyasa style of doing asanas, he put more emphasis on using yoga therapeutically and indeed was known more as a healer than as a yoga teacher in Chennai. He no longer taught large classes of students. He preferred to work with students one on one. He taught asanas, various Hindu and Vedic philosophies and texts, and chanting and other devotional practices, but only if students were sincere.
This is where he taught A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami, and his own son, Desikachar. Krishnamacharya had lost some of his arrogance with age. He himself was a very disciplined, serious, competent person. In his early career, he expected his students and family to practice as he did. In his later career, he let them go their own way. He still expected his students to be dedicated and to do a high quality of work.
Sadly, Krishnamacharya did not live to see that millions of people have benefitted from his life’s work. He was a highly devoted spiritual practitioner, and that was the primary focus of his life. Yoga was the vehicle. He was highly educated, acquiring six university degrees, which is probably unmatched, attesting to his brilliance. He studied the yoga philosophy, but unlike his teachers, he went to the Himalayas in search of a practice. He didn’t just practice yoga or teach, he was yoga.