Over the past 500 years men and women have translated empirical, spiritual understanding into scientific truth. This is the defining difference between our modern world, the age of science, and those who lived before us. We clamor to understand ‘what’ by pursuing ‘how’ in our search for ‘why’.
Krishnamacharya is yoga’s lynchpin character, the man who interpreted yoga’s ancient traditions in a modern light. As such, his story spans from fabled beginnings to evidence-based conclusions. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s conversion story, a near-starvation visit by three gurus who impart the essence of ancient yoga to him in a forest, is not so different in form from the battleground meeting between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita or Patanjali’s birth from a snake. Yet by the time Krishnamacharya finished his life of teaching, and inspired every form of asana yoga in current vogue, his renown as a healer had the sheen of scientific validity.
When Krishnamacharya was born, in 1888, Britain ruled India and dampened Hindi traditions, such as yoga. Krishnamacharya’s study, mastery, and spreading of yoga paralleled the rise in Indian consciousness that eventually led to its independence. Krishnamacharya struggled in his early attempts to make a living as a teacher, until he adopted ‘miracle’ showmanship tactics reminiscent of Harry Houdini’s feats in the West. Having captured people attention (something ancient yogi’s never bothered to do) Krishnamacharya settled into the serious work of teaching. He was known to be brash and hyper-disciplined, but could afford to be so during the 1920’s and 30’s when he was fully supported by the royal family in Mysore. He developed what is now known as Ashtanga yoga, which emphasized asanas and introduced specific posture series. His most famous pupils from this time – Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and B.K.S. Iyengar – were all taught by a severe master.
Ironically, Indian independence in 1947 made Krishnamacharya’s life more challenging. Without a royal family to support him, he was forced to soften his approach in order to win students. Whether it was due to his compromised circumstances, or whether it is natural for a man of sixty to grow more gentle, Krishnamacharya’s teaching evolved to be more accommodating of physical variety, and encourage greater integration between physical and spiritual practice. For example, he would vary his instruction on how to perform Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend): knees straight to stretch the hamstrings for one student, knees bent with more focus on the back for a stiffer student.
Krishnamacharya’s evolution as a teacher correlates with how he described the three components of yoga practice throughout a person’s life. The first phase is youth, in which we develop muscular power and flexibility. Yoga maintains that through the middle years of working and raising a family. In our old age, we transcend the physical practice to focus on god.
Today, Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, continues his father’s teachings at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. But his influence is in every asana each of us performs every day.