What style of yoga do you practice? More than likely, your modern asana practice can be traced back to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Guru to the most influential teachers of modern yoga, he combined yoga and Ayurveda to create a holistic prescription for living well.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar Yoga, and Vinyasa Yoga, then diving into the life and teaching of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is an excellent place to start. In this article, we’ll look at:
- His life. From boy to teacher.
- His teachings. From philosophy to asana.
- His students. From Ashrams to Hollywood.
- His writing. From scholar to the author of yoga manuals.
Who Was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya?
Considered the “father of modern yoga,” he was part of the movement that renewed interest in hatha yoga, and he pioneered the breath-movement style known as vinyasa. His style was rooted in finding the right yoga prescription for the individual with a mind-body approach.
He was not only a yoga teacher but also a scholar and ayurvedic healer. Unlike in the West, in India, he was primarily known as an Ayurvedic doctor and healer. He was acknowledged for this, more so than for his contribution to the development of modern postural yoga.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s Early Life
Born in Muchukundapura, Krishnamacharya (1888- 1989) was the eldest of six children. He was taken through the “Hindu educational sacrament” upanayana at six and soon began learning Sanskrit. His spiritual path was supported by his father, who instilled in him the teaching of the Vedas, which sparked a life of yoga and education.
He moved to Mysore, Karnataka, after his father’s death at ten. As a young man, he was a devoted student and spent his time traveling and studying before attending the University Banaras, where he specialized in Sanskrit and logic. He later devoted his studies to the shaddarshana (six darshanas or Indian philosophy) at Patna University and subsequently gained a scholarship to learn Ayurveda.
It is said that Krishnamacharya spent seven years in Tibet studying with Brahmachari (a hatha yoga master), learning all aspects of yoga. He returned to India, and on the instruction of his teacher, he got married and set out on a journey to teach householders rather than renunciates.
On his return to India, his new profession of teaching yoga proved financially unviable, leaving him in poverty. He was forced to work at a coffee plantation and recounted that this was a tough time in his life. Krishnamacharya received a break when asked to teach at the Mysore Palace, where he became somewhat of an advisor to The Maharaja.
The Maharaja was a fan of Krishnamacharya, having received his teachings, and was keen for him to spread the word of yoga.
Subsequently, he performed seemingly impossible things to generate interest in yoga, including performing challenging asana, stopping his pulse, using just his teeth to lift heavy objects, and pushing cars. His lectures and performances of siddhis undoubtedly contributed to the revival of hatha yoga at the time.
He became a teacher at Mysore’s Sanskrit College in 1931 and opened a school (funded by The Maharaja) in the gymnastics hall of The Mysore Palace, which would become the Yoga Shala opened in 1933. At this time, he taught the students that would go on to build on his legacy and take yoga beyond the boundaries of India and into the West.
The Yoga Shala was closed in 1950 when funding ceased due to the Independence movement and the implementation of the new government who were not interested in yoga.)
Faced with financial hardship and uncertainty yet again, he eventually found work at the Vivekananda College in Chennai. It was here that his student base, approach, and style changed.
Previously he had taught limber young boys capable of the gymnastic type demands of his vinyasa style. Now, he was faced with fewer mobile students, some with significant disabilities.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s Philosophical influences
Krishnamacharya was influenced by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Yoga Yajnavalkya. Like many gurus of the time, he accepted his students’ existing faiths and religions and was not dogmatic in his teachings despite his devotion to Vaishnavism.
Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Style
It’s important to note that much of the influence on yoga at this time was informed by gymnastics, bodybuilding, and wrestling fuelled by holistic nationalism.
During his time with The Maharaja, Krishnamacharya developed his vinyasa style, which included the dynamic Suya Namaskar and a systematic set of longer-held poses and inversions. Through Pattabhi Jois’ development this became ashtanga vinyasa.
In his later life, while at the Vivekananda College, Krishnamacharya began to hone his style, where he became motivated by prioritizing personal goals for students.
His approach, known as Vinyasa Krama Yoga, an individualized method aimed at health and healing, developed into what his son Desikachar would continue – Viniyoga.
His accessible method went beyond what we now consider vinyasa prioritizing individualized poses and breath. He pioneered sequencing and the therapeutic application of postures and integrated meditation into asana and pranayama.
His knowledge and ability as an ayurvedic physician influenced his vision of yoga. His approach was a holistic mind-body approach that today seems normal, but it would not have been. He would prescribe diets, herbs, postures, pranayamas, and meditation to heal the spiritual and the physical.
Krishnamacharya is associated predominantly with being a yoga teacher and ayurvedic healer, but he was a gifted scholar earning degrees in philosophy, divinity, philology, music, and logic. He was also well-versed in Hindu ritualistic practices and the six darshanas.
All roads lead to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Your yoga teacher has most likely been influenced by Krishnamacharya. The magnitude of his teaching is primarily due to his students who became successful teachers in their own right, and most importantly, they were all unique in their approach.
Krishnamacharya did not create carbon copies of himself – you’ll find vast differences in the styles between Desikachar, Iyengar, and Jois. Let’s take a look at his students in more depth.
Indra Devi (1899–2002)
Considered the “first lady of yoga,” Devi was not only the first western woman to enter Krishnamacharya’s tutorage but also the first woman.
She taught in China, India, Mexico, Russia, South America, and the United States. She introduced Hollywood to yoga and became famous for teaching stars such as Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo.
She packaged Krishnamacharya’s teachings for a western mainstream audience.
K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009)
He studied with Krishnamacharya for 25 years. Inspired by his teacher’s Vinyasa method, he built what became known as Ashtanga Vinyasa and its six series that continue to be widely practiced globally today.
Having taught some of today’s most influential teachers, it is essential to note that many of his students exposed Jois as a sexual abuser.
B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014)
Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law, Iyengar, was known by his students as a fierce teacher with a cheeky sense of humor.
B.K.S. Iyengar created an alignment-based system of yoga inspired by the teachings of Krishnamacharya. While he did not spend as much time studying with Krishnamacharya as some of his other students, he was a devoted practitioner who started his yoga journey with illness, overcoming his adversities with yoga.
Along with Ashtanga vinyasa, Iyengar yoga remains one of the principal informants of many modern yoga class styles.
T. K. V. Desikachar (1938-2016)
Krishnamacharya’s son was not interested in yoga as a child, but Desikachar devoted his life to yoga and the development of his father’s stamp on yoga. Krishnamacharya’s Vinyasa Krama Yoga blossomed into Viniyoga through Desikachar. Unlike some of Krishnamacharya’s other students, Desikachar was interested in teaching the individual over the pose.
Srivatsa Ramaswami (born 1939)
A lesser known student of Krishnamacharya’s but his longest standing one apart from Desikachar, he spent 33 years with Krishnamacharya and is the only remaining living student (2022). Like Desikachar, his teachings are rooted in serving the individual through a holistic mind-body approach.
Although Tirumalai Krishnamacharya did not write an autobiography he did write four books on yoga:
Unlike many other influential teachers of the time, Krishnamacharya did not leave India to disseminate the teachings of yoga. There was a great deal of uncertainty and myth in his life, and he was known for his temper and unkind manner toward his students, which softened towards the end of his life.
The teachings of Krishnamacharya were far-reaching, but his students catapulted his offerings into the global sphere.
What is so characteristic of his teachings is that each of his students was so individual in the approach that they carried forward, proving that as we continue to see today, yoga is a thriving, adapting, and fluid tradition that is influenced not just by its teacher but by culture.
“When the truth is known ignorance cannot be, when the mind is pure there is no disease, when the breath is mastered there is no death, therefore, surrender to Yoga.” – Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Want to know more?
Why not look at Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s student B.K.S Iyengar to learn more about the legacy he left behind?