Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings
A month before he left this life in 1989 at the age of 101, yoga master Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya told author A. G. Mohan what is most important in life: “Arogya. Ayus. Atmasakshatkara.” Health, longevity, and a tranquil mind.
In his Yoga Rahasya, Krishnamacharya wrote, “The world is eternally subject to change. We perceive these changes as being favorable or unfavorable, depending on the state of our mind. Thus we experience happiness and unhappiness. The cause of unhappiness is our bondage to the senses and to external objects. This happens through our mind, because of certain samskaras (latent impressions) or avidya (lack of wisdom) present in it. These can be removed through the practice of yoga.”
Krishnamacharya’s own teacher wanted no compensation from his student, only the assurance that he would try to propagate the yoga he had learned. Over many decades, Krishnamacharya demonstrated his wisdom and inspiration by being the living the example of his yoga practice.
But because Krishnamacharya lived simply and desired neither celebrity nor material gains, many modern yoga practitioners know little about him or the wide influence of his teachings on today’s yoga. Mohan, who studied with Krishnamacharya for 18 years, presents these teachings as few others could.
As Krishnamacharya distilled for his students the wisdom from all his studies with his teacher, so does Mohan distill for the reader the wisdom from all his studies with Krishnamacharya. The book includes a brief history of Krishnamacharya’s life, a list of his written works (including an excerpt from one book and a summary of another), and photos of the master at various times in his life, some demonstrating yoga asanas (body positions).
There is a narrative of the author’s close relationship with the master, from their meeting, through Mohan’s early studies to the time he decided to teach yoga, concluding with Krishnamacharya’s last years. The discussion of yoga teachings includes not only asana, but also pranayama (breath control), kriyas (cleansing practices), yoga as therapy, and yoga as the science of the mind: yamas, niyamas (disciplines), and meditation. Throughout the book, person and place names, references to yogic scriptures, and Sanskrit terms are explained when appropriate, so the reader doesn’t have to scramble for a glossary.
Krishnamacharya promoted viniyoga: teaching what is appropriate for an individual. Yoga can be practiced to maintain or increase health and wellness; as a treatment or therapy; and as a discipline for spiritual practice and personal transformation. Each body is different anatomically and otherwise; when teaching or learning yoga, two primary factors should be considered:
• The purpose: why is yoga being studied? Is the goal what the student needs?
• The person: who is studying? What is their capability, age, level of fitness, state of health, profession, time they have for practice, level of acceptance, motivation, beliefs? Are they willing to listen and understand?
To teach yoga effectively, Krishnamacharya said teachers must know:
• how to teach asanas with correct breathing, with or without vinyasa (moving from one position to another in accordance with the inhalation and exhalation of the breath)
• how to use asana in their own practice
• how to teach a group of people
• how to teach individuals (including helping students understand what kind of practice is appropriate for them)
“Propagate yoga wisely.” Krishnamacharya had a valid concern about the profusion of yoga books that have become available. He said, “. . . people change the message, or cover it up, for the sake of monetary gain.” One of Krishnamacharya’s few worldly goals was to propagate the practice of sound and sensible yoga. For example, during the 1950s, he put forward a proposal to the Indian government to introduce yoga in schools. Although he believed that children can be taught yoga from the age when they can eat by themselves, the proposal did not meet with approval. Krishnamacharya continued practicing yoga unfailingly, guiding students with his clarity, conviction, and conduct. Today, efforts continue to be made to bring yoga into educational, healthcare, and corporate settings.
During the 1970s, medical studies began to show that people who experience disability or disease can experience significant improvement in physical health and psychological well-being by practicing yoga. Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe the most important yogic means for removing disease from the body as movement of the body, with appropriate breathing, control in food habits, and giving up an undisciplined lifestyle.
Krishnamacharya knew that yoga practice must be undertaken with discipline in order to have a lasting effect, especially as a treatment. He noted that re-search, “to search once more,” is needed, to once again explore ancient practices and reestablish their value and relevance in modern society. Indeed, the need for research into the effectiveness of yoga as therapy continues today.
Knowing the student is important for teaching the most beneficial yoga practices. For example, many Western automobile drivers experience a persistent forward position in the right leg, which can affect balance and ease even in inverted asanas. Knowing how to use symmetric and asymmetric postures to work the two sides of the body independently or together to create balance, is vital. However, the primary goal of classical yoga is to bring concentration and stillness to the mind. Krishnamacharya states, “A focused mind and a peaceful and positive feeling are vital requirements as well as by-products of an effective asana practice. Mental focus as part of asana practice is an entrée to the meditation that follows the asanas. Without mental focus, asanas are just an exercise for the body and the breath; the mind is disengaged and vagrant. Such an asana practice will not effectively lead to meditation.” One asana practice that will most assuredly effectively develop focus and lead to meditation is dhruvasana, described in the book.
Breathing links the body and mind, leading the body toward wellness and the mind toward calmness. Pranayama involves regulating the breath, keeping the body still, and focusing the mind. Krishnamacharya cited pranayama practice as the reason for his longevity. True to his discipline, his instruction about pranayama practice depends on a person’s age and how much time is spent on asana; as people grow older, both practices change.
Vinyasa is an essential part of Krishnamacharya’s teaching. In an appendix, there is a special treat: a series of photos of Mohan demonstrating each asana in a virabhadrasana (warrior) vinyasa, with proper pranayama indicated.
In his Yoga Makaranda, Krishnamacharya wrote, “The mind-set of looking for profit in all we do is increasing and spiritual motivations are decreasing. . . . In fact, all of our time is wasted until we attain such steadiness of mind [sattva] through yoga. As with education and agriculture, yoga yields great benefit only after some time.Krishnamacharya provides insight into many more yogic teachings. This book keeps yoga alive, and it is highly recommended for people who seek to develop a deeper discipline in their personal practice now, and those who intend to teach yoga without distortion.
It also provides a greater glimpse into the love for a master, and the love of a master.