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The History of “The Asana” Physical Yoga”

Updated: Sep 12, 2022



The First Yogi

You may not even know it but Krishnamacharya's legacy has influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga.

You may not be aware that the physical practice of yoga (Hatha Yoga) began only a few hundred years ago! Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois (the father of Astanga Yoga), the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar (Father of Iyengar Yoga), the classical postures of Indra Devi (Father of Vinyasa), or the customized vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch Brahmin, born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village.

He never crossed an ocean, but Krishnamacharya’s yoga has spread through Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Today it’s difficult to find an asana tradition he hasn’t influenced. Even if you learned from a yogi now outside the traditions associated with Krishnamacharya, there’s a good chance your teacher trained in the Iyengar, Ashtanga (as I did), or Viniyoga lineages before developing another style. Many teachers have borrowed from several Krishnamacharya-based styles, creating unique approaches. Most teachers, even from styles not directly linked to Krishnamacharya—Sivananda Yoga, for example—have been influenced by some aspect of Krishnamacharya’s teachings.

Many of his contributions have been so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of yoga that their source has been forgotten. It’s been said that he’s responsible for the modern emphasis on Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. By combining pranayama and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it (following the steps of The Astanga Eight Limbs).

In fact, Krishnamacharya’s influence can be seen most clearly in the emphasis on the asana practice that’s become the signature of yoga today. Probably no yogi before him developed the physical practices so deliberately. In the process, he transformed hatha—once an obscure backwater of yoga—into its central current. Yoga’s resurgence in India owes a great deal to his countless lecture tours and demonstrations during the 1930s, and his four most famous disciples—Jois, Iyengar, Devi, and Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar—played a huge role in popularizing yoga in the West.

Recovering Yoga’s Roots

Tracing the story of someone who died barely a decade ago was not an easy job. I discovered that Krishnamacharya remains a mystery, even to his family. He never wrote a full memoir or took credit for his many innovations. His life lies shrouded in myth. Those who knew him well have grown old. If we lose their recollections, we risk losing more than the story of one of yoga’s most remarkable teachers; we risk losing a clear understanding of the history of the vibrant tradition we’ve inherited.

It’s intriguing to consider how the evolution of this multifaceted man’s personality still influences the yoga we practice today. Krishnamacharya began his teaching career by perfecting a strict, idealized version of hatha yoga. Then, as the currents of history impelled him to adapt, he became one of yoga’s great reformers. Some of his students remember him as an exacting, volatile teacher; B.K.S. Iyengar said that Krishnamacharya could have been a saint, were he not so ill-tempered and self-centered. Others recall a gentle mentor who cherished their individuality. Desikachar, for example, describes his father as a kind person who often placed his late guru’s sandals on top of his own head in an act of humility.

Both of these men remain fiercely loyal to their guru, but they knew Krishnamacharya at different stages of his life; it’s as if they recall two different people. Seemingly opposite characteristics can still be seen in the contrasting tones of the traditions he inspired—some gentle, some strict, each appealing to different personalities and lending depth and variety to our still-evolving practice of hatha yoga.

Developing Astanga Vinyasa

Krishnamacharya’s fortunes improved in 1931 when he received an invitation to teach at the Sanskrit College in Mysore. There he received a good salary and the chance to devote himself to teaching yoga full time. The ruling family of Mysore had long championed all manner of indigenous arts, supporting the reinvigoration of Indian culture. They had already patronized hatha yoga for more than a century, and their library housed one of the oldest illustrated asana compilations now known, the Sritattvanidhi.

For the next two decades, the Maharaja of Mysore helped Krishnamacharya promote yoga throughout India, financing demonstrations and publications. A diabetic, the Maharaja felt especially drawn to the connection between yoga and healing, and Krishnamacharya devoted much of his time to developing this link. But Krishnamacharya’s post at the Sanskrit College didn’t last. He was far too strict a disciplinarian, his students complained. Since the Maharaja liked Krishnamacharya and didn’t want to lose his friendship and counsel, he proposed a solution; he offered Krishnamacharya the palace’s gymnastics hall as his own yoga shala or yoga school.

This began one of Krishnamacharya’s most fertile periods, during which he developed what is now known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. As Krishnamacharya’s pupils were primarily active young boys, he drew on many disciplines—including yoga, gymnastics, and Indian wrestling—to develop dynamically-performed asana sequences aimed at building physical fitness. This vinyasa style uses the movements of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) to lead into each asana and then out again. Each movement is coordinated with prescribed breathing and Drishti, “gaze points” that focus the eyes and instill meditative concentration. Eventually, Krishnamacharya standardized the pose sequences into three series consisting of primary, intermediate, and advanced asanas. Students were grouped in order of experience and ability, memorizing and mastering each sequence before advancing to the next.

Though Krishnamacharya developed this manner of performing yoga during the 1930s, it remained virtually unknown in the West for almost 40 years. Recently, it’s become one of the most popular styles of yoga, mostly due to the work of one of Krishnamacharya’s most faithful and famous students, K. Pattabhi Jois.

Pattabhi Jois met Krishnamacharya in the hard times before the Mysore years. As a robust boy of 12, Jois attended one of Krishnamacharya’s lectures. Intrigued by the asana demonstration, Jois asked Krishnamacharya to teach him yoga. Lessons started the next day, hours before the school bell rang, and continued every morning for three years until Jois left home to attend the Sanskrit College. When Krishnamacharya received his teaching appointment at the college less than two years later, an overjoyed Pattabhi Jois resumed his yoga lessons.

Jois retained a wealth of detail from his years of study with Krishnamacharya. For decades, he has preserved that work with great devotion, refining and inflecting the asana sequences without significant modification, much as a classical violinist might nuance the phrasing of a Mozart concerto without ever changing a note. Jois has often said that the concept of vinyasa came from an ancient text called the Yoga Kuruntha. Unfortunately, the text has disappeared; no one now living has seen it. So many stories exist of its discovery and content—I’ve heard at least five conflicting accounts—that some question its authenticity. When Jois was asked if he’d ever read the text, he answered, “No, only Krishnamacharya.” Jois would then downplay the importance of this scripture, indicating several other texts that also shaped the yoga he learned from Krishnamacharya, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Whatever the roots of Ashtanga Vinyasa, today it’s one of the most influential components of Krishnamacharya’s legacy. Over the last three decades, a steadily increasing number of yogis have been drawn to its precision and intensity. Many of them have made the pilgrimage to Mysore, where Jois, himself, offered instruction until his death in May, 2009.

No matter what yoga you practice, we must all pay homage to this great yogi and teacher for his life and dedication to Yoga.

Hari Om Tat Sat

Source: Krishnamacharya: His life and Teachings A.G. Mohan with Ganesh Mohan

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Thank you Berta, very interesting. I appreciate the amount of work it must have taken to put this together. Would like to learn more about Indra Devi since we don't hear much about female Yogis.

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