Krishnamacharya is probably the most famous yogi you’ve barely heard of. His students have gone on to be some of the most famous students in the world, developing techniques now recognisable in every yoga studio.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, to give him his full name, was born 1888 and died in 1989 at the impressive age of 101. He was one of the greatest exponents of Hatha Yoga in modern times. His students included B.K.S Iyengar (who also happened to be his brother in law), Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikchar (his son) and Indra Devi.
You probably know the Iyengar style of teaching, and Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga style. (Find out the four key differences between the two here). Indra Devi was one of the first female students of yoga, and went on to be one of the first teachers of celebrities. Desikchar has written several books, including the easily digestible book The Heart of Yoga. These students went on to become gurus, and it is thanks to their teacher that modern day yoga has seen the explosion in popularity and interest that it has.
“You may have never have heard of him, but Tirumalai Krishnamacharya influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga. Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of BKS Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customized vinyasa [of Desikachar], 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.”
~ Fernando Pages Ruiz, Yoga Journal, May/June 2001
He Started Young
The eldest of six children, Krishnamacharya start learning yoga asana and pranayama (as well as becoming a Sanskrit scholar) from the tender age of six. His studies didn’t stop there. Krishnamarcharya went on to travel around India studying the six core Indian philosophies: vaisesika, nyaya, samkhya, yoga, mimamsa and vedanta (known collectively as darśana).
As well as academic studies, Krishnamacharya also made regular pilgrimages to the Himalayas, where he studied the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali under Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari for seven and a half years as well as learning asanas and pranayama, and studying the therapeutic aspects of yoga. Puts that 200 hour teacher training into perspective, right?
On completing his studies, according to his son Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s guru told him to take the path of a householder — that is, to take a wife, have a family and become a teacher of yoga. The good pupil he was, Krishnamacharya did just that, and entered into a relatively normal lifestyle, working to earn enough money to keep the family going, at one point even working in a coffee plantation to make ends meet.
It was whilst giving a talk on the Upanishads in Mysore town hall in 1931 that it became apparent that Krishnamacharya was a learnt scholar, and eventually the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV (1884–1940) invited Krishnamacharya to teach his family yoga at the Mysore Palace. The Maharaja was so impressed with Krishnamacharya’s knowledge of yoga that he regularly sent Krishnamacharya to give talks and demonstrations.
After Indian independence, the royal families lost power, and Krishnamacharya was ultimately forced to leave when the Mysore school closed in 1950. His journey took him to Madras, and it was here then he stayed until he died, after slipping into a coma.
His Legacy Lives On
Been to a Vinyasa Flow class recently? This creative, dynamic and flowing practice of yoga, where we move from posture to posture co-ordinating with the breath, is largely considered to have been one of Krishnamacarya’s innovations, also known as Viniyoga. The Ashtanga Mysore style, developed by Pattabhi Jois, has continued Krishnamacharya’s method of teaching directly to individual.
Yoga is rapidly changing and developing as the explosion in technology and popularity mean that yoga is being practiced more widely — and perhaps more diversely — than ever before. With more styles of yoga and more celebrity yoga teachers available, where yoga is heading is yet to be seen, but we must never forget the humble startings of yoga, namely with the father of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya.