A Lineage of Influential Figures in Yoga
In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at celebrities who practice yoga. While not everyone might agree on what constitutes a celebrity, the names mentioned in these posts were recognizable enough in their respective worlds of music, film, athletics, and politics to cause some kind of recognition or identification. It can be helpful to know that – besides putting our pants on (one leg at a time) just like a celebrity – we have more in common. Imagine knowing that Jennifer Aniston is as grateful for Savasana at the end of class as we are or that like Robert Downey Jr., we find great healing in the practice of yoga.
At the roots of yoga, naturally there are many great and inspiring teachers who have risen to become well known, even famous. But to call them celebrities is a contradiction in terms. Humility is deeply intertwined with the Vedic teachings, and yoga is essentially about forgetting the ego. Still, a great many of these men and women have become known world-wide, and have been grateful to see their teachings practiced by so many followers.
Some are Gone, None are Forgotten
Because yoga is such an ancient practice, naturally many well-known and revered Yogis and Gurus have passed on. To try and attempt a lineage chart in this space would not be feasible, but some notable teachers share common instructors. And one such instructor was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.
Born in 1888, and beginning yoga lessons at five years old, Krishnamacharya was a very devoted student. His first teacher was his father. Krishnamacharya made a pilgrimage while he was quite young to the shrine of one of his ancestors, Nathamuni.
The story goes that his ancestor sang verses to Krishnamacharya for several hours. What he was learning was actually the Yogarahasya – the Essence of Yoga – a piece of work that had been lost for over a thousand years. Krishnamacharya memorized the whole text and later wrote it out. What he learned in this body of work became the foundation of his teachings going forward.
Over the course of many years, Krishnamacharya developed a system of teaching asanas to his students. For a time he taught almost as if he was instructing martial arts, he would use drills and have the students leaping from pose to pose. But he also knew he should modify his instruction dependent on the abilities of the students. One such student was Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (B.K.S.) Iyengar.
Krishnamacharya was not necessarily gentle with Iyengar; initially he didn’t want to teach him at all. Iyengar was not a healthy boy; he had been afflicted typhoid, malaria, and malnutrition. Krishnamacharya wasn’t sure if he should waste his time on Iyengar. But Iyengar’s sister was married to Krishnamacharya, so he took Iyengar in as a student. It’s been said he was Dickensian type teacher to the young man, having Iyengar do numerous household tasks instead of learning yoga.
Iyengar’s friend and Krishnamacharya’s star student, Keshavamurthy, who was supposed to appear in a yoga demonstration only a few days away, left the school abruptly. So hurriedly, Krishnamacharya began to teach Iyengar the asanas for the demonstration. And when the time came for the demonstration, Iyengar did very well! Now Krishnamacharya taught him with more enthusiasm. At one point, several women came to a demonstration by Krishnamacharya, and they asked to be taught by him. So he commanded Iyengar to teach the women, separately of course.
As time went on, Iyengar gained more pupils, and he also practiced the many difficult postures, over and over, so he could develop a deeper understanding of the body’s workings. He also modified the poses according to the abilities and restrictions of the students. Iyengar also introduced props, like blankets and belts, to assist the students, and since a number of them were not always healthy, he developed asanas that were meant to heal.
Enter the Violinist
One meeting in 1952 helped expand Iyengar’s reputation beyond India. At that time the world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin was touring in India, and was introduced to yoga. He wanted to learn more, and Iyengar was one of several yogis invited to meet with the musician. Menuhin was captivated when Iyengar led him in a 50 minute Savasana, and he asked Iyengar to join him in Switzerland to be his personal yoga trainer. Iyengar spent several weeks with the violinist, who eventually brought him to Europe, where Iyengar met other world class musicians, and he taught them as well.
Today, Iyengar is in his mid-90s and still practicing!
The Beginnings of Ashtanga
When he was 12, Yogacharaya Shri K. Pattabhi Jois saw a yoga demonstration taught by Krishnamacharya. He was intrigued, and met with his future guru, asking to become a student. When Krishnamacharya accepted him, Pattabhi Jois, who was also known as Guruji, studied early every morning before school. He did this in secret for two years.
As Krishnamacharya had been teaching the quick moving “drills” to his active young male students, Guruji took this Ashtanga style and further refined it, making it a respected yoga style of its own. While Guruji was teaching at Sanskrit University, he also was teaching yoga. He formed the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in his home in Lakshmipuram, and taught and treated many local residents.
Broadening the Reach
Like his fellow student under gut, Iyengar, Guruji’s future was partially determined by a foreigner. A man from Belgium named Andre van Lysbeth studied under Guruji for a few months. Not too long after, van Lysbeth included a picture of Guruji in his book, Pranayama. This exposure resulted in many Europeans seeking out Guruji, and then Americans.
Eventually Guruji traveled and taught in many locations around Europe, but still maintained his center in India, moving from his building in Lakshmipuram, to a larger space in Gokulam. Several years later, in 2006, Guruji opened a center in the U.S., in Islamorada, FL. When he oversaw the opening ceremony, which was his last trip away from home. He passed away at 93 in 2009. Today there are many schools in the U.S. and elsewhere that are devoted to the Ashtanga style.
These are just three teachers we’ve taken a look at. They all have the commonality of yoga practice that began with Krishnamacharya. But Krishnamacharya was fully aware that there were other styles and philosophies being taught, and he wanted to clear away any confusion. Krishnamacharya wrote about his attempts to create a consortium of yogis:
In 1933 through 1937, some people were talking about different varieties of yoga, like hatha yoga, raja yoga, and kundalini yoga. Some said that the kriyas were the most important, and that that was (true) yoga. I was in the yoga school in Mysore, under the patronage of the king. I wrote letters to well-known yoga teachers like Paramahamsa Yogananda, Kuvalayananda, and Yogindra, saying that we should have a meeting and resolve such confusion. Eventually, however, no meeting took place and nothing came out of the correspondence.
Like any concept worth learning and teaching yoga is bound to have varying styles and philosophies. Even if Krishnamacharya was not successful at unifying these styles, one would hope that overall, whichever lineage or style you prefer, the core beliefs and purposes of all yogas are the same.
Next time we will learn about several more influential Yogis, past and present.