A brief history of modern yoga

The word "yoga" was first mentioned in the ancient India Rig Veda text around 3,000 B.C.  Most of the 5,000 years since then, yoga was primarily a meditative practice.  The yoga that you and I know really only dates back about 100 years.  Even though there are now countless types of yoga, they all relate back to a Indian man born 125 years ago.

Krishnamacharya was born in 1888 in India, which at that time was a British colony.  Many of the ancient Indian customs were discouraged by the British and there were very few yoga practitioners in India at that time. At the age of 5, his father encouraged him to practice yoga and during his youth he was exposed to a revival of Hindu customs including yoga.  As a young man, Krishnamacharya studied many classical Indian disciplines including Hindu ritual, Sanskrit, Indian law and Ayurveda (Indian medicine).  He could have been employed as a professional in many of these areas, but his true love was yoga.  He journeyed to Himalaya and lived in a cave with his teacher Brahmachar.  After 7 years he was told to return to India to teach yoga.

In the 1920's yoga was not that popular and he had very few students.  He was employed as a foreman at a coffee plantation and lived a life of limited means.  Whenever he had free time he traveled throughout the province giving yoga demonstrations and lectures on yoga.  He demonstrated difficult asana and did seemingly impossible tasks of strength and control.  Traditionally, yoga practitioners were renunciates who lived in the forest and caves without families, but Krishnamacharya’s guru encouraged him to learn about family life so he married. He and his wife were very poor and just barely got by.

In 1931 he received an invitation to teach at the Sanskrit College in Mysore Provence in India. The Maharaja of Mysore supported the ancient Indian traditions including yoga.  For the next two decades, the Maharaja financed yoga demonstrations.  Apparently the Maharaja was diabetic and was drawn to the connection between yoga and good health. Krishnamacharya devoted much of his time to developing this link between yoga and good health.  This is the time when  Krishnamacharya discovered and developed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  The library at Mysore had many ancient texts and many were written on large leaves.  He claimed to have found the instructions for Ashtanga Yoga written on an ancient leaf (The yoga Korunta), however he claimed that ants ate the leaf so their was no proof of Ashtanga Yoga's ancient origin.  His pupils were mainly active teens and young men so he introduced elements of gymnastics and Indian wrestling into a dynamic asana sequence aimed at building physical fitness. This vinyasa style yoga tied the breath to the movement from pose to pose in Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation).

One of his earliest students was a 12 year old boy named Pattabhi Jois.  He stayed with Krishnamacharya for many years and continued to teach the strong Ashtanga yoga Krishnamacharya had taught him without significant modification.  He was a very rigid teacher and sometimes pushed his students to injury.

At the Mysore Palace most of Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois’s students were young men and boys, but his public demonstrations attracted a more diverse mix of people. There were Christian British soldiers, Muslim Indians and Hindu Indians.  He began to modify the asana to a more compatible form for the different people.  Krishnamacharya taught that yoga is compatible with men of all faiths, but it was not even considered for women. Indira Devi was a friend of the Majarha from Latvia and was living at the Palace at the time.  She saw Krishnamacharya doing a yoga demonstration and asked him to accept her as a student. She was told no women and no westerners were allowed, but she persisted and eventually he agreed to instruct her.  He modified his teaching to a less aggressive form that still challenged her physical limitations.  She became the first female yoga teacher in the world.  In 1947 she opened the first yoga studio in this country. Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson were all students in her Hollywood studio. She was known as the "First Lady of yoga".  She died in 2002.

Another early student of Krishnamacharya was a boy named B.K.S. Iyengar.  He was Krishnamacharya’s brother-in- law and was a sickly teenager.  He was only tolerated by Krishnamacharya and received minimal yoga instruction.  The day before an important yoga demonstration, Krishnamacharya’s favorite student disappeared and in a strange twist, Iyengar was asked to fill in and he performed exceptionally. At a yoga demonstration in a northern province, a group of women asked Krishnamacharya for instruction.  Krishnamacharya chose Iyengar, the youngest student with him, to teach the women in a segregated class.  Iyengar impressed the women and Krishnamacharya assigned Iyengar to remain as their instructor.  Since he was away from his teacher, Iyengar had to learn more about asana by exploring poses with his own body and analyzing their effects. Because most of his students were not the healthy young men and boys Krishnamacharya first taught, he abandoned Krishnamacharya vinyasa style and instead used props to help his students find the pose stressing alignment. Since some of his students were sick, Iyengar began to develop asana as a healing practice.  He created specific therapeutic programs. In addition, Iyengar came to see the body as a temple and asana as prayer.

As Krishnamacharya became older he softened his very rigid Ashtanga yoga practice.  He adapted the pose to compensate for a students limitations and then challenged the student to stretch their abilities. He called it Viniyoga.  He felt that it was better to adapt the pose to the student than to expect the student to adapt their body to the pose.  In many modern yoga approaches everything is well organized and you have to fit into a certain structure. Krishnamacharya’s Viniyoga had no rigid organization  and the individual must find his nor her own structure.  That implies that progress on the path of yoga means different things for different people.  Yoga serves the individual by inviting transformation rather than giving information.  The student must find his own unique yoga.  Instead of yoga being thought of as a long arduous path to achieving a final goal, he thought the student should progress step by step and trying to leap many steps at once would create problems.  He taught that a yoga practice had three stages, representing youth, middle and old age.  First develop muscular strength and flexibility; next maintain health during the years of career and raising a family; and finally to go beyond the physical practice to focus on spirit.   His son, Desikachar still teaches Viniyoga in India today.

Although there are many styles of Hatha yoga and the yoga classes look different, they all relate back to Krishnamacharya in some way. Yoga is a living, breathing art form that is constantly changing through each practitioner’s experience.