The Legacy and Influence of T. Krishnamacharya on Modern Yoga

Mysore Maharaja Palace

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Though his name is perhaps less well-known than his most famous students' including K. Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar, it's not an overstatement to call T. Krishnamacharya the father of modern yoga. His development of a unique approach to hatha yoga, together with his tireless promotion and exceptional acolytes, led directly to yoga's increased availability to western students.

Who Was T. Krishnamacharya?

Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) was an Indian yogi and scholar. He claimed to have received his training in hatha yoga during seven years spent with his guru, Ramamohana Brahmacharya, who lived in a cave in a remote region of the Himalayas. Krishnamacharya also spent many years studying, and then teaching Sanskrit, Vedic rituals, and philosophy.

His approach to yoga is the first known to have incorporated movement through a series of poses coordinated with breathing, a style that is now known as vinyasa yoga.

In his book Yoga Body, Mark Singleton convincingly argues that the development of this flowing yoga was also heavily influenced by the physical culture movement of the 19th century and the gymnastic exercises practiced by members of the British colonial military. In 1934, Krishnamacharya published Yoga Makaranda, a book covering the yoga methods and asanas he taught, many of which are familiar to yoga practitioners today.

Krishnamacharya's Legacy as the Father of Modern Yoga

From 1926 to 1946, Krishnamacharya ran a yoga school (mostly for young boys) at the palace of the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar in Mysore, India. During that time, Krishnamacharya had three prominent students who would go on to play pivotal roles in popularizing yoga in the west.

K. Pattabhi Jois was a devoted, long-time student whose vigorous Ashtanga style of asana was closely based on Krishnamacharya's teachings. Modern Ashtanga is the best window we have into Krishnamacharya's yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar, whose sister was Krishnamacharya's wife, received his first yoga instruction from his brother-in-law before branching off to develop his own alignment-based style. Indra Devi, who became the yoga teacher to the Hollywood starlets in the 1940s and 50s, was Krishnamacharya's first female student.

After his yoga school closed, Krishnamacharya taught privately from his home in Chennai. His method of tailoring a yoga practice to an individual's needs and abilities influenced his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, who would eventually turn this method into Viniyoga.

Videos of Krishnamacharya practicing yoga can be found on YouTube and provide a fascinating look at how yoga has developed over the past 70 years. Especially interesting are the films of Krishnamacharya doing vinyasa yoga with Iyengar, who later became known for quite a different style of practice. Nonetheless, Krishnamacharya's crucial role as the guru to the founders of three very influential contemporary yoga styles is undeniable.

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  • Donahaye, Guy and Eddie Stern. Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students. North Point Press, New York, New York, 2010.
  • Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Life. Rodale, 2005.
  • Mohan, A.G. and Ganesh Mohan. Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings. Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010.
  • Syman, Stefanie. The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga In America. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, New York, 2010.

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.