Jun 14, 2020
My Studies with Sri Krishnamacharya
by Srivatsa Ramaswami
Date of Ramaswami's Writing: Spring 2007
My personal comments in RED -- TheLoneRider.
I'm a big devotee of T. Krishnamacharya. I can't get enough of him, even though his writings are often cryptic, elliptical (than direct), too big for life, and sometimes vague. Once in a while, I get a glimpse of him through the lenses of some of his students. This one is a treat from Srivatsa Ramaswami.
Picture taken by Dr. Radhakrishnan
Whenever, TK taught me, prayer came first. Classes started with a meditative prayer (dhyana sloka) to Lord Visnu for the success of the session, followed by prayers to Lord Hayagriva, the repository of all Vedic knowledge, and to Lord Krsna. Next would be a prayer appropriate to the topic at hand—to Patanjali if it was a yoga program, to Badarayana for a program on Brahma Sutras, to Kapila for a Samkhya class, or the appropriate peace chant (santi patha) for upanisadic vidyas and Vedic chanting programs. There would always be a Purva-santi (beginning peace invocation), and following tradition, class would always end with a peace chant called Uttara-santi, normally the surrender sloka to Lord Narayana found in Visnu-sahasranama, and the forgiveness or ksamapana-stotra, if it was Vedic chanting class.
The way my guru maintained anjali-mudra while saying the prayer was a point of study. He said that in this mudra the palms should be slightly cupped while keeping the hands together. There should be a hollow between the palms sufficient to hold an imaginary lotus or your heart in a gesture of loving offering to the dhyeya, the object of your meditation. The arms should be close to the body but not touching the body, and the folded hands, inclined by about thirty degrees, should be held in front of the heart or the sternum. With a straight back and head slightly bowed. Sri Krishnamacharya would be a dignified picture of peace and devotion.
33 Years into the Fold
In this article I would like to focus on what I studied with my guru, Sri Krishnamacharya, rather than writing a historical account of him. Enough articles and books have been written about his greatness; I think it is important to know what he taught. It is clear that he taught different subjects to different people differently at different times. Here is an account of what I learned from him. I studied with Pandit Krishnamacharya (as he was known in Madras at that time) from 1955 to 1988. Of course there were a few breaks, many times brief, sometimes longer, but on the whole my study with him was nearly continuous for that entire time. After every break I would go back to him and, without hesitation, he would give me time to continue with the studies. Normally, I had two to three sessions per week, but there were occasions when I had the privilege of going to him twice a day — for asana practice in the morning and for chanting or the study of texts in the evening. I never got bored. Every class was unique; there was always something interesting, something profound. My studies with Krishnamacharya can be broadly classified into three groups. There was a longish study of Hatha Yoga, following his now famous Vinyasa Krama, including individual and specific therapeutic applications. I learned several hundred vinyasas built around very important classic poses. There were preparatory vinyasas, then movements within the asana itself, and pratikriyas or counter poses. My first few years of study were focused on general asana practice.
I studied in a small group made up of the members of my family gathered in a large room in our house. Sri Krishnamacharya came to our house in the morning almost daily to teach. He taught different asanas to different members of our family, depending upon the age and condition of each individual. There was my eight-year-old kid sister, energetic and supple. I was about sixteen. My brother was around twenty and, at that time, in need of particular attention. Sri Krishnamacharya gave him special assistance. Then there were my thirty-five-year-old mother and my forty-five-year-old father to complete the group. While there were some asanas and movements that all of us practiced, there were many that were different — particular and appropriate to each individual. Sri Krishnamacharya had great skills of observation. He had a booming voice and a certain firmness and authority in his instructions. It was always fascinating to see him teach so many people differently at the same time, a feat in itself.
Breath with Movement
My father had my upanayanam, a ceremony for initiation into Vedic studies, performed when I was ten. At that age, I learned some asanas at school, well-known postures such as sarvangasana, padmasana, matsyasana, and a few others. But on the very first day of my study with Sri Krishnamacharya, I learned a yoga practice so different from what I had been had been taught and how I had seen others in India do yoga. He asked us to stand in tadasana — standing with both feet together. After some wait in the pose, he asked us to keep our heads down and slowly raise our arms, inhaling slowly with a "rubbing sensation" in the throat. He said, "Inhaaaaaaaaaaaaale, raise your arms slowly overhead; interlock your fingers and turn them outward." To this day, that is how I start my asana practice and how I teach a class. It was the first time I had ever heard someone instructing to move the limbs with the breath. He said, "Exhaaaaaaaaale, lower the arms with a hissing sound in the throat. The hands should touch the sides as you complete your exhalation." It was so new and exciting. The seeds of Vinyasa Krama were sown in me on that day with that movement. Learning the various vinyasas was a lot of fun. Because I had done asana practice when I was even younger, the learning was smooth. Integrating the breath with movements and keeping the mind closely following the breath made a profound impact on the practice. If yoga meant union, then the union of mind and body was easily achieved by using the breath as the harness to unite them. In addition, this initial training got one comfortable with the breath in preparation for more involved pranayama and sowed the seeds of dharana, or meditation, with the breath spot (prana-sthana) as the focus of attention.
Srinivasan on Sirsasana
In the summer of 1958 or so, I went with my parents to Sri Krishnamacha's house in Gopalapuram. My guru's family had just moved to Madras from Mysore. We met his gracious wife, his eldest son, Srinivasan, his younger son Sribhashyam, and the last daughter, Shobha. His second son, Sri Desikachar, had come for summer holidays from Mysore, where he was doing undergraduate study in engineering. His father introduced me to him. My father developed a particular liking for Srinivasan. One day, in his father's presence and at his request, Srinivasan showed us sirsasana. He stood in the pose for well over fifteen minutes, absolutely motionless, with exceptionally slow breathing. It was perhaps two breaths per minute for the entire duration, instead of the normal fifteen to sixteen breaths per minute. My father used to like talking to Srinivasan; one day, after conversing with him, my father mentioned that he was a worthy son of the great yogi Sri Krishnamacharya.
Staying in Madras
I completed my undergraduate work in electrical engineering in 1960. By then I had been Sri Krishnamacharya's student for about five years. I had learned many of the important poses such as sarvangasana, padmasana, vajrasana, and dhanurasana plus several pranayama methods. But it was time to take a job. As an electrical engineer, I got offers to work as a trainee in a government-owned, lignite-based electric-generation company about 150 miles from Madras or in a hydroelectric plant in the hilly regions of Nilgiris, about 350 miles from where I lived. One day as my teacher was leaving for home after teaching classes in our house, I told him that I was leaving Madras to take a job. He immediately turned to my father and asked if he would find a job for me in Madras itself. He indicated that his son Desikachar had also graduated in engineering and would probably find a job in Madras. My father, who was a founding partner in a leading stock brokerage firm, talked to some of his friends and arranged a few interviews for me. I took a job in a motorcycle company. But for my guru's timely intervention, I would have missed a lifetime opportunity of studying with a great soul.
Desikachar as Teacher
Sri Desikachar's arrival in Madras brought about a few momentous changes. He soon started teaching, still working as an engineer in his outside job. One day, in a dramatic development, Sri Krishnamacharya told my father and me that he was stopping teaching (he was in his mid-seventies at that time) and that we could study with his sons. I was sent to Desikachar and my father became Sribhashyam's student. It was a different experience studying with Desikachar, who was more or less my own age. It soon became apparent that he was going to become an extraordinary teacher. Even as he stuck to the basics of Krishnamacharya' teaching — the vinyasas, the breathing, the counter poses, and rest pauses — he was more accessible and communicative. It was a great experience studying asanas with him. Soon he added several asanas and vinyasas and pranayamas to my practice.
Learning Vedic Chanting
After a while, another dramatic change took place. Desikachar asked me if I was interested in learning Vedic chanting from his father, as he was going to start studying with him. Before meeting Sri Krishnamacharya, I had studied Sanskrit and Vedic chanting for almost four years with a Vedic scholar in my house. With this scholar I used to learn chanting with my father almost every morning before dawn. We learned to chant the entire Surya-namaskara, taking about an hour, and the Rudram Camakam, the Vedic prayer to Siva. And there were the Surya-namaskara, Taittiriya Upanisad, and Mahanarayana Upanisad. Yes, I was interested in chanting with my guru, but I was surprised. How could a yoga teacher teach Vedic chanting? I had always found that Hatha Yoga teachers had no background at all in chanting or old texts, but had expertise only in the physical aspects of yoga. Anyway, I said that I was interested, and the next day Desikachar told me I could join him on an auspicious day chosen by his father.
Chanting and Yoga with Krishnamacharya
Desikachar also said that henceforth I would study both chanting and yoga with his father, as Sri Krishnamacharya said that he did not want me to have two teachers. He himself would teach me both asanas and Vedic chanting. Desikachar and I learned chanting together for several years, but my asana classes with my guru were one-on-one.
The chanting experience with my guru was extraordinary, even though previously I had had considerable chanting practice. The clarity and depth he brought to his chanting were unique. We learned chanting the traditional way. He would teach one phrase that was then repeated twice by the student. Then on to the next phrase, and so on. This process would go on for an hour or so. Any correction required by way of pronunciation or svaras (notes) would be given right away. The same material was repeated for several days, maybe fifteen to twenty times. Then the teacher and the student would chant the entire portion several times. The next portion was then taken up for study. It normally took about one hundred hours of learning and practicing to complete one hour of chanting. If the student then wanted to memorize the portion, he would chant it another hundred times; this is how chanting is taught in Veda pathasalas, or Vedic chanting schools. I do not now remember the chronology of the chants I learned from my guru. One of the first chants was Surya- namaskara, or Sun Salutation. It is the first chapter in the Aranyaka (forest) portion of Krsna Yajur Veda. Both my teacher's and our family tradition was the same — Krsna Yajur Veda — and that certainly helped. Svadhyaya, or, according to my guru, study of one's own Veda, is an important ingredient of yoga. The word svadhyaya itself is a Vedic term. There is a chapter called Svadhyaya-prakarana in Yajur Veda that tells about the efficacy of study and chanting of the Vedas, including the chanting of the great Gayatri-mantra. Reference to svadhyaya as a duty can be found in Taittiriya Upanisad — "svadhyayat ma pramadah" and "... ca svadhyaya-pravacane ca" — indicating that one should chant and study the Vedas and also teach how to chant the Vedas. The most important chant that Krishnamacharya taught was the famous Surya-namaskara, also known as Aruna Prapathaka. It consists of 132 paragraphs in thirty-two sections and is said to be the longest chapter (paragraph wise) in the Vedas. It is chanted mostly on Sundays, early in the morning around dawn and takes about one hour to chant. I had the privilege of studying and chanting with my guru on innumerable Sundays at his house. In my last class with him, in 1988, we chanted Surya-namaskara together. He was in bed, incapacitated after a fall, but with a booming voice he chanted the entire chapter from memory. That day he blessed me and wished me well. Since that time I have chanted these mantras almost regularly.
I have chanted this Vedic portion in several Hindu temples in the U.S. and at public places in Austin and Houston, Texas. I would chant one section, at the end of which many participants would physically do one surya-namaskara, as they had learned it. One by one every section is chanted, followed by a namaskara. In all there are 32 namaskaras interspersed with the mantras. For health it is recommended to turn toward the sun deity (arogyam bhaskarat icchet) while doing the surya namaskara. These mantras, when chanted aloud and with understanding, cleanse the body and the mind internally. There are some beautiful passages — poetic and profound — in this prakarana. The famous Gayatri and the declaration of the immortality of the soul (amrtam purusa) are some of the mantras found in it. My guru taught several other sections of Vedic chanting: Svadhyaya-prakarana, also known as Kusmanda-homa, extols the efficacy of Vedic mantras; Citti-sruk, a chapter containing a beautiful meditation on "the light," tattva; Pravargya-brahmana, the three chapters of the Taittiriya Upanisad, followed by Mahanarayana Upanisad. He also taught three chapters of the Taittiriya Kathaka, the source of the famous Kathopanisad. It would take about ten hours to chant it all. I think I have spent more than 1,500 hours learning and chanting these mantras with Sri Krishnamacharya.
Chanting the Yoga Sutras
I also learned to chant the Yoga Sutras; I like to chant the Sutras. One day I was chanting the Sutras and also a Vedic Siva chant when a Sanskrit scholar told me that my chanting was very good. I then bought my first tape recorder and taped the Sutras; I used the recordings to make improvements. Then I had a final version. A friend of mine suggested that, since yoga was becoming popular, I should explore the possibilities of making an audiocassette, and then took me to a leading recording company. They heard the tape and appeared impressed, but the marketing department poured cold water on our enthusiasm, saying that because I was an unknown entity, marketing was going to be a problem. They then suggested that I might try to do some programs over the national radio station so that people would get to know about me. I got the opportunity to give a talk in the Sanskrit program slot on Yoga Sutras. I mentioned this to my guru and sought his blessings. He asked me to close the door of his room, listened to my tape of the Sutras, and blessed me, saying that it was very good. The program, broadcast over the national radio station in Madras at prime time, went well. The station then offered me more programs. In the course of the next ten years I did almost thirty programs in Sanskrit. I would consult my guru before several programs, and he was always enthusiastic and encouraging. For some talks he would dictate a lot of material. For a program on Upanisad Kavyas he dictated an entire talk in Sanskrit. Other programs I did included Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Sun Salutation, wedding vows, pranayama, meditation, and Sad- vidya from Chandogya Chandogya Upanisad. After all these efforts, efforts, a fledgling record company offered to produce an audiocassette on the Yoga Sutras — which did not do well in the market. The company, however, offered to do another recording, as they liked my chanting. They asked me to recite Lalita Sahasranama, a very popular puranic prayer. There are thousands of devotees who recite this prayer every day in South India. Since I was not familiar with the text, I took a few months to study it and record it. study it and record it. The recording had e recording had a very good response, and from then on, for the next twenty years, I recorded all the chants I had learned from my guru, such as Surya-namaskara, Svadhyaya Prakarana, Taittiriya Upanisad and other prayers, including the sahasranamas of different deities like Visnu, Visnu, Siva, Ganesa, Subrahmanya, Subrahmanya, Durga, Gayatri, Anjaneya, Raghavendra, and Hariha Raghavendra, and Hariharaputra raputra. I also recorded the complete Sundara Kanda (in ten volumes!) of the Ramayana, running close to about 3,000 slokas. In all I made about forty recordings, several of them still selling about twenty years after they were produced. This was all was all possible because of the excellent grounding and encouragement given to me by my guru, Sri Krishnamacharya. Mantra yoga was a very important and integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya's yoga. Chanting, or mantra parayana, especially of Vedic and other puranic mantras, is practiced by hundreds of thousands of Bhakti Yogis. When Sanskrit mantra portions are recited with an understanding of their meaning, the mind achieves an excellent one-pointedness, called ekagrata, an important goal of Raja Yoga. Mantra Japa, or repetition of the same short mantra such as the Gayatri or Pranava, the Siva or Narayana mantras, over and over again, helps to reinforce devotional fervor and the ekagrata in the yogi. Mantra Dhyana has similar effects. Mantra Yoga and Bhakti Yoga were very important ingredients in Krishnamacharya's yoga; every yoga school would do well to add this dimension to the yogic topics they teach. Vedic chanting or svadhyaya continues to be an important part of yoga practice.
Silent about His Past
During the long, long years of my study with my guru, he seldom made any mention of his past, his family, his studies, his experiences, or his former students. Except for a rare mention of his brother-in-law, he did not refer to any earlier students. Hence, I was completely unaware of his background. There is a saying in India, "Never investigate the origin of a sage or a river." I was happy simply to attend his classes, listen to him, and learn. I did not know for a very long time what his credentials were. But when, soon after the chanting classes started, he indicated that we should study the texts of yoga and related subjects, I immediately grabbed the opportunity, not even wondering what he was going to teach.
Coming from a smarta brahmin family, I had a rudimentary familiarity with the Upanisads and the advaitic approach to Vedanta. So when Krishnamacharya started teaching some of the Upanisad vidyas he thought I should know, I was thrilled. He started with Sad-Vidya (Study of the Reality), a chapter from the Chandogya Chandogya Upanisad of Sama Veda, and navigated through the entire text. It is about the source of everything, knowing which everything becomes known. It is Brahman, the ultimate, non-changing principle and hence the only reality. The vidya also emphasizes that the individual Self and the Brahman are one and the same (Tat Tvam Asi). Of course, being an exponent of Visistadvaita, his interpretation of the Mahavakya —the Great Saying—was SPRING 2007 19 somewhat different from the advaitic interpretation, but that there is one and only one ultimate reality is an assertion common to both interpretations, in contrast to the dualism of Yoga and Samkhya. Subsequently, other Upanisads were taught. Mandukya Upanisad of the Atharva Atharva Veda was taught in detail. The four stages of individual consciousness as the manifestations of the only Self was emphasiz was emphasized, and the four ed, and the four aspects of aspects of Pranava —the ‘a,' ‘u,' ‘m' and finally the fourth stage, the stage of immortality represented symbolically by the mantra Om —were explained. The terms used in the text—vaisvanara, taijasa, prajna and the turiya —were considered identical with Aniruddha, Pradyumna, Sankarsana and finally Paravasudeva, the ultimate reality, following the Bhagavata or Vaisnavite approach. I learned a lot comparing the Advaitic andVisistadvaitic interpretations, seeing their similarities and the differences between them. Similarly, when he taught the Taittiriya Upanisad, the difference in interpretation of anandamaya was very interesting. He also taught me the first eight sutras of Brahma Sutra. One day he mentioned that he would teach the whole Vedanta from the advaitic point of view if I wanted, but added that, while the advaitic view might be intellectually challenging, it could never be satisfying. He taught Prasna Upanisad, Mundaka Upanisad, Isavasya Upanisad, and certain important vidyas from Chandogya and Brhadaranyaka Upanisads, such as Pancagni Vidya, Prana Vidya, Bhuma Vidya, Dahara Vidya, Sandilya Vidya, Pratardana Vidya and several others. He covered several chapters from the Bhagavad Gita, Svetasvatara Upanisad, and Kausitaki Brahmana Upanisad. All these studies took several years. My guru said that to understand Vedanta, one should study several of the Upanisad vidyas, as they answer different questions that arise about the same ultimate reality.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Krishnamacharya wanted some of us to study yoga texts in considerable depth as well. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was the centerpiece of our yoga studies. Anything said or practiced that is inconsistent with the teachings of the Yoga Sutras should be rejected, he said. He first taught us to chant the Sutras correctly and then went on went on to teach to teach them, word them, word by word, by word, giving the meaning and nuance of each word, its derivation, derivation, the generic generic and the contextual meaning, and then the concept behind each of the sutras. This took a considerable amount of time. He said that the Yoga Sutras address three different levels of yogis: the highest, the mid-level, and the beginner.
The beginning-level yogi, the manda adhikari, would do well to start with Patanjali's Kriya Yoga as explained in the beginning of the second chapter. This Kriya Yoga by itself does not lead to kaivalya — true freedom—but prepares the yogi to be able to get into samadhi, the condition necessary for yogic achievement. He can be compared to a beginning rider who wants to mount a horse—here the horse of yoga. Such a person is described as " yogaruruksu," one who is desirous of doing yoga.
The intermediate-level yogi does the more involved Astanga Yoga, the more comprehensive eight-limbed yoga.
The first chapter is for the most evolved yogi, someone on the level of a Yogarudha of the Bhagavad Gita, a yogi who can get into samadhi by dint of the yoga sadhanas of his previous birth. Such a yogi is in the final stages of his yogic journey, riding on the back of the yogic horse on the royal path to ultimate salvation.
Surrender to the Lord
Astanga Yoga not only prepares the yogi but also leads him through the various siddhis, up to and including up to the understanding of the Self, the mother of all siddhis. Sri Krishnamacharya would point out that, in Kali Yuga (the last of the 4 world cycles characterized by strife, discord and quarrel), the main or the only means of spiritual salvation is surrender to the Lord, or Isvarapranidhana. He remarked that Isvarapranidhana is mentioned in all the three levels of yoga, viz., Nirodha Yoga of the first chapter; and Kriya Yoga and Astanga Yoga of the second and the third chapters. Surrender to the Lord, or the appropriate Isvararadhana (worship of the Lord), such as puja in Kriya Yoga, doing Astanga Yoga with a sense of total surrender to the Lord, or constant meditation on Isvara with a sense of devotion for the highest level—each forms a complete Isvarapranidhana practice in yoga.
No Salvation in One's Lifetime
As a Bhakti Yogi, my guru was not particularly in favor of some of the samadhis, such as asamprajnatasamadhi (samadhi without qualities). "What is there in asamprajnatasamadhi?" he would ask. He implied that the idea of salvation during one's lifetime, like the advaita vedantin's jivanmukta stage or the similar asamprajnata stage of the yogi, were not goals that would interest a yogi like himself. Rather what was meaningful was to meditate on the Lord (Bhagavad-dhyana) all one's life, so that the yogi, when he passes away, reaches Vaikuntha, the abode of the Lord, and transcends the cycle of samsara.
It was his opinion that in Kali Yuga, the most important yama was brahmacarya. However, here the interpretation of brahmacarya is not complete celibacy, but sex within the bounds of marriage, as propounded in several texts like Suta Samhita of Skanda Maha-Purana. For a brahmacari, or one in the student stage of life, complete celibacy should be practiced. But there are many yoga practitioners who wish to be celibate all their lives, but it is just that—a wish. They are attracted by the ultimate goal of yoga like Kaivalya and, following the yoga theory of Patanjali, would like to be total celibates all their lives. But a mere wish is not sufficient grounds to remain without marriage, according to my guru, quoting the Dharma Sastras. Everyone should marry after the student life. Only one who is spiritually evolved and is a naisthika brahmacari—a complete celibate—can take to sannyasa, the celibate life of a renunciate. A naistika brahmacari is one who is a celibate in "thought, speech, and deed." Thus mere abstinence is not sufficient cause to remain unmarried. Several religions induct many youngsters into celibate orders. Even though, through strict practice and discipline, many manage to practice abstinence all their lives, they cannot be called naisthika brahmacaris, a prerequisite for sannyasa — lifelong celibacy. Only a person who does not even dream of sex can qualify for a celibate life. According to my guru, this is almost impossible in Kali Yuga, so all yogabhyasis — yoga practitioners—should get married and live within the bounds of a wedded life. (I agree. This is one reason why I cannot be a monk. I cannot be celibate. And I don't see celibacy as a prerequisite to self-realization. Even if it is, it's not worth the absence of sex.)
My guru thought that the practice of inducting young men into the celibate orders in monasteries and mutts was fraught with dangers and is unworkable in Kali Yuga. According to Dharma Sastras, only the kramasannyasa progression—brahmacarya; then grhastha (family life), then vanaprastha (retired life), and finally sannyasa, if one is really evolved—is practical in this evolved—is practical in this Kali Yuga.
There is an interesting story about Naisthika Brahmacarya. Sage Suka, the son of Vyasa and a Brahmajnanin, was walking along ing along the banks of the banks of a river. At a bathing ghat, several women were in the river. Suka passed by. A few moments later Vyasa was passing by and immediately all the women rushed to grab their clothes to cover themselves. Vyasa stopped and asked them why they were unconcerned when the young man Suka passed by, but not so when the older man passed. The women replied that they knew Suka was an absolute naisthika brahmacari and never had any thought of sex.
After completing the Sutra study, Sri Krishnamacharya began it again, covering the entire text of the Yoga Sutras along with the commentary of Vyasa, which took over two years to complete. Yoga Sutra is a profound text, logically composed, dense with information. Every yoga student, and especially every yoga teacher, should study the Sutras. There now seems to be more interest among yogis in studying it.
Range of Other Studies
A range of studies and scholarship was not confined to yoga. He wanted to equip his student with adequate knowledge of other sibling philosophies. He taught Samkhya Karika, said to be one of the best-composed philosophical texts. Its author, Isvarakrsna, is considered to have been an incarnation of the famous Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Profound and succinct, this text has become the standard work on Samkhya (one of the six schools of classical Hindu philosophy). My teacher taught the entire Samkhya Karika, along with the commentary of Gaudapada and also occasionally that of Vacaspati Misra. Actually, the theoretical basis of yoga is Samkhya. The Bhagavad Gita starts with the discussion of the Samkhya philosophy. It is the first Vedic philosophy that talked about the Self as the observer and hence distinct from everything experienced. It is the constant observer, non-changing, hence eternal and immortal. Another philosophy he was keen to teach was Nyaya and the later version, Tarka. He started teaching Tarka Samgraha, a compact text on Vedic logic. With Tarka/Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta, Sri Krishnamacharya gave his student a well-rounded education in different Vedic darsanas.
He was keen to impart knowledge contained in Hatha Yoga texts. He taught Hatha Yoga Pradipika in detail, except portions of the last chapter and some of the third, which he said contained obnoxious practices inconsistent with the teachings of sattvika yoga and the Yoga Sutras. He said this text contained considerable technical detail but very little tattva, or philosophical consideration. I thought he indicated that some claims of this text were exaggerated. For a particular procedure, the author Svatmarama claimed immortality (chiranjivitva) as the benefit. My guru then asked, "Where is Svatmarama now?" indicating that some of these claims should be taken with a grain of salt. He also taught Yoga Yajnavalkya in detail. It contains some wonderful insights into the practice of Hatha Yoga and gives the definition of yoga as the union of the individual soul (jivatma) and the Supreme Being (paramatma). Some of the other texts that he referred to and taught in portions included Gheranda Samhita and Siva Samhita. When I was studying with him, Nathamuni's Yoga Rahasya was not published, but he frequently quoted from the text and after a while taught a few chapters from it. He quoted portions about asanas that are helpful during pregnancy and yogic procedures helpful for contraception and family planning (mitha santana). Several of these slokas were found in the version of Yoga Rahasya published later, but many of the slokas he quoted in class were missing from the final published version. I thought that, since yoga is an ancient subject, the nuances of the system could be understood by studying the old texts.
Nowadays yoga students seem to spend very little time studying the texts; they appear to be reinventing yoga by drawing inspiration from other physical training systems, such as gymnastics, martial arts, or even performing arts. Some of the basic tenets, like slow breathing and mind focus, are being put aside. People breathe heavily, sweat profusely, do no breath work at all, and call it modern yoga, sometimes even under the banner of Krishnamacharya's yoga.
Maharshi Mahesh Yogi
Maharshi Mahesh Yogi came to Madras, before his TM became popular in the West, and gave a talk about TM. There was a large gathering, and I attended the program with my father. My guru came to know of my attendance. When I went to his class the next day, Sri Krishnamacharya told me at the outset that he told me at the outset that he believed he had enough resources to teach me and take care of me. He said that I needed to cooperate with him. If I went out and listened to different versions and interpretations of the sastras, I was more likely to be confused and perplexed than better informed. And it would then be more difficult for him to remove my doubts. I stopped shopping around then and there.
Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram
Sri Desikachar founded the now famous Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram sometime in the 1970s, I think, with the blessings of his father. Since it was founded as a charitable trust, it required three trustees. A close friend of Desikachar's and I joined as trustees, with Desikachar taking the chair as the managing trustee. After few months, once the organization was in was in place, I left the trust. During my short tenure, there was a request from a hundred-year-old English magazine called India Review to write a series of articles on yoga. The magazine was struggling financially, and some philanthropists were trying to revive it in consideration of its great role during the Independence movement. I was asked to write articles for it, so I began writing one article a month, as a trustee of the Mandiram. I wrote on one sequence of asanas every month based on my studies with my teacher. I would write the article, then get photographs of me doing the poses. I would give the articles and the photographs to my guru for approval. With Desikachar he would go through the article and approve it. It was then forwarded to the magazine. Even after I left the Mandiram, I continued to write for the magazine, submitting about forty articles in all. Several sequences were covered, with the correct breathing for each and every vinyasa.
Teaching 700 Vinyasas
By that time—after twenty years of studying with my guru—I was teaching yoga at Kalakshetra, a well-known Indian arts college, teaching South Indian Bharatanatyam dance and Carnatic music, boutique painting, dance, drama, etc. The students were young, in their teens and early twenties. They were highly talented, and a challenging group to teach. Each student was required to study yoga twice a week for two years. In about six months I realized that I had taught them virtually everything I had learned, some 200 to 300 vinyasas and several breathing exercises! I turned to my teacher and explained my predicament to him. Is there anything more I can teach? I had read in his book Yoga Makaranda that he had learned about 700 asanas. With infectious enthusiasm he started teaching me more vinyasas and asanas. "Have you taught this asana, this vinyasa?" he would ask. Over a long period thereafter, he taught me more and more vinyasas. I would practice them, then go and teach them in the class. It was wonderful to learn and teach at the same time. In the course of the next few years I learned about 700 vinyasas in about ten major sequences. This formed the basis of my teaching Vinyasa Krama.
My personal life required that I stay in Madras, so it was convenient for me to do my work, study with my guru, and teach at Kalakshetra. I taught at other places in Madras, the public health center, the yoga brotherhood, and so on, teaching patients and medical personnel, middle-aged and older people. By teaching different populations, I was able to adapt the Vinyasa Krama to meet the requirements of people of different ages and conditions. But I had no idea what was happening in the outside yoga world. I stopped teaching at Kalakshetra by 1995. I had started coming to the U.S. for brief periods to visit my sons, who were working there. I did a few workshops here and there, teaching Vinyasa Krama. Many liked it, but since they were short term programs without an established procedure to follow, it did not stick.
The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga
By 2000 I submitted a manuscript titled, Yoga: An Art, A Therapy, A Philosophy to give as much coverage as possible to what I had studied with my guru. I followed the thought process contained in Patanjala Yoga Sutra, explaining the Samadhi Pada, then the Astanga Yoga. In the asana section, I included about 200 vinyas vinyasas very similar to what I had published through India Review. It contained considerable information about yoga as therapy as well. When the book was published with the title Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, many felt it was rather dense and heavy, and since many were not familiar with vinyasa as I portrayed it in the book, there were not many buyers. I also found that people were not interested in my vinyasa program of Krishnamacharya because the system was well known through other famous students of my guru. But I found that there were significant differences between what I had learned from him and other established teachings. I thought I might never get the Vinyasa Krama across, even though my teacher had become a legend in the yoga world. I decided to write another book, giving all the vinyasas I had learned from my guru and their sequencing, along with the equally important breathing aspect of each and every vinyasa. Once I had the book ready, with about 1,100 color pictures, it was difficult to find a publisher. My agent told me that there was a general perception that there were enough of Sri Krishnamacharya's well-known students teaching his complete system. He asked me to write a page about what I taught was different, why it was unique, and how it might be a better system. So I wrote a page explaining the unique features of the Vinyasa Krama system as I had learned it from my guru. The book was published by Marlowe and Company, titled The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga.
Essentials of Vinyasa Krama
So, what are the essentials of Vinyasa Krama that I teach, based on the teachings of my guru?
- The basic parameters used in Vinyasa Krama are steadiness of the posture, a calm mind, synchronizing the breath with slow move with slow movements of the limbs, and, while in the postures, having the mind closely following the breath.
But you may ask, "If you say this is an ancient system, where are the references to these ideas in the old texts? Where did Sri Krishnamacharya find these methods? Don't say Yoga Kurunta; We know about it. Where else can you find references to these concepts?" Vinyasa Krama was the mainstay of Krishnamacharya's teaching of Hatha Yoga. The word vinyasa is used to indicate an art form of practice. This word is used in several arts, especially in South Indian Carnatic music, a fully evolved classical music system. Vinyasa Krama indicates doing asana with multiple aesthetic variations within the prescribed parameters. Yoga was considered one of sixty-four ancient arts. Hence if you approach yoga asana practice as an art, that methodology is Vinyasa Krama. The beauty and efficacy of yoga is eloquently brought out by Vinyasa Krama.
What about breath synchronization, another important ingredient of Krishnamacharya's Vinyasa Krama? What about mental focus on the breath while doing asana practice, central to vinyasa yoga? None of the yoga schools teaches yoga in this manner and no classic Hatha Yoga texts mention breath synchronization in asana practice. Where can one find references to these? This was one of the few questions I asked my guru: Is Vinyasa Krama an old, traditional practice? Sri Krishnamacharya quoted a verse indicating that reference to this practice can be found in a text called Vrddha Satapata and also in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. There was no point in looking for an obscure text like Vrddha Satapata, but Yoga Sutra was at hand. But where is the reference? There are hardly two Sutras explaining asana, and there is no reference to breath in them—or is there? Going back to my notes on Yoga Sutra classes with my guru, I found a very interesting interpretation of the sutra, Prayatna-saithilya anantasamapattibhyam. The word prayatna, very commonly used in India, basically means "effort." Saithilya indicates "softness." So Prayatna- saithilya could mean "mild effort"; hence you find that many writers on the Yoga Sutras declare that the way to achieve perfection in a yoga posture is to "ease into the posture effortlessly." This is easier said than done. There are hundreds of practitioners who cannot relax enough to be able to easily get into a posture like the Lotus, for example. So we have to investigate the meaning of the word prayatna as used by the darsanakaras in those days. Prayatna according to Nyaya, a sibling philosophy to yoga, is a bit involved. Nyaya explains prayatna of three kinds (prayatnam prayatnam trividham trividham proktam). Two of them are the effor them are the effort put in for happiness (pravrtti) and the effort to remove unhappiness (nivrtti). Every being does this all the time. One set of our efforts is always directed toward achieving happiness and the other toward eradicating unhappiness. But the third type of effort relevant here is the effort of life (jivana-p jivana-prayatna rayatna). What is effort of life? It is the breath or breathing. Now we can say that prayatna-saithilya is to make the breath smooth. Thus in asana practice according to Vinyasa Krama, the breath should be smooth and by implication long (dirgha).
Mental Focus on the Breath
The other part of the sutra refers to samapatti, or mental focus. Where or on what should the mental focus be? It is to be on ananta (ananta-samapatti). Now we have to investigate the contextual meaning of the word ananta, translated as "endless" or "limitless," which many writers equate with infinity. So some schools tend to say that while practicing asanas, one should focus the attention on infinity, which is inappropriate— and impossible, at least for the vast majority of yogis. Ananta also refers to the serpent, Adisesa, whose incarnation Patanjali is believed to be. So some schools suggest that one should focus on a mental image of Adisesa or Patanjali. It may be possible, but it is uncomfortable to think that Patanjali would write that one should focus on his form for the success of asana practice. So what might ananta symbolically signify? The word ananta can be considered to be derived from the root, "ana "—to breathe (ana svase). We are all familiar with the group of words prana, apana, vyana, etc., names of the five pranas derived from the root "ana." So in the sutra, ananta could mean could mean "breath"; ananta-samapatti is then translated as "focusing the mind on the breath." In fact Ananta, or the serpent king, is associated with air. Mythologically the cobra is associated with air; there is a common mythological belief that cobras live on air. If you look at the icon of Nataraja (the dancing Siva), you will find all five elements of the universe (earth, water, air, fire, and space) represented symbolically in Siva. The matted red hair represents fire, the Ganga in his tresses, the water element; the air element is said to be represented by the snake around the lord's neck. So ananta-samapatti would mean focusing the attention on the breath or prana. Thus this sutra means that while practicing asana, one should do smooth inhalations and exhalations and focus the attention on the breath. Since Vinyasa Krama involves several aesthetic movements into and within yoga postures, to achieve the coordination of movement, breath, and mind, one should synchronize the breath with the movement with the help of the focused mind. By such practice, slowly but surely, the union of mind and body takes place, with the breath acting as the harness. But why don't other texts talk about it? There is a saying, "Anuktam anyato grahyam." If some details are missing from one text, they should be gathered from other complementary texts. Hatha-yoga-pradipika explains a number of asanas but does not mention breath synchronization and other basic parameters. But Hatha-yoga-pradipika proclaims that its instructions are like a prerequisite for the Raja Yoga practice of Patanjali. These two texts are therefore compatible. Thus we can conclude that Patanjali gives the basic parameters of asana practice (and also of the other angas like Pranayama), but for details we have to refer to compatible texts like Hatha-yoga-pradipika, Yoga- Yajnavalkya and others.
My guru Sri Krishnamacharya was like a many-faceted diamond, each side brilliant in its way. Different individuals saw different sides of him in different ways and took whatever appealed to him or appealed to him or her. I was fascinated by whatever he thought I should know and therefore taught me, and I found that in asana practice, the Vinyasa Krama method was most beneficial and satisfying. I am sure a few others also find it so. With his deep scholarship, immense wisdom, and abundant compassion, Sri Krishnamacharya reveled in making the ancient benevolent teachings accessible to ordinary mortals like us.
While there were golden nuggets in this text, there wasn't enough material I could use to integrate into my practice. Just a few basic guidelines. It's mostly an anecdotal reminiscing of a devoted student about his guru.
A golden nugget here is the author's very own book, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga where he faithfully echoes the teachings of his teacher. Why is it special? Because Ramaswami was mentored directly by Krishnamacharya for over 30 years until his death. No other student can make that claim - not Iyengar, not Indra Devi, not Patthabi Jois, and not even his own son Desikachar. No one even came close. What they learned in a short time with Krishnamacharya, only represented a snapshot of the teacher's immense knowledge and breadth. Iyengar's yoga "omitted several important ingredients of Krishnamacharya's teaching, such as progression or sequencing of asanas, use of counterposes, and the complete synchronization of breath". Patthabi Jois' yoga "lacked the slow, deliberate, smooth, and coordinated breathing central to Krishnamacharya's method". With enough time, I may write about this book.
--- Gigit (TheLoneRider)
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