Consider, now, the story of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Chances are, you haven’t heard of him, though he invented yoga as we know it today. If he isn’t a household name, it is partly because he ascribed his own innovations to ancient tradition. Around 1904, at the age of 16, Krishnamacharya fell into a trance during which the legendary sage Nathamuni revealed to him a long-lost text, the Yoga Rahasya. The mode of transmission is very similar to that of the Vaimanika Shastra. It was a form used equally by frauds and geniuses to imbue their inventions with the aura of authority.
Three teachers are responsible above all others for spreading the modern yoga movement within India and internationally: K Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and BKS Iyengar. All three studied in Mysore under Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. So what was it about Krishnamacharya’s method that makes “modern yoga” different from its traditional counterpart? In a nutshell, it is the focus on asanas, or postures.
The earliest extant texts on yoga are the Yoga Sutras, a group of aphorisms composed around 400 AD and ascribed to Patanjali. There were a number of commentaries written on the Yoga Sutras in the centuries after their composition, but by around the 13th century, the text fell into disuse. It was revived in the 19th century by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and Swami Vivekananda.
The Yoga Sutras are concerned with transcendence through meditation. Asanas, or postures, are treated only briefly, in a discourse about appropriate ways to sit while meditating. These basic asanas are familiar from Hindu and Buddhist iconography.
Around the 14th century, a from of yoga developed out of Tantric practice that came to be called Hatha Yoga, fixated on the preservation of the physical body and the prolongation of life. Asanas received a more prominent place in Hatha Yoga than in previous forms, but they were still subsidiary to purification rituals, or shatkarman, and breathing techniques meant to cleanse the body’s subtle channels, known as pranayama.
Hatha Yoga came to be associated in the popular imagination with yogis who performed austerities and contortions for money. Scholars and activists responsible for the revival of Hinduism in the 19th century, from Dayananada Saraswati, to Max Mueller, Swami Vivekanada, and Madame Blavatsky, were uniformly contemptuous of Hatha yoga. Vivekananda said dismissively of the practice, “Our Bengal is the land of Bhakti and Jnana. Yoga is scarcely mentioned there. What little there is, is but the queer breathing exercises of the Hatha-Yoga – which is nothing but a kind of gymnastics.”
While Hatha Yoga languished in obscurity, the culture of western physical education gained popularity in India in the early decades of the twentieth century. Maharaja Krisharaja Wodiyar IV was an enthusiast of gymnastics and body building, but also had regard for traditional Indian forms of exercise. He hired Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to set up a yogashala within the Jaganmohan palace in Mysore, and it was here that modern yoga developed, as a synthesis of established yogic asanas, physical exercises traditionally performed in akharas and vyayamshalas, and European calisthenics and gymnastics. Among Krishnamacharya’s innovations was to incorporate a refined version of the surya namaskar into yogic practice. He eliminated the enemas and other purification rituals associated with Hatha Yogic shatkarman, concentrating only on asanas and to a lesser extent on pranayama. A film shot in 1938, when he was 50 years old, is an impressive demonstration of the posture-driven style he had developed. Rather than a spiritual practice, Krishnamacharya’s yoga was a means to health, fitness and well-being, as also a form of therapy. Yoga’s function had altered radically along with its form.
Mysore was not the only place in India where innovators were creating physicalised yoga systems from varied Indian and European inputs: In Lonavla, Swami Kuvalayananda established an institution to study the scientific basis of yogic practice. In Bengal, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the brother of Paramhansa Yogananda. Ghosh ran a body building school which counted among its students Monotosh Roy, the first Indian to win a Mr. Universe title, but also Bikram Choudhury, who later patented under the name Bikram Yoga a system of 26 postures done within rooms heated to 40 degrees Celsius. But it was the Mysore school that produced the most influential synthesis.
The glory days
The glory days of asana-based yoga were still far in the future when royal patronage of Krishnamacharya’s yogashala ceased after independence. He found few takers for his classes, and had to shut the facility and shift to Madras. He continued teaching well into his nineties, but it was his students, promoting modified version of what he had taught them, who made modern yoga the international phenomenon it is. While BKS Iyengar was his brother-in-law, TKV Desikachar his son, and Pattabhi Jois from the same community, Indra Devi was an entirely different commodity. A Latvian named Eugenie Petersen, she had grown fascinated by India after reading Rabindranath Tagore and a yoga instruction manual by Yogi Ramacharaka, who was in fact an American named William Walker Atkinson writing under a pseudonym. She sailed to India, acted in a few films, and gained access to Krishnamacharya through the Maharaja. She went on to establish yoga schools, successively, in Shanghai, Hollywood, Tecate Mexico, and Buenos Aires, and counted Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Marilyn Monroe, and Greta Garbo among her students. Although she didn’t write a book as path-breaking as BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, she opened up a discipline that had been largely restricted to males. It was a leap waiting to be made.
In the United States and Europe, and to a smaller extent in India, the new yoga was considered an effete alternative to body-building. It was women who were most attracted to modern yoga, and that continues to be the case today. Eighty three percent of the more than 20 million practitioners who make yoga a $30 billion industry in the United States are women. There are no figures available for metropolitan India, but anecdotal evidence suggests the gender ratio is somewhat similar.
Relatively late in his life, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya discovered a text he called the Yoga Korunta (a Tamil pronunciation of Yoga Grantha) in the National Archives. He passed the lessons of this text on to his students K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, but the text then disappeared, apparently eaten by ants. Like the Yoga Rahasya he had been given as a teenager, the Yoga Korunta appears to have been a fiction of his imagination, dreamt up to provide a source of traditional authority for his innovations. Jois and Iyengar, like their guru, kept up the fiction of an old, unbroken tradition leading from the Vedas and Patanjali to their own asana-based practice, but the connections are tenuous at best. Modern Yoga is a hybrid concoction belonging firmly to the twentieth century. Unlike the Vaimainika Shastra, though, it is a marvellously innovative synthesis rather than a useless fraud. The man most responsible for it, though, got few material rewards or governmental recognitions in the course of his long life which ended a mere 25 ago.
Since posthumous Bharat Ratnas are in vogue, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya would be my nominee for the gong.
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