Who taught our yoga gurus yoga?

Yoga is the traditional Indian set of disciplines that keep the mind, body and the soul healthy. The various principles of yoga are being practiced by millions of people around the world because of the efforts of some very influential teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi (Eugenie Peterson), T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois. Has one ever wondered who these influential and popular masters of yoga would have learnt from? Each of the above famous yoga gurus had the same guru and he was the great Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born to poor Brahmin parents in Muchukundapuram, in the Chitradurga district of Karnataka on Nov 18, 1888. Under the tutelage of his learned father, he learnt the Vedas besides attaining profound scholarship in Sanskrit, as early as when he was just five years old. After losing his father a few years later, the family was further drowned in poverty and they moved to Mysore.

Krishnamacharya had a strange dream one night, where the legendary Vaishnava saint Nathamuni – the author of Yoga Rahasya (the secrets of yoga) – appeared in his dream and directed him to go to Alvar Tirunagari and meditate at the temple of Lord Vishnu. Upon reaching the place, Krishnamacharya went into deep trance and he saw 3 yogis meditating in front of him. He requested them to teach him the Yoga Rahasya – as this yogic treatise was long lost. And, surprisingly, one of the yogis who identified himself as Nathamuni himself, recited the verses. All this happened in the dream. And, upon awakening however, Krishnamacharya rememebered every single verse from this long lost treatise.

Krishnamacharya spent his early youth studying the 6 darsanas of philosophy – vaisesika, nyaya, sankhya, yoga, mimamsa and vedanta. He continued his formal education at the Benares University, on the banks of the holy Ganga. He had an intense desire to unearth the purpose of his life and he was unsure about his next steps. He was a sincere practitioner of yoga asanas that his father had taught him as a child. Many people brought their children to him so that he could teach them some yoga asanas to stay healthy. At the suggestion of a colleague, the young and youthful Krishnamacharya decided to find legendary guru called Yogeshwara Ramamohan Brahmachari who was believed to live in a cave in the Himalayan mountains in Tibet and learn Patanjali’s yoga sutras from him. After months of searching the Himalayan caves in Tibet, Krishnamacharya finally found this great yogi meditating with his disciples, in one of the caves. Krishnamacharya soon joined the other disciples and studied the Yoga sutras under Yogeshwara Ramamohan for seven and a half years. During this period, Krishnamacharya’s body and mind was cleansed completely.

Yogeshwara Ramamohan also taught him 3000 different asanas and directed him to go back to his hometown in the Mysore area, start a family and become a yoga teacher. In 1925, according to his guru’s wishes, he married Namagiriammal and settled down in Mysore. Krishnamacharya worked at a coffee plantation as a laborer to support his family, but he also ran evening yoga schools at his house for people to come and learn. Among his coffee plantation laborer friends, he had gained deep respect as a scholar and a magic yogi. Among his other prowess was that he could control and stop his heart beat for several minutes at a time.

Soon, the Raja of Mysore heard about this coffee plantation laborer who performed excellent yogic postures and who could heal people’s diseases. The Raja then found out about the skills of Krishnamacharya and he agreed to fund him to start a yoga school in Mysore. The yoga school flourished and millions of people came from all parts of the world to learn yoga from this great master. Krishnamacharya taught yoga until 1955: after India received independence, the kings were dethroned and the union of the states took place, so Krishnamacharya lost the king’s patronage. His yoga school was also shut down by the central Indian government. Krishnamacharya relocated his family to Bangalore and then to Chennai, where he continued teaching yoga until he slipped into coma and died in 1989. He died when he was 101, and until the time of his death, his cognitive faculties remained sharp, not to mention his health was perfect due to yogic practice.

One among his disciples was Indra Devi (born as Eugenie Peterson, who later adopted the name Indra Devi), who was instrumental in spreading the teachings of her master throughout South America. She conducted yoga schools in Argentina, Uruguay, and other Latin American countries. Yoga spread to Latin America because of her. She died in 2002, in Buenos Aires.

The other legendary Yoga teacher – B.K.S Iyengar was another disciple of the great Krishnamacharya. Iyengar was Krishnamacharya’s nephew and was brought to Krishnamacharya because he suffered from extreme ill health since the time of his birth until he was five years old. His parents had lost hope that they boy would live and they brought him to Krishnamacharya and left him there to see if Krishnamacharya could help him live at all. Krishnamacharya was a very strict teacher and a staunch disciplinarian. He trained Iyengar so well, that Iyengar became one of the most famous yoga teachers of the 20th and the 21st centuries. The accomplishments of Iyengar is beyond the scope of this post and will be pursued in a subsequent post at a later date.

Sri Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar are the other principal disciples of Krishnamacharya. T.K.V. Desikachar was Krishnamacharya’s son. Sri Pattabhi Jois runs the Ashtanga Yoga Institute that specializes in teaching the ashtanga form of yoga.

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