Krishnamarcharya and those British gymnastics

“Sir” and his father, KYM, 2005

2010 has been the year of scholarly yoga books such as Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture and Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Both authors have written that Krishnamacharya’s yoga was derived in part from British gymnastics and military training exercises.

Even the eminent yoga scholar Georg Feurstein recently wrote that:

“The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country’s defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult.”

I don’t know if Mr. Feurstein has ever spoken with Srivatsa Ramaswami about his guru Sri Krishnmacharya, but I do know that there is not one mention of Ramaswamiji in either of the above-mentioned books (I looked.) Neither is he mentioned in Feurstein’s book, The Yoga Tradition, first published in 2001.

Those of you who know me know that I am an ongoing student of Ramaswamiji, having studied with him now for about 7 years. Ramaswamiji studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30+ years, longer than his own son Desikachar, and longer than Jois and Iyengar ever did.

So I was glad to see Ramaswamiji address the question of his guru deriving his yoga from gymnastic exercises. If anyone would know, I would think it would be someone who studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30 years.

Knowledge from a book is valuable of course, but it can not replace wisdom from an ongoing relationship with a teacher. That is one yoga jewel that has stayed with me from my first training at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram: the teachers said that personal transformation can only begin in a group class; it is achieved by working one on one consistently with a teacher over a period of time. I truly believe this as I have seen the differences with private students v. group classes.

The following is from Ramaswamiji’s newsletter, unedited but for the the addition of paragraphs and an [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe this will answer the scholars’ questions.

##########

Yoga Gymnastique — Srivatsa Ramaswami

Some eight years back I wangled a presenter assignment at a Yoga Conference in Texas. I was never invited again because, among all the presenters, I had the dubious distinction of attracting the least number of participants for every one of my presentations.

During one of the breaks a well known yoga teacher in US came and sat by my side and inquired about me, about where I was from, etc. I mentioned that I was a student of Pandit Krishnamcharya for three decades. With a quizzical look he asked, “What were you doing for 30 years with him?’, and with a wry smile he said, “Oh, you must have been doing your daily practice at his school”. He left before I could start my long answer. “How can anyone study Yoga for such a long period when there are just a half a dozen sequences or just a little over a score of asanas?,” he must have wondered.

Krishnamacharya as I have mentioned earlier was like a many splendoured diamond each facet brilliant in its own way. He taught yogasanas following the Vinyasakrama, the art form. He also used yogasanas, pranayama and meditation for chikitsa or therapeutic applications. He taught a vast range of Sanskrit chants from the Vedas and also from smritis. He taught several traditional texts like the Yoga Sutras and the sibling philosophies including the several Upanishads, following mainly the Visishtadwaita approach. He taught Vaishnava religious texts as well to a number of his Vaishnava followers. He was a well rounded Yogi and he could make every class absorbing. There would always be something new and insightful. One could never get bored in his classes whether it be the asanas, chanting or textual studies. I wanted to explain these to my celebrity friend but he was too busy to stay and listen.

Some research scholars have mentioned that Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa approach to yoga has a considerable dose of physical exercise systems prevalent at that time in India like the drills and also gymnastics imported into it. But my experience with Krishnamacharya’s asana practice is somewhat different.

It is true that some of the vinyasas and vinyasa sequences like part of Surya Namaskra, the handstands, the jump throughs, jump arounds, push ups (utplutis) may appear to mimic floor exercises in gymnastics. Perhaps there are some asanas and vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught that had some resemblance to drills or gymnastics. But he taught to me almost 1000 vinyasas making up close to 150 asana subroutines. The head stand, the sarvangasana, padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other system seems to have anything like that.

Further, yoga as a physical culture is very old. We may not have records because in ancient times most of instructions were oral and the transmission of knowledge was from teacher to student and the only way to learn was to go to a teacher and learn, practice and internalize. Later on a few texts were written as scripts were developed but they were written in easily perishable palm leaves — like the Yoga Kuranta — and barely one manuscript, no xerox copies, no electronic books were available. So in these matters we have to rely upon authorities/tradition or as the Vedas would call it “aitihya” or firmly held belief.

Even from the available texts like the Puranas one can glean a lot of reference to yoga practice including asana practice. The Brahma Sutras mention that a seated asana is a necessity for meditation. Works written hundreds or even a thousand years back contain sections on Yoga including asanas. Thirumular, a yogi said to have lived 3000 years back wrote about several asanas in his Tamil classic Thirumandiram. Puranas, smritis and several later day Upanishads have sections on asana practice.

There is a dhyanasloka pertaining to the Ramayana which mentions that Sri Rama was in Vajrasana while seated in his flowered bedecked, jeweled throne. In fact from time immemorial many people in India, as a religious practice, have been doing sandhya or morning worship of the sun with specific sun worship mantras and physical movements and gestures. It includes mantras like the Gayatri, pranayama and many postures like tadasana, uttanasana, utkatakaasana, and danda namaskara and utakatasana are specifically mentioned in the smritis.

So in a way we may say that suryanamaskara with mantras and the physical exercise has been a very old practice. The word Yoga is indeed a vedic word. You may check with my book “The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga” (here no commercial intended) based on my studies with my guru and I do not think it in any way resembles a book of gymnastics. Yogasanas have their own distinct nicety. Gymnastics of course has its own charm. Gymnastics was one my favourite programs while watching the Olympics. I do not know if I would enjoy Yoga Olympiad.

My guru had mentioned on a couple of occasions that physical yoga had been the core system of physical exercises in India. It had technically influenced several ancient systems like wrestling, archery, fencing etc., very physically demanding disciplines, requiring a high degree of strength, dexterity and focus. Yoga is called a sarvanga sadhana as it is helpful for all parts of the body, including the internal organs. There were other indigenous circus-like practices such as malcam, kazhakkoothu where they use ropes or poles and do routines very similar to asanas. He had also mentioned that almost all the physical systems of the world, including gymnastics, had borrowed heavily from Yoga, because the asana portion of Yoga was the most ancient and developed physical culture system. Therefore it could be that there were a few similarities between asanas and some obscure gymnastic systems in different parts of the world at different times. Then one has to investigate the origin of those obscure systems, whether they were older than Yoga, or if they themselves borrowed from ancient yoga practices.

My Guru himself was a passionate researcher. He would always be looking for works on yoga and other systems. He even would advise us to go to different agraharams (small cluster of homes of scholars in certain villages) and look for works on Yoga available with such scholars. He would say that we should visit the hundreds of temples in India, especially South India, and observe the sculptures and idols all over the temples for study of yoga postures. And because of the oral tradition and relying on degradable palm leaves, Yoga itself had a checkered progression, in the limelight during some time in history and obscure at some other times. It then becomes a futile exercise to try to determine which among the physical exercise regimens came first, the seed or the tree or the better known example of the chicken and the egg.

There are distinct differences between the yoga I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya for a long period of time and some of the aerobic exercises like gymnastics. In the vinyasa krama asana practice, the breathing is synchronized with the movements at the rate of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds for inhalation and exhalation thereby reducing the breath rate to about 3 to 5 per minute, whereas in contemporary aerobic exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts, the breath rate increases to much beyond the normal breathing rate of about 15 or so. This alone makes yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya distinctly different from other drills.

The variety of movements in Vinyasa asana practice is said to be designed to exercise all parts of the body including the internal organs. We do not find deep movement, synchronized breathing, and the significantly profound exercises like the bandhas — which are an integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya’s asana practice — in other forms of physical exercises, especially gymnastics. Look at the 1930′s videos, the bandhas of my Guru, they are not a gymnast’s cup of chai.

When I was young, some exercises were very popular. They were outside the pale of yogasanas. One was known as “dandal”, which would look very much like a repetitive movement between caturanga dandasana and the plank or a simpler version of urdhwa mukha swanasana. The other was known as, if I remember right, ‘bhaski’. It involved standing up and doing repeated squats. The first one, ‘dandal’ looks very similar to part of Surya namaskara. Baski resembles a very popular ritual that is done by thousands even today and is known as “toppukaranam” in Tamil and “dorbhyam karanam” in Sanskrit. One holds the lobes of the opposite ears with one’s hands and squats usually in front of the idol of Lord Ganesha. It could be 12 times or 108 times. It is both a good physical exercise and a loving devotional practice to the charming Lord Ganesha.

Are these physical drills, yoga exercises, or devotional practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows.

Then there is the question of whether Suryanamaskara is old, from the Vedic times. The Surya namaskara can be considered from two views; one is the mantra portion the other is vyayama or the physical part. Certainly Suryanamaskara mantras are from the Vedas. In fact, there is a complete chapter of Suryanamaskra mantras from the Veda which takes about an hour to chant. Again, the other important Surya mantra, Gayatri, is also a Vedic mantra. The Vedas exhort using Gayatri as a mantra to worship the sun daily.

Worship of the sun is considered a daily obligatory duty for the orthodox in India. We have a procedure called Sandhya vandana which is supposed to be done thrice a day, but definitely once a day. This Sandhya procedure is a kind of a worship ritual, towards the end of which one prostrates towards the Sun. While the Gayatri japa portion is done sitting in a yogic posture after required number of pranayama, the upasthana or the second part is done standing. Towards the conclusion the worshipper of the sun has to do a namaskara, a prostration. So from the standing position, usually one bends forward, half squats, places the palms on the floor, takes the legs back by jumping or taking one leg after the other and does an saashtanga namaskara or the danda namaskara prostration). One has to go through these steps (from standing to prostration) and if the steps are properly organized we get the surya namaskara vyayama, a sequence, a vinyasakrama. So, since one has to do sandhya daily and has to do the namaskara startig from standing and since the sandhya is mentioned as an obligatory duty, it will be correct to say that suryanamaskara, both the mantra portion and physical namaskara portion, are from the Vedic times. The actual steps may vary but the physical namaskara to the sun is a procedure practiced from ancient Vedic times.

Further, in India you can see many people who do not practice yoga or the formal ritualistic sandhyavandana, standing on the terrace or on the beach, facing East early in the morning, and doing prostrations a few times, returning to the standing position every time. They do not call it Yoga but suryanamaskara. Some of the present day yoga enthusiasts however do the suryanamaskara, probably at night, in any direction or directionless, do not use the mantras or the devotional bhavana associated with it, but as a mere workout.

I had chanted the suyanamaskara mantra almost on every Sunday with my guru for several years. Namarupa also published my article on Sandhya vandana with pictures of the steps some time back. I also have the one hour long Suryanamaskara mantra chant from the Yajur Veda (which I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya) recorded in mid ’80s and the CDs are still made available in India.

Sri Krishnamacharya’s range of teaching was sweeping. I have mentioned about the asana teaching, his chikitsa krama and vinyasa krama. His chanting of vedas was beautiful and very engaging. I do not know of any yoga teacher during his times who could chant as well as he could from memory. He earned the title “Veda Kesari” or Lion of Vedas. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a Sanskrit Pandit. He taught the vedanta philosophy, the prastana trayas, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutra and the Bhagavad Gita in the visishtadvaita tradition. He was given the title “Vedanta Vageesa”. He was also quite familiar with the advaitic interpretation. He once said while doing the sutra on Anandamaya “Anandamaya abhyasat” in which the two interpretations, advaita and visistadwaita differ from each other, “If you want I can teach you the advaitic interpretation, but advaita may be intellectually challenging but does not give the emotional satisfaction one gets from the visishtadvaitic approach”. He also taught us several important Upanishads. I studied with him several Upanishad vidyas from the major Upanishads, like Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Kaushitaki and others. Some of the vidyas he taught include Pancha kosa Vidya, panchagni, pranava, madhu, Sandilya, Dahara Pratardana and many others.

Once I asked him why if the goal is the same, understanding Brahman the ultimate Reality, then there are so many Upanishads, why so many vidyas. He would say that pupils have different questions about the ultimate reality and these vidyas take you from the known to the unknown.

Supposing fifty people, strangers from different places, go to an unknown country, Pineland, and take a picture with the leader of the country, Mr Pineman. Every one sends home a copy of the picture by email. The way they would point to the unknown leader, Mr Pineman, to those back home would be to start from the known. The known entity in the picture will be the one who sends the picture. He may tell his son/daughter, ”the leader is three rows in front and eight to the right of me.” Another person would start first by asking his kid to identify him/her first in the picture and may say the leader is three rows behind and five seats to the left. Likewise, all the various vidyas of the Upanishads try to help the aspirants to realize the ultimate truth, starting from a known tatwa. I had the privilege of studying several Upanishd vidyas from my guru Sri Krishnamacharya.

He also taught many of the sibling philosophies so that one’s understanding of Yoga and Vedanta will be on firm grounds. He taught Samkhya philosophy by explaining the Samkhya karika with the commentary of Gaudapada. He also taught Yoga Sutra in considerable detail. He had obtained the titles “Yogacharya” and “Samkhya Siromani”. He also was an expert in another profound philosophy called Nyaya and had been conferred the title “Nyayacharya”. He also taught smaller or easier works like Tarka Sangraha to introduce the difficult Nyaya philosophy.

His religious studies were outstanding. He was such an expert in the Vaishnava philosophy, that he was in consideration to head a well known Vaishnava Mutt. He was truly a devotional person. As he practiced yoga he performed his daily puja with great devotion. He had several students who studied the Vaishnava religion in considerable detail. He could quote from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several other puranas like Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, etc.

I do not know of any person who was so well versed in the sastras and also at the same time an outstanding practising Yogi. Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, it is almost exclusively due to his yogasana teachings. But his scholarship and teachings were enormous. I feel a bit sad when he is portrayed as a hatha yoga teacher who plagiarized some exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and nothing more. [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe there is some common ground between these two different physical disciplines. I continue to remain in awe of his enormous scholarship, practice and teachings and kindness towards his students. He was a teacher who would uplift you, a true Acharya. When you study with him, you get an unmistakable feeling that his only goal in life was to transmit the traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the student. He was a unique Yogi, a unique teacher, a unique individual. Twenty years after his passing away, I remember him everyday, while practicing, studying or teaching, sometimes in dreams — fondly.”

If you want to study with a true yogi, a true yoga scholar, and a vedic chant master, Ramaswamiji will teach at the Chicago Yoga Center September 17-26.

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8 thoughts on “Krishnamarcharya and those British gymnastics

  1. Wonderful article, Linda. I read the whole thing with great interest.

    Let me be the first to admit that I had a much too narrow view of Krishnmarcharya before reading this blog, even though I studied “Heart of Yoga”, which is his son's homage to his teaching.

    And the disappointing quotes from Krishnamarcharya's writings, which Desikachar includes in the back of his book, don't begin to hint at the vast erudition of the man as related by Ramaswamiji.

    On the subject of asana, could you ask Georg Feuerstein and Singleton to respond and perhaps reconcile these two seeming divergent points of view?

    Thanks for the education.

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal

  2. thanks for reading, Bob….

    but I'm not really interested in a he said-she said-he said argument. I posted my teacher's newsletter and if they or anyone else wishes to comment, they can comment. or they can email Ramaswamiji directly. or go to his workshops.

    “I had a much too narrow view of Krishnmarcharya … even though I studied “Heart of Yoga”, which is his son's homage to his teaching.”

    yes, I know what the book is about. and your comment again illustrates why studying with a teacher trumps reading books, even if you've read them 10 times. personal experience really is the best.

    after one workshop in 2003, Ramaswamiji inspired me enough to go to heart of yoga to study. and I've been returning every year.

    thanks for reading.

  3. Hi Linda,

    thanks for this interesting article! There is one point I didn't understand:

    “the teachers said that personal transformation can only begin in a group class; it is achieved by working one on one consistently with a teacher over a period of time. I truly believe this as I have seen the differences with private students v. group classes.”

    Is the point here that it is important to have one on one tome with your teacher , or to participate in group classes?

    Looking forward to your reply!

  4. I can not thank you enough Linda for posting Ramaswamiji's news letter.
    I was nodding at every other line(actually every line but that would make me nod too much and hurt my neck)
    When I began reading the post and the lines about yoga and gymnastic, I went ,”what the XX….”. I thought of the debate that broke between Chopra and Shukla some time ago. First cut off the yoga from its hindu roots and then connect it to gymnastics..
    I wonder what does Mr. Ramaswamiji have to say on that debate.

    It was so wonderful to read the post.
    I bet that my great grand father who wrote a commentary on yoga sutras or my fathers uncle who is in his 90s and performs “sandya” thrice a day and practices yogasanas never even heard of Krishanammacharya or gymnastics and they. You will find lot of people in India from older generations who are unaware of KYM pioneer but still chant Gayatri mantra and various other mantras and having great knowledge of puranas, upanishads and consider yogasana abhyas a part of their daily lives.

    I am now thinking what would Krshanammacharya be thinking of getting the yogasana practice to the west.Would he have any second thoughts?:)

    I would LOVE to study with Ramaswamiji but my life currently does not allow me to do so :(
    May be some day..universe will grant me my wish.

  5. “the point here that it is important to have one on one tome with your teacher , or to participate in group classes?”

    both!!

    but there is certainly a different dynamic in group classes that SOMETIMES is not conducive to deeper learning….

    in my experience, nothing can replace that intimate transmission of wisdom directly from a teacher

  6. I know I've been tardy in replying to this post! I've been meaning to and then… the posts that make me read more interesting content and that are more juicy I find, take me longer to get around to reading. But then, I always enjoy them more, too. :)

    And I love this:

    “What were you doing for 30 years with him?”

    Haha! Ohmygoodness! I would count myself LUCKY to have unfettered access to my Guru for that many years! What could you learn in that time??? It's more like, what couldn't you learn?

    I think it's natural for us human beings to want to simplify things, to draw similarities between different objects… but just because we desire that, doesn't make it so.

    People can learn to bend over and touch their toes (or rather, re-learn since they could do that as a child), and yet that isn't necessarily yoga.

    In the same way, both yoga and gymnastics have some similar actions. Or rather, they look similar on the outside in their form. But for gymnastics, that's as far as it goes – perfecting the form. For yoga, that is a by-product of the internal workings and awakenings.

    Big difference really.

  7. “People can learn to bend over and touch their toes (or rather, re-learn since they could do that as a child), and yet that isn't necessarily yoga.”

    that reminds me of the story I read about a yoga student who thinks he is an “advanced” student because he can put his leg behind his neck and other stuff. Thinking he has accomplished everything, he goes to India to find a “yoga master” to teach him more. He finds a yoga master in a cave (of course) and begs to become his student. the yoga master tells him to show him his most advanced pose, so the guy does some leg behind the neck arm balance.

    “hmmmmm….,” says the master. “children can do that, too.”

    the guy is shocked and dismayed and disillusioned. the master says, “now you can start learning yoga.”

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