Stemming The Dilution Of Yoga – The KYM Way

In this interview, Nrithya Jagannathan, Director of the KYM Institute of Yoga Studies, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the training and certification wing of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram speaks about the Krishanmacharya tradition and its role in preserving the core of Yoga.

People residing in Chennai are familiar with Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, one of the pioneering hubs for yoga studies. Nrithya Jagannathan remembers her mother telling her that as a four year old she had visited the establishment shortly after its inception when her mother would go there for her yoga classes.

Yoga has been a tradition in her family, with many members practicing it. She visited the center several times in 1996 due to a dance-related injury sustained on stage. Śri Desikachar ahd done her consultation an designed her practice, that helped her overcome her injury and resume dancing.  Many years passed till her life’s path took her there again

Following the completion of her Master's degree in 2001, during a transitional phase while she was at home after a brief dance tour in America, Nrithya came across a job advertisement in a local newspaper of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram seeking an Editor and Copywriter for its publications. “Despite my background in Communications, the stipulation was an age requirement of 28 and above. Encouraged by my mother, I applied to gain interview experience and understanding. I distinctly recall meeting S Sridharan sir (seniormost teacher at KYM), undergoing the interview process, and ultimately being selected. It was an enriching phase of my life, being around 22 at the time, as I spent considerable time with Desikachar sir, collaborating on various publications. We worked on the book on the Yogasutra among many other publications and the Mantramala, a significant endeavor considering the absence of software for notation back then,” she recounts.

Shortly after taking up her editing assignment, she commenced her Diploma in Yoga studies, driven by her interest in IKS domains. Despite the reputation of Sri Desikachar as a strict taskmaster, she says he was exceedingly kind to her as she was very young. “Owing to my age, I often found myself demonstrating during sessions. I accompanied a team of two very senior teachers on a fundraising world tour for KYM, and when preparing for this was blessed  I received daily teachings from sir, for over three months.  This immersive learning experience continued for over a decade, fostering my keen interest in Yoga academia.”

Nrithya was getting involved in endeavors that had perpetually intrigued her. “Having had no prior background in Yoga but a strong foundation in culture and dance, I embarked on a journey of exploration. Looking back, two decades later, amidst the proliferation of various yoga styles and traditions, KYM stands out as a primary institution for yoga studies, with Sir being a teacher who embodied the principles he taught in every way, while also being remarkably approachable and congenial. Each teacher had their personal anecdotes with him, and I feel privileged to have been part of that environment during a phase of my life when I had ample time with no distractions.”

What was the impoatance of Bhakti for Sri Krishnamacharya?

At a profound level, Krishnamacharya was both a bhakta and an unapologetic Bhāgavata, steeped in his personal faith with unwavering tenacity and yet endowed with a remarkable broadmindedness of not imposing this belief on others, leaving it to every seeker to search and find their true anchor. While renowned as a Yogacharya, he was also a Vedantin, well-versed in all the darshanas..  What sets this teaching tradition apart is the  unequivocal assertion that yoga, as a philosophy, is rooted in Vedic tradition alone. Hence, a comprehensive grasp of Yoga philosophy necessitates an understanding of Vedic literature, Upanishadic philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, and related texts. That being said, both Śrī Krishnamacharya and Śri Desikachar were far-sighted visionaries when it came to making these teachings available in a comprehensible and practical manner to contemporary studmets of Yoga.

Their contention was that Yoga is a moksha shastra, as elucidated by Patanjali himself, with Kaivalyam (liberation) as its ultimate goal. However, they recognized that attaining Kaivalyam may be distant, and in the present, what is imperative is cultivating sustainable sukha.

They advocated for the democratization of Yoga and its therapeutic benefits, emphasizing adaptability in teaching techniques without any imposition. When addressing physical ailments like back pain, migraines, or hypertension, they employed tools such as asana, Pranayama and Dhyana, while incorporating aspects of the student's belief system, including chanting. Chanting holds a central role in KYM therapy, with Desikachar crafting chants using words from diverse faiths. He encouraged individuals to find their Ishwara within the roots of their culture. Their approach ensured that the benefits of Yoga extended beyond those in Hindu Dharma.

While philosophical understanding was imparted as mandated, they exercised discretion in clinical settings, refraining from imposing spiritual beliefs on unresponsive students. They believed that insisting on Hindu practices could deter some individuals from practicing Yoga. Hence, adaptability was key, tailoring teachings to suit each student's inclinations.

However, in the teacher training courses, the foundational framework was consistently grounded in Vedic philosophy, transitioning from Vedas to Shaddarshana, highlighting Yoga's essence as a Vaidika darshana. Krishnamacharya's unwavering devotion and Desikachar's inclusive teaching approach underscored their commitment to making Yoga accessible to all.

What are the roots of this tradition?

Krishnamacharya's lineage is traced back to the Thirumalai family, with his ancestral village being Muchukundapura in Mysore district. His grandfather held a significant position as a Mathadipathi at the Parkala math, indicating a lineage of Vedic Vedantic scholars. Krishnamacharya received his earliest Vedic education at the Parakala matha.

Following many years of study in the Ṣaddarśanas at Kāshi, he embarked on a journey to study under a Tibetan yoga master named Rama Mohana Brahamachari, trekking all the way to Tibet in the late 1920s. Upon his return, he dutifully adhered to his guru's instructions to marry, raise a family, and disseminate the teachings of yoga.

Despite being offered the prestigious position of Mathadipathi pf the PArakala Math many times due to his exceptional education, Krishnamacharya declined, taking as his life’s work the dissemination of yoga.

Krishnamacharya's commitment to yoga led him to serve as the head of the yoga shaala at the palace of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV. This period, starting from the early 1930s until the closure of the shaala post-Independence, marked a phase of extensive teaching and consultation. He trained children of palace guards, while also travelling and lecturing on Yoga and  taught visiting  dignitaries from around the world.

Krishnamacharya's multifaceted approach was evident in his interactions with diverse individuals, reflecting his adaptability and expertise.

Despite his reticence about his personal achievements his contributions were profound. Documentary evidence, including interviews conducted during the British government's study of Ayurveda Vaidyas of India, in which Krishnamacharya was also interviewed at the Mysore palace, sheds light on Krishnamacharya's multifaceted role as a Yoga Acharya and Ayurveda Vaidya.

How is Sri Krishmacharya’s commentary of the Yogasutras different?

When discussing the commentary tradition of the Yogasutras, it's essential to acknowledge its historical timeline, dating back to the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century CE, marking the classical period of Yoga literature. This period includes the foundational text of the Yoga Sutras attributed to Patanjali, which spans a 400-year timeline. Following this, we encounter a commentary attributed to Vyasa, considered the first comprehensive interpretation closely following Patanjali's original text.

Subsequent to Vyasa's commentary, numerous scholars contributed their insights through independent commentaries and sub-commentaries over centuries. Notable among these are Vachaspati Mishra, Vijnanabhikshu, Bhojaraja, Sadashiva Brahmendra, and Narayanateertha, with over 19 commentaries or sub-commentaries in total. Among the more contemporary commentators is Swami Hariharananda Aranya, predating Krishnamacharya.

Krishnamacharya's commentary on the Yoga Sutras, titled Yoga Valli, is particularly noteworthy. This commentary is known for its exhaustive and profound exploration of the sutras. Krishnamacharya's expertise in Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is evident throughout his commentary, positioning it uniquely among others. The first chapter of this commentary, until now only available in a Tamil translation has recently been translated into English and published by Krishnamacharya Yoga MAndiram.

Unlike commentators rooted in Advaita Vedanta or Sankya, Krishnamacharya's commentary is distinctive for its foundation in Visishtaadvaita Siddhanta. This becomes apparent through his treatment of concepts such as Dharma Bhuta Jnanam and Ahamgraha Upasana, both uniquely Sri Vaishnava concepts. In discussing topics like chitta vridhi nirodhaha and shraddha, Krishnamacharya elaborates on these principles, further developing his exposition of Ishwara as Parameshwara, Paramapurusha, Narayana, and Purushottama.

Krishnamacharya's vision of Narayana as the Uttama Purusha as in Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 15, resonates deeply with his Vaishnava roots, emphasizing Srimannarayana, the embodiment of Lakshmi sametha Narayana. This perspective finds echoes in the lesser-known Vaishnava Agamas, particularly evident in texts like the Sri Prashna Samhita within the Pancharatra agamas. Here, discussions on Yoga Ashtanga and its alignment with Vaishnavism principles abound. Krishnamacharya's expertise in these agamas is apparent through his citations from texts like the Lakshmi Tantra, clearly delineating his stance within his commentaries. His unique commentary stands alone, exploring the Yoga Sutras through this Vaishnava lens, a rarity in the realm of yogic literature.

How can scholars take this approach further through research?

To delve deeper into this discourse, a comprehensive examination of yoga's presence in the Pancharatra and Vaikanasa agamas becomes imperative. However, it's acknowledged that such scholarly pursuits may not pique universal interest. Krishnamacharya's devout bhakti is unmistakable, influencing his teachings profoundly. When he outlines his approach to Dhyana, emphasizing Ishwara as the sole object akin to the Narayana Suktam's portrayal, he does so without imposing it on his students. His broad-mindedness is evident in his acceptance of diversity, making adaptations and modifications tailored to individual needs while advocating the pursuit of Narayana. He imparts tools for spiritual elevation, urging students to seek Ananda, or bliss, in their practice. While rooted in tradition, the Krishnamacharya lineage allows room for exploration without imposition, fostering a culture of personal development.

For those inclined to advance this discourse, a thorough study of the Vaishnava agamas within the context of the works of Ramanujacharya and Vedanta Desika is paramount. These texts unveil yogic elements intertwined with devotion. Take, for example, Vedanta Desika's Bhagavad Dhyana Sopana, which intricately describes Lord Ranganatha's divine attributes, inviting devotees on a spiritual journey step by step, from His lotus feet to His sacred crown.

ApAdha chUdam anubhUya harIm SayAnam
madhyE kavEra dhuhithur mudhithAntharAthmA
adhrashtruthAm nayanayOr vishayAntharANAm
yO niSchikAya manavai munivAhanam tham

This is similar to the amalanAdhipirAn in the Divya Prabandams.

kAttavE kaNda pAdha kamalam nallAdai undhi
thEttarum udhara bandham thirumArbu kaNdam sevvAy
vAttamil kaNgaL mEni muniyERith thani pugundhu
pAttinAl kaNdu vAzhum pANar thAL paravinOmE

We celebrated thiruppANAzhwAr who was brought in by lOkasAranga munivar, who entered the sannidhi of periya perumAL alone, who saw the divine feet, beautiful dress, divine navel, very sweet divine stomach, divine chest, divine neck, divine reddish mouth, divine eyes which were like just-then blossomed lotus, divine form as manifested by periya perumAL and who considered praising periya perumAL as the purpose of his living.

Indeed, the teachings of Vaishnava acharyas offer profound insights into the practice of Dhyanam, which undoubtedly influenced Krishnamacharya's interpretations. The path forward involves delving into these teachings, especially considering the vast number of untranslated Vaishnava tantra texts. For instance, the Varaha Upanishad contains remarkable insights not found elsewhere. However, many of these texts remain untranslated and inaccessible due to lack of resources, leaving numerous Sri Vaishnava manuscripts in a dilapidated condition.

To address this gap, there's a pressing need to support the study, research, and analysis of Vaishnava agama texts, particularly regarding their discussions on Dhyanam. Similarly, within the Shaiva Agama tradition, the Yoga Pada segments offer profound perspectives on yoga, warranting attention. The same can be said for scholars and saints like Appaya Dikshitar who have expound on yogic principles.

Focused study within the Vaishnava tradition is essential. A foundational understanding can be gained from texts like the Yatindra Mata Dipika, a seminal work in Sri Vaishnava Siddhanta from the 16th or 17th century, which discusses yoga and Dhyanam. These texts serve as starting points for deeper exploration and research into the rich yogic heritage embedded within the Vaishnava tradition.

How have Sri Krishnamacharya and Sri Deshikachar shown us how to respect and preserve lineages in Yoga?

Sri Desikachar attributed much of his knowledge, including his approach to applying yoga, to his father. He was ahead of his time, eschewing the imposition of rigid asana forms. Recognizing the diversity of human bodies, he emphasized function over form, urging practitioners to understand anatomy and individual variations in bodily function. This approach, exemplified by the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), focuses on how postures serve individuals, allowing for adaptation and evolution of practice over time.

In terms of philosophy, Desikachar's encounter with Jiddu Krishnamurthy marked a significant juncture. Krishnamurthy's teachings resonated with specific aspects of the Yoga Sutras, particularly concerning the mind and the importance moving with the flow. Their relationship developed over years, influencing Desikachar's writings, such as "The Heart of Yoga" and "What are we Seeking," which reflect a synthesis of the influence of J Krishnamurti and Krishnamacharya on him.

Desikachar, belonging to a generation of teachers catering to Western students, adeptly aligned his teachings with their context and level of understanding, influenced by Krishnamurthy's philosophy. While he did not deviate from traditional teachings, he presented them in a way accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, always unpacking the philosophy to the level of the student.

With his therapeutic focus, Desikachar emphasized inclusivity, welcoming seekers of all faiths and beliefs..

Both Krishnamacharya and Desikachar refrained from assuming the role of gurus, with Desikachar particularly averse to being called guru or guruji, preferring the title of "sir," as a comproise for people were unable to call him by name. He emphasized that he could only guide, while the true guru is the divine essence within each individual that needs to be awakened. Despite the abundance of brilliant gurus and masters in India, many choose to remain out of the public eye, focusing on their practice rather than seeking recognition.

It's essential to recognize that no single teacher imparts the entirety of yoga's wisdom. Teachers select and deliver teachings based on students' readiness and eligibility, as per the principle of adhikaram. Each teacher's approach reflects a unique understanding of yoga's vastness and the diverse needs of students.

In contrast to the traditional paramparic tradition of yoga transmission, modern yoga has become institutionalized, often with a focus on certification and studio culture. However, this institutionalization has led to fragmentation, with yoga being taught as a walk-in, walk-out practice in many studios. The fragmentation is also evident in the way yoga is taught academically, with syllabi often lacking a comprehensive understanding of texts like the Yoga Sutras.

As a member of the academic committee for various certifying bodies, I've observed significant fragmentation in the way the Yoga Sutras are taught. Often, students are introduced to isolated concepts such as "Yoga chitta vritti nirodha" or "abhyasa-vairagya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ," without understanding the broader context of the text. Some syllabi briefly touch on concepts like "Shraddha" and "Ishwara Pranidhanam" before jumping to the Asana Sutras, then covering a few Pranayama Sutras and subsequently introducing Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi in Chapter 3.

This approach lacks continuity and fails to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the Yoga Sutras. To truly grasp the essence of Patanjali's teachings, one must study the text in its entirety, considering the interconnections between different concepts and chapters.

In designing yoga programs, it's crucial to incorporate a balanced curriculum that includes theoretical and practical components. While learning about asanas, pranayama, and Dhyanam is essential, it's equally important to delve into the philosophical and historical foundations of yoga. This involves exploring the Vedic context of yoga, understanding its evolution over time, and studying related disciplines such as Ayurveda, psychology, anatomy, and physiology.

I emphasize to every cohort that studying the Yoga Sutras is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and reflection. Mere familiarity with the terms and concepts is just the beginning; true mastery of the text demands a deep dive into its teachings, revisiting and reexamining them over time. Then again, an intellectual stsufy is of no consequence in the absence of personal practice and sadhana, as tauht by one’s teacher. Only then can students truly internalize the wisdom contained within the Yoga Sutras and apply it meaningfully to their practice and lives.

Desikachar's own journey involved studying the Yoga Sutras over seven iterations with his father, highlighting the depth and complexity of the text. He stressed the importance of aligning one's practice with the transformation of the individual, rather than merely mastering postures or techniques.

In light of this, I advocate for supplementing institutional learning with study under traditional paramparas, which offer a deeper understanding of yoga beyond mere physical practice. There is a need for patience and dedication when studying under such teachers, who may subject students to rigorous challenges to facilitate growth.

Indica's initiative to establish a gurukula reflects a growing recognition of the importance of traditional methods of yoga transmission. The gurukula style of learning fosters a deeper connection between teacher and student, providing an immersive environment for the study and practice of yoga. There is a  necessity of returning to traditional methods of yoga transmission to prevent the dilution of the tradition. True understanding and mastery of yoga require dedication, patience, and repeated study under the guidance of experienced teachers within established lineages.

There is a need for that kind of resurgence for yoga. More than popular yoga, to be with a teacher, to study, to learn, and to repeat this again and again becomes vital otherwise the tradition will be diluted.