The Director of the KYM Institute of Yoga Studies, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Nrithya Jagannathan, shares her spiritual journey with Indica Yoga, and insists that students access and understand the roots of yoga to gain a better understanding of the subject.
As a student of yoga, it is likely that you’ve heard of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. He’s considered the father of modern yoga and his students, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and TKV Desikachar (Sri Krishnamacharya’s son) founded some of the most globally well-known schools of yoga, including the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) in Chennai. I first heard about Nrithya Jagannathan when I was co-ordinating Indica Yoga’s Global Festival of Yoga (June - July 2021) and Nrithyaji was to give a presentation on mantra and bhava. She is the director of the KYM and before watching the session, I was expecting a stern, conservative yoga teacher but I was wrong. Nrithyaji is all warmth and immediately puts one at ease with her radiant smile and kind, welcoming eyes.
It is rare to meet a teacher that can’t be categorised by systems and shares their knowledge of yoga with authenticity and equality. This liberal, equanimous approach to teaching yoga is not easy in a world filled with shortcut yoga courses and a new variant of yoga mushrooming every few months. Nrithyaji belongs to that rare breed of teachers who is completely rooted in tradition but knows how to apply that knowledge to modern minds and modern students.
Indica Yoga caught up with her to talk about all things yoga and listed below are excerpts from our conversation.
Sophia: How did your journey to yoga begin?
Nrithya Jagannathan: I come from a family that is reasonably spiritual, and I’ve always liked visiting temples and offering puja. It was always something that I did out of choice from a young age. I first got a deeper connection with spirituality when I started learning Bharatanatyam. I was seven when I started and my teacher, Mrs. Krishnakumari Narendran, is a well-known dance acharya in Chennai — her dance was very Bhakti-oriented. I was very keen on dance, it was the driving passion in my life, and through Bharatanatyam, I was introduced to the world of our stories, our puranas, and I was enthralled by these. By the time I was 9, Krishnakumariji included me in her travelling dance troupe and we travelled across India performing. At the time, many of these performances were at temples, so I was continuously exposed to that environment from a young age. I would say those years were when the seeds of spirituality were planted in my mind. In addition to my dance as sadhana, my schooling and education also veered me towards spirituality as I studied at the Krishnamurti Foundation.
Sophia: How did your schooling and education shape your spiritual development?
Nrithya Jagannathan: The Krishnamurti schools nurtured my mind because of the nature-centric approach to learning. Students are taught to have a life that is integrated with nature. We were encouraged to choose a path that we truly delighted in. Nothing was enforced. Most importantly, we were asked to learn with a spirit of non-competitiveness and those values still remain with me. That schooling shaped the foundation of my spiritual education. In fact, my mother always groused about how I didn’t push myself to the front with dancing (laughs). But I explain to her that my joy comes from dancing, and it’s enough. This is an important value I learned in the Krishnamurti schooling system. When we don’t compete, we enjoy what we do. I have always been in schools rooted in our tradition and dharma, and the effects of that education last a lifetime. Another major influence was learning Sanskrit. Understanding Sanskrit opened up a whole new world to me.
Sophia: Tell us about your association with the KYM?
Nrithya Jagannathan: When I was around 20 or 21, I came upon an opportunity to work on a project with the Aurobindo Society as a research associate. The project was on classical dance, and that again was a dream project because it allowed me to travel across India meeting classical dancers, plus, it exposed me to the Aurobindo Society cause I would visit them every month and stay there. The project went on for four years. After that, once again, serendipity. I was wondering what to do next, and saw an ad in a newspaper for a copy editor at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. The ad asked for someone 28 years or older and I was only 22. My mother convinced me to go for the interview. She said I should experience what it is like to be interviewed for a job regardless of whether or not I got it (laughs). I went for the interview, met Mr. Sridharan, the then Managing Trustee of KYM and was given the job. This was when I first met Sir, Sri Desikachar. That was a meeting that set the base for my path for he was an unique human being, an insightful teacher and an intuitive healer. This was a remarkable blessing indeed. Given my age, he was also very kind towards me and I was blessed with many opportunities to study under him.That started my journey with the KYM and yoga, and nearly 20 years later, I am now Head of Studies and Training at the KYM. The path opened before me and I am blessed to be able to walk this path that I love so dearly.
Sophia: What are your views on the way yoga is being learned and taught?
Nrithya Jagannathan: An asana-centric approach to teaching yoga is a modern yoga problem. I certainly have nothing against the practice of āsana-s but am also concerned about making Yoga out to be only physical. Asana is a great base to facilitate wellness, which is important with so much illness and disease in our environment. But, as a teacher, it is one’s responsibility to study the subject in detail. As a therapist and teacher, you must know the complete context and evolution of yoga, so you can teach it correctly. I am talking about the philosophy of yoga and like any philosophy, it takes time to learn and understand.
Sophia: How can modern yoga teachers avoid becoming one-dimensional and expand their understanding of how to teach yoga?
Educate yourself about the origin and history of yoga to understand the context of its teachings. This is important. Modern TTCs offer shortcut methods to becoming a teacher and these important aspects are not considered, so teachers become one-dimensional. This is what leads to problems of cultural appropriation — an indifference and lack of respect for the origin and context of Yoga Sadhana. This is no pseudoscience but a very penetrative and nuanced system of understanding the mind and transcending its limitations.
Everyone is in such a hurry to become a yogi (laughs). You have to have patience. In fact, in the Bhagavadgita, when Arjuna asks what happens to a Yogabhrashta, Krishna assures him that the power of the sadhana will go with the sadhaka in the successive births. A 200 hour TTC does not give us the eligibility to title ourselves as Yogis and Yoginis!
It’s also the responsibility of my generation and the generations that come to ensure that our children learn the cultural traditions of our society. Not for any other reason but because these traditions are rooted in science and were designed for optimum health and well-being. We haven’t bothered to find out the origin and context of yoga, and now with all the modern political drama, people are starting to treat yoga as an “ism.” In all this modern convolution, we are losing sight of the fact that yoga is a science of the mind and it is a discipline that leads you to a higher recognition of the spirituality that is within you. These practises go back millenia, to Vedic origins. Over time, Sanatana Dharma has come to be known as Hinduism but Sanatana Dharma addressed all facets of life. Sanatana Dharma wasn’t just about worshipping in a temple. It was about learning basic life principles — how to live well, how to engage with others amicably, how to engage with animals, with plants, with the world at large. The Vedic vision is one of a connected whole, each part of which is vital for harmony. Compartmentalising this remarkable vision into the tiny box of Hinduism is highly skewed and problematic.
Sophia: Why is it important for teachers to have this deeper, expansive understanding of Yoga and Vedanta and Sanskrit?
Nrithya Jagannathan: India has a very powerful knowledge culture that dates back millennia and without knowing or tracing the history of how these practises have evolved and changed, you can’t teach them in the correct context. With a poor understanding of Sanskrit, it is very easy to misinterpret Vedic lore. This is also why it is important for yoga teachers to have an understanding of the root words and their meanings. For example, understanding the context in which Patanjali is using the word Ishwara. Ishwara does not mean the same as the English word ‘God’. There are so many dimensions to the word in Sanskrit. If a teacher does not understand in what context Patanjali said Ishwara Pranidhana, it is very easy to misunderstand that Yoga is only a “Hindu” practice. Yes, Yoga shares the same roots as all the rivers of Bharatiya culture, but nowhere is Patanjali indicating that anyone is excluded from the practice of Yogas on account of a religious belief. In fact, Krishnamacharya would always say, “If you can breathe, you can practise yoga. Breathing (to be alive) is the only eligibility needed to practise yoga.”
There is a lot in Sanskrit that is difficult to translate. Even the word yoga is hard to translate in its true essence. Or words like Dharma, Moksha. These are hard to translate. So as a yoga teacher, if you don’t speak or even understand the basic root words connected to yoga, how will you teach the meaning of those words and in the right context? If you are merely a care-seeker practitioner going to Yoga class to manage neck ache, injuries, stress, etc, you may not need that in-depth 360 degree knowledge of the subject, but as a teacher, this contextual base is essential.
Yoga needs to be contextualised. If you want to teach Yoga, study the Yoga sutras, study the Bhagavad Gita. Don’t dismiss these scriptures as irrelevant to yoga practice. They are all interconnected and essential. Understanding these scriptures will only deepen your practice.
Sophia: What is your advice to yoga students and people who want to teach yoga?
Nrithya Jagannathan: When looking for a teacher or someone to train you to teach, look for Jnana Paramparas, lineages of teachers. Follow a living tradition. We have yoga centres mushrooming by the thousands and that is ok. I understand that people want to earn a living. You can do a short 200-hour course and get a certificate but what does it mean? If you want a deep understanding of yoga, you have to find a jnana parampara and then align yourself to that, whatever it might be. There are countless such knowledge traditions in India where students can learn the correct application of knowledge. For example, knowing the mantras isn’t enough. You also have to know when and why they are chanted and in what context. Mantras have their own niyamas to follow. So even if you want to do a short course on asana, I would advise students to complement that with learning at a place that deepens their knowledge of the entire subject.
Some students have a great physical practice and others might have bodies that don’t comply, but they are yogis, too. Yoga is not about only having a certain physique. You may have a perfect body but what is happening in your mind, what is happening in your heart? To be a good yoga teacher or student, you have to have a deeper understanding that goes beyond physical boundaries. Yoga is a sadhana for individuals and it helps us find our humanity.
Sophia: Any advice for young yoga students?
Nrithya Jagannathan: My advice to students is to please make the effort to find the roots of yoga. If you cut the plant of yoga from its roots, it will change shape and become something else. So those authentic roots are very important to your spiritual development. Bharatiya Samskriti is spiritual in nature, be it music, dance, traditional theatre, art or architecture. Unfortunately, when we try to revive our culture, it is seen as political. This is a problem. Yoga is not religious or political. It’s one wave in the ocean that we call Bharatiya Samskruti. The wave has no existence independent of the ocean it belongs to. The same holds good for Yoga and the larger cultural context in which it evolved, several millennia ago.
Nrithya Jagannathan is the Director of the KYM Institute of Yoga Studies, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), Chennai. Her session on Mantra & Bhavana for Indica Yoga’s Global Festival of Yoga can be viewed here.