How do the teachings from Krishnamacharya and Desikachar apply Yoga to the individual?
Fundamentally, the starting point determines the direction……
In exploring this premise, I would suggest reading a post from 2018 exploring the chronological teaching model outlined in the article ‘What are the concepts of Sṛṣṭi Krama, Sthiti Krama and Anta Krama’. Especially considering that these important principles from Krishnamacharya’s formational teaching, in the later years of his tenure in Mysore and early years of his tenure in Madras, also influenced and set the styles for those of his pupils who went on to influence the teaching of Yoga in the West.
However, if we apply this chronological model within the generic modality inherent within much of group class teaching in the West these past decades, we already have an issue, since most people coming to Yoga are already at some point in their middle years or Sṛṣṭi Krama. This can also mean that despite looking for such as physical fitness or mental challenge, they are not necessarily coming from a Sṛṣṭi or growth stage starting point.
Planning an Appropriate Āsana Practice
How can we consider factors around the planning of an appropriate Āsana practice?
For example, how would we consider the following situation:
- Rising at 6.30 am
- Stiffness in the neck
- Stiffness in the legs
- Nostrils blocked
- Stomach tight
- Head feeling heavy
- Work meeting at 8.30 am (20 minutes walking time needed)
We can find out how much time is available, say 30′. So now we can prepare a practice. Though, whatever principles we use there are certain things that need to happen.
However, we should have respect for:
Laṅghana Kriyā is a Viniyoga methodology with its reducing, lightening or contractive potentials within the practice of Āsana, Mudrā and Prāṇāyāma. As a practice process it is actualised through an understanding of the primary principles that inform Haṭha Yoga and Āyurveda.
The Viniyoga, or application of Laṅghana Kriyā effects a concentration of Agni from the periphery to the core. This outcome is approached traditionally through effecting systemic changes, primarily in the systemic energies of digestion and elimination. Thus from an Āyurveda perspective, the use of practices which bring about a functional energetic change in the qualities of Vāta, Pitta and Kapha Doṣa.
Can we find some similar characteristics between various individuals within Āsana…
If we look at all the variables, can we find some similarities between various individuals within Āsana and Āsana practice?
Here a pragmatic choice that arises, especially relevant for Western bodies today, is the question of establishing what are the priority areas within any given Āsana. This question can be examined through the lens of consideration of setting postural priorities around what constitutes a primary characteristic and what constitutes a secondary characteristic. In other words the importance of where, within the form, to choose or allow an adaptation in the Āsana and where, within the form, to endeavour not to compromise the Āsana.
I do feel these days that our understanding in Āsana practice is dominated by the Nāma, or name and the Rūpa or final form, with little emphasis on the Lakṣaṇa or inherent characteristics of the Āsana. Furthermore, how understanding this aspect can have a profound effect on the approach, application and outcome of the overall or accumulative impact of the Āsana within the student’s personal practice.
We need to consider the process that surrounds one’s Āsana practice…
As well as considering what is acceptable to each and everybody as content of an Āsana practice, we need to consider the process that surrounds one’s Āsana practice.
Examples of Practice as a Process include inquiry into:
- Where are we starting from in terms of practice as a process?
- Where are we going to in terms of practice as a process?
- Is this process of potential change working with immediate needs in mind?
- Is this process of potential change working with long term needs in mind?
- Is this process of potential change trying to integrate both immediate needs and long term needs?
So what is Yoga practice as a process? Practice as a process is a consideration of all the factors that surround the establishing of a home practice.
How do we apply Viniyoga to students already set in a particular mode of Āsana practice?
If we have certain principles underpinning how we teach, how do we apply Viniyoga to students already set in a particular mode of Āsana practice?
For example, if they have a physical problem then you have something to work with. However, you need to be tactful about pointing such things out, maybe waiting. Otherwise, you can try to meet them halfway i.e. adding a couple of things to their practice they know and a couple they don’t.
If they have been practising in this way for several years what does it matter if it takes several months to influence their Āsana practice.
There are Many Approaches to Āsana Practice
To consider this statement we need to look at different approaches to Āsana practice. Here, we can use viewpoints of different ‘styles’ of practice as to what are seen by many as the two primary ‘classical’ Āsana.
From these examples we are led to the belief that we must respect that there are various viewpoints on the principles of practice for these two primary Āsana.
When encountering a student wanting to explore how to engage with Yoga practice, what could be the starting points for examining what might work for them in terms of determining appropriate short term and longer term steps towards establishing stages in how to proceed?
Here it could be helpful to look at what sits behind their intentions to practice, as well as what appears in front of us in terms of the person and their overt requests around the role of Yoga in their life.
This means we need to investigate what is the process that sits behind and stimulates, or even exacerbates their urge towards a Yoga practice, before considering what is the actual content that we will offer for the first steps into the arena of cultivating and maintaining a personalised practice.
So, what do we mean by investigating what is the process that sits behind their wish to practice?
There is an increasing tendency in terms of Modern Therapeutic Yoga application strategies, especially when marketing Yoga as a Therapy through group class situations, to create brand banding to identify ‘sufferers’.
Personally, I feel it is not appropriate when considering Yoga practices for others to ‘lump’ people together as say back pain sufferers, or migraine sufferers, or insomnia sufferers, etc.
It is tempting, or even convenient also, to propose a technique and then state that this technique will help this particular situation or problem.
“We cannot say that this Āsana or this
Prāṇāyāma can be given for this disease.”
– T Krishnamacharya
However, my teacher taught me that Yoga is to be tailored to the needs and aspirations of each person rather than fitting the person to some ready-made group standard technique.
It is true to say there are some common characteristics within various health problems or conditions, but then so there are in all areas of people’s lives. We live together in groups determined by commonalities and yet each of us is unique in our view and relationship with our surroundings.
I feel Krishnamacharya’s accomplishments should not be defined just by his more well known characterisations, such as his remarkable philosophical background being applied to contextualising traditional Indian texts from within a Yoga viewpoint, or his unique access to Haṭha teachings and texts and innovating from these resources when choreographing modern postural Āsana synthesises for children and young adults.
“All of Krishnamacharya’s and Desikachar’s
life work focused on the training of students,
some of whom then went on to become teachers.”
However, what he is less well known for is his work with individual students, probably because it happened behind closed doors and students rarely had cause to speak about it to others. Nor would they have reason to want to teach it to others as it had been taught to them, as it was given at a particular moment in time, within a unique situation, with a specific purpose and within a private, rather than a public group setting.
One important facet I experienced within the teaching process of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar was an intensive apprenticeship into the skills of being able to design individual practices for a range of possibilities, as well as for a variety of situations and stages within a student’s learning interests, needs and practice potentials.
Within this was the key premise of designing an individualised developmental practice for all aspects of practice, rather than just the more well-known notions of therapeutic adaptations, or the homogenous sequencings, that are more commonly seen as representative of Krishnamacharya’s teaching within modern Yoga approaches.
Accordingly, this meant that I spent a lot of time over the years in my lessons with Desikachar learning how to plan practices that incorporated a wide variety of Āsana, Mudrā and Prāṇāyāma techniques, initially as goal in themselves, ere to how these schematics could be applied within a students developmental Yoga journey.
For example in terms of Āsana
Śrī TKV Desikachar 1938-2016
In Memorium August 8th 2019
The teachings that TKV Desikachar received from T Krishnamacharya around Yoga practice and practice theory were far more extensive than is often presumed from the contemporary perception of Krishnamacharya’s Yoga legacy. These perceptions were mostly formed from either, the more well publicised approaches to Āsana by some of Krishnamacharya’s early students, or the popularised generic view of Viniyoga as a stylistic application of Āsana, found primarily within the therapeutic adaptive Yoga field or commingled breath and movement group Yoga classes.
By way of contrast my own experiences studying with Desikachar, developed over some thirty ongoing visits to Madras over more than two decades to study privately with him, may offer a different insight into the practice possibilities that I became increasingly exposed to. However as with many, even these days, being introduced to the teachings of Krishnamacharya still meant that Āsana was the starting point for our exploration into what is Yoga. In other words the ‘on the practice mat’ aspects of Bāhya Aṅga Sādhana.
Where do we start when approaching the determination to open up to practice options beyond the group class mentality with its double edged sword of support and dependancy? For example we could start by exploring what it means to cultivate a personal regular home practice in terms of looking at it as from the initial viewpoint of being a process, before considering what is its content.
At this point it might be helpful to examine what are the differences between the two concepts of process and content, so vital in the work of Desikachar around planning Yoga practices for individual students. Here it might also be useful to remind ourselves that Krishnamacharya and Desikachar considered teaching individuals as the only valid means to explore Yoga as having both a process and content.
“Yoga Sādhana is about what grows out of
practising alone amidst the inside at home, rather
than practising with others amidst the outside in class.”
So what is Yoga practice as a process?
Even these days, the influence of Krishnamacharya’s teachings around Yoga are primarily known through his exacting teaching of Āsana. This has also been mainly experienced in the West with the developmental work of his early students, such as through the choreographical artistry in the work of Pattabhi Jois or through the geometrical precision in the work of BKS Iyengar.
However this area of Āsana teaching, though itself multifaceted and hugely influential, if disproportionately predominant within Yoga today, only reveals one aspect of the many dimensions of practice expressed within his teaching. This teaching evolved and refined over 70 years, from his return from his long stay around the borders of Nepal and Tibet in 1919, to his death in 1989.
A more all-inclusive insight into the many aspects of these other facets can be ascertained through exploring the multifarious approaches and priorities emphasised within the teaching work of other of Krishnamacharya’s students, such as TKV Desikachar, or S Ramaswami, or AG Mohan.
From exploring the teaching priorities of all these first generation students of Krishnamacharya, a more all-embracing perspective can arise encompassing both the breadth and depth of his mastery of both the teachings of Yoga and their context, place and application within the Indian perspectives on such as soteriology, philosophy and theology.
One example of this depth is Krishnamacharya’s lesser known work in the teaching of Mantra
I was asked in 2011 to provide ‘expert quotes’ in response to three questions for a media article by a freelance journalist on a Yoga related topic. These were my reflections that I am reposting unedited, especially given the surge in these past 7 years in what has become labelled as ‘Yoga Therapy’:
Q1. What are some examples of illnesses or ailments that can improve or be cured with the use of Yoga?
“It is not possible to give examples of illnesses or ailments that can be improved as it all depends on the matrix of the person who may also have certain combinations of problems. A student with cancer may improve or a student with a history of colds may experience little change.
The viewpoint of Yoga is to look at people as individuals and work from there rather than the more usual view of making lists of problems with flash card like answers to a specific problem. e.g. Sciatica, High Blood Pressure, Insomnia, Osteo-arthrosis, Chrohn’s Disease, etc.
“We cannot say that this Āsana or this Prāṇāyāma
can be given for this disease.”
– T Krishnamacharya 1984
What are the concepts of Sṛṣṭi Krama, Sthiti Krama and Antya Krama and what is their significance in relationship to the practice of Āsana, Prāṇāyāma and Dhyānam?
We can approach these three concepts and the question of their relationship with practice from a chronological and within that, a psychological viewpoint. According to the Yoga teachings from T Krishnamacharya there are three chronological and accompanying psychological stages of life, or Tri Krama.
1. The first Krama is the stage of growth and expansion known as Sṛṣṭi Krama. Here, chronologically, the starting point is the age from which people traditionally began the Āsana aspect of Yoga practice.
Prāṇa – Its origin, function and malfunction
The phenomena of body energies and their emanating energy field are found recorded within most Asiatic traditions. Both Chinese and Indian thought have a rich textual history of bio-energy, its function and effects of its malfunction.
In each of these traditions a system of medicine evolved aimed at enhancing and sustaining the flow of Ch’i or Prāṇa within the individual and much interest is now being shown in the West in Traditional Chinese and Indian medicine.
The previous article on the presence and actions of Prāṇa Śakti established links between the mind, breath, and Prāṇa but posed the problem of both Yoga and Āyurveda texts presuming knowledge of what Prāṇa is, how it functions within the individual, and what is the role of Yoga and Āyurveda in relation to sustaining the intensity of Prāṇa within an individual’s health, harmony and mental stability
The presence and actions of Prāṇa Śakti
Generally the purpose of Yoga is to bring about a change within the prominence of awareness and its subsequent impact on the attitude and function of the individual.
Whether this change is explored as a yoking of two opposites, as in Prāṇa and Apāna, or an unyoking of two seemingly inseparable aspects, as in Puruṣa and Prakṛti, time and a process are involved. Also this notion of change may be initiated within an individual’s physical body, energetic processes, mental attitude and emotional responses.
However, within Indian thought there is a concept that is common to the different philosophies and to the different aspects of the individual. This concept is the presence, power and actions of Prāṇa.
The Westernisation/Modernisation of Yoga Āsana with its increasing emphasis on structural postural focus according to the latest postural trends or particular flavour of the teachers style are prominent within the modern diversity which sees Yoga taught as only a Postural Practice and extending into many varied fields of exercise ranging from Aqua Yoga to Zen Yoga.
However there are questions that increasingly need to be asked within these approaches, especially where the boundaries around what is now generically grouped Yoga Āsana, blur into more generalised concepts of Yoga as hot exercise, cool exercise, medicalised exercise, meditative exercise, etc.
Otherwise in this simplification or reductionism of Yoga into Āsana, into modern postural exercise, or the current increasing mis-identification of postural exercise with Yoga, or even more tragic, with Yoga itself; the deeper purposeful principles within the relationship of the physical body, within the energetic body, within the psychic body, disappear in the search for perfect posture, perfect performance, perfect structural integrity, safe postural practice, etc.
Amongst the many concepts taught to me by my teacher, to help with understanding and thus working more skilfully with the student, was the notion of Bhāva and Abhāva.
The teaching within this important concept is that when a student comes wanting to learn Yoga, are they interested in learning Yoga to move towards the deeper teachings of Yoga (Bhāva), or wanting to learn Yoga in order to move away from something they find unhelpful or undesirable in their life (Abhāva).