A Lifetime of Studies and Practice
My teacher was the yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), a spiritual practitioner of rare mastery. He had a great thirst for knowledge and a matching capacity for learning. Even as a boy, Krishnamacharya had a sharp mind and a deep curiosity, and was an exceptional student. Trained in the study of the Vedas, an ancient body of knowledge, Krishnamacharya also learned the fundamentals of yoga from his father.
He studied Sanskrit grammar and logic at Queens College in Benares, while continuing the practice of yoga as taught by his father. He then went on to obtain a university degree in yoga theory and Samkhya philosophy (the oldest among Eastern philosophies). Krishnamacharya next went to Tibet to study yoga with the yogi Ramamohana Brahmachari. For the majority of the next seven years, Krishnamacharya studied the Yogasutra and further Samkhya philosophy and practiced asanas and pranayama under his tutelage.
After his study in Tibet, Krishnamacharya returned to India and obtained several additional university degrees in Eastern philosophies. He then began giving lectures and demonstrations on yoga, and began accepting students. Under the patronage of the maharaja of Mysore, Krishnamacharya directed the yoga shala in the Jaganmohan Palace. He eventually moved to Chennai, where my wife and I lived.
Sri T. Krishnamacharya is now recognized by many as the foremost authority in the field of hatha yoga knowledge and practice and is often called “the father of modern yoga.”
I was trained as an engineer but was interested in spiritual pursuits. In 1971, I attended a lecture given by Krishnamacharya and was struck by his extraordinary vitality, authoritative presence, and his encyclopedic knowledge of yoga. He was more than eighty years old at that time, but had the constitution of a man twenty years younger.
In 1971, I began my study with him, which continued until his demise in 1989.
In 1971, I began learning asanas and pranayama. This was followed by studies on the Upanishads from 1973 to 1974, covering the Prasnopanishad, Mundakopanishad, and others.
In 1975, having attained proficiency in the practice of asanas, Krishnamacharya began teaching me the theory behind asana practice, and composed a series of verses on yoga known as the Yoganjalisaaram. We then began classes on yoga therapy.
My study of the Yogasutra also formally commenced in 1975, and continued until Krishnamacharya’s demise in 1989.
From 1975 to 1976, Krishnamacharya explained a very interesting text, the Yoga Yajnavalkya (which I would go on to translate into English twenty-five years later).
Continuing with studies on hatha yoga over the next two years from 1976 to 1977, I had verse by verse classes on the most well-known text on this topic, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
For three years, from 1976 to 1979, we undertook a detailed study of an essential text, the Bhagavad Gita.
As my studies on the Bhagavad Gita were going on, Krishnamacharya felt that it was time to go to the roots of the subject, and so, from 1977 to 1978, he explained the Samkhya Karika, taking up each verse, as it is such a dense text.
Through a span of almost fifteen years, from 1975 to 1989, we continued to do Vedic chanting regularly.
In 1979, using an upcoming seminar in Europe as an excuse, I persuaded Krishnamacharya to go into the topic of pranayama in detail, including the more esoteric and complex techniques that he had earlier been reluctant to teach.
In 1980, Krishnamacharya delivered a series of in-depth classes over several months, on yoga and Ayurveda, focusing on their therapeutic applications.
From 1980 to 1981, our attention turned to Vedic rituals, their symbolism and uses, looking into sources such as the Gayatri Ramayana, and examining the daily Vedic practices such as Sandhyavandana.
From 1981 to 1982, we returned to the topic of hatha yoga, taking up the Gheranda Samhita and the esoteric practices in the third and fourth chapters of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This time, as I had already studied most of the hatha yoga techniques, Krishnamacharya chose to do a comparative exposition of the hatha yoga texts, adding his own explanations and notes. This period of study has been greatly illuminating to me years later, when I have looked through his explanations again. At that time, I did not understand the nuances of all his explanations, sometimes derived from his practice and experience in the 1910s and 1920s. But in the later years, as I reviewed what he had said, I began to understand the connections much more clearly.
In 1982, we returned to the study of philosophy with the Yoga Taravali of Sri Sankara.
The following year, in 1983, Krishnamacharya turned his attention to the very interesting topic of Vedic phonetics, going through key points from the works of Panini, and adding excerpts from the Taittiriya Pratishakya.
In 1985, there was one more round of classes and cases on yoga and Ayurveda as therapy.
Krishnamacharya continued to teach all through his last years. From 1986 to 1989, my studies gradually veered toward the deeper aspects of spiritual practice, looking at yantras, mantras, some Tantra rituals, the Taittiriya Upanishad, and Narayana Upanishad.
In general, over the years of my study with Krishnamacharya, classes on three or more topics would be on-going. Studies of most texts spanned around six months to three years, two to three hours a week, depending on the text.
Krishnamacharya’s demise in 1989 was naturally a major shift in my life. I had been studying with him almost every day for so many years. But now my teacher was no more.
I had attempted to extract key principles from Krishnamacharya’s teaching in my book, Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind, receiving a foreword from him. That book was published in 1993.
For around six years, from 1990 to 1995, I continued to consolidate what I had learned from the master, and to preserve this knowledge, prepared manuals on yoga, spanning eight volumes on philosophy, wellness, and therapy.
Krishnamacharya was familiar with Ayurveda and its applications, but he was not a practicing Ayurvedic physician. I felt the need to spend some more years studying this subject in depth. So, I returned to study classical Ayurveda in detail, over the six years from 1995 to 2000.
While Krishnamacharya valued the text Yoga Yajnavalkya highly, and it was certainly the most organized text on the eight limbs of yoga outside the Yogasutra, it seemed to draw little attention from other yoga schools. I felt it was important to make the text known to a wider audience. Hence, in 1999, with the assistance of my family, I translated the Yoga Yajnavalkya into English.
From 2001 to 2004, my studies veered toward a broad swathe of applications of ancient techniques to health and wellness, particularly psychological problems. The Ayurvedic approach to mental disorders was a starting point. From there I went to look at Indian dramatics, particularly emotions and their relation to mental wellness. Then on to Vedic astrology and its use in therapy, and revisiting classical Vedic mantras as therapeutic modalities.
Over this period, I also authored the book Yoga Therapy with my wife Indra, son Ganesh, and daughter Nitya.
After the book came out, from 2005 to 2007, the application of Nyaya (ancient Indian logic) to philosophy and Ayurveda was the focus of my studies.
Following this, I spent time examining Tantra and Kundalini, practices, starting from the uniting practice of controlling the prana, and looking at it from the various angles of Vedic, Ayurvedic, and yogic perspectives.
Gradually, in 2008, I began to reintegrate what I had studied all these years, going back to roots of Samkhya, the Upanishads, and the commentaries on the Yogasutra. I followed this with a comparative study of non-dualism, Buddhism, yoga, Samkhya, Nyaya, etc.
In 2009, I authored Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings with Ganesh, which came out the following year. In 2013, we revised the translation of the Yoga Yajnavalkya and released a second edition of the work.
These last few years, I have been reflecting and working on drawing together these strands of knowledge. The role of the mind, of wisdom and choice, in determining our life path, has always been a topic of great interest to me, more so now than ever. The needs of modern life are such that mind management is of paramount importance. It is here that the wisdom from the past is particularly helpful.
I still continue to learn, reflect, and practice every day. Krishnamacharya used to say that learning must never stop. A teacher, he felt, must always acquire knowledge and wisdom.
The pathway of yoga is one of constant enquiry and enrichment. Wisdom and clarity arise from the integration of study with guidance, practice with reflection, and experience with minding one’s mind.
Let us carry the message of the ancients forward, meaningfully, with discernment and growth.