The Maharajah’s mandate
Maharajah Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV (1884 - 1940) took a close personal interest in physical education and often invited indigenous and foreign practitioners to Mysore. Among his other proteges was the body builder K V Iyer, who taught in a gymnasium next to the yogasala.
Yoga was still the subject of scorn among the youth of Mysore in the 1930s (Singleton). They preferred the more fashionable and ‘manly’ surroundings of Iyer's bodybuilding gym to Krishnamacharya’s yogasala.
Krishnamacharya worked under the personal direction of the Maharajah with a mandate to popularise yoga practice. If yoga was to compete with the theatrical masculinity of bodybuilding and other modern movements, it had to attract people’s attention.
Krishnamacharya did regular demonstrations at Mysore University to encourage students to take up yoga. The Maharajah also sent him further afield on what he called “propaganda work”, performing yoga demonstration all over South India.
He also gave yoga classes as part of a physical education programme for the Royal household, and performed spectacular yoga demonstrations at the Maharajah’s court. As a student, Iyengar recalled demonstrating asanas at the palace to visiting dignitaries, including delegates from the YMCA (Singleton).
The Maharaja even funded a silent movie for national circulation. The hour-long film shows a 50 year old Krishnamacharya accompanied by the young B K S Iyengar ‘performing’ advanced asanas. The academic and curatorial advisor Sita Reddy has suggested that new ways of presenting yoga, such as film and photographic yoga manuals, led to new ways of perceiving yoga and ultimately to new ways of practicing it (in ‘Yoga: the art of transformation’).
The need for to perform a ‘yoga showcase’ might well have contributed to Krishnamacharya’s flowing style of yoga. The vinyasas (postures with linking sequences) are held for a relatively short time, in contrast with the older yoga tradition of holding a single pose for a length of time. Coordinating the asanas with counted breaths would also have helped synchronise postures in a group display.
Modern and traditional physical cultures
Physical culture had taken colonial India by storm. Military and educational institutions all over India offered a mix of indigenous and modern physical education. Krishnamacharya worked in just such an environment at the palace in Mysore, and inevitably this had an impact on his method.
Mark Singleton notes the similarity to exercise drills in a popular gymnastic system of the time, Bukh's ‘Fundamental Gymnastics’ and to Kuvalayananda’s Yogic Physical Education developed for schools.
Krishnamacharya believed that that yoga practice should be adapted to the time and place it was taught, and to the specific requirements of the student. One of his early students recalls that he was “innovating all the time in response to his students” (Singleton). He would modify his postures to suit the individual, even creating new positions when needed.
It’s no wonder, then, that Iyengar and Jois developed two very different systems that were both inspired by the same guru.
Jois’s Ashtanga yoga consists of three series of asanas, linked by surya-namaskar based vinyasas (transitions), performed in a counted breath sequence. Jois trained and taught at the Sanskrit school, where Krishnamacharya developed a practice suitable for larger groups of active young men like him.
Iyengar, who experienced the more personal training of the yogasala, took a different approach, discarding counted breaths and insisting on very precise asanas, each held for longer periods of time.
Orthodox yet modern
Krishnamacharya was steeped in spiritual yoga and Hindu philosophy. He was keen to give his method the authority of the ancient texts, in particular Patanjali’s Yogasutras. The Indologist Norman Sjoman, who spent some time in Mysore, noted that the palace library contained several old manuscripts about indigenous practices, including Hatha yoga that Krishnamacharya would have studied.
Krishnamacharya was selective in his use of the ancient texts, rejecting some aspects of hatha yoga where they differed from the Yogasutras, because “the main source for yoga Patanjali Darsara (Yogasutras) does not include them... it is gravely disappointing that they defile the name of yoga.” (Singleton)
The synthesis of old and new can also be seen in the work of earlier yoga innovators such as Yogendra and Kuvalayananda because of the traditional teacher-student system of learning that they inherited.
In the South Asian tradition, knowledge was transmitted as a whole, without distinction between what was learnt from the teacher and what the student may have contributed. As such, Krishnamacharya attributed his method to his own guru and to historic texts that he may or may not have encountered, rather than to his own innovations. There was no conflict for him between the continuity of tradition and the fact that the renaissance of postural yoga was “self consciously concerned with modernity and modernizing tradition” (Yoga scholar Joseph Atler in Singleton).