The yoga lineage founded by T. Krishnamacharya includes many of the best-known 20th century hatha yoga teachers, from Iyengar and Pattabis Jois to Desikachar and Ramaswami. Now, A.G. Mohan (a student of Krishhamacharya's for 18 years) and his son, Ganesh (the ghost-writer), have written a memoir about this accomplished man. The text alternates aspects of Krishhamacharya's life and teachings, with Mohan's life as he grew under his guru's tutelage. All the teachings are there: body/asana, breath/pranayama, and mind/awareness. What is new, different and interesting is the close-up view of Krishnamacharya the man, shorn of the demigogery that has hitherto tended to obscure our vision of him. The intro bio sketch, though frustratingly short, manages to cover in greater detail than I've seen elsewhere Krishhamacharya's extensive traditional Vedic education. From 1906 to 1925, he studied the Nyaya, Mimamsa and Samkhya/Yoga darshanas--including the fabled 8 years in Tibet studying yoga--before becoming ensconced at the famed Mysore Palace in 1926. Following the loss of royal patronage with Indian independence, he moved to Chennai around 1950. In 1971, Mohan accompanied Srivatsa Ramaswami to a lecture by Krishnamacharya, was "spellbound," and began private studies with him the following year. Up until his death in 1989, Mohan collected 5000+ pages of notes and countless audio recordings, from which this memoir was drawn. There are many books (including Mohan's own) that cover Krishhamacharya's yoga teaching's: asana for health, pranayama for cleansing and longevity, vinyasa and personalization of practice, the importance of devotion and chanting, and aspects of Ayurveda. This background alone reveals the value of this memoir in giving us a portrait of the man. Nothing like it has appeared in print before, only hagiographies. Much of this was covered in a recent IAYT book-review. Here I wish to broach more subtle topics that might otherwise escape notice.
In retelling the legend of Krishhamacharya's descent from the famed yogi, Nathamuni, Mohan confirms the fact that the Yoga Rahasya ("Secret of Yoga") was written by Krishnamacharya. When asked once whether Krishnamacharya had received the text supernaturally in a dream (as related in earlier hagiographies) and which he wrote down upon waking, Mohan replied, "In any case, he wrote it." As he further says, "The Yoga Rahasya contains no secrets." That is, Krishnamacharya's approach was not to mystify but to elevate. Here, as elsewhere, we see Mohan's demythologizing logic at work. When Krishnamacharya taught Yoga therapy to Mohan and his own son, Desikachar, in 1975, he adapted the teachings of Ayurveda. This is significant because there are no secrets (family or otherwise) to yoga therapy. It is there to learn from Mohan and Desikachar and their sons and students. Secondly, despite attempts to locate ancient textual sources of Yoga therapy (in the Vedas or an Upanishad or hypothetical "extinct" yoga text), there are no such texts. Yoga therapy, as taught by Krishnamacharya, is Ayurvedic in origin.
The section on mind includes a lengthy discussion of the yamas and niyamas. As Mohan said, Without yama and niyama, you are just an animal. Their function is similar to pratyahara, without which we are merely doing asana in the gutter. Krishhamacharya emphasized that devotion--defined as trust and love for the Divine--is a sound way to reach samadhi. This is the kriya yoga of pada II of Patanjali. Indeed, the very heart of Krishnamacharya's yoga is devotion. Even the word, "vinyasa," derives from Vedic ritual practice, thus making asana practice into a one long ritual act of devotion. We see here the connection of Vaishnavite yoga with Tibetan tantra, both of which involve the transformation of ordinary desire into something divine, from desire for pleasure to sheer longing for union.
There is also an eye-opening discussion of "yoga propaganda" (e.g., standing on the back of students in pigeon pose, or carrying students in lotus poses around to show off to audiences). Krishnamacharya was criticized by some early (but little known) students for so much showmanship (see Singleton's new book, "Yoga Body"). Frankly, propaganda has been integral to yoga since classical times, when yogis were well-known for--and widely feared as--charlatans, seducers, child-eaters and body-snatchers (see White's new book, "Sinister Yogis"). According to Mohan, the intent of Krishmacharya's propaganda was not to mystify or tantilize with "secrets" but to attract interest and reveal the benefits of yoga. Example: Krishnamacharya demonstrated his ability to stop his heart (as measured by a single-lead ECG, not by auscultation, as stated) in the 1930s. Although a bit of yoga propaganda in itself, documentation of this fact speaks volumes to the connection between stress and chronic disease--and of the role of yoga in controlling mental agitation.
Some interesting issues are raised by the failed meeting between Krishnamacharya (the devotionalist), Yogananda (the mystic), Yogendra (the body-builder) and Kuvalyananda (the scientist) in the 1930s, which may otherwise have resolved differences of approach, of theory and of method, back when hatha yoga was being reinvented for the 20th century. For example, one issue requiring further contemplation is the role of the Hathayogapradapika (HYP) and tantric/alchemical practices in medieval and modern hatha yoga. Krishhamacharya viewed chakras as mental imagery useful for proper bodily alignment. Yet this debunking of hathayogic alchemical imagery does some violence to tradition. Consider: in 1926, Krishhamacharya, advised the Raj of Mysore to reject an offer by a wandering yogin named Vittal Das to demonstrate his prowess at the sinister vajrolimudra, because yoga was not about sex but devotion. True, such tantric practices are not part of the yoga corpus defined by the Patanjala Yogasutras. But why root modern hathayoga in Patanjali? Why not in the medieval Nath yoga texts? Or the Great Epic, the Mahabharata? Those texts present very different views of yoga (the former tantric/alchemical, the latter largely concerned with possession). Hmmm. My point is that tantric practices like vajrolimudra are absolutely integral to the HYP and the medieval hathayoga traditions, and that Krishnamacharya rejected the sinister mudra from the dexter perspective of Vaishnavite devotionalism. All of these developments must be understood in historical context of late colonial India, when hathayoga was being reinvented in (and sanitized for) the crucible of the 20th century. It is also worth remembering that there is a perfectly legitimate and historically validated yoga tradition focussed on tantric alchemy and located in Tibet. Nor is vajroli illogical from the perspective of Ayurveda, where sukra is the most highly refined dhatu. What makes more alchemical sense than to combine the white drop with the red drop in the ida and pingala nadis? Vajroli is discussed passim in this memoir, without ever answering the crucial question. Yet it would be well worth knowing once and for all whether this mudra really works for samadhi or siddhi at some advanced level, or whether its just more propaganda--another rope trick by a wandering fakir. Viewed in this light, the dismissal of Das was a historical loss akin to Carl Jung's refusal to visit the sage Ramana, despite urgings by Evans-Wentz.
Coincidentally, this memoir is being published the same year as Veenhof's biography of Theos Bernard might (finally) be released. Bernard (nephew of famous yogi BS artist, Pierre "The Incredible Ooom" Bernard) studied Yoga in northeast India a decade after Krishnamacharya. Like Krishnamacharya, he was sent to Tibet to learn more. We have to ask: Why it is that everyone has to go to Tibet to learn yoga? Or do they? Could these Tibetan journeys be more yoga propaganda? Or had yoga really disappeared from India by the 1920s-1930s? The answer it that there is something profound in the Tibetan tantric view of life, in Naropa's 6 yogas and yab-yumming Buddhas which, after all, the Tibetans inherited from hathayogic/tantric predecessors--both Buddhist and Hindu--of North India in the 7th through 9th centuries CE. But to go there would take us too far afield. The authors acknowledge the difficulties in dating events in Krishhamacharya's life, and the utter lack of corroborating second-hand accounts or documentation. Mohan says the wisdom distilled from experience is more important than a bare chronology of events. Still, like facts and theory in science, some sense of the actual events of Krishhamacharya's life are necessary to really understand the significance of his accomplishments. In this sense, it would have been gratifying to see a bona fide biography of Krishnamacharya (like Veenhof's bio of Bernard). Unfortunately, unless Ramaswami weighs in, this memoir will likely be the closest we'll ever have to an actual biography of Krishnamacharya. As such, it allows us to come nearer to knowing this accomplished man and directly experiencing his teachings. As occidental visitors, we need to be properly oriented to yoga. Lord knows it has saved me from many enormous errors. For this precious opportunity afforded us by Mohan (and now Ganesh Mohan) to be guided in the correct practice of yoga, we should feel properly grateful.
(4 1/2 stars.)