THE FIRE THAT DISPELS DARKNESS
Whatever place, whatever time, the ancestors have framed Yoga practices to suit them all. Only the attitudes and circumstances of human beings change.
When my father was well into his nineties, I walked into his room one afternoon and found him alone, sound asleep. And he was teaching. Even in sleep his words were clearly distinguishable as he chanted Sanskrit verses in the traditional way that sages of India have always taught their students. On this occasion, as I recall, he was reciting the tale of Valmiki, who was seized by a fit of anger when he witnessed a hunter kill a pair of sacred cranes. In his rage, Valmiki started to lay a curse on the hunter, but when he opened his mouth he instead spoke Mankind's first words of poetry. And this poetry was the beginning of the revelations of the Ramayana, the epic poem.
That my father, who was widely known as Professor T. Krishnamacharya, should be teaching in his sleep did not surprise me, although I was deeply moved. In those final years of his long life, I knew he was feeling a great sense of urgency. He had amassed so much knowledge that he alone possessed. He was desperate to pass along as much aspossible, knowing that otherwise it would be lost and irrecoverable. Even in dream life, he was never off his teaching.
Krishnamacharya's knowledge was legendary. It included languages, scriptures, theological commentaries, astrology, literature, rhetoric, logic, law, medicine, Vedic chanting, ritual, meditation, music, and much more. He had earned the equivalent of seven Ph.D.'s. His learning would have filled many thousands of pages. It would, that is, if it had all been written down. Much of it he had learned in the oral tradition, from teachers sought out in universities of a bygone era, and in places as distant as temples in tropical southern India and caves in the mountains of Tibet. Virtually all of this scholarly accomplishment he had committed to a memory that remained perfectly accurate into great old age. I was always amazed by it, as were visiting students and scholars. For example, he could quote an exact chapter and verse of the Mahabharata, the world's longest epic poem--at 220,000 lines nearly eight times as long as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined.
The knowledge of Krishnamacharya, I should add, might seem not only arcane but also fairly alien to the modern world. He had mastered most of the languages of the Indian subcontinent, and none of the West. Medicine and law as comprehended in the tradition of Krishnamacharya would dismay most of today's practicing physicians and lawyers. His studies had reached back across centuries into the remote past where history fades into myth. This is the realm of the procreators of all Indian science, religion, and philosophy; it is the time of the Buddha, and the age when immortal tales were first written down about fabulous gods, demons, and heroes. Yet, the purpose of my father's erudition was not to preserve the past, but to serve the present and the future.
The astonishing range and variety of his studies all combined toward a single end. This was to place the promise of Yoga at the service of humanity, without regard to age, sex, race, nationality, culture, station in life, belief, or nonbelief.
Krishnamacharya was convinced that Yoga was India's greatest gift to the world. Part of his genius was to use his enormous learning to reshape the ancient wisdom for modern life. In that sense this most orthodox of religious men was also one of the most revolutionary.
He swept aside prohibitions laid down thousands of years ago against the teaching of Yoga to women. To the contrary, he believed that Yoga was even more important for women than for men, in part because it would enhance their health in pregnancy and in giving birth to a healthy child. He also felt that women were the most trustworthy preservers and transmitters of Yogic teaching.
My father was a celebrated healer in his own lifetime. This ability, too, owed much to his willingness to adapt past practices to present needs. He demonstrated the contributions that Yoga could make to physical and mental health--to the prevention of disease and recovery from illness. In many parts of the world his practices are currently being used to help victims of asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, digestive disorders, back pain, and a host of other ailments, including mental illnesses and disabilities.
He further proved the value of Yoga in sustaining a lucid, balanced mind in our distracting, stressful, and difficult societies. Toward these ends, he experimented and explored ways to refine Yogic techniques to fit the busy routines of modern life.
Even the healing and sustaining powers of Yoga, however, were only a part of his mission. The true purpose of Krishnamacharya's teaching was to bring Man into contact with something beyond himself, and far greater.
What is Yoga, this gift that promises so much? It is a simple word of vast meaning, subject to many partial understandings and not a few misconceptions.
For many millions of people around the world who practice Yoga, it is a kind of physical exercise that involves prescribed movement anddisciplined breathing. This is known as Hatha Yoga. For many, Yoga is identified with types of meditation, such as Raja Yoga, which reaches toward self-knowledge; or Kundalini, the quest for "cosmic energy" and spiritual ecstasy. Kriya is concerned with cleansing, which in extreme forms sometimes appears to be self-mutilation. There is also Tantric Yoga, popularly characterized by its erotic associations. These and other schools have offshoots and variations that, with more or less fidelity to the true nature of Yoga, have their adherents.
Before offering a very brief summary of the Yoga taught by Krishnamacharya, let me present more fundamental definitions.
"Yoga" is a word from Sanskrit, the original literary and philosophical language of India. The word derives from the root yuj, which has two traditional, complementary meanings. The first is "to bring two things together, to meet, to unite." The second meaning: "to converge the mind." The simplest example from daily life is driving a car. We regulate the gas pedal, turn the steering wheel, while simultaneously keeping (it is hoped) our concentration on the traffic and pedestrians around us. Various movements come together and converge with our attention. Champion racing drivers are likely to be among those familiar with moments in a "state of Yoga," even if they might not call it that.
Another meaning may be even more important: "to reach a point we have not reached before." Something that is impossible at this moment becomes possible through Yoga. Today, I sit on the floor and can barely stretch my legs in front of me. After several weeks of practice, I may be able not only to sit erect, but to stretch and bend forward easily, with knees straight, reaching toward my toes. In stages, the impossible becomes possible.
At the deepest level, all of these meanings themselves come together. The source of my father's teaching, and the essence of Yoga, was formulated by the great Indian sage, Patanjali, more than two thousand years ago in this succinct definition:
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.
That "object" can be something as concrete as a work of art, as dynamic as a runner's race, or as abstract as a mathematical formula. It can be as personal and internal to an individual as an exploration of the question "Who am I?" Or it can be as transcendent as being "one with the Lord," whether conceived as a named God or a nameless truth.
There are many, very likely thousands, of texts on Yoga, but the other immortal statement of its meaning occurs in the Mahabharata. Like Homer's epic, its theme is a great war, in this case between factions of a divided family descended from an ancient race. About halfway through the poem occurs the most sublime and perhaps the most influential achievement of all Hindu literature, the Bhagavad Gita. It is a dialogue between God, in the form of Lord Krishna, and the warrior prince Arjuna.
Arjuna surveys the opposing armies and wishes to withdraw from the struggle, even to die himself, before killing his kinsmen. Krishna awakens in Arjuna the vision of his true self, incapable of death, and calls upon him to fulfill his destiny in the action of Yoga. For Yoga is action. Krishna variously describes it as "wisdom in work," as mastery of the "self-willed, impetuous" mind, as "self-harmony," and as the realization that "the God in himself is the same God in all that is." The battlefield portrayed in poetry is, of course, the eternal struggle of Man's striving toward perfection. It is in that sense that Lord Krishna urges Arjuna: "Be one in self-harmony, in Yoga, and arise, great warrior, arise."
Regardless of the religion, revelations require mortal, fallible humans to work out the practical details. This, I believe, was my father's enduring contribution. He was a very practical man, at times even supernaturally so, with an uncanny ability to perceive the human condition. For him, theYoga of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita could be made as accessible to each man, woman, and child as their next breath. And it could lead from that moment to unimagined possibilities.
Drawing upon the wisdom of Patanjali, my father's teaching was based upon a few nshakable premises.
He respected, and perhaps even more importantly accepted, that each individual is absolutely unique. Every man and woman is unlike any who ever lived and died in the past, or who will ever be born in the future. Moreover, each individual not only has a unique identity by birth, family upbringing, and culture, but also changes uniquely at every moment of his existence. Given this unique, mutating existence, however, Krishnamacharya believed that all individuals possessed an identical, inborn capacity--an inner temple, so to speak. There, the self might attain a harmonious immersion in the Absolute.
What is self-harmony? It is the union of body, mind, and spirit. How is it achieved? Practically speaking, it begins with physical health.
Krishmamacharya knew full well that no one strives toward perfection our meditates upon God while suffering a migraine headache, an asthmatic attack, or a wrenching pain of back muscles or bowels. Yet, his view of physical health was that it was more than a feeling of well-being. Health originated in Something greater, inexplicable by even the most advanced biomedical sciences. This might be called the power of healing, and this was very much a question of relationship--whether with a physician, with a teacher, or, above all in my father's belief, with God. In such relationships we are brought to "wholeness." Interestingly, in the English language the words "whole" and "heal" derive from the same Teutonic roots--another hint from the past.
In my father's teaching, there is no division between "mind" and"body." Healing lies in the mind, and the Yoga of Patanjali is very much a science of the mind. As the mind draws nearer to Truth, the spirit inevitably manifests. Krishnamacharya once summed it up it in a poem:
Where is the conflict when the Truth is known, Where is the disease when the mind is clear, Where is death when the breath is controlled, Therefore, surrender to Yoga.
"Therefore, surrender to Yoga ... ." an excellent phrase, I think, at which to pause and engage the reader more directly.
I've devoted more than thirty years to teaching Yoga, including many lecture trips to Europe and North America, as well as other parts of Asia. I'm well aware of the range of associations and cautions awakened by ideas such as "the key to healing lies in the mind" and the notion of "surrender." Among students and audiences are those who know nothing whatsoever about Yoga and those who are Masters, just as attitudes range across a spectrum from unblinking skepticism to unthinking acceptance. I may be particularly sympathetic to the skeptics, because I received a Western, scientific training as an engineer, and I've often been among their numbers.
No one ever used words more carefully than my father, and no one, perhaps for many centuries, ever breathed such freshness into timeworn meanings. As we shall discover, the idea that the key to healing lies in the mind certainly does not mean that Yoga cures all ailments. You prevent tetanus by getting a tetanus vaccination, and treat serious infections with antibiotics. Yoga works with, not in place of, the great achievements of medical science. And a word such as "surrender" also has a different meaning than may be conventionally understood. For Krishnamacharya, "surrender to Yoga" meant directing all one's will toward achieving independence, an autonomy of mind and spirit.
My father's teaching first and foremost was based on the truth that each student must be taught according to his or her individual capacity at any given time. Each progresses in different ways, at different rhythms. And each step is to be experienced for what the Bhagavad Gita shows it to be: an episode in the greatest of all adventures, the eternal quest to discover and fulfill individual destiny.
Each person will have a different starting point, but the fulfilling experience of the Yoga taught by Krishnamacharya will utilize five elements.
The first, and the usual beginning, involves asana, a Sanskrit term for the physical postures of Yoga. The second element is pranayama, consciously controlled breathing techniques. The third element is chanting, partly for its healing effect on mind and body, and partly because it brings us spiritually into contact with something ancient and sacred. Meditation is the fourth element, a means of opening our awareness both inward and outward beyond our usual mental limits. And the fifth element is ritual, so instinctive and universal a human act--and so widely misunderstood.
I attended some years ago a meeting of Yoga teachers and students who were attempting to form an association similar to others that have helped foster the practice of Yoga. The very mention of the word "ritual," however, caused an immediate--and, as it turned out, terminal--uproar. A group of participants would have nothing whatsoever to do with any organization in which the concept of "ritual" was even considered. I gather they felt it meant the introduction of a dogmatic element, which could not be further from the intent of Yoga. The association was thus aborted largely due to the misconceptions surrounding a single word.
Others are wary of practices such as chanting and meditation. In this connection, one of the most frequently asked questions is: Doesn't Yoga always lead to Hinduism? The answer: Emphatically not--unless you are a Hindu and wish to draw closer to your religion. Yoga leads to the threshold of the Absolute, which may then be experienced according toeach individual's need or destiny, whether sacred or not. In fact, I am often asked to design meditations for devotees of other religions. I usually ask the students to get approval from their own spiritual advisors, because it does seem odd, say, that a Hindu in Chennai creates a meditation for a Catholic who lives in Barcelona.
The life and work of Krishnamacharya were devoted to approaching Yoga and its practices with an open mind and fresh insight. He seemed at times not only to read the ancient texts as if they'd just been written, but also to read behind the words--to deeper meanings. And this is the basis, I believe, of his continuing influence. Consider this example: in 1976, I decided to set up a school of Yoga in Chennai that would bear his name--the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. Mandiram is usually translated as "temple," which certainly was not what we had in mind. My father had taught us another meaning lying deep in the original Sanskrit: "Manda" translated as "darkness," and "ram" representing "fire." And so the school named for him embodied his lifelong quest on behalf of the human spirit: a place where Yoga was "the fire that dispelled darkness."
Relatively few people know my father's name, though many lives are touched by his work. He never sought personal fame, and rejected all attempts to label him as anything more than Professor T. Krishnamacharya. "The moment you say you're a guru, then you are not a guru," he insisted. Similarly, anyone who claimed to be a "Yogi," wasn't.
Krishnamacharya's living influence is due mostly to the teachers who studied with him. Among the foremost are his brother-in-law (my uncle), B.K.S. Iyengar, who founded more than two hundred schools around the world. Also, there was my father's first serious non-Indian student--and one of his earliest female students--Indra Devi. They, along with a few score teachers from all parts of the world who've studied with us in Chennai, continue a tradition of Yoga that stretches back in time before recorded history. And as is right, each of them has adapted and changedthe practice of Yoga to meet the contemporary needs of their students.
Against this background of change and adaptation, I've felt the need to bring together what we know of my father's life and work. I'm not referring to the actual practice of Yoga. For that, you must find the right teacher. My intent is that in learning something of the living tradition of Krishnamacharya, the reader will encounter prospects of undreamt-of possibilities, of ever-renewing hope.
Admittedly, there are many difficulties in writing about Krishnamacharya. Not the least of these was his refusal to take any credit whatsoever for his knowledge, his teaching. Except on one rare occasion, which he abruptly brought to an end, he refused to talk about himself for biographical purposes. This was true to his devotion to living the life, as well as teaching the wisdom, of Yoga.
In fact, I have asked myself, "Would he have approved of a book about his life and work?" Equally, I've had to confront the fact that anything written about him will represent such a minute fraction of his experience and his genius. Comfort comes in the thought that he would approve any effort, even if flawed and incomplete, which awakens curiosity about the promise of Yoga. As Lord Krishna reassured Prince Arjuna:
... even he who merely yearns for Yoga goes beyond the words of books.
Copyright © 1998 by Aperture Foundation, Inc. Text copyright © 1998 by R. H. Cravens and T.K.V Desikachar All rights reserved