The Duke of Yorks at Komedia last weekend showed a film, Breath of the Gods, about the origins of modern yoga. It was fascinating to see how the painstaking work of one yoga guru, Krishnamacharya, directly led to the creation of various key schools of yoga and its rapid spread across the world:
• Pattahabi Jois, who established the Ashtanga dynamic approach;
• Iyengar with his emphasis on alignment and holding the poses for longer; and
• Desikachar, who focused on customising yoga to the individual student’s needs.
All these towering figures in the yoga world traced back their lineage to their teacher Krishnamacharya. And what makes it so interesting is that they all developed completely different approaches to yoga despite having the same teacher and guru! Next time someone tells you that their favourite approach to yoga is the one way true way……
The film also highlighted how physical yoga at the beginning of the 20th century was seen very much as on a par with circus tricks, looked down on by traditional spiritual yogis. Iyengar explains in the film how it was assumed that people who practised physical yoga were assumed to be “mentally deranged or to have quarrelled with their parents”!
Krishnamacharya argued that there were many routes to enlightenent – chanting, pranayama, meditation or physical asana practice. Krishnamacharya and his followers were instrumental in re-integrating physical yoga practice into the yoga tradition. Mark Singleton has written persuasively on this theme in his remarkable book, Yoga Body, cataloguing how much of today’s asana practice only really developed in its current form over the last 100 years.
Krishnamacharya saw imparting knowledge (about yoga) as a key task to empower people. In those days, such knowledge was not charged for as it is in modern yoga settings. The film claimed that Krishnamacharya always supported the idea of both women and men being eligible to receive such knowledge, and rare footage certainly showed young women prominent among his disciples performing before the Maharaja. But his most prominent woman follower, Indra Devi, claimed that she had to beg him for years to teach her before he finally accepted.
When I first started learning Ashtanga Yoga I often went to Yoga Place in Bethnal Green where Alex Medin, one of the main commentators in the film, used to teach. He was a fierce teacher, legendary for his tough adjustments. But not as tough as Krishnamacharya, it seems, whom the film shows standing on his students to get them into a pose – not an approach many would recommend as safe these days !
A film well worth watching if you are interested in the history of modern yoga.