Mysore yoga traditions.
The city of Mysuru in the state of Karnataka, is a remarkably progressive area, and has been for at least 200 years. The Wadiyar royal family consistently demonstrated egalitarian values. Much is known about the activities of the family during modern history, and local families and scholars eagerly share the virtues and accomplishments of the time.
Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III ruled from 1799 to 1868. He was a scholar himself and sponsored many other scholars. He composed many works in the Kannada and Sanskrit languages, and was positively influenced by Western concepts of design and architecture. One significant work that he either authored or compiled is named Sritattvanidhi, which means The Illustrious Treasure of Realities, and contains illustrations and descriptions of 122 yoga asana of a kind familiar to modern practitioners of yoga. It is said that yoga in this age, before the current trend of popular public classes, was quiet and private. Those who studied and practiced did so for the purpose of evolution and there was far less emphasis on exercise and general health.
Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar X ruled between 1868 and 1894. He was socially progressive and implemented the first democratic representative assembly in India. He and his family prioritised women’s education and a horizontal access to health care regardless of caste. He thought that a rich person ought to expect to be in a hospital bed beside a poor person. They expressed a desire to have the downtrodden brought into the mainstream, something that the upper class opposed.
For generations the Mysore royal family adopted policies and projects that demonstrated an inclusive attitude, and one that provided citizens with opportunities in a rapidly evolving world. During this period the state became the first in Asia to generate hydroelectric power. They provided English and Sanskrit language education, created housing and temples, provided indoor games for the population, and they prioritised wildlife preservation. They were strong advocates of the arts, Wadiyar X was a violinist himself, and they made education along these lines available to far more people than the national culture usually permitted.
Wadiyar X died of sudden illness in 1894 at the age of 31, and for the next eight years his wife Kempa Nanjammani Vani Vilasa Sannidhana ruled the kingdom as maharani, until their son would come of age and become maharaja. In spite of her personal grief, losing her husband at such a young age, she stepped into the position with courage and persistence. She ruled amongst the great sadness around the entire country at the loss of Wadiyar X, a time of grief exacerbated by a plague that wiped out half of the population of the area.
Great progress was made in the area with electricity and water supply growing along with other building works. It is said that during this period the city of Mysore became the first in India to have electric street lighting. The queen-regent conducted herself with such grace and discipline in this difficult period that she became known as one of the jewels in the history of Mysore.
In 1902 her son took over the kingdom. Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV continued the family tradition of honouring the populace, he considered himself as property of the populace, rather than a ruler. During his reign he continued the family work to reduce poverty and to increase access to education. Visitors from Britain and America heaped praise on the king over his years. Many colleges were opened in this time, including the Science College for Women and the University of Mysore, agricultural schools, along with factories, dams, mills, hospitals.
During the reign of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, a fellow named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya began to teach yoga in Mysore. T Krishnamacarya had studied yoga in a cave at the foot of Mount Kailash. After eight years of study, his teacher had broken with tradition and instructed Krishnamacarya to participate in householder life, to live as a married man in a city and teach yoga in that context. The numbers of aspirants seeking to live in the mountains and be taught in this way had been falling, and there was a risk that the knowledge would be lost, so the trend was emerging for gurus to adopt lifestyles more connected with the householder experience.
Krishnamacarya had an insatiable intellect, even after his time in the mountains he continued to pursue tertiary education in many fields of Indian thought. He studied the sacred texts and received degrees in a broad swathe of philosophical schools. All the while he was practicing asana and pranayama that his father had taught him as a child. As a young man he travelled in search of higher education and master teachers. Along the way he gathered support and scholarships by proving himself to those in positions of authority, and by attracting lucky situations.
He was 37 years old when he decided that his studies were finally complete and that it was time to seriously address the instructions of his guru. His decision to teach yoga troubled his family, as it would be easy for him to have a more respectable role in an institution. Nonetheless, he knew that things would work out if he followed the directions of his teacher. Soon enough, the king of Mysore and invited him to come at teach at Mysore Palace.
Krishnamacarya pioneered what we have come to know as yoga in the form of a syllabus and classes. He created and taught tailored sequences and techniques that improved the health of people. He taught the adults and royal family in private consultations and about basic asana and pranayama, while the youth were taught sequences of yoga postures that look familiar to us, and that were later published.
He had the same attitude as the royal family in terms of religion, in that he held his own understandings but also supported others with their own. He adapted his teaching for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and atheists. This allowed him to be sought out as a proficient spiritual teacher and authority, and to this end he continued to travel and lecture while running the yoga school in Mysore. He made a name for himself by demonstrating the stopping of his heart, and also by teaching yoga to women. In fact, the first Westerner he ever taught was a woman named Indra Devi.
Krishnamacarya’s work eventually solidified into set sequences and structures that were then modified and proliferated by a few key students. One such student, BKS Iyengar, developed an alternative approach that removed the continuous flow of vinyasa and focused on strict alignment and muscular activations in each pose.
Another student, Pattabhi Jois, retained the method taught by Krishnamacarya of linking postures together and eventually named it Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. He continued to develop the sequences over a few decades of experimentation. Yet another student, BNS Iyengar (note a different Iyengar to BKS), taught a style similar to what we know as the Ashtanga Vinyasa style of Pattabhi Jois that contained greater emphasis on pranayama.
Srivatsa Ramaswami was the last student of Krishnamacarya and comprehensively documented the teachings, naming the style Vinyasa Krama. He presents asanas grouped together into anatomical themes and prescribes their practice with an emphatic adherence to vinyasa, that is, entering and exiting poses with a particular combination of breath and movement.
Sharath Jois is Pattabhi Jois’s grandson and therefore heir to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga lineage, which in turn came from the teachings of Krishnamacarya. This style of yoga, like others, comes with a set of rules. Some rules are anatomical and psychological – focused on health – while other are procedural.
As we have discussed, systemisation tends to involve a solidification into ordered forms. Elements become more rigid and less dynamic. Rules are made, opinions are voiced, specific angles are focused upon. Separation from the original vision occurs.
In my time studying with Sharath in Mysore it was clear that the procedural rules he enacted in his school exist to help him manage the volume of students seeking his tuition. He needs to provide a fair level of teaching given the crowded circumstances. He doesn’t have time to analyse each student thoroughly, so guidelines must be developed.
A pertinent example of procedural rule-of-thumb relates to when it is deemed permissible for a student to be allowed to attempt a certain pose and incorporate it into their regular routine. There are clear prerequisites that are implemented for ease of teaching such a large number of students. In a smaller and more personal school, there would be a more individual assessment and approach.
Sometimes, these guidelines become adopted as permanent edicts by the die-hards, which is unhelpful and demonstrates the lack of fertility that systemisation can bring. The great Kashmir Shaivism master, I.K. Taimni, speaks of accretions of tradition that forms around the kernel of actual truths. He says the passage of time brings proponents that have often lost touch with the realities of truths that they expound, and there becomes a greater interest in enforcement than of direct realisation of spiritual knowledge.