Yoga Gymnastique

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published with his kind permission.

 Some eight years back I wangled a presenter assignment at a Yoga Conference in Texas. I was never invited again because, among all the presenters, I had the dubious distinction of attracting the least number of participants for every one of my presentations. During one of the breaks a well known Yoga Teacher in US, came and sat by my side and inquired about me, about where I was from etc. I mentioned that I was a student of Pandit Krishnamcahary for 3 decades. With a quizzical look he asked, “What were you doing for 30 years with him?’, and with a wry smile he said, “Oh you must have been doing your daily practice at his school”. He left before I could start my long answer. “How can anyone study Yoga for such a long period when there are just a half a dozen sequences or just a little over a score of asanas?” He must have wondered

“Krishnamacharya as I have mentioned earlier was like a many splendoured diamond each facet brilliant in its own way. He taught yogasanas following the Vinyasakrama, the art form. He also used yogasanas, pranayama and meditiation for chikitsa or therapeutic applications. He taught a vast range of Sanskrit chants from the vedas and also from smritis. He taught several traditional texts like the yoga sutras and the sibling philosophies including the several upanishads, following mainly the Visishtadwaita approach. He taught vaishnava religious texts as well to a number of his vaishnava followers. He was a well rounded Yogi and he could make every class absorbing. There would always be something new and insightful. One could never get bored in his classes whether it be the asanas, chanting or textual studies…” I wanted to explain these to my celebrity friend but he was too busy to stay and listen.

Some research scholars have mentioned that Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa approach to yoga has a considerable dose of  physical exercise systems  prevalent at that time in India like the drills and also gymnastics imported into it. But my experience with Krishnamacharya’s asana practice is somewhat different. It is true that some of the vinyasas and vinyasa sequences like part of Surya Namaskra, the hand stands, the jump throughs, jump arounds, push ups (utplutis) may appear to mimic floor exercises in gymnastics.  Perhaps there are some asanas and vinyasas  Sri Krishnamacharya taught that had  some resemblance to drills or gymnastics. But he taught to me almost 1000 vinyasas making up close to 150 asana subroutines. The head stand, the sarvangasana, padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other system seems to have anything like that. Further yoga as a physical culture is very old. We may not have records because in ancient times most of instructions were oral and the transmission of knowledge was from teacher to student and the only way to learn was to go to a teacher and learn, practice and internalize. Later on a few texts were written as scripts were developed but they were written in easily perishable palm leaves—like the Yoga Kuranta– and barely one manuscript , no xerox copies, no electronic books were available. So in these matters we have to rely upon authorities/tradition or as the vedas would call it “aitihya” or firmly held belief. Even from the available texts like the puranas one can glean a lot of reference to yoga practice including asana practice. The Brahma Sutras mention that a seated asana is a necessity for meditation. Works written hundreds or even a thousand years back contain sections on Yoga including asanas. Thirumular, a yogi said to have lived 3000 years back wrote about several asanas in his Tamil classic Thirumandiram. Puranas, smritis and several later day upanishads have sections on asana practice.  There is a dhyanasloka pertaining to the Ramayana which mentions that Sri Rama was  in Vajrasana while seated in his flowered bedecked, jeweled throne. In fact from time immemorial many people in

India, as a religious practice, have been doing sandhya or morning worship of the sun with specific sun worship mantras and physical movements and gestures. It includes mantras like the gayatri, pranayama and many postures like tadasana, uttanasana, utkatakaasana and danda namaskara and utakatasana are specifically mentioned in the smritis. So in a way we may say that suryanamaskara with mantras and the physical exercise has been a very old practice. The word Yoga is indeed a vedic word. You may check with my book “The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga” (here no commercial intended) based on my studies with my guru and I do not think it in any way resembles a book of gymnastics. Yogasanas have their own distinct nicety. Gymanstics of course has its own charm. Gymnastics was one my favourite programs while watching the Olympics. I do not know if I would enjoy Yoga Olympiad.

 My Guru had mentioned on a couple of occasions that physical yoga had been the core system of physical exercises in India. It had technically influenced several ancient systems like wrestling, archery, fencing etc., very physically demanding disciplines, requiring a high degree of strength, dexterity and focus. Yoga is called a sarvanga sadhana as it is helpful for all parts of the body, including the internal organs. There were other indigenous circus-like practices such as malcam, kazhakkoothu where they use ropes or poles and do routines very similar to asanas. He had also mentioned that almost all the physical systems of the world, including gymnastics, had borrowed heavily from Yoga, because the asana portion of Yoga was the most ancient and developed physical culture system. Therefore it could be that there were a few similarities between asanas and some obscure gymnastic systems in different parts of the world at different times. Then one has to investigate the origin of those obscure systems, whether they were older than Yoga, or if they themselves borrowed from ancient yoga practices. My Guru himself was a passionate researcher. He would always be looking for works on yoga and other systems. He even would advise us to go to different agraharams (small cluster of homes of scholars in certain villages) and look for works on Yoga available with such scholars. He would  say that we should visit the hundreds of temples in India, especially South India, and observe the sculptures and idols all over the temples for study of yoga postures. And because of the oral tradition and relying on degradable palm leaves, Yoga itself had a checkered  progression, in the limelight  during some time in history and obscure at some other times. Then it becomes a futile exercise to try to determine which among the physical exercise regimens came first, the seed or the tree or the better known example of the chicken and the egg.

 There are distinct differences between the yoga I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya for a long period of time and some of the aerobic exercises like gymnastics. In the vinyasa krama asana practice, the breathing is synchronized with the movements at the rate of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds for inhalation and exhalation thereby reducing the breath rate to about 3 to 5 per minute, whereas in contemporary aerobic exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts, the breath rate increases to much beyond the normal breathing rate of about 15 or so. This alone makes yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya distinctly different  from other drills. The variety of movements in Vinyasa asana practice is said to be designed to exercise all parts of the body including the internal organs. We do not find deep movement, synchronized  breathing, and the significantly profound exercises like the bandhas– which are an integral part of  Sri Krishnamacharya’s asana practice–  in other forms of physical exercises, especially gymnastics. Look at the 30’s videos, the bandhas of my Guru, They are not a gymnast’s cup of chai.

 When I was young, some exercises were very popular. They were outside the pale of yogasanas. One was known as “dandal”, which would look very much like a repetitive movement between caturanga dandasana and the plank or a simpler version of urdhwa mukha swanasana. The other was known as, if I remember right,  ‘bhaski’. It  involved standing up and doing repeated squats. The first one, ‘dandal’   looks very similar to part of Surya namaskara. Baski resembles a very popular ritual that is done by thousands even today and is known as “toppukaranam” in Tamil and “dorbhyam karanam” in Sanskrit. One holds the lobes of the opposite ears with one’s hands and squats usually in front of the idol of Lord Ganesha. It could be 12 times or 108 times. It is both a good physical exercise and a loving devotional practice to the charming Lord Ganesha. Are these physical drills, yoga exercises or devotional practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows.

 Then there is the question of whether Suryanamaskara is old, from the vedic times. The Surya namaskara can be considered from two views; one is the mantra portion the other is vyayama or the physical part. Certainly Suryanamaskara mantras are from the vedas. In  fact there is a complete chapter of Suryanamaskra mantras from the veda which takes about an hour to chant. Again the other important Surya mantra, Gayatri, is also a vedic mantra.  The vedas exhort using Gayatri as a mantra to worship the sun daily. Worship of the sun is considered a daily obligatory duty for the orthodox in India.  We have a procedure called Sandhya vandana which is supposed to be done thrice a day, but definitely once a day. This Sandhya procedure is a kind of a worship ritual, towards the end of which one prostrates towards the Sun. While the gayatri japa portion is done sitting in a yogic posture after required number of pranayama, the upasthana or the second part is done standing. Towards the conclusion the worshipper of the sun has to do a namaskara, a prostration. So from the standing position, usually one bends forward, half squats, places the palms on the floor, takes the legs back by jumping or taking one leg after the other and does an saashtanga namaskara or the danda namaskara (prostration). One has to go through these steps (from standing to prostration) and if the steps are properly organized we get the surya namaskara vyayama, a sequence, a vinyasakrama. So, since one has to do sandhya daily and has to do the namaskara  startig from standing and since the sandhya is mentioned as an obligatory duty, it will be correct to say that suryanamaskara, both the mantra portion and physical namaskara portion, are from the vedic times. The actual steps may vary but the physical namaskara to the sun is a procedure practiced from ancient vedic times. Further In India you can see many people who do not practice yoga or the formal ritualistic sandhyavandana, standing on the terrace or on the beach, facing East early in the morning, and doing prostrations a few times, returning to the standing position every time. They do not call it Yoga but suryanamaskara. Some of the present day yoga enthusiasts however do the suryanamaskara, probably at night, in any direction or directionless, do not use the mantras or the devotional bhavana associated with it, but as a mere workout.

 I had chanted the suyanamaskara mantra almost on every Sunday with my Guru for several years. Namarupa also published my article on Sandhya vandana with pictures of the steps some time back. I also have the one hour long Suryanamaskara mantra chant from the Yajur Veda (which I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya) recorded in mid 80s and the cds are still made available in India.

Sri Krishnamacharya’s range of teaching was sweeping. I have mentioned about the asana teaching, his chikitsa krama and vinyasa krama. His chanting of vedas was beautiful and very engaging. I do not know of any yoga teacher during his times who could chant as well as he could from memory. He earned the title “Veda Kesari”, or Lion of Vedas. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a Sanskrit Pandit. He taught the vedanta philosophy, the prastana trayas, the upanishads, the Brahma sutra and the BhagavadGita in the visishtadvaita tradition. He was given the title “Vedanta Vageesa”. He was also quite familiar with the advaitic interpretation. He once said while doing the sutra on Anandamaya “Anandamaya abhyasat” in which the two interpretations, advaita and visistadwaita differ from each other, “If you want I can teach you the advaitic interpretation, but advaita may be intellectually challenging but does not give the emotional satisfaction one gets from the visishtadvaitic approach”.  He also taught us several important upanishads. I studied with him several upanishad vidyas from the major upanishads, like Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Kaushitaki and others. Some of the vidyas he taught include Pancha kosa Vidya, panchagni, pranava, madhu, Sandilya, Dahara Pratardana and many others. Once I asked him why if the goal is the same, understanding Brahman the ultimate Reality, then there are so many upanishads, why so many vidyas. He would say that pupils have different questions about the ultimate reality and these vidyas take you from the known to the unknown. Supposing fifty people, strangers from different places go to an unknown country, Pineland, and take a picture with the leader of the country Mr Pineman. Every one  sends home a copy of the picture by e mail. The way they would point to the unknown leader, Mr Pineman to those back home would be to start from the known. The known entity in the picture will be the one who sends the picture. He may tell his son/daughter, ”the leader is three rows in front and eight to the right of me. Another person would start first by asking his kid to identify him/her first in the picture and may say the leader is three rows behind and five seats to the left. Likewise all the various vidyas of the upanishads try to help the aspirants to realize the ultimate truth, starting from a known tatwa. I had the privilege of studying several upanishd vidyas from my Guru Sri Krishnamacharya.

 He also taught many of the sibling philosophies so that one’s understanding of Yoga and Vedanta will be on firm grounds. He taught Samkhya philosophy by explaining the Samkhya karika with the commentary of Gaudapada. He also taught Yoga Sutra in considerable detail. He had obtained the titles “Yogacharya” and “Samkhya Siromani”. He also was an expert in another profound philosophy called Nyaya and had been conferred the title “Nyayacharya”. He also taught smaller or easier works like Tarka Sangraha to introduce the difficult Nyaya philosophy.

 His religious studies were outstanding. He was such an expert in the Vaishnava philosophy, that he was in consideration to head a well known Vaishnava Mutt. He was truly a devotional person. As he practiced yoga he performed his daily puja with great devotion. He had several students who studied the Vaishnava religion in considerable detail. He could quote from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several other puranas like Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana etc.

 I do not know of any person who was so well versed in the sastras and also at the same time an outstanding practising Yogi. Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, it is almost exclusively due to his yogasana teachings. But his scholarship and teachings were enormous. I feel a bit sad when he is portrayed as a hata yoga teacher who plagiarized some exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and nothing more.  Maybe there is some common ground between these two different physical disciplines. I continue to remain in awe of his enormous scholarship, practice and teachings and kindness towards his students. He was a teacher who would uplift you, a true Acharya. When you study with him, you get an unmistakable feeling that his only goal in life was to transmit the traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the student. He was a unique Yogi, a unique teacher, a unique individual. Twenty years after his passing away, I remember him everyday, while practicing, studying or teaching; sometimes in dreams– fondly.

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