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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

a yoga history lesson

earlier today, i picked up the may 2006 issue of LA YOGA magazine and leafed through the pages while i ate my lunch. i had just enough time to skim the interview with john friend, the founder (developer/creator?) of the anusara style of yoga.

for those unfamiliar with anusara yoga, according to the anusara website:

Founded by John Friend in 1997, Anusara Yoga® is a powerful hatha yoga system that unifies a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic Goodness with Universal Principles of Alignment™. Anusara's remarkable popularity is due in large part to its uplifting philosophy, epitomized by a "celebration of the heart," that looks for the good in all people and all things. Consequently, students of all levels of ability and yoga experience are honored for their unique differences, limitations, and talents.

anusara yoga is taught at many studios in the los angeles area, including city yoga, yoga inside out, still yoga, mission street yoga, and yoga at the village.

at some point in the article, john friend mentioned that he was influenced by the well-known yoga gurus iyengar, pattabhi jois, desikachar, and krishnamacharya, among others. except for iyengar, however, i couldn't remember what the others were known for. thanks to google and yogajournal.com, here's the abridged version of how they fit into the yoga history books:

T. Krishnamacharya

The man who deserves the most credit for creating, or at least influencing, the type of physical yoga that Americans, Western Europeans, and many Asians embrace today never set foot on Western soil. Sometime in the early 1930s Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, took it upon himself to champion the beauty and the benefits of yoga asana. (In a biography, Krishnamacharya says asana practice was so little known in India that he had to go all the way to Tibet to find a guru to teach him.) Of course, like all serious yogis, his training began with Patanjali's Yoga Sutra—he was five years old when his father began teaching him in 1893.

No one really knows Krishnamacharya's true yoga journey, not even his family. His life remains shrouded in a fog of myth, fable, fact, and contradictory memories. Despite this, Krishnamacharya has become the undisputed father of modern-day hatha yoga. Whether it came from the Yogarahasya, a lost ancient text that appeared to him in a dream, or from a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Korunta (supposedly devoured by ants), or from a blend of asana, pranayama, Indian wrestling, and British gymnastics, Krishnamacharya's yoga represents a uniquely twentieth-century incarnation of a rich and ever-evolving tradition.

Like so many of today's yoga students, Krishnamacharya's students—mostly able-bodied, athletic, young men—were more interested in building strength and fitness and performing near impossible feats than in any spiritual dimensions of practice. So Krishnamacharya created sequences that focused on athleticism by incorporating the power of the breath and the element of meditative gaze (drishti) in a dynamic flow of poses called vinyasa, using all the props and disciplines at his disposal. To keep his students challenged and focused, Krishnamacharya developed increasingly more difficult sequences, allowing his students to progress to the next level only after they had mastered the first one.

Pattabhi Jois

Pattabhi Jois, who still teaches and practices in Mysore, was just a young boy when he met Krishnamacharya at one of his yoga demonstrations. Jois studied with Krishnamacharya for several years before leaving for college. Guru and student reunited in Mysore at the Sanskrit College, and Jois became a faithful follower of Krishnamacharya's methods. Jois credits his teacher with perfecting the Ashtanga vinyasa system, a tradition that he says draws inspiration from the classics—the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—as well as from modern Western disciplines. Just as Krishnamacharya did in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois and his disciples continue to teach a set sequence of poses (linked by the breath), the purpose of which is to create tapas, or heat in the body, in order to cleanse and purify.

Ashtanga-style classes vary from first-series, the beginning level, which focuses on forward bends, to second, third, or fourth-series classes, which offer increasingly more difficult backbends, standing poses, twists, and arm balances. All classes include a vinyasa of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar), in which students jump from one pose to the next as a way of linking a variety of asanas together. Just like in the practice of yoga in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, combining the physical poses with attention to the breath brings the modern-day ashtangi steadiness and ease in the body, increased awareness in the mind, and more openness in the heart.

B.K.S. Iyengar

Iyengar grew up in Krishnamacharya's household as his brother-in-law — a scrawny, sickly child who, by all odds, had very little chance of ever becoming a yogi. When Krishnamacharya's star pupil vanished from the household only days before an important asana demonstration, Krishnamacharya had no choice but to teach this puny pupil in hopes he would rise to the occasion. And rise he did — Iyengar not only performed very difficult asanas admirably at the demonstration, but he went on to assist Krishnamacharya in his classes and other demonstrations throughout the area. His brief tenure with this "harsh taskmaster" ended when Krishnamacharya asked him to take over a women-only class in the northern province of Karnataka Pradesh—not exactly a plum assignment—which Iyengar agreed to do. From that point on he remained, happily it seems, hundreds of miles away from his guru.

Partly because of this distance, Iyengar had to explore Krishnamacharya's poses on his own. He used his own body as his laboratory, concentrating on precision and internal and external alignment, as he tried to figure out what effects a pose had on the internal organs as well as the skeletal system. Once Iyengar clearly understood the way an asana worked, he would then modify it to fit his students' bodies and health concerns.

Just as Krishnamacharya adapted his sequences to the competitive nature of his able-bodied young athletes, Iyengar customized the poses, and even offered props for his less flexible, older clientele. This emphasis on the physical body became a signature of Iyengar Yoga, and Iyengar's intuitive, almost uncanny ability to heal through asana practice has become legendary. When performed correctly, asana practice synchronizes the rhythms of the body's physical, physiological, psychological, and spiritual components. Unlike Krishnamacharya, Iyengar does not link the poses together in the same way. He chooses poses that work together, but his concern is how they achieve balance within the body rather than how they link together.

T.K.V. Desikachar

By the time Desikachar asked his father to teach him, Krishnamacharya's own work had changed. To survive as a teacher, Krishnamacharya had to open his doors to all kinds of students, including those with physical limitations and non-Hindus. Working one-on-one, Krishnamacharya devised specific practices for each student. Krishnamacharya would refine or alter his or her "prescription" to enable the student to grow further in the practice and to introduce the spiritual aspects of the tradition. This technique laid the groundwork for Desikachar's own interpretation of Krishnamacharya's work, which he called Viniyoga.

Desikachar has devoted his life to spreading Krishnamacharya's message of yoga to the West and increasing its connection to science and medicine. Like Iyengar, Desikachar's Viniyoga concentrates on tailoring the yoga sequences to the needs of the individual, and, like Pattabhi Jois, he emphasizes the power of the breath. However, Viniyoga's focus lies somewhere between Iyengar's precision and Pattabhi Jois's vigorous movements. A Viniyoga class is slower than Ashtanga, though it coordinates the breath with the movement. Like Iyengar Yoga, it is known for its therapeutic applications, though Viniyoga concentrates less on alignment and more on varying the length and tempo of the inhalations and exhalations.

and now that i've finally figured out who's who, i need to go back and finish reading that article...