krishnamacharya teaching the history of ashtanga yoga

Introduction to The History of Ashtanga Yoga in The West

Introduction to the History of Ashtanga Yoga in The West

This is a preliminary sketch of the history of Ashtanga Yoga as it evolved over the last roughly fifty years.

I wanted to attempt something here by way of restoring some acknowledgement of the evolution of a method we’re involved in, that, regardless of Jois’ now problematic presence lurking in the background, we’re still involved in something worth being part of.

Indeed, a community and lineage (roughly speaking not in the sense of Parampara), that has been a unique, worthwhile, and valuable occurrence, despite the revelations involving its guru.

It would be unfortunate to have to draw a line under this, for, as every spiritual tradition knows, the community is an important part in terms of the continued support and inspiration it offers on a journey that may otherwise be invariably lonely and often demoralizing.

To this end, I have tried to construct from my knowledge a short overview of the history of Ashtanga. This is only, however, meant to entail a working document. For the rest, it is my hope that we might fill in the blanks together.

Adam Keen

Goa, India, March 2023.

What Did Krishnamacharya Teach?

Krishnamacharya was perhaps the major innovator in yoga asana in the twentieth century. He is most well-known for his work at the Mysore palace (roughly, 1930-1950). Here he taught a dynamic style of yoga characterized by its linking movement between asanas, popularly known as vinyasa.

Although the early twentieth century was a highly innovative period in India regarding the re-imagining of yoga asana (through influences from the West as well as indigenous ones), K may have been the first teacher to attempt to authenticate his innovation within the traditional context of the classical tradition of yoga. Calling his yoga, Yoga Korunta, Krishnamacharya justified his approach through an appeal to an ancient lineage of which he had apparently been initiated.

The existence of the ancient master living in seclusion in the mountains of Tibet (Rama Mohan Brahmacharya), is now up for debate, along with this, the existence of the eponymous text (now assumed to be mythical, as no one has seen the yoga korunta). It is then far more likely that Krishnamacharya was a virtuoso, and his modern rendition of yoga asana, perhaps even more impressive.

The later claims of an unbroken lineage, Parampara, by Jois for the authenticity of the yoga he taught; linking directly to Krishnamacharya and then beyond, seem increasingly unlikely. Not least because after the shala at the Mysore palace was closed around 1950 (due to the withdrawal of government funding), Krishnamacharya was forced to take a post in Chennai, at which time he radically changed his approach to teaching yoga. A fact that seems out of keeping with the idea of his special pedigree and the secret teachings into which we were initiated if this is the case.

However, what we do know is that Krishnamacharya taught a dynamic form of yoga asana loosely based on at least the Primary Series we know today. Even so, it appears that it allowed for much more variation between individuals, wherein the sequences were not set in stone.  So, the question is then, how does Jois’ Ashtanga yoga differ from Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Korunta?  Despite the former always referring to Krishnamacharya as his guru, it appears they only spent a relatively short time together and maintained very little contact over the years until Krishnamacharya’s death. Indeed, BKS also always referred to K as his guru whilst radically altering the original teaching he received.

Pattabhi Jois, The Last Man Standing

Indra Devi was the first woman to be taught by Krishnamacharya, which was at the time he was teaching at the Mysore palace. She may have also been the first Westerner altogether. However, she never taught (in a direct sense at least) what she learnt from K. As for BKS Iyengar, he was sent to Pune to teach by K at the age of nineteen, after only the briefest period of being taught asana by Krishnamacharya (he claims he only ever received a couple of lessons from K). In fact, his asana method could almost be classed as a reaction against Krishnamacharya’s teaching.[1] Finally, we have Desikachar, K’s son. But he was taught by his father much later when he dramatically altered his teaching.

So, all we have left in the end as apparent evidence of this early period of K’s teaching is Pattabhi Jois and what he continued to teach as he claims to have been taught. [2] Indeed, it has been mentioned by several people that Jois may have, in fact, been the last man standing. For, it is well known that Krishnamacharya was a hard taskmaster, both in terms of discipline as well as his physical adjustments.[3]. Perhaps then, this could have been quite literally the case and why we really know so little of how K was teaching in these early years.

Along similar lines, Jois often told stories of legendary adjustments by Krishnamacharya; one of which involved K standing on him whilst Jois performed kapotasana and then proceeding to give a whole lecture on philosophy to the crowd assembled for a yoga demonstration. With this as an example, unsurprisingly then, other than Jois we only know of Mahadev Bhatta and Keshavamurthi/y as committed students of Krishnamacharya in this phase of his teaching career.

It does appear, however, that Jois was put in charge of leading the yoga demonstrations regularly given by K’s students at the time[4]  Hence, the theory is that the more individualized approach of K whilst teaching at the Mysore palace, was sequentially to suit the requirements of a demonstration where, as was the trend at the time, everyone was to perform a synchronized practice together. Accordingly, it is generally agreed that Jois’ Ashtanga yoga is a codified version of Krishnamacharya’s original, more individually based teaching involving the same postures linked together and selected depending upon the ability of the individual student.

On the other hand, Krishnamacharya in his Yoga Makarananda (1934), elaborates a sequence similar in form to the primary sequences of Jois’ and Ashtanga yoga up to this day. So, perhaps, one idea would be that this served the function of a general blueprint, or one possible basic sequence he gave to an envisaged general audience to keep it simple and give them something they could easily follow. Yet increasingly it appears feasible that, Jois’ strict adherence to set sequences and their specific vinyasa, does function to differentiate what Krishnamacharya originally taught and what Jois carried on teaching.


[1] On the other hand, he did begin by practicing what looks very like Ashtanga in the vinyasa method and there are a few very early videos (1938) of him practicing along, very proficiently, with K (yet the order is not the same as in Jois’ Ashtanga).

[2] BNS Iyengar – no relation to BKS- who also teaches in Mysore, is the one other person to teach this method. He claims to have learnt alongside Jois, though teaches a few things slightly differently, saying that Jois had forgotten a few details. He outlives Jois and still teaches in Mysore.

[3] BKS Iyengar often also told the story of his being made to perform, despite his protestations (he was already injured) hanumanasana for a yoga demonstration by K, at which time he tore his hamstring. An injury which subsequently took him two years to recover from.

[4] The Maharaj of Mysore was strongly involved in the movement for Indian independence, and the idea of an indigenous movement discipline that would build strong young people was a big part of this, hence K’s employment and the importance of promoting this in regular yoga demonstrations.