Yoga Śāstra

“No person on the planet has had a greater impact on contemporary yoga practice than Tirumalai Krishnamacharya”. [1]

This is Professor David Gordon White’s assessment of T Krishnamacharya in his 2014 book The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: a biography. Of course, there are other great exponents of Yoga and you might well be following their teachings.

For me, it is nice to see this quiet man’s legacy gaining recognition from yoga historians and scholars.

There are some key ideas in yoga philosophy that are not easy to get in to, in part because they are locked away from sight but also because they are difficult to translate into daily personal practice. Here is one that is important and, if you can get your head around it, useful. Do skip ahead if you want to read less mind bending stuff, but it is worth the effort getting to grips with Yoga philosophy.

The universe is not an illusion – it is real. It is ‘uncreated’ and eternal. It undergoes changes all the time and yet in itself it is always the same. This is a bit like the ocean. If you look at the seas you will see an infinite array of changing colours, surface patterns and so forth. No two waves are the same. No wave is static. And yet the ocean, in itself, is always the same. The universe, in itself, is called prakṛtti or nature. And it is always associated with the three guṇa-s, the three active forces of nature: sattva, rajas and tamas [2]. It is the movement of the guṇa-s that creates the colours and shapes we experience on the surface of the ocean. But, in itself, nothing has changed. Look at the picture of the hanging flower. Its form is very different to that of a bird, but both, in themselves, are the same as each other.

Have I baked your cookie yet? If I have, don’t worry. Take your time. Read it over a few times and wait. You might have to wait a year or more. That does not matter. At some point, all will become clearer. This is the process I am following, and each time I come back to these ideas, I feel I know a little more of the hidden truth.

But let’s turn to how you might practise yoga in an holistic way. Let’s consider the Yoga of Action.

Yoga Sūtra II.1 introduces the practices of kriyā yoga – the yoga of action – in this way:

tapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhāni kriyāyogaḥ

TKV Desikachar’s commentary on kriyā yoga is very insightful:

“If the practice of Yoga does not help us remove the symptoms and causes of our physical and mental problems, it cannot lead us on to discovering our inner being and does not lead us to understanding the nature and quality of actions. In such circumstances the practices will be of doubtful validity. The more we refine ourselves through Yoga, the more we realize that all our actions need to be re-examined systematically and we must not take the fruits of our actions for granted”[3]

The yoga of action or kriyā yoga stands on 3 pillars:

Tapaḥ can mean the effort and process of refining ourselves [4]. ‘Tap’ here means to heat or to cook. As we need to heat alloys to extract their pure elements, so we practise to purify ourselves. How? By ignoring our bad habits and creating better ones that promote good physical, mental and emotional health. Or, by taking steps to reduce the effects of rajas and tamas and so reveal the illuminating qualities of sattva. Moderate diet, āsana, prāṇāyāma and so forth can be seen as forms of tapaḥ / tapas.

As can going to your yoga class whether you feel like it or not! Every yoga teacher will encourage you to attend class because transformation can’t take place unless you practise. You know this is true! Whoever your teacher is, go to class and study yoga with your teacher!

Svādhyāya can mean study of the self. Tapaḥ is not a random exercise, it should be orientated towards revealing a deeper understanding of our inner being. Here authoritative texts, like the yogasūtra-s, that tell us important things about the self and the Self are vital for this process of self-reflection [5].

Īśvara-praṇidhāna can mean a firm attitude of acceptance or, as Peter Hersnack [a student of TKV Desikachar’s] once put it, the tendency to ‘Trust in Life’ [6]. It can also mean the serenity one acquires through the help of a Master of Yoga. Or, a deep awareness that we are not the masters of all we do [7]. What will be will be; and if we have paid close attention to the quality of what we are doing in the present moment, then what will be will – most likely – be easier to accept. Actions not motivated by outcomes is another way to understand Īśvara-praṇidhāna.

What makes Śrī Krishnamacharya’s yoga so unique?

According to TKV Desikachar, the answer to this question includes the following 8 qualities:

  1. His father’s insistence on ‘attending to each individual and to his or her uniqueness’
  2. His father’s insistence that the starting point must always be the needs of the student and never those of the teacher: ‘It is not that the person needs to accommodate him- or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person’
  3. The recognition that yoga primarily ‘affects the mind, and that each person’s mind is different’
  4. His father’s preference to ‘choose what seemed necessary and useful: sometimes āsana, sometimes it was prayer, sometimes he even told people to stop a certain yoga practice: then the healing occurred’
  5. Helping each student find his or her own way to yoga: ‘Progress on the path of yoga means different things for different people’
  6. His father’s use of sound to bring about positive change. Sometimes those sounds were in the form of Sanskrit mantras but not always and never if it was inappropriate for the student
  7. His father’s habit of explaining his teachings on yoga with reference to old texts. There was scarcely one explanation about yoga that did not contain a reference to an appropriate quotation from one of these old texts on yoga. This authenticity was always tempered by Krishnamacharya’s innovations, which ensured that ‘yoga serves the individual, and does so through inviting transformation rather than giving information’
  8. Most importantly of all, perhaps, is the appropriate use of the breath. This is ‘something quite exceptional; nowhere else is the breath given so much importance’ because of its wonderful transformer effects [8]


[1] From David Gordon White’s 2014 book The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: a biography, p.197

[2] Ibid, p.95

[3] From TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga, p.165

[4] Ibid, p.80

[5] Ibid, p.81

[6] From my recollection of a video of one of Perter Hersnack’s lectures I saw – probably in 2016, the link to which I can no longer find; sorry.

[7] From TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga, p.165

[8] From the introduction to TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga

Generic filters