The Five Crucial Principles That Have Been Left Out of Yoga Teacher Trainings | Mark Whitwell
The origin of modern Yoga lies in the life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), a man revered around the world as the ‘teacher of the teachers’ and ‘the father of modern Yoga.’
Krishnamacharya was teacher to many of the main figures of twentieth century Yoga: Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar, who was his son.
If you have been to a Yoga class in a studio or have attended a teacher training, Krishnamacharya is likely to be at the source of what you practice or teach.
Curiously however, several key principles that Krishnamacharya emphasized have been left out over the course of Yoga’s incredible rise in popularity. Krishnamacharya’s teaching that Yoga must be adapted to the individual and his absolute insistence on breath-participation as very the purpose of asana are difficult to find in the myriad offerings of the yoga world.
And so, in any city in the world today, everywhere you look you can find what is called ‘yoga’; but for the most part it is largely unfulfilling activity.
We sense that there is something profound for us in this thousands-year-old tradition. But like playing cards with a deck that is missing several cards, the popular practices never quite resolve into ‘santi’ or peace.
A gifted scholar, Krishnamacharya spent the early part of his life studying the religious traditions of India. An expert in the fields of Sanskrit and Vedanta, and gaining the equivalent of 6–7 PhDs, Krishnamacharya concluded from his scholarship that an actual Yoga practice was required in order to realize the ideals of religious text.
As a young man, Krishnamacharya searched for an authentic teacher who could give him a full Yoga education. He was directed to a Yogi named Ramamohan Brahmacharyi who lived in the Tibetan Himalayas in a cave system with his family.
Krishnamacharya lived and studied with Brahmacharyi for seven years. He then left the Himalayas, travelled to Mysore, and began to communicate the physical wisdom practices that he had received from his teacher to the world.
Together with his son Desikachar, Krishnamacharya distilled the immense education he received from his guru into five key principles of physical practice. At the heart of these principles is an insistence on the careful linking of body, breath and mind as the heart of Yoga sadhana.
Krishnamacharya’s son TKV Desikachar writes in The Heart of Yoga (1995):
“In our practice we concentrate on the body, the breath, and the mind. Our senses are included as part of the mind. Although it theoretically appears possible for body, breath, and mind to work independent of one another, the purpose of yoga is to unify their actions…
It is primarily the physical aspect of our practice that people see as yoga. They will rarely notice how we breathe, how we feel the breath, and how we coordinate our breathing with our physical movement; they tend to only see our flexibility and suppleness. Some may want to know how many asanas we have mastered or how many minutes we can stay in a headstand…
Much more important than these outer manifestations is the way we feel the postures and the breath. The principles that follow are ages old, developed by many generations of great yoga teachers. These principles describe in detail the asanas and the breath and, above all, how they relate to each other” (17).
When the breath-principles of Krishnamacharya are included in the yoga practices that derived from him (such as Astanga Vinyasa and Iyengar Yoga) then your practice becomes entirely your own: efficient, powerful and safe. It becomes your direct participation in the Power and Peace that is Life itself.
The five crucial principles of Yoga practice
Principle 1: The body movement IS the breath movement.
The first step in our yoga practice is to consciously link the breath movement with the body movement. The body movement supports the breath and the breath supports the body movement.
In fact, they are felt to be the same activity. We establish a consistent use of ujjayi breath throughout asana. Breath is with the mouth closed, moving through the nose, producing a soft sound at the base of the throat.
We connect all our movements to a particular aspect of the breath cycle: inhale, retention after inhale, exhale, and retention after exhale. The movement is there to support the breath not for its own sake.
In general, expansive movements tend go with the inhale supporting the movement of breath through the whole body. Whereas contracting movements tend to go with the exhale supporting the expulsion of breath from the body.
The breath brings clarity and peace to the mind.
Principle 2: The breath envelops the movement.
During asana, the breath begins before the movement starts and the breath concludes after the movement finishes. We put the movement in an envelope of the breath; or, the breath encompasses the movement.
If a natural ujjayi breath for us is six seconds then our movement will be four to five seconds long — allowing for the breath to initiate and roll over the end of the movement. You may need to move faster if you find yourself running out of breath before you have finished moving. We adjust our movement so that it fits within a comfortable breath.
This is an important technical principal. By allowing for the breath to initiate and conclude each movement, the mind is subordinated to the agency of the breath and the breath is the intelligence of Life itself.
As a result, the mind is linked to the breath and therefore to the whole body. The unitary movement of body, breath and mind is achieved.
As Krishnamacharya said, “You can cheat your body but you cannot cheat your breath. So make the breath the guru to the asana. Obey your guru!”
Principle 3: The inhalation is from above as receptivity, the exhalation is from below as strength.
Although Krishnamacharya was not able to acknowledge the tantric roots of his Yoga due to its negative associations in the public, it becomes clear through principle 3.
Asana and pranayama is the enactment of the tantric reality-principle of the union of opposites: the recognition that Reality Itself is made up of the union of two opposing yet inseparable forces: spirit/form, masculine/feminine, strength/receptivity, ascending energy/ descending energy.
The inhale is the enactment of the descending feminine aspect. It is drawn down the front of the body from above first filling the upper chest and ribcage and then moving the diaphragm downward of its own accord. Postures that go with the inhale are those which open, extend and lengthen the body.
The exhale is the enactment of the ascending masculine aspect. As the breath leaves the lungs, the belly is drawn in and up towards the spine. The breath moves from up the body and out.
Hatha Yoga is the union of opposites in your embodiment. The principle means by which we participate in this union is through merging the inhale and the exhale.
Principle 4: Asana creates bandha, and bandha serves the breath
Bandha is the intelligent cooperation of muscle groups in the intrinsic polarity of strength that is receptive, of above to below, applied in the breath ratios of asana.
Krishnamacharya would teach that bandha is not to be practiced outside of asana; rather, bandha occurs as a result of correct asana practice.
Jalandhara bandha is formed at the top of the inhale when the chest is full and the head lowers gently to its source: the heart. Uddiyana bandha is formed when the exhale is drawn in and up towards the spine on exhale. And mula bandha occurs when the base of the body (the perineum) is lifted on each exhale.
A principle function of the bandhas is to provide an internal alignment mechanism. When practiced with the breath, they provide the strength and stability that keeps the body safe in any pose.
Finally, bandhas help detoxify the body by increasing the amount of waste or dross that we are able to direct into the agni, the fire of life.
Principle 5: Asana, Pranayama, Meditation are a seamless process; each allows for the other.
Krishnamacharya’s emphatic view was that meditation should not be practiced as a discipline in and of itself; rather, meditation (clarity of mind) was a siddhi or gift that arises naturally as a result of your asana and pranayama practice.
“Do your sadhana”, Krishnamacharya would say: a word that means “that which you can do” meaning asana and pranayama.
Whole-body breathing during asana and pranayama is the activity that links the mind to the intelligence, beauty, and clarity of Life — in the form of the body. The clarity of Life then enters the mind producing meditation.
Krishnamacharya’s five principles of Yoga practice have clarified for all time how any person can do Yoga in a way that is efficient, powerful and safe. These principles need to be in all the modern brands and styles that have derived from him.
When people who have been practicing for many years put these principles into the Yoga that they know and love they discover that they are suddenly playing with a full deck of cards: their Yoga resolves and they find themselves participating directly in their Life, in the nurturing flow of prana that moves in spirals from the heart.
In recent times, there has been an attempt by scholars to portray Krishnamacharya as the chief architect of Yoga’s transformation into a breathless, fitness discipline. Doubt has been cast upon the existence of his teacher Brahmacharyi. And the tantric sources to which Krishnamacharya pays extensive reference in his published works have been ignored.
In these tantric sources we find reference to sequences of devotional whole-body-prayer cycles in which movement is combined with breath in very precise detail. It was the great tradition of physical wisdom practices that came through the tantras that Krishnamacharya brought forth to the modern world. The legacy of his teaching is an overwhelming emphasis on the spiritual and religious power of the breath.
Krishnamacharya would have been horrified to see the direction that Yoga has taken in the modern world. In the 1990s, when Desikachar saw what was taking place in the studios in the West he described it as “mediocre gymnastics.”
Krishnamacharya warned of the dangers of the western approach to the body and of the risk that the profundity of Yoga would be co-opted and reduced into dangerous or trivial activity.
In his 1935 book The Yoga Makaranda he writes:
“The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasures of mother India, either right in front of us or in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favour and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with yogavidya.
We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read the books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes closed, then the foreigners will become our gurus in yogavidya.
We have already given the gold vessels we had to them and bought vessels from them made from bad-smelling skin and have started using these. This is a very sad state. Our descendents do not need these sorts of bad habits.”
Sadly, Krishnamacharya’s words have come to pass.
The Way Forward
It is time now to finish up with the naïve experiments of Yoga in its popular forms. It is easy to do asana without the breath. It is easy to flip-flop the body around. But to put the breath in requires more focus, more strength, and more sincerity actually.
May we get the job of restoring the principles of Krishnamacharya back in the public conception of ‘what Yoga is.’
Om Saha Na Vavatu.