A Response to “Post-Lineage Yoga”

In response to the ever-growing number of reports of sexual misconduct and abuse in the yoga world, a number of North American practitioners and teachers have started what they are calling a “post-lineage” movement.

While I can understand wanting to have nothing to do with teachers who have abused their students, I believe it’s important to recognize that without lineage, we lose the connection to the source of the teachings.

A connection to a real lineage (one that is older than a single generation) offers us a foundation on which we can develop an approach that is rooted in the wisdom of the ancient tradition but alive and responsive to our modern needs.

Before I met teachers in the Krishnamacharya lineage, I was pretty confused about how to practice yoga and what the goal of yoga really was. Every class I went to seemed to have a different approach, and I couldn’t see too much similarity between them other than they all involved some form of stretching exercises.

When I discovered Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga I immediately loved the clarity of the practice, which had a strong focus on the breathing and linking movement with the breath in a defined and consistent sequence of postures. That clarity and consistency allowed me to go deeper into yoga, because I now had a foundation on which I could develop a home practice that I could do all on my own, with only a sheet of drawings to remind me of the sequence.

Over time though, I found that practicing the vigorous sequences of Ashtanga Vinyasa for two hours a day was burning me out. I would be exhausted for the rest of the day and often developed throbbing headaches that were due to an excess of heat in my body. I was also experiencing a lot of pain in my knees, which had taken a beating in years of practicing sports and martial arts, and was finding many of the “basic” postures impossible to perform comfortably.

In that time of exploring Ashtanga Vinyasa, I had practiced with people like Chuck Miller and Nicki Doane, long-time “Ashtangis” who had incorporated elements of Iyengar yoga into their practice after sustaining injuries in their pursuit of perfecting the Ashtanga sequences. I knew that Iyengar had studied with a man named Krishnamacharya, who also taught Pattabhi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, so I was curious to check it out myself. Iyengar yoga is often described as a “therapeutic approach” and I was really hoping I would find a practice that better suited my constitution and aching knees.

What I found though, was a radically different way of practicing, with almost zero focus on the breath, very little movement, and a reliance on props to find the “proper alignment”. I found these classes way too fussy and dry, my body felt terrible after the practices, and so I left after a few weeks, even more confused than before, thinking, “if both Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar had the same teacher, how could their approaches be so different?”

“If both Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar had the same teacher, how could their approaches be so different?”

With this question leading me, I started to research the mysterious Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (TK), who was apparently the source of most of the yoga being practiced in North America. What I discovered was that the foundation of TK’s teaching was the assertion that yoga must be adapted to the individual, according to their needs, personality, age and cultural background. A-ha! If TK had met Jois and Iyengar at different points in their life, and accounting for their different personalities, it would make sense that he would teach them in different ways. Thinking that if I could find some other students of TK, I might start to fill in more pieces of the larger puzzle that was forming.

Through my research I discovered his son, TKV Desikachar, who had ventured out of India to bring the teachings of his father to a wider audience. In seeking out and then meeting students of TKV, I found that while each one had a unique approach in how they shared the practice, there was a common set of principles that served as a foundation for their own individual expression of yoga. This was a great revelation! Learning these principles — the specifics of how to safely and effectively integrate the mind, body and breath — gave me a solid foundation on which to develop my own personal practice.

Unlike in the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, which shares the key principles of breath and movement but maintains a set sequence of postures, this approach, which Desikachar referred to as “viniyoga”, allowed me to adapt the practice to my own needs (knees?) and abilities. For the first time, I felt free to make my yoga practice truly my own.

Over the years, in my attempt to get as close to the modern source of this lineage (Krishnamacharya), I’ve met many students of his and his son who each carry a little piece of the vast knowledge this great scholar and practitioner brought forward from the great tradition. Some of these teachers I fell in love with, some I didn’t really click with, and a couple left me deeply disappointed with how they failed to integrate the fruits of their yoga practice into their worldly relationships with others.

But, regardless of the individual teacher, there remains “the teaching”, passed on through the years from Krishnamacharya’s guru to himself to all the students he taught and their students. It’s this transmission of the fundamental principles of practice that gave me a clear context and method for practicing yoga “my way”, which has been such a precious gift in my life and which I feel obligated to pass on to the students that I meet who are interested in finding their own way.

With deep gratitude to all my teachers, their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.