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  • Krishnamacharya on Tapas and Mitahara (Controlled Diet)

    Krishnamacharya on Tapas and Mitahara (Controlled Diet)

    By A. G. Mohan with Dr. Ganesh Mohan

    Yoga will not fructify in a practitioner without tapas.

    COMMENTARY OF VYASA, YOGA SUTRAS 2.1

    Control over the quality and quantity of food we eat is critical for a successful yoga practice. Even more important, a balanced diet is necessary for good health. For long life, restricted eating is a must.

    I remember Krishnamacharya reiterating many times over the years, “A yoga practitioner must eat less.” He was of the opinion that a person should make every effort to avoid becoming overweight, or as he used to say in his English, a “fatty body.” He was speaking of being lean only from the perspective of health and long life. In those days—unlike today—there was not the obsession with being thin as a cosmetic endpoint. In 1934 Krishnamacharya wrote on this topic in the Yoga Makaranda. He was describing a seated forward bend (janusirshasana). This passage is intentionally dramatic, as he wished to exhort people to practice yoga (few were practicing yoga in those days, and Krishnamacharya was trying hard to kindle people’s interest).

    Those who have excess fat [“bad flesh,” in his words] on their waist and belly will find it very difficult to practice this [janusirshasana]. Over time, if practiced diligently, the fat around the waist, belly, and nearby places will melt away, the nadis and joints will become clear, and the head will touch the knees. Fat is the cause of the body not bending; it will melt away through asana practice.

    Many people think they are healthy, though their belly pushes outward like a pumpkin. Others think that the bigger their arms and thighs are [from fat], the greater the strength in them, and they continue to encourage their increasing size. We can say with certainty that this is a wrong belief. Good health does not lie in increasing the size of the body. The limbs of adults should be supple and easily flexible, like the limbs of children, with an unhindered flow of prana and circulation of blood.

    All of us know that those who are overweight or with a big belly are often short of breath. They do not realize that the flow of prana is not smooth throughout their body. The accumulation of fat hinders the flow of prana. Dust does not fly away without a breeze, is it not? The earth does not become soft without water, is it not? Thus, if we want the flow of prana to reach all parts of the body smoothly, the fat that is accumulated like a wall must be removed. The power to remove this fat lies only with the prana itself, not in medicines.

    If we face early death, the cause for that is the belly and nothing else. The residence of death is nowhere but in the bulging belly. Is it not unwise that we who wish for health and and a long life should increase the size of our belly and give death a place to reside therein? Therefore, this janusirshasana should be practiced with discipline; it will result in the belly decreasing, however large it maybe. As the fat reduces, we can be certain that the death residing in it is leaving.

    Once after a somewhat overweight monk visited him, Krishnamacharya said to me disapprovingly, “A monk should be lean. It appears that control over food habits might be lacking.” Holding up his index finger, he waggled it to indicate that a monk should be lean and supple.

    Krishnamacharya was not offering idle advice to others; he followed his own advice without fail throughout his life. He had a flat abdomen even when he was in his nineties.

    Krishnamacharya once gave a wonderful talk on how our body is both our enemy and our friend. He said, “We should not fight with our body; we must be friendly with it. Our body becomes our enemy if we eat indiscriminately and become overweight and unwieldy. Our body is our friend if we are lean and healthy, as it will help us in practicing yoga.”

    So how do we manage the body? Krishnamacharya beautifully adapted the ancient four-step solution, well known in the Indian epic the Mahabharata, to the body and diet. The main story of the Mahabharata describes five righteous and noble brothers—known as the Pandavas—who belonged to a royal family. In the story, the brothers have been deprived of their inheritance, a share of a kingdom, by their cousins, the Kauravas. After many twists and turns in the story, the Pandavas finally request that their share of the kingdom be returned. A lesson in statecraft is presented through the story.

    The first of the four steps is called sama, the effort to speak with the enemy, come to a mutually agreeable conclusion, and make friends with him or her. In the Mahabharata, this is the first step the Pandavas take. They try to reason with their cousins and point out the legitimacy of their claim. In applying this step to managing the body, we would follow a disciplined lifestyle and eat a moderate and healthy diet. By doing this, we respect and make friends with our body, thus gaining its cooperation for the practice of yoga.

    If the first step fails, the next is dana. In this step, one concedes what the enemy wants, thereby gaining his support. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas lower their demands repeatedly and are willing to settle for less:

    “We will leave the kingdom to you. Just give us five cities.”

    “No.”

    “Then give us five villages. Let us avoid conflict.”

    “Never.”

    “At least give us a mere five houses.”

    “We will not give you even the land covered by the tips of five needles!”

    Similarly, if the body does not cooperate with food discipline—that is, if the tongue is too strong and draws us to eat unhealthful food, we follow dana to subdue the tongue. We do not begin by fighting with the tongue; instead, we placate it by giving it the food it wants, but we begin doing more asana and pranayama. As we practice more healthful asana and pranayama, we feel lightness in the body  and a sense of wellness. A reluctance to lose this feeling of wellness helps us resist eating indiscriminately. Thus we can control our unhealthy food habits over time, supported by good asana and pranayama practice.

    If the second measure also fails, the third is bheda, in which one speaks with a friend or supporter of the enemy and removes his power, thus creating divisions in the enemy camp to avoid war. In the Mahabharata, the head of the Kauravas is called Duryodhana. His bosom friend and support is Karna. The Pandavas send Krishna, their well-wisher in the story, as a messenger to the Kaurava camp. Krishna speaks with Karna and tries to woo him away from Duryodhana, revealing to Karna the truth of his parentage: that Karna was abandoned as an infant and is actually a half brother of the Pandavas. Karna is distressed but remains steadfast in his loyalty to Duryodhana, saying, “Krishna, I know that you have justice on your side. I also know that Duryodhana will lose in the war that is inevitable now. Still, he gave me my life, respect, and trust when all others looked down upon me. I will not turn my back on him in his hour of need. I will lay down my life for him in battle.”

    If the body has too much fat and the mind wanders unnecessarily, asana and pranayama will not be sufficient to turn around one’s habits. To break the cycle, it is necessary to apply bheda—to interrupt the support for the tongue. Fasting for a day every now and then or skipping a meal will help bring the tongue to heel. It will also help strengthen our will by giving our mind the message that all whims will not be satisfied.

    Finally, if all other measures fail, force or punishment (danda) is the only recourse. In the Mahabharata, this results in the epic war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, the culmination of their conflict, and the setting for the Bhagavad Gita

    If the body and mind are spoiled, serious transformation can come about only through strong measures. Certain restrictions become necessary, like completely giving up the unhealthy food items that we like most, like sweets or chocolates, or avoiding salt or fatty foods entirely for an extended time—say, one month. This is firm discipline for the body and mind; it is like going to battle with them. They will protest, but as long as our health is not affected, strong determination will help us prevail and effect the desired transformation.

    Note that this four-step approach can be applied just as well to the other aspects of our life—the discipline could involve not watching television or not speaking about someone, for instance, depending on which aspect of our mind and behavior we wish to transform.

    Another reason Krishnamacharya emphasized eating less was pranayama—the practice that he believed was most important for a long life. Proper pranayama is not possible without a controlled diet.If we eat heavily, the breath will be short and erratic, the bandhas will be impossible, and the mind will be dull. A verse at the end of the section on pranayama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika supports this view, listing “slimness of body” as the first sign of success in practicing asanas and pranayama.

    The signs of perfection in hatha yoga are: slimness of the body, brightness in the face, manifestation of the inner sound (nada), very clear eyes, freedom from disease, control over the seminal fluid, stimulation of the [digestive] fire, and complete purification of the nadis.

    HATHA YOGA PRADIPIKA 2.78


    A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).

  • Krishnamacharya on Personalized Yoga

    Krishnamacharya on Personalized Yoga

    Excerpted from Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings by A. G. Mohan with Dr. Ganesh Mohan.

    Nowadays there is a plethora of yoga books, DVDs, and yoga classes. How does a student choose the best method for learning yoga? Krishnamacharya used to say that the greatest drawback to learning from a book and not from a teacher was that the practice was not tailored to the student. Before a student begins practicing yoga, he must ask himself, “Is this practice appropriate for me?” A yoga teacher must always consider his students and ask, “Is this practice that I am teaching appropriate for this particular student?” Underlying all of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was this principle: “Teach what is appropriate for an individual.”

    This dictum derives from ancient sources. According to Vedic philosophy, all living beings undergo transformation in six stages. First, there is the unseen potential for a being to exist. Then the being comes into existence. It grows. It undergoes change. It declines. Finally, the being perishes and returns to its unseen state.

    For example, a tree exists in its potential form as a small seed. When the seed sprouts, it enters the second stage: it is born. In the third stage, the sapling grows and becomes a fully developed tree. In the fourth stage, the tree undergoes seasonal changes: it bears flowers and fruit and later loses its leaves. In the fifth stage, the tree grows old and declines. New leaves no longer appear, and the tree gradually withers away. Finally, the tree perishes—but not before leaving behind seeds that carry the same potential from which the tree came into being.

    These six stages can be seen in all beings; they are a natural process that must be respected. As human beings, we are also subject to these changes. Ayurveda acknowledges the role of these changes in health and disease, and it incorporates this wisdom in its recommendations. Our yoga practice must respect and reflect them too. A yoga practice should be adjusted to accommodate changes in the body and mind with the passage of years. Krishnamacharya used to emphasize this by referring to the division of life into three phases, as described in Vedic literature. The first phase—brahmachari—extends until twenty-five years of age. During this time, the person is studying. Traditionally, this study was in the gurukula system, in which the student lives with a teacher and studies full time. After this comes marriage, during which time the person leads the life of a householder. Later in life, nearing old age, the person is expected to devote most of his time to spiritual pursuits.

    Krishnamacharya advised that yoga should be modified for each of these phases of life. In the Yoga Rahasya, he writes:

    “The yoga krama [order] is of three types: srishti krama, sthiti krama, and anta or samhara krama. Srishti krama is for the brahmachari, sthiti karma is for the householder and samhara krama is for the sannyasi [monk or renunciate].”

    When we are young—say, fifteen years old—the body is strong, and our energy is not easily depleted. We can do strenuous exercise and push our body to its limits; it will adapt and strengthen. If we occasionally strain ourselves, healing is fast, and with some rest we can soon resume our exercise. The body has the capacity to regenerate and develop. Krishnamacharya called yoga practice at this age srishti krama. Srishti means “creation”—that is, yoga practice at a young age can be vigorous, aimed at creating or building strength.

    In middle age—at the age of forty-five, for instance—the body has less ability to renew itself. Our energy has diminished, inevitably and naturally. We do not have the same stamina we had twenty-five years earlier: for example, we cannot stay up most of the night studying, grab a few hours of sleep, and then play a game of basketball that evening.

    We also face many responsibilities at this time of life. For example, we might have to care for a family. We may not be able to devote a great amount of time to the practice of yoga. A yoga practice at this stage should be moderate and aimed at maintaining the health and strength of the body. The method of practice for this phase is known as sthiti krama. Sthiti means “to stay”—that is, in middle age, the priority is to maintain health rather than increase strength since the development of the body is complete; the natural tendency at this phase is to remain constant or slowly decline.

    As years pass and we reach the age of, say, seventy, the body has aged noticeably. We have many productive years left, but our energy and vitality have diminished. In this phase, physical exertion in a yoga practice should be reduced, with more emphasis on meditation and spiritual practices. We have accumulated many life experiences and attained many life goals; therefore, we can view life with greater equanimity and maturity. The method of practice for this stage emphasizes a peaceful mind, pranayama, and meditation. It is known as anta or samhara krama. Anta means “end,” and samhara means “going back to the source.” This is the last phase in life.

    Krishnamacharya derived these terms from classical Vedic texts. These phases of life do not apply strictly in the social context of today’s world. However, the principle is important.

    It is important to challenge our limits; therein lies the path to progress. But we would be wise to bear in mind that some limitations of the body are not meant to be traversed. In an interview, Krishnamacharya once said:

    “Taking into account the structure of the body and the distortions in the body, one should do the appropriate asana. Only experts can guide the student. . . .

    The benefits of asanas are well enumerated for children in, for example, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other texts. Further, the benefits of pranayama are well explained in scriptures. However, group teaching is not good. When teaching asana we have to take into account the individual bodies since each body is different. One person may easily practice uttanasana while another cannot. As shastras [ancient texts] provide a basis for differentiation, so also we must differentiate between people and teach asana suitable to each . . .

    Asana siddhi [mastery over asana] is defined clearly as when a person is able to be in a posture for a length of time with good breathing. All asanas cannot be mastered by any one individual. The fruits of asana siddhi are also very different. Perhaps one, two, or [at] maximum twenty-four asana siddhi are possible. No more! It takes too much time and too much effort. Further, the reason for learning yogasana is not just for good physique, but to obtain atmajnana [spiritual progress].”


    A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).

  • Krishnamacharya in Anjali Mudra

    Krishnamacharya in Anjali Mudra

    Look at the picture of Krishnamacharya in anjali mudra. The gaze is downward, classically known as gaze toward the tip of the nose. Anjali mudra may be done for oneself, or as an offering, meditating on the Divine in the heart.

    There is an ancient way of expressing the goal of yoga practice. It is part metaphor, part instruction. When we hear the word heart in ancient yoga texts and the Upanishads, it does not refer to the physical organ pumping away beneath our chests. Instead, it refers to the space within the center of the chest, the space where emotions seem to resonate and the center of our identities seem to reside in our bodies. That’s where we point when we say “I.” We place our hands on our hearts and point our fingers toward that center of the chest when talk about our feelings, be they sadness or happiness. In that heart center, the mind is conceptualized as a lotus flower, closed and upside down. In anjali mudra, we bring the fingers of our two hands together, the base of the palms touching, with the knuckles apart from each other.

    The palms are not flat against each other but are shaped like the bud of a flower.

    This represents that lotus flower, pointing upward, as if our hearts were raised and righted. Ready to open like a beautiful lotus flowering in the light of the sun, our hearts and minds are purified, ready to open in the light of the teachings and practice.

    In many asanas where the hands are free, we can do the anjali mudra. It represents that journey within, an intention of trust and surrender.

    Try doing asanas with and without this anjali mudra, with and without that feeling inside the heart. You will notice the difference.

    Attitude is a little thing, but it makes a big difference.

    Traditionally, we do this anjali mudra as a gesture of respect to those that enlightened and enriched our hearts and minds, to our parents, to our gurus, and to the Divine. We place the hands in different regions of the body to symbolize our connection with those individuals. To our mothers, the anjali mudra could be in front of the navel, for mothers give life. To the guru, the anjali mudra could be in front of the lips, for it is the words of the guru that enlighten. To the Divine, the anjali mudra could be over the head, for it is by the grace of the Divine that body and mind can function in this world.

    Thus, as an act of complete trust and surrender to the will of the Divine, we can use prostration with the anjali mudra by laying ourselves on the ground, facing downward, with our arms stretched overhead with the anjali mudra. With this act, we offer ourselves, from head to toe, to the care of the Divine.

    The point underlying the anjali mudra in all contexts is developing the sense of humility and reducing the ego.

    By adding this simple mudra in our practice, we can remind ourselves to stay grounded and ensure our yoga practices or our lives do not become a source of unhealthy pride but instead an act of offering and grace.


    Excerpted from Yoga Reminder: Lightened Reflections by A. G. Mohan with Dr. Ganesh Mohan.

    A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).

  • Krishnamacharya on Yoga (excerpt from an interview with A. G. Mohan)

    “Yoga is an awareness, a type of knowing. Yoga will end in awareness. Yoga is arresting the fluctuations of the mind as said in the Yoga Sutras (of Patanjali): citta vritti nirodha. When the mind is without any movement, maybe for a quarter of an hour, or even quarter of a minute, you will realize that yoga is of the nature of infinite awareness, infinite knowing. There is no other object there.” —Sri T. Krishnamacharya at 100 years (1988)

  • Is Yoga a Religious Practice? - A. G. Mohan

    Is Yoga a Religious Practice?  - A. G. Mohan

    Currently, there is a question as to whether the practice of yoga is inherently religious as the Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to celebrate the world’s first International Day of Yoga on June 21.

    The confusion concerning the relationship between yoga and religion stems from taking yoga to mean “union” (yujir yoge) as described in many Sanskrit texts, and particularly as union with the Divine. However, none of these texts are the final word on yoga.  The ultimate classical text on yoga the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, authored around two thousand years ago says, do not take the term “yoga” to mean union. Instead, derive it from a second Sanskrit root (yuja samadhau), meaning “focus or steady the mind.”

    A steady and peaceful mind is not optional

    Long ago, a poor man went into the forest alone and sat under a tree. He didn’t know that he was sitting under a tree that fulfilled wishes. The man casually wished for a thousand gold coins. Suddenly, the coins appeared. The man’s surprise and happiness were quickly replaced by fear and worry. He was alone in the forest with a treasure and was therefore easy prey for thieves who would want to steal the treasure. And, sure enough, thieves did come and steal the man’s coins.

    The point of this story is: We may wish to dwell only in our pleasant moments, but we cannot, because our mind is not under our control. Pleasant thoughts morph into unpleasant ones all on their own. Conversely, when we have unhappy thoughts, we want to change them to happy thoughts. But again, our mind is not at our command: we are unable to leave the unpleasant thought behind and take our mind elsewhere.

    In short, we are unable to take away our mind from what we don’t want, nor are we able to keep it on what we want. After all, it is through our mind that we experience any situation. Logically, our most desirable and foremost goal should be the ability to control our state of mind, our thought process.

    Everyone needs steadiness of the mind. Without steadying our mind we cannot accomplish our goals in this world, and let alone, reach our spiritual goals.

    Yoga is neither for nor against the Divine

    Classical yoga is not dogmatic about the inclusion or exclusion of God or the Divine in the practice. Indeed, most of the practices of yoga make no reference to this topic, one way or the other. The Divine finds a place in Yoga, not as a compulsion, but as an option.

    Asanas and pranayama are basically moving and breathing with mindfulness in a way that helps promote the health of the individual. There is nothing intrinsically theistic or atheistic about them; they are just health practices.

    The Yogasutras suggest devotion as one option within a yoga practice to keep the mind focused and peaceful. But there is no requirement in yoga that the person believe in a Divine entity, or adopt a theory or doctrine of divinity.

    As yoga views it, belief in the Divine is one’s personal choice, but a steady and peaceful mind is essential for a balanced and successful life. The eight limbs of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the means to a steady and peaceful mind.


    A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).