Understanding Viniyoga

by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

“Do you teach Viniyoga?”
“Is Viniyoga a style of yoga?”
“Why has TKV Desikachar distanced himself from the term Viniyoga?”

These and many queries related to this topic are popular all across the world. This article will hopefully clarify this issue, and bring some light to the readers.

vi-ni-yoga

In order to clearly comprehend this concept, it would be a good starting point to understand what the word actually means. The dictionary meanings of the actual word viniyoga are the following :

1 Separation, parting, detachment

2 Leaving, giving up, abandoning

3 Employment, use, application

4 Appointment to a duty, commission, charge

5 An obstacle, an impediment

Vaman Shivram Apte, 2006, A Practical Sanskrit English Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass

Strange isn’t it. None of the meanings of this word actually relate with yoga, leave alone a specific style of yoga. So how can we understand that this word has come to relate with yoga, especially a kind of yoga, that apparently is linked with T Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar.

Viniyoga is an ancient word that has its origin probably in the Veda-s, and maybe even prior to that. The word appears in many of the most ancient meditation practices that are believed to be far more ancient than yoga itself. Considered the most ancient meditative practice, the Sandhyavandanam, was used as the way of honoring and being grateful to the Sun. In this practice, there is more than one occasion where the word viniyoga is used. The context of the meaning is one of application, use or employment. The third meaning from the dictionary meanings.

Yoga Krishnamacharya dissected the word, into its constituent parts, for us to better understand the concept of viniyoga. The word itself comes from three parts “vi” + “ni” + “yoga”. Here the word “yoga”, represents a link or a connection. “ni” + “yoga” or “niyoga” becomes a continuous connection, as the prefix “ni”, comes from the word “nitaram”, which means always or continuous. Add to this the prefix “vi”, which comes from “visesa”, or specific, the word “viniyoga” arrives, meaning to be “a specific and continuous link or connection.”

Consider this. When we talk about an application or utilization, we usually have a purpose to achieve. To accomplish this, we need to be continuously linked to the goal, and use tools in a context specific way, so that the job is done.

For example, let us take the idea that we need to nourish ourselves with food each day. This is the goal, and we need a continuous link with it to achieve it. But then there is not just one way to eat, nor one kind of food. Different seasons make different options available or unavailable. When you travel to different places, again the choices for the palate are varied. Also we are not necessarily feeling the same level of hunger each day. So we make choices that are appropriate to the context and apply the art of eating to serve the purpose on each occasion. Each day we are continuously linked to the goal of nourishment, even though the means are different, or rather specific to the context. This is precisely how we apply eating patterns to serve the goal. This is how the understanding of this word as an application or utilization makes sense. This example here could be considered as the appropriate application or utilization of dietary patterns.

Similarly the word Viniyoga was often used with such a meaning, as an application or a utilization in other contexts too. So when the words “pranayame viniyogah”, were uttered, it meant that one was “application of pranayama”. When the words “Gayatri mantra jape viniyogah”, it would mean “application of the use of Gayatri mantra”.

This trend continued to be exhibited in many texts that followed the Veda-s, including the Yogasutra of Pataïjali. This is when this word started its first association with Yoga philosophy. In the third chapter of this text, the word finds a mention, when the concepts of meditation are being discussed. The author Patañjali, uses it here to inform us that meditative practices must be applied appropriate to the level of progression of the student.

This is consistent with the general theme of applying all yoga practices, not just meditation. Patañjali often reminds us in the Yogasutra that all practices of yoga, must be appropriately administered, and not just in the same manner. Be it through the concept of viniyoga, or yatha abhimata, he strongly lays the idea that yoga practices must be appropriately utilized, and even modified to serve the goal or purpose.

vini-me

In today’s world, different people come to yoga with different motives in mind. Some come for health, while others come for healing. There are some who are in search of that “purr-fect yoga butt”, while others seek enlightenment.

Not only is there a difference in motive, but there are also differences in abilities of people. Even if the motives maybe similar, there maybe differences in ability. Some may be more flexible than others. While some have a lot of energy, others find it difficult even to practice for a few minutes. Some come to yoga when they are young, while others seek it later in life.

So the starting point for those involved in yoga is neither the same, and nor is the destination. So it seems that maybe the only thing that could be common to all yoga practitioners is the question “What can yoga do for me?”

Given this, it would not make sense to teach everyone the same kind of yoga practices. Would it? This is why the Yogasütra-s emphasizes the concept of applying yoga to every individual. This is why in ancient times, yoga was taught one to one to every student, so that their individual capacities and purposes were respected and honored. This was the idea of viniyoga of yoga.

viniyoga to Viniyoga

Yoga started to become popular outside India in the late 1950s and early 1960s, through teachers like BKS Iyengar, Swami Visnu Devananda, Swami Venkatesananda, Swami Satchidanda etc. Many of their teaching methods were targeted towards groups of practitioners and often followed standardized (or almost standardized) routines of practice. This was helpful in one way to spread the popularity of yoga, as a wide audience was reached within a short frame of time.

TKV Desikachar started to travel outside India for the first time in the late 1960’s, at the invitation of the great philosopher J Krishnamurti, who was at that time living in Gstaad, Switzerland. From this kind of a beginning, Desikachar’s popularity slowly spread, not in Europe, but also in the US, when he started to travel there from the year 1976.

A key difference between his teaching method, when compared to the others, was that Desikachar was insisting on not only individual teaching, but also was emphasizing the concept of applying yoga to each individual. Metaphorically it was like making tailor made clothing, for each individual, rather than insist that everyone wear the same size, color and design of clothes. This raised a curiosity in many of the students practicing yoga at this time, as they were mostly used to standardized practices taught in their group classes.

The surprise grew even bigger, when Desikachar started to teach at the Zinal Yoga Congress, each year, in the late 1970s, which drew not only a lot of yoga students, but also many eminent masters of yoga. When asked why he was teaching this way, Desikachar clarified that he was merely following the viniyoga concept that Pataïjali had explained in the Yogasutra. He reiterated that this is how his teacher T Krishnamacharya had taught him, and had insisted that he too respect each individual and apply yoga according to what they needed. So in essence he communicated that what he was teaching merely the appropriate application of yoga, or the viniyoga of yoga. Soon viniyoga of yoga was shortened to viniyoga.

A few years later, one of Desikachar’s student of the time, also started a magazine called “Viniyoga”, which was mainly presenting articles of the way of teaching by T Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar. All of these made the concept of viniyoga of yoga, to become Viniyoga. What was a verb, suddenly became a noun. Consequent to this many students of Desikachar started local organizations with this word to spread the teachings under this name. Though 

Desikachar was approving of this at the time, he did not fully realize the consequences of this, that would later unfold.

vin or lose... that is the question

As yoga’s popularity peaked in the early 1990’s, branding of yoga styles became very significant, and far from describing the process of the yoga practice, Viniyoga suddenly became one of the styles of yoga. It was even commonly misunderstood that it was a style of yoga invented by T Krishnamcharya and TKV Desikachar. This concerned Desikachar very much, as he, and most notably his teacher T Krishnamacharya, never believed in the concept of yoga styles, especially when most of the styles were focussed on how the techniques were performed, rather than what the techniques did to the individual. He preferred (and still prefers) to be associated with the classical principle that yoga is a dynamic and evolving process, rather than a fixed style of practice.

He also was especially not in agreement with the idea that he and/or his father were the inventors of Viniyoga. For him, viniyoga is a principle that is timeless and even beyond the boundaries of yoga, as it also finds a place in non-yoga philosophies. He knew his teacher too would be uncomfortable with the misconception. So he decided to distance himself from Viniyoga, the style of yoga, and wrote to all of his students about his decision. Many of them happily followed him, while some decided to stay on with the brand Viniyoga, and lose connection with Desikachar.

Even though Desikachar will not approve of the idea that he is teaching “Viniyoga Style”, he is most definitely adheres to Pataïjali’s principle of viniyoga, and applying it not only to the teaching and practice of yoga, but also to life. By doing so Desikachar is not encouraging of it as a yoga style, but is rather honoring the timeless principle of viniyoga,as a beautiful concept for life.