Seeing Desikachar

AYS Journal Feb 2014 pp2-7. Reflections on my meetings with Desikachar, his influence and his legacy

Jan 2014

Comprehension is based on direct observation of the object, inference and reference to reliable authorities

Desikachar’s translation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra 1.7

The last time I saw Desikachar was in London Colney in 2010. I had been told that his health wasn’t good – and I confess that it was quite a shock to see him as he was. When I had worked with him in the past, he was always engaged, interacting with the audience, he was present. This time though, he seemed removed – as if he had retreated behind a screen and closed the door. It didn’t seem he was relating to this audience; he spoke – sometimes it was a little difficult to follow his thread – and then he left. I left feeling saddened and a little shaken up.  However, this was also a powerful teaching: yoga does not immunize you from the difficulties of life; yoga does not come with guarantees!

My friend Peter Hersnack – one of Desikachar’s earliest students from the West – is fond of the Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard’s famous statement “life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards”. Writing this article gave me an opportunity both to honour my teachers’ Teacher, and also to review my own relationship and understandings of yoga, its evolution in the west and the extraordinary contributions of Desikachar – surely one of the giants of contemporary yoga.

There are many others who know Desikachar better than I. In the Yoga Sūtra, Patañjali talks of 3 types of knowing: direct perception, inference and tradition. I would like to share some of my personal experiences with Desikachar (direct perception), also some observations that I have come to make (inference); as well as stories from his students and other sources (tradition). In doing so, I’d like to give a flavour of his impact upon me personally, and also my feelings about his impact on the contemporary world of yoga.

Meeting the Tradition

When I was in my early twenties, my mother (who had just taken up yoga and is now a teacher) encouraged me to find a yoga teacher. I tried a few and eventually started to work with an Iyengar teacher. The asana work was precise, demanding, stimulating and aesthetically beautiful – and I really took to it. However, much as I loved the work and much as I appreciated the care and dedication of the teacher, I became frustrated with the lack of reference to breath or anything else within the yoga tradition.  At the front of Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga” was a very intriguing picture: a serious looking South Indian Brahmin called Sri T Krishnamacharya of Mysore. I discovered that this man was Iyengar’s teacher – and I was curious about him. I found out very little about him in my yoga classes, but I did come across him in another context.

Around the same time, I was reading a lot about Krishnamurti, and in one book it mentioned that Krishnamurti had lessons with Krishnamacharya’s young son – TKV Desikachar. I was very excited to hear about this Desikachar – and thrilled that he had worked with Krishnamurti. So, when I saw an advert for a yoga class with Paul Harvey – at that time the UK’s only student of TKV Desikachar of Madras – I had to check it out. In fact, I booked on a week’s retreat having never met Paul and knowing nothing about how he or Desikachar taught. This was the beginning of a deepening in my understanding and appreciation not only of yoga, not only of the Indian Tradition – but, I would go as far as to say – the human condition!

Meeting Desikachar

Sometimes initial meetings can be very powerful; my initial meeting with Desikachar came at a junction of events that make it one of the most memorable moments of my life. Lindy, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were travelling in India for a few months in 1990, and we had arranged to meet Paul Harvey in Madras (as it was called then) and spend 5 weeks studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM). 

On our arrival at the KYM, Lindy received a telegram and I received a letter. The telegram informed her that her father had suddenly died about a week earlier; the letter from my mother informed me that one of my closest friends – and very much a father figure to me – had also unexpectedly died a couple of weeks prior. In our state of shock, Paul introduced us to Desikachar. He was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and lungi[1] and welcomed us with a simple and warm greeting. Just as Lindy had lost her father and I had lost my good friend Mike – Desikachar became, in my heart, a sort of benign father figure. There was something in those moments of grief, shock and vulnerability that made the impact of our meeting even more powerful.

During the next few years, we worked intensely with Paul, and I felt intimately linked to Desikachar and this tradition. Along with Paul and a group of his senior students, I went on two more study trips to Madras, working closely with Desikachar. We also hosted Desikachar in the UK in 1992, 1996, 1997 and 2000. During this period, I felt privileged to be at the centre of the work in this tradition in the UK.

Apparent simplicity and Radical Innovation

One of the things that really struck me on that first meeting was Desikachar’s apparent simplicity and ordinariness. If you look at Desikachar’s face carefully, you will see many of the features of his father, Krishnamacharya and also his uncle, BKS Iyengar. But he didn’t wear any markings on his forehead; he had no beads, no symbols of religious affiliation. Unlike many so-called yogis, he looked like he could be (as another of my friends once said) an accountant. And yet, the more I got to know and appreciate both Desikachar’s teachings and the context in which they arose, the more I began to appreciate that belying this apparent ordinariness and simplicity was a stupendous originality, a confidence and an extraordinary radical spirit.

If you put a red square in the middle of a blue square and then the same red square in a yellow square, the 2 red squares will look like different colours. When we look at Desikachar’s teaching and style from a contemporary Western perspective, we may not fully appreciate just how radical it was in the context from which he came. South Indian Brahmins are renowned for their conservativeness; Madras is the very heart of that ancient and very traditional religious perspective. Even in the 1990s, wandering around the temples of South India felt a world apart from modern life. The air was thick with incense and flowers, whilst Brahmins with shaved heads and wearing dhotis[2] sat around the temple tanks[3].  Vedic chanting and the atmosphere of religiosity seemed to permeate everywhere. 

A generation before Desikachar, Krishnamacharya was also very radical in certain ways – he introduced Vedic chanting to women, he taught foreigners; he adapted and changed yoga practice. Indeed, just by teaching yoga he was to some extent going against the norm – it was not a well-respected occupation amongst upper-caste Tamil Brahmins. But in other ways he was deeply traditional – faithfully carrying out his Vedic rituals, following the texts, living a very Brahmanical life. One just has to look at photos of him to get a flavour. Krishnamacharya’s radical anti-establishment sentiments are not obvious at first glimpse; and the same can be said of his son.

Desikachar has said that he had 3 very big influences: the Zen practitioner and yoga teacher Gerard Blitz, the radical philosopher J Krishnamurti and, of course, his own father. Krishnamurti – sometimes dubbed the “anti-Guru” – appears to be the antithesis of the traditional South Indian Brahmin (despite having been born one). Famous for his warnings against organized religions, gurus and institutionalized forms of worship, Krishnamurti was an iconoclast and in some ways seems the polar opposite of Krishnamacharya. And yet, by all accounts, there was deep respect between the two men – and there can be no denying the affection and reverence that Desikachar had for Krishnamurti. 

When still a young man, Desikachar taught Krishnamurti yoga. Although more than 40 years his senior, and a world famous teacher, Krishnamurti was a great student to the young Desikachar. And, as any seasoned teacher of yoga will tell you, we learn as much about ourselves from our students than we do from our teachers. Perhaps it was partly Krishnamurti’s radical and free spirit which helped influence Desikachar to not simply be like his father – but instead to grasp the essence of the tradition and feel free to play, experiment, challenge and innovate. 

Desikachar often tells the story of how when he asked his father to teach him the Yoga Sūtra for the first time, he had one important stipulation: no God. It is easy for contemporary Westerners, disillusioned with the Church and conventional religion and at home with an easy-going agnosticism, to underestimate just how radical this was in Madras in the early 1960s. Desikachar has never made a big show of religiosity; his teaching of yoga has always been generous and free from religious dogma. It says a lot for Krishnamacharya that he agreed to teach his son in this manner; and it shows an extraordinary confidence and an early radical bent from Desikachar, that he asked. 

So what was so special?

The story of Eastern traditions and teachings growing in the west is fascinating and complex – full of everything from farce to profound beauty to tragedy. And, as with any huge endeavour, it is not without its casualties. When Krishnamacharya died in 1988, he was far less well known than his early student BKS Iyengar, who really was one of the biggest influences on yoga in the Western world. Although he dedicated “Light on Yoga” to his teacher, Iyengar never really seemed to say very much about his teacher[4]. Indeed, much later he acknowledged that his actual contact with Krishnamacharya as a teacher was comparatively brief; much of his approach came from his own innovations and experiments on himself.

Krishnamacharya was a vastly educated man, but his education was much more an Indian classical than a modern westernised one. He spoke only a few words of English but was fluent in Sanskrit and many of the languages of India. It is no surprise that his impact on the West has come posthumously and through his students – and perhaps no one has been more important in this than Desikachar.

Desikachar’s genius has been to capture something of the essence of his father’s teachings and make it comprehensible and relevant for a modern, more secular public. Perhaps his western education and studies in engineering helped complement what he received from Krishnamurti. But I am confident that without Desikachar’s profound understanding both of where his father was coming from, and of where his own western students were coming from, then Krishnamacharya’s teachings and Westerners – often disillusioned and hungry for an authentic spirituality – would have passed one another by like the proverbial ships in the night.

Unlike so many teachers from Asia who got into trouble in the West with sex or drugs or rock’n’roll, Desikachar never did. Although he has had many powerful and brilliant western students, and he travelled frequently in the West, I think Desikachar was always most comfortable in the simplicity of his home in Chennai. He strikes me as intensely curious, fascinated by other cultures, perspectives and ideas – but ultimately his stability comes from being so strongly grounded in his own tradition.

The Invisible Man

In a recent conversation with Navtej Johar, one of Desikachar’s Indian students, he talked fondly of his studies in Chennai in the early 1980s. Navtej described the simplicity, combined with the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm, amongst a group of Desikachar’s early Indian students. He talked of the freedom to experiment as they worked together, often in one-to-one situations with their Teacher. He described that whole time as very “sweet” – and I think I have a feeling of what he meant. There was an innocence and sincerity that touched my heart when we studied at the KYM for those 5 weeks in 1990.

Desikachar was never a “rock star” yoga teacher; his style seems to me to have always been rather low key. In fact, if anything, I have a sense that he is skilful at avoiding the limelight – much more comfortable showering others with praise (or admonishments!) than standing in the centre. I often felt that he portrayed himself as simply a student of his father – who was the real genius. And whilst the names of Krishnamacharya’s other key students, Iyengar and Patabhi Jois, got bigger and bigger in the 80s and 90s, Desikachar simply kept going steadily and without much fanfare. Sometimes I think, despite his originality and keen grasp of the essence of these teachings, Desikachar prefers to be slightly in the shadows.

Preferring the shadows can come from under confidence; but I really don’t think that this is the case with Desikachar. In fact, his radical streak, his ability to change directions (some of his students dubbed him Professor Parinama[5]), to make extraordinary and sometimes shocking pronouncements, and his ability to cut with the past, are evidence of anything but a lack of confidence.  He has acknowledged some of the mistakes that he feels he has made in the past; and although I have never seen this side of him, many of his close students have felt his keen temper. Perhaps this ability to strike through, to cut to the quick so to speak, comes from a foundation of great confidence; and I think it is that confidence that has been such a support to so many of his students. 

The Heart of Yoga

Desikachar has always been adamant that to reduce yoga to a “style” – a set of forms to which we aspire – is a nonsense and does the art of yoga a great disservice. For him, the heart of yoga was always: how can we apply the various tools that we have to fit an individual, respecting that individual’s unique circumstances? Desikachar has been blunt in his contempt for those who do otherwise; at worst it encourages an unhealthy culture of competition and misplaced egotism.

There are numerous tools that Desikachar has taught us to utilise, and it is in the skilful application of these various tools that he has been such a great inspiration. 

  • Breath: At the beating heart of this tradition is the use of the breath – conscious, mindful, flowing. I have heard many others say they use the breath, but rarely have I experienced it used so subtly and so carefully. The intelligent use of the breath informs the practice of asana at many levels. It supports movement and direction and it gives stability to the mind. In no other tradition have I seen prāṇāyāma flow on from the practice of āsana with such logical consistency as in the teachings of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. Far too often, prāṇāyāma seems a separate practice; here it is the fruit of intelligent āsana practice.
  • Study: Practice is essential of course, but too much practice without a map can be misplaced. It is easy to run around in circles and loose all perspective and direction. Desikachar has been able to condense his father’s teachings – particularly on the Yoga Sutra – and make them accessible and relevant to us now. In his masterful hands, the wisdom of Patanjali, almost 2,000 years old, becomes a modern textbook on psychology. The way Desikachar deconstructs the text word by word, with many side stories and anecdotes is inspirational and gives a solid framework to our practice. Without some understanding of the theory, our practice is like a one-winged bird.
  • Sound: There are many ways of using sound in practice – everything from formal chanting through to linking various syllables to movements. The use of sound can profoundly affect our involvement with a practice, it can challenge our breath and it can also give our attention something tangible to stay with. Desikachar has made the use of sound – and in particular chanting – a really important practice, whilst skilfully separating it from a misplaced religiosity. Vedic chanting is encouraged, though it is seen as a separate practice, complementing but not the same as, the practice of yoga. And the chanting of the Yoga Sutra – the heart text of our tradition – gives a depth and profundity to its study that would otherwise be impossible.
  • Individual sessions: I often see yoga teachers now advertising individual classes; my hunch is that they offer a group class to one person. This is not the same as an individual session. Desikachar taught us to carefully hone practices to meet the needs and interest of the individual; this requires a good understanding of adaptation, variation, and also the skills of intelligent sequence building. And perhaps even more importantly, it requires the teacher to really observe the student – not just whether one hip is higher than another (although of course this is important), but a seeing at many levels. In 1996, Desikachar came to the UK and sat in on a number of conversations between some senior UK teachers and their 1-1 students. These were live case studies for us to observe. What I remember from those meetings is his sensitivity – his ability to comment on how a teacher may (mis)use their energy, how a student might present with a shoulder problem but their real issue is loneliness, how sound could be a great healer to someone with abuse issues from the past. Desikachar seemed to see many hidden aspects of people and like any good therapist he enquired beyond the presenting issue and saw that presenting issue in the context of a wider perspective. Often the healing occurs at a different level to where the problem manifests.
  • Cultivating confidence: Although the word śraddhā is often translated as “faith”, I think a less loaded term is “confidence”. Desikachar has talked many times about the importance of śraddhā (indeed, his own granddaughter is called Sraddha); it functions as a foundation for our journey in yoga. It is therefore incumbent on the teacher to help their students cultivate this śraddhā – to give the students confidence in their ability to practice independently and to develop their own relationship with yoga. It is ultimately a process of empowerment, as Desikachar himself said:

“The target of Yoga is ‘svatantra’ 
which means to discover our own technique. 
‘Sva’ means itself and ‘tantra’ means technique. 
The techniques are in oneself and we must discover them;
if not we will depend on others. I am sick and I go to the doctor; 
but finally I must become my own therapist. This is ‘svatantra’.”

Final Words

Much more could be said about Desikachar’s many innovations and his contribution to the worlds of yoga, healing and spirituality, but I’m going to end this piece with a quote from another teacher, the Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He said: 

“As far as the lineage of teachers is concerned, knowledge is not handed down like an antique. Rather, one teacher experiences the truth of the teachings and he hands it down as inspiration to his students…(they) are not passed along as information handed down as a grandfather tells traditional folktales to his grandchildren…”

Rather than teachers passing down a static body of knowledge, I much prefer the analogy of a candle lighting another candle to let that the light of knowledge pass from one generation to the next. For me, Desikachar absolutely embodies this: the teachings cannot be “out of date” or stale – because they are about now: this very moment. We need to wake up and let those teachings live and breathe through us by our diligent practice. 

Thank you to all those students of Desikachar, to my many teachers, friends and colleagues in this tradition. And thank you to Sri TKV Desikachar of Chennai for supporting so many of us in this endeavour towards freedom and presence. 

Ranju Roy 

3631 words

Jan 2014

[1] A lungi is a cloth that is wrapped around the waist of men – like a sarong. It is very common in India.

[2] The long cloth traditionally worn in India. It is wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted at the waist.

[3] Most temples have a large rectangular bathing area called “the tank”

[4] He has since said more publicly in interviews and books, but there was comparatively little in the 1980s

[5] Parināma in Sanskrit means “change”