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A Tribute to Desikachar

T. K. V. Desikachar died on August 8, 2016, in Chennai, India. He was 78 years.

I first met Desikachar and his father in 1973, following extensive travels in India. I had met many famous and not-famous gurus and yogis, but I was struck by the fact that Desikachar and his family had no pomp and ceremony, no business agenda, and no need for name or fame around their scholarship. They shared family meals with me on their kitchen floor. I soon realized that what they were teaching was logical and sound knowledge that was relevant to the entire tradition of India. It helped me make sense of everything that I had loved or felt confused by in the spiritual circus of India. My experiences became understandable and useful to me in the context of their Vedic knowledge and yoga practice. I am forever grateful to this family for their dedication, clarity, and honesty, and the practical yoga education they gave me.

No tribute to Desikachar is complete without acknowledging his wife, Menaka Desikachar, who was a gracious tower of strength through these times. She nurtured her family in the midst of their ill health while at the same time strenuously upholding the continuity of teaching.

Desikachar devoted his life to studying and teaching the yoga that his father, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, brought forth. Professor Krishnamacharya was a renowned scholar and yogi known throughout India. He lived 101 years and was a man of our own time—he died in 1989. He is a bridge between the wisdom of the ancient world and modern times. However, we would not have had access to or even been able to understand Krishnamacharya’s teaching without the dedication and brilliance of his son. Desikachar understood the Western mind and was able to interpret wisdom culture with clarity and precision.

Auspicious Meetings

At the tender age of 27, Desikachar witnessed a Western woman run across the front yard to hug Krishnamacharya with unusually profuse gratitude, because Krishnamacharya had healed her from a lifelong, debilitating illness. To see a woman embrace an austere Brahman man in public was indeed a rare sight in India. This was a great surprise for Desikachar and showed him the power and importance of his father’s work. That very day he gave up a bright engineering career with a German company and asked to begin studies with his father. His father agreed and immediately put his son’s sincerity to test, saying, “Come at 4:00 am for your first lesson!” Many years later, I took Desikachar to visit this now-elderly lady, Kay Malvenan, in Wellington, New Zealand, where he thanked her for inspiring him to yoke to his father’s teaching. It was an auspicious meeting between dear friends.

Desikachar attributed his ability to understand his Western students to the two Krishnamurtis—J. and U.G.—who were both close family friends. Of Jiddu Krishnamurti (who in his late life studied diligently with him), Desikachar said, “His profound respect for the teaching and the teacher helped me become a good student of my own father. He also helped me understand everything about the West. He even helped me eat with a knife and fork!” These were important collaborations between sincere friends that will forever give the world a clear view of yoga, unhinged from yoga business, power structures, and exaggeration.

A Personal Approach to Yoga Practice

The hallmark of Desikachar’s communication is that there is a right yoga for every person. He was determined to communicate that, in yoga, one size does not fit all. Rather, yoga is adapted carefully to individual needs according to body type, age, health and, very importantly, cultural background. This ensures that each person’s yoga is their own, rather than striving to replicate someone else’s ideal. Then, and only then, yoga is practiced as direct intimacy with life itself, reality itself—the power of this cosmos that brought us here in the first place and presently nurtures us. This power is pure intelligence and utter beauty, and yoga practice reveals that we are in perfect and intrinsic harmony with everything in our cosmos and with any as-yet-unknown cause or origin of it. “Anyone who can breathe can do yoga,” Desikachar would say. “It is the practical means by which the ideals of an inspired life can be actualized.” Because of Desikachar’s genius, yoga is now able to be perfectly adapted to every kind of student. With the astuteness of his engineering science, he refined the ancient teaching tenet “that yoga must be made relevant to everyone” into principles that are now broadly communicated around the world.

Desikachar, like his father, was a humble man committed to the accurate delivery of the tradition without the empire-building that often clouds the picture in yoga and spirituality. He had a unique ability to truly respect all people and have each person actually feel respected and seen (also an ancient tenet of yoga). He allowed each person to feel the truth or the answers to their questions come bubbling forth as their own experience and revelation, rather than confusing students with ideas and ideals that were not relevant or that would be out of their reach.

For Desikachar, there was only one “brand” of yoga and that was capital-Y Yoga, adapted to the needs of every person. Krishnamacharya and Desikachar were yoga masters and never yoga entrepreneurs. Desikachar did not want his yoga to be known as a particular brand. He did not want his father’s scholarship to be identified as just another style, because when the principles of the tradition, as brought through by Krishnamacharya, are added to the popular styles, they make yoga entirely the practitioner’s own: efficient, powerful and safe. All people can now be given a relevant yoga. The principles of practice should be included in all the styles that derived from Krishnamacharya and other systems. Otherwise we have partial systems, and, like a glossy pack of cards with five cards missing, the game never quite resolves for the player.

The Heart of Yoga

In the early 1990s, I did a book project for Desikachar to address the problems that his father's teaching was not available around the world and that genuine yoga teaching was hard to come by. I was calling the book The Art of Yoga. Then, one day while we were walking on Adyar beach in Chennai, Desikachar suddenly declared, “The Heart of Yoga is the correct title!” He later explained that the heart of yoga is the relationship between student and teacher. In this relationship, it is essential that the teacher is not a social or personal identity, it is a function—a natural function of nurturing between people in community. He clarified how the mutual affection between two people is the universal means of transmission of all wisdom traditions and how the teacher is no more than a friend, no less than a friend—this friendship is the main method. Desikachar wanted this understanding to spread throughout the world, but only in accordance with the ancient tenet that the best teacher is someone from your own culture, because they understand you the best.

When I showed Desikachar the published version of The Heart of Yoga in 1995, he cried quiet tears. He said, “I wish my father had seen this book. He did not see the worldwide effect of his work in his lifetime. But now he does from where he is.” This book is Desikachar's gift to us, and includes his father's commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the ancient text that defines yoga. The Heart of Yoga has been translated into many languages and has become a source text for yoga today.

He Lives On

The exact words that Desikachar spoke to me about transmitting yoga in the world were, “Anyone who is a sincere student of my father who does their best to pass yoga on to others is in the guru parampara (lineage) of my father.” Parampara is a beautiful cultural phenomenon that can be used or misused. In its right form, it is about actual relationship: mutual affection and respect between actual people—teacher and student, and student and student—both in linear historical lines, and also spread out in the present time among affinity groups of people with affection and goodwill for each other. Its misuse is the idea that someone of special social status, or authority—the “knower”—somehow holds the knowledge that you don’t yet have. And that you have to come and get it from that person, as if you don’t have it. As the Krishnamurtis pointed out, this is only a mechanism of power, “the social dynamic of disempowerment,” and is the problem itself that prevents yoga transmission. Sadly, civilization has been built upon this model. It is patriarchy, a power structure that arose using some of the principles of Vedic life, but perverting them. Seeking for future ideals with arbitrary methods sanctioned by social authorities in this way is the denial of the wonder of life already arising as each and every person. It has created dreadful damage to human life.

Prior to the imposition of such patriarchy, God, deity, spouse, and the body—in its intrinsic harmony with the universe—were known to be all equal and arising in and as the one reality. Intimate actual relationship with everything was the way of Vedic life. Yoga was the mother’s milk of this culture and understood inherently. Yoga is the practical means of intimate connection to reality that is already given and arising as all of us. I know that Desikachar deeply understood this point, especially from his valued friendships with Jiddu and U. G. Krishnamurti. Desikachar was fond of quoting J. Krishnamurti’s advice to him, “Don’t become one more monkey.” I was deeply impressed by Desikachar’s uncompromising stand in a world, where to make money and influence people, this is what you do—create the patriarchy by saying, “I’ve got the goods. Come and get it. And pay me for it.” I believe Desikachar’s approach has a sweeter and long-term influence as we gradually correct the toxicity of power structures.

This was the spirit and specific message of Desikachar. He recognized that the attempt to say “I am THE lineage holder” is a cultural fault. It is very hard for teachers and their students even to see what the problem is here, because the patriarchal model is so ingrained in our thought structures. Or even to know that there is an alternative means for the transmission of yoga and self-empowerment. As we move along, bringing yoga to the world, let us represent our teachers with this clarity, teaching the principles generously, free of brands, styles, or power structures. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, “the teacher of the teachers,” his dedicated son T. K. V. Desikachar, and all those before them and all who follow them are no more than friends and no less than friends to all, in the beautiful way Desikachar showed us.

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