Back to the Future of Yoga

Yesterday, Kausthub Desikachar (my teacher’s son) published “The Future of Yoga – an Editorial.” Although I could provide counter-arguments to just about every assertion he makes about the sorry state of “modern yoga,” I will respond here to two specific points – one cultural, the other philosophical – based on a 1992 interview I conducted with his father while in Madras on an extended study visit. These points provide illustration of how far I believe Kausthub has strayed from his father’s perspective.

During that visit, Desikachar politely declined an invitation I had extended to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 1993 Unity in Yoga conference where we would celebrate 100 years of Yoga in America. Instead, he offered a taped interview, during which I was accompanied by Paul Harvey, from England, and Adrianna Rocco, from Italy.  At the end of a wide-ranging conversation, Desikachar addressed the future of Yoga in America:

LESLIE: Let’s just say that through some magic, this microphone is hooked into the future, and it’s next year at our 100th anniversary of Yoga in America celebration. Is there anything that you would feel safe saying to this group of 500 Yoga teachers and students concerning the future of Yoga?

DESIKACHAR:  I always feel that the future of Yoga in America is safer in the hands of Americans. Perhaps much more so than in my hands, because I am a stranger to America.

Speaking in Madras, in my own culture, I cannot envision the future of the United States – it is very difficult. So these people who are concerned about the future…must know that this (India) is a different culture, different traditions. As an Indian, I may not be able to do justice to the future of America. My culture is different than America’s. Even when I know so much about the West, I am very much an Indian in my heart.

And then when we speak about the future of Yoga, we are talking about the future of Man. This is very important – we are not talking about the tradition of Yoga for the future, we are concerned about the future of Man…which is one word, but the man of Italy is different from the man of the United States, and definitely different from England!  (Adrianna and Paul laugh)

This is all I would say: “Let the future of American Yoga be in the hands of those Americans who are concerned about the future of Man!”

Kausthub is certainly entitled to his opinion about what he perceives as the wayward path that “modern yoga” has taken but – based on these quotes – I am pretty confident that sitting in Chennai editorializing about how Westerners choose to practice is clearly not something his father would have endorsed.

Philosophically, it appears Desikachar also had a very different perspective than his son as far as the definition and role of ego is concerned. In yesterday’s editorial Kausthub wrote:

“…Yoga practice today has thus sadly embraced a form of narcissism and focuses too much on the egoistic side of humanity. This is also a very dangerous path to tread, and also contrary to Yoga’s belief of diminishing the ego…”

From that same interview with Desikachar in 1992:

LESLIE: In your broad experience these last 20 or 30 years teaching both Western and Indian students one-on-one, have you found that the concept of surrendering the ego is helpful or harmful for people when they get the notion that surrendering is something that will bring them peace?

DESIKACHAR: Many people have tried it. It has not worked.  (laughter)  The problem, whether it is Indians or others, is because, “What is it that I am surrendering? I don’t even know what I am surrendering!”  This is not a very happy situation and I’m sorry if people are trying to surrender and then feel bad about it – you cannot really verbalize these phenomena because it is something much deeper.

This is why in India great teachers like my father have said the act of surrender is the last stage of a person’s life. It is called Prapatti…which is not possible for a young boy. One has to go through a lot of evolution – one has to suffer a lot – one has to experience life – one has to enjoy life, and then one has to build up devotion. Then, maybe at the end of the whole story, maybe surrendering is finally possible. So it’s a long project. It’s not a one-day project for that to be really an act of surrender.

LESLIE: Is it possible for you to clarify what is meant in Yoga by the term ego or the term that gets translated as ego, and what role it plays in the process and eventual goal of Yoga?

DESIKACHAR: Regarding these questions, my reference is Patanjali. I want to make this very clear because that is the text on Yoga. There are thousands of ancient texts on Yoga but the most important text, the most accepted text, the fundamental text on Yoga is Patanjali. So my response is now based on his teachings, the very practical teaching of Patanjali.

Now, because of the proximity between Patanjali’s speaking and what is known as Samkhya, which is another of our schools, somehow this word ego has entered the field of Yoga. As far as I understand even if I myself have said it, there is no word called ego in Yoga. The word ego itself does not appear in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Does it?

LESLIE: Are you referring to Ahamkara?

DESIKACHAR: There is no word Ahamkara in Yoga Sutras. You go from the first sutra to the 195th sutra – there is no Ahamkara in the whole Yoga Sutra. Some people have used that word, but it is not Patanjali’s fault.

LESLIE: Has Vyasa used that word in his commentary?

DESIKACHAR: Yes, that is what I mean – some people might have used it – I might have used it, but according to the authority (Patanjali) there is nothing…Patanjali is very intelligent about this. First, he never used the word ego. Second, he talks about mind only. Mind with good associations and mind with bad associations (asmita). One is desirable, one is not desirable. So in Yoga we don’t even have this problem.

LESLIE: So, Yoga would speak merely of a collection of associations between the mind and some objects, but not a distinct identity or entity in and of itself which can be isolated as an ego. Am I understanding correctly?

DESIKACHAR: I don’t think ego can be just taken out of my pocket and kept here – “This is my ego.” Because the word Ahamkara itself was defined by my father as “where something that is not me is considered as me.”

According to this, to understand ego I have to understand myself. I have to understand what is not myself. How many people have the good fortune to understand that? So without understanding that, how can I even take it out of my pocket and throw it anywhere?

So in Yoga we are not worried about this question. We are quite happy that we don’t have an ego problem. (laughter)

LESLIE: So if we were to make a radical statement here, could we say then that a useful way for people to practice Yoga would be for the purpose of creating a strong, integrated ego or identity?

DESIKACHAR: Without using the word ego, because I know very little about that.

LESLIE: Identity perhaps then.

DESIKACHAR: All I want to say is; “I must know something about myself before I know what I’m doing with myself.” That I would say.

Not only did Desikachar avoid employing Freudian terms such as “narcissistic” and “egoistic” in conversation about Yoga, he was explicitly on record that the fundamental Yoga teachings do not even contain the concept of “ego,” let alone prescriptions for “diminishing” it.

The above quotes from my 1992 interview with Desikachar have been edited for brevity and re-ordered for clarity. Click here to read the full, original transcript on my e-Sutra blog.

UPDATE: Not sure why I didn’t think to include this in the original post when discussing yogic concepts of ego, but Desikachar engaged in a remarkable dialogue with his long-time student Hellfried Krusche in a book recently translated from German to English: Freud and Yoga: Two Philosophies of Mind Compared.  HIGHLY recommended – as I say on its back cover: “This gem of a book is a must-read!”

6 comments on “Back to the Future of Yoga

  1. Man, this is so clear and honest and modest . LK, you should go to Truro more often….
    with your permission, I am translating in into Hebrew and re-posting it. can I?
    on the personal Non-PC realm, I would pose some Q’s to Mr. Kaustub regarding his no.5 statement in that article- about “Yoga being Spiritual. Not Ego-centric”- in regard to the scandal that got him expelled from the Institute that desikashar , his father, started. keep well, LK.

  2. Leslie, thanks for digging deep into this philosophy stuff for us; but do you agree with Kausthub about the current leaning toward the Western Medicine model, especially vis-a-vis yoga therapay ?

  3. If you carefully look at what Kausthub has said it is perfectly makes sense.
    So is the case with T.K.V Desikachar , every word the guru spoke makes sense.

    It may look completely contradictory, but they are referring to the same thing and both the gurus have described it correctly. The descriptions doesn’t end here. There can be more interpretations of this and they will be completely contradictory to each other and often completely negates one another. In the end each description is perfectly right.

    And there is no hard and fast rule to come out of this situation. Nor there are prescriptions to understand this.

    Just that we do not have enough understanding doesn’t mean that we should negate things.

    Finally there are many famous yoga teachers/instructors/therapists who have dedicated their life and energies into learning yoga. But their learning has been consciously/unconsciously directed towards earning fame, name and money. Not towards the FUTURE of MAN.

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