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!”

Who Owns Yoga?

Patent Gurus
illustration by Lydia Mann

 Who owns Yoga?

The Debate

With bragging rights to what has become a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the debate over who authentically “owns” yoga has never been more hotly contested. In presenting my contribution to this dispute, it is not my intent to ignore or disrespect the many centuries of deeply nuanced inquiry concerning the origins, definition or practice of Yoga — that is not my focus here. Instead, I propose a single question that would inextricably link Yoga’s definition to what I consider to be its true origin.  And, the question is:

“Was Yoga invented, or discovered?”

If Yoga was invented, that means it didn’t exist on this planet prior to its development by ancient sages. Since those sages were Indian, their heirs could argue a claim to its authentic precepts, traditions and techniques — perhaps even rightful use of the word “Yoga” itself.

Many scholars, teachers and pundits assert this claim every time they cry out in the digital town square: “Yoga belongs to the Indian Vedic tradition!” This claim, of course, entitles them to proclaim everyone else to be stealing, corrupting, misinterpreting, misrepresenting, distorting, illicitly profiting from, or otherwise violating their sacred tradition.

I view this perspective to be fundamentally in error because Yoga was, in fact, discovered. I assert that Yoga could no more be invented or owned than electricity, gravity or respiration.

What the ancient sages discovered was: Yoga is an eternal, inherent attribute of nature that reveals itself as the tendency of living systems to seek equilibrium. The philosophy of Yoga seeks to understand that fundamental equilibrium, while its practice is the art of identifying and resolving any obstructions to this completely natural state.

Yoga, like gravity or electricity, is a force of nature which undeniably existed before we humans started recognizing or utilizing it for our betterment. My view has ample support in many traditional teachings, which I do not deny were codified by intrepid seekers dwelling on the ancient Indian subcontinent, and we should be forever grateful to and deeply respectful towards those pioneers who first delivered us Yoga’s potential.  But, to limit Yoga’s definition, application or availability based on the geographical location of its discoverers would be as ludicrous as the British claiming perpetual patent rights to gravity because Sir Isaac Newton happened to have been born in Lincolnshire.

Indian Givers

The “Vedic traditionalist” argument that Yoga has been misappropriated falls apart pretty quickly when viewed in the light of recent historical fact. The teachings of Yoga weren’t stolen from India by avaricious foreigners, they were given to the world by generous Indian masters.

My first Yoga teacher was Swami Vishnu Devananda — from Kerala by way of Rishikesh — whose guru Sivananda dispatched him from the ashram with specific instructions to spread Yoga to the entire world, which he did in his own charismatic, idiosyncratic, magnificent fashion.  My core teaching lineage is that of T. Krishnamacharya — no slouch when it came to Vedic scholarship — who declared Yoga to be India’s greatest gift to the world. Never having crossed the sea himself, Krishnamacharya – that most traditional of Vedic Brahmins – nevertheless lived to see that gift permeate every corner of the globe as his students unreservedly shared his highly adaptable teachings with anyone willing to simply show up, be still and try.

It’s important to note that upon exiting his teacher’s Tibetan cave 90 years ago, Krishnamacharya’s payment to his guru in exchange for the teachings was a promise to complete a life-long, arduous task: he was charged with becoming a householder, raising a family, and sharing what he had learned. For a high-born, deeply religious Brahmin scholar like himself, this was no small promise — in fact, it was the biggest promise he could possibly have made.  The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds.  The tireless work of Krishnamacharya and his contemporaries resurrected, in decades, what it took India centuries to discard.

The worldwide renaissance of Yoga could never have happened if those relentless, magnanimous, Indian masters had limited their teachings to the rarefied strata of the upper castes — the same Vedic banner-wavers who are now crowing so loudly about how misguided, unschooled thieves have absconded with their precious heritage.

Yoga, if it’s nothing else, is a living, breathing, adaptable lineage of learning — open to all.  It both transforms and is transformed by its practitioners. It belongs to everyone because it is part of how everyone’s living system operates. It would be the height of narrow-minded folly to think you can collect patent royalties on something that wasn’t invented in the first place. You don’t own Yoga. You can only own your Yoga.

Should you feel the need to admonish someone for not practicing or teaching a “true” Yoga, I urge you to reflect on your attitude and let it go — by offering it into the flame of Yoga — swaha. Why waste your energy obsessing about how anyone else — past or present — has chosen to interpret Yoga? It is quite literally none of your business. The dividend of this offering will be an enormous energy savings that can be re-invested into a far more profitable enterprise — uncovering your own true Yoga in the only place it’s ever been, within yourself.

……

The fire is hot, the water cold,
refreshing cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety?
from their own nature was it born..

Brahmins have established their
splendid rituals for the dead;
but there are no souls in other worlds —
it’s just their means of livelihood. *

……

Leslie Kaminoff
Truro, MA
July 22, 2015
……

* Freely adapted and condensed from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translation by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough

……
Note to commenters:

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If you wish to express a counterpoint, please note that a pull quote and a hyperlink do not constitute an argument of any kind, much less a convincing rebuttal. With the exception of the cited poetry, what you have just read is 100% original — it was typed straight from my brain through my fingers. I sincerely request that any commenters offering dissenting views respect the spirit of my efforts, and do the same.

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My teacher is gone…the sequel

TKV Desikachar
TKV Desikachar

As promised, here’s some more context to the situation surrounding last week’s post about Desikachar’s dementia, and the aftermath.

First of all, as I stated in the article, the primary reason I decided to go public was pure-self interest.  What no one could have known (except my partner and editor Lydia Mann),  was that as soon as I completed writing the piece, a full-blown, on-my-knees-to-get-out-of-bed, can’t-stand-up-straight, ice-pick-to-the-back-of-my-pelvis back spasm straight out of Dr. Sarno’s book…disappeared without a trace. Damned if Sarno wasn’t right when he claimed that suppressed rage can lay you low with pain – and last week I had 5 years of it being triggered by the news of Iyengar’s imminent demise.

I guess I was also extra mad that Iyengar’s students had a chance to mourn him and his accomplishments, and I was still in this limbo state of hidden grief since 2009 with no end in sight.

So, I’m very happy that so many people from around the world and within our tradition have thanked me for saying what I said…but I really didn’t do it for them – or anyone else. As I said in the piece:

“It’s been unhealthy for me to carry this silent burden of loss and anger for so long. I share this in the hope of a healing that will keep the beauty of Desikachar’s teachings from being tinged with pain every time I mention his name.”

So far, my lower back agrees that we’re on the right track. And, last weekend, back at my original Yoga home – the Sivananda Ashram, I taught a workshop and spoke of my teacher with nothing but love for him and the teachings.

Secondly, what’s also been very interesting and moving is how many folks out there are dealing with the dementia of a loved one – either now or in the recent past. I guess I shouldn’t find it surprising, but it really wasn’t in the front of my mind when I wrote the piece.

So, I seem to have tapped into a deep well of common grief – not just for Desikachar – but all of those we have lost, or are in the process of losing.  If you have your own story to tell, or anything else you’d like to contribute to the conversation, please feel free to leave a reply below.  I will read everything and respond when appropriate.

Thanks,
Leslie

My Teacher is Gone

This piece ran in Elephant Journal the night after B.K.S. Iyengar died.  Waylon Lewis was very kind to prep it in record time so it could be posted before midnight of the day I wrote it.

I’ll have more to say about all of this very soon, but I wanted to share it with you now.  I have had some very supportive comments on Elephant Journal, as well as FaceBook and privately thru e-mail.  Please fee free to add your thoughts below.

tkvdLeslie

My teacher is gone.

Following the death last night of B.K.S. Iyengar after a brief illness at age 95, there was a vast outpouring of affection for a man who had realized his full creative potential during a long and productive life. His guru T. Krishnamacharya, also lived a very long life and taught well past the age of 100. The sadness surrounding Iyengar’s passing was not at the loss of potential unrealized, but at the loss of his living presence.

Unavoidably, my thoughts turned to my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son and—at 20 years his junior—Iyengar’s nephew.

I lost my teacher years ago not to death, but to an advancing dementia that has turned his healthy body into a prison for a devastated mind. The cause of his condition remains a mystery to me; if his immediate family has knowledge of it, they have not publicly stated so. By writing this I am breaking an unspoken code of silence that has surrounded my teacher’s fate and that of his family.

I am immensely sad for the tragic turn that Desikachar’s life has taken. I don’t know if his condition was avoidable. But what is avoidable is the denial surrounding his gradual decline and the resulting damage to the teaching community he built.

Undeniably, the worldwide Yoga community has been deprived of another one of its great intellects and practitioners. My teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, was an interpreter of ancient knowledge for modern times, a sensitive, practical man who valued above all else the close relationships he formed with students, colleagues and clients. My sadness is both for the loss of his living presence and for the lost potential of a great mind and decades of output that will never be realized.

He was born in 1938—a year after his father dispatched B.K.S. Iyengar to Pune. He is 76 years old.

Leslieand DesikacharVideoLooking back, my teacher’s seemingly peculiar and unrealistic desire to promote the career of his troubled son Kausthub makes more sense when factoring in progressive dementia.  Desikachar’s withdrawal from public life and Kausthub’s corresponding rise to leadership at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram had severe consequences for generations of senior students.

Speaking only for myself, the transition felt surreal: I was losing access to my teacher at the same time I was being asked to answer to someone who had repeatedly revealed himself as unstable and dishonest.

The first time Desikachar’s condition became unavoidably obvious to me was the last time I saw him, at the Estes Park Yoga Journal conference in September of 2009. In retrospect there had been signs something was wrong a couple of years earlier. In August of 2007, I attended a weekend seminar in New York in which Desikachar repeatedly turned teaching duties over to his daughter Mekhala.  She did her best, but was clearly uncomfortable when inexplicably made the center of attention. I wrote off the incident to a desire on Desikachar’s part to promote his daughter’s teaching abilities. At the time, it never occurred to me he might have felt the need for help presenting his material.

When my friend Gary Kraftsow and I attended the 2009 Yoga Journal conference I knew he had not seen or spoken to Desikachar in many years.  We both watched in horror as our previously eloquent teacher stumbled hesitantly through his keynote address. During the prior three days I had attended Desikachar’s “Healing Through Yoga” intensive during which he seemed a bit tired and distracted, but was able to manage adequately when his wife, Menaka, or one of his senior students was beside him.

Then—during the keynote, alone at the podium—it was painfully obvious that something was wrong.

Desikachar’s storytelling and oblique references had always brilliantly led back to his main topic in unexpected and illuminating ways. Now, his stories simply rambled on and on in random disarray, with no integrating threads binding them together. It was clear he could only access long-term memories, while his fragile short-term memory and higher functioning were severely compromised.

During intermission, I went to where Gary was sitting and we stared slack-jawed in disbelief at each other, confirming what we had just witnessed. Most of the audience likely saw a kindly old man telling amusing stories, but there were at least a dozen or so people in the room who knew Desikachar well enough to be alarmed. Most notably, his wife and senior students who had been traveling with him could not possibly have been blind to his condition. How could they send him all alone to that podium in front of an amphitheater without the support he so clearly needed?

Feeling humiliated on behalf of my teacher, a rage built inside me…I wanted to confront them, but wishing to avoid making a scene in public, propriety got the better of me.  I spent the rest of that week at Estes in a state of profound loss I’ve carried ever since.

That’s the thing with dementia—you begin mourning long before your loved one dies.

So this week, as I followed the news surrounding the end of Iyengar’s life, all these memories and emotions have come to the surface. I felt sorry for Mr. Iyengar—not that his life was ending after 95 years of productive and influential work, but because this powerful spirit who declared,

“I always tell people—live happily and die majestically!”

…expired in a hospital bed with a feeding tube down his throat. I went fitfully to sleep with that awful, sad image in my head and dreamed vividly about finally writing many of the exact words you have just read.

Why turn the words of my dream into a public message? Why risk exposure and displeasing people I respected and honored?

I have a simple, selfish reason. It’s been unhealthy for me to carry this silent burden of loss and anger for so long. I share this in the hope of a healing that will keep the beauty of Desikachar’s teachings from being tinged with pain every time I mention his name.

My personal relationship with T.K.V. Desikachar and his teachings infuse so much of what’s positive about my life and work. I know that countless others feel the same. When my teacher’s body finally looses its grip on his diminished spirit, his death notice must be more than “died after a lengthy illness.”

He deserves more than that. We all do.

I hope this truth serves his memory well, as I will continue to do—by teaching what I have learned from him.

Leslie Kaminoff
New York City
August 20, 2014

In Memoriam: B.K.S. Iyengar 1918-2014

Guruji_nov2012Word has just come via a Facebook post from Judith Lasater that Bellur Krishnamachar Sundaraj Iyengar has passed away at the age of 96.

So much could be said about his immeasurable contribution to Yoga that I prefer to let you all comment with your remembrances.

For myself, I can say that my teacher Desikachar always spoke of him with great respect, and seemed proud to call him uncle.

With Iyengar’s passing today,  Pattabhi Joiis’s in 2009, and Desikachar’s incapacity, that leaves precious few direct inheritors of T. Krishnamacharya’s lineage still teaching today.

Fortunately, there are literally thousands of us who are lucky enough to be the next generation of teachers tasked with carrying on the vital work of spreading the precious teachings that flow from this deep, rich wellspring.

Please feel free to post your thoughts below.

The Saint in my Garage

This is the story of how one of the greatest modern sages of yoga, Swami Satyananda Paramahamsa ended up delivering a lecture in my garage in Santa Monica in early 1983.

It is also the story of how a misunderstanding of Tantra is not limited to NY Times science reporters – sometimes it comes from Indian Swamis who should have known better.

Did Yoga really start as a sex cult?

In this video follow-up to my previous post “William Broad is at it again at the NY Times,” you can hear me tell Mr. Broad that every time he opens his mouth, he loses another piece of whatever credibility he may have had as an authority on Yoga.

In the end, I just tell him to shut his mouth until such time as he’s willing to do a modicum of valid research into the actual history of Yoga practice – which did NOT begin with the Tantric sex cults of Medieval India. He actually contradicts himself in the space of two sentences in his interview with Stephen Colbert, when he first asserts that Yoga is 4 to 5 thousand years old, then follows up with “…real yoga started out in a sex cult..”

Someone with as big a platform as William J. Broad has an equally big responsibility to speak accurately about this subject.  In this, he has repeatedly and utterly failed.

William Broad is at it again in the NY Times

This time, Mr. Broad is riding the coattails of the John Friend “scandal;” and sharing his expertise about how Yoga’s origins have always been steeped in sexuality.

It’s astounding how this guy thinks that doing sun salutations since the 70’s and book research for a few years makes him an authoritative scholar regarding the history of Yoga.  He can’t even keep the science in his book straight, and that’s supposed to be his field.

Yoga Fans Sexual Flames and, Predictably, Plenty of Scandal – NYTimes.com.