The past few weeks have been chock-full of interviews with all kinds of interesting people. My general takeaway after being called upon as a historian and rabblerouser is that, 37 years into this field, what I really am is a yoga-elder with an intact memory!
I met with an old friend and Berkshires neighbor Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, as part of preparation for a keynote address he is delivering at the upcoming SYTAR conference in Reston, VA. We shared anecdotes and perspective of over 30 years working in the field of therapeutic yoga, and I was able to provide him archival photos to add to his slide show.
While in Laguna Niguel teaching a marvelously engaged group of students at You and the Mat, I met with Anna Dubrovsky as a follow-up to our article in Yoga International, “3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class.” It was a wide-ranging and frank discussion, from politics to practice, that may lead to a follow-up piece for YI.
A day or two later, Julie Selby interviewed me on behalf of an ongoing Yoga Alliance project aimed at gathering perspectives about how to best serve the yoga teaching community. Some of you may know that I haven’t always been a supporter of the Alliance, but I continue to be impressed by the current board’s insight and direction. This was a very productive and frank discussion, none of which was off the record, and I’m counting on some of my ideas being delivered directly to YA’s leadership.
Scholar and historian Natalia M. Petrzela is researching the intersection of fitness and yoga culture, a topic about which my personal history provides a unique perspective. After two hours of intense discussion, we barely scratched the surface and both look forward to an open-ended follow-up in the next weeks.
I find it mind-boggling that the obscure, non-commercial activity I began teaching in 1979 has transformed into a genuine multibillion dollar industry, being written about by serious journalists, researched by powerful trade associations and studied by post-doctoral scholars.
Back in February, reporters for the Daily News and NY Post either accessed court records or received a press release pertaining to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Jivamukti Yoga teacher against a senior teacher. The complaint contained enough details of intimate encounters between these two teachers to make for the kind of tawdry click-bait tabloid reporters lust after.
The complainant’s attorney apparently made his client available for a photo shoot in his office, as he prepared to try his case in the court of public opinion.
I read the initial news stories and formed my own opinions based on nearly four decades in this field, my personal history of student-teacher-guru dynamics, as well as my inside knowledge of many of the guru-teacher scandals of the past. I kept my opinions mostly to myself until I was contacted by Michelle Goldberg who asked to interview me for a piece she was writing for Slate that would focus on the “cultish” environment at Jivamukti. Michelle and I had a maintained a friendly connection since I had invited her to present an evening talk last June at The Breathing Project discussing her just-released book about Indra Devi “The Goddess Pose” so I agreed to the interview.
Over the course of about an hour, Michelle and I discussed many things, including my history teaching at Jivamukti in the early days (1992-1994) at their Second Avenue studio. I named a few other people I thought she should talk to who had more intimate knowledge of the current atmosphere at Jivamukti, but it never occurred to me to ask whether anyone had agreed to be quoted on the record. Apparently, I was the only one. To be fair, had I been offered the option of being quoted anonymously I would have declined because in my opinion anonymous online commentary is cowardly. Though I was quoted accurately in the final article there was far more that wasn’t quoted.
I enjoyed reading the Slate piece. I like Michelle’s writing style and she treated me fairly as far as she quoted me. Predictably, she chose the most controversial things I said for her article. I have no problem with that – she was doing her job, and doing it well. I even called to leave Michelle a congratulatory message the day the article came out. I thanked her for quoting me accurately and helping me sound critical without trashing anyone personally. As it turned out, not everyone agreed and some people felt very personally trashed by what I said. They wasted no time condemning me as an insensitive, brutish “victim-blamer.”
The most notable criticism came via Matthew Remski who interviewed the complaining teacher and her lawyer, as well as Sharon Gannon and David Life. Matthew gave me a chance to respond to their points of view (which I did), and to retract any of my quotes (which I did not). Matthew did include small excerpts of my lengthy reply in his blog post on the topic.
This past Wednesday, I decided to deliver a heartfelt talk on this topic for my monthly members event at The Breathing Project. We made a video recording and have edited the 90-minute talk down to about a half-hour – which is still pretty long, but if you stick with it, I can guarantee it will at the least provide food for thought. If you have limited time, skip ahead to the 25-minute mark to hear how rules, ethical guidelines, vows and boundaries can actually provoke transgression.
I may have more to say on this topic in the future, but for now, this was the most efficient way to get a response out there.
I’m excited about my upcoming return to Laguna Niguel’s beautiful You and the Mat studio for a four day immersion in my favorite topic: Breath-Centered Therapeutics. The 4- day series of workshops take place from May 20-23, and will feature a clinical observation day.
Sunday’s session will be Respiratory Yoga Therapeutics: Clinical Observation – offering a rare glimpse into what happens in a private therapeutic yoga session. Through observation, questions, discussion and exchange I will demonstrate the principles of how to customize yoga practices, read the body to identify patterns of holding and tension, offer hands-on assists from an anatomically-informed breath-centered perspective, and explore yoga philosophy with anatomical understanding of the human system.
Three guest clients will have a unique opportunity to work one-on-one with me on specific respiratory issues to build awareness of their particular pattern of holding tension and receive support and encouragement from a group of people interested in their wellness.
I’m inviting you to help us find great clinic guests.
Do you have a challenging client or student or know someone (even yourself!) who could use this kind of breathing help? The person need not be a yoga practitioner, but should be experiencing some kind of breathing disorder or challenge. The time commitment is 1-2 hours on Sunday May 22, 2016.
Please invite anyone you think is appropriate to complete a clinic guest intake form. The deadline for submission is Sunday May 15 at midnight. We will be emailing all who have submitted an application by Tuesday May 17 informing them whether they are on the schedule.
Tonight in Paris, after finishing my last day of travel teaching for 2015, Lydia and I exhaled deeply and decided to map all our teaching travel for the year just ending. Seeing it all in one image fills me with many emotions.
First and foremost, I feel gratitude for the fact that I can do what I do. When I took my first asana class at the New York Sivananda Center 1978, I could not have imagined how profoundly my life would be transformed. I wasn’t alone. Over the last four decades so many others have been touched by Yoga, the world has turned into a place where someone like me – who is profoundly unemployable in any other field – can travel the globe sharing these teachings with the sincere, dedicated groups of lifelong learners we call Yoga Educators.
So – in tribute to this amazing year of teaching, travel, learning, and connecting – I am going to give a shout out to all the folks who made it possible for me to spend 127 days of 2015 journeying more than 90,000 miles* to 26 cities, seven countries, and meet close to 5,000 students in my classes and workshops. It has truly been an honor and privilege to spend time with the amazing students they gathered in their diverse spaces around the world:
Los Angeles, California – Larry Payne and his YogaRx Therapy training at LMU
Winter Haven, Florida – Kerry Wilson at Inside Out Fitness
Austin, Texas – Laura Forsyth and Lori McDougall at Yoga Yoga
McCall, Idaho– Debra Murphy at Shanti Yoga Studio
Sydney, Melbourne, Freehold, Australia – Michael de Manincor and Lisa Grauaug of Yoga Institute of Australia
New York, New York – Renee LaRose, Alden Conant and the entire team at YJLive! Conferences
Washington, D.C. – Rexx Samuell and his team at Buddha B. Yoga Studio
Lambertville, New Jersey – Sue Elkind, Denise Orloff and Caroline Joan Peixoto at Dig Yoga
Monroe, New York – Nicole Lewitan at Ananda Ashram
Glasgow, Scotland – Mark Russell of Kridaka Yoga
Minneapolis, Minnesota – Sarah Jane Wroblewski at the Yoga Center of Minneapolis (special shout-out to her wife Kim Bartmann for making us so welcome at a number of her retaurants)
New York, New York – Everyone at the Breathing Project and all the amazing students who showed up for my “Transformation Through Touch” summer immersion
Honolulu, Hawaii – Rich Girolami of Silk Bridge
Madrid, Spain – Blanca San Roman of Dhara Yoga
Vienna, Austria – Florian Reitlinger and Brigit Pöltl at the Yoga Zentrum Mödling
Asheville, North Carolina – Stephanie Keach and Julia Albertson, Asheville Yoga Center
Milano, Italy – Giulia Borioli of the Milano Yoga Festival, and my translator Vittoria Frua
Encinitas, California – Monique Lonner of Soul of Yoga
Cologne, Germany – Sonia Bach and her team at the yogaloft Cologne
Finally, Lydia and I would like to send a special thank you to my agent, Ava Taylor and her amazing team at YAMA Talent. Ava is an amazing partner, a great friend and a true trailblazer in the field of professional management for yoga talent and event production. She also showed us a great time in Cologne, Germany (photo evidence below).
* Lower numbers in the chart are as of December 12, and don’t reflect the days or mileage for our return trip to New York on December 15. The 39 cities on the chart are inflated since they count every time we returned home to New York. The actual number of cities we visited is 26.
As a lead-up to the event, our presenters will share their favorite breath education myths, which they will debunk at the event. For me, myth #1 is probably the most pervasive one in the field: the term diaphragmatic breathing itself. If I had my way, I’d completely banish the term from breath education.
ALL breathing is diaphragmatic. No living person should ever be told that they aren’t using their diaphragm unless they suffer from paralysis (and in that case, why would you say it to them in the first place? — they already know).
The term “diaphragmatic breathing” is as redundant and silly as the term “foot walking.” When that term gets used, it’s intended to distinguish healthy breathing (diaphragmatic) from some other pattern an educator has judged to be unhealthy, but it would be absurd to say the unhealthy pattern is “non-diaphragmatic.” The real issue isn’t whether the diaphragm is working or not, it’s whether it is able to work to its full efficiency without undue obstruction.
Ten years ago, I produced a weekend symposium for Kripalu called “The Future of Breathing.” To celebrate the anniversary of that wonderful event, I’ve put together a lineup of friends and esteemed breathing experts who will join me at The Breathing Project in October.
Event details are below and early discounted registration is now open. There is limited space at this intimate event, so sign up soon! Future e-Sutra posts will feature interviews with all of the presenters.
Saturday & Sunday, October 24–25, 2015, 9:30am – 5:00pm
Do you teach or coach voice, acting, yoga, movement or fitness?
Do you work in a therapeutic context as a bodyworker, physical therapist, respiratory therapist or trauma therapist?
Do you engage with breathing as part of your therapeutic, teaching or personal practice?
Are you interested in what’s going on in related fields and modalities on the topic of breath?
Are you curious about where flawed assumptions, inaccurate anatomy and limited perspectives might be affecting your choices?
Join us for a special weekend symposium on breath education where we’ll dive into an expansive and inclusive inquiry into working with people and their breath. Leslie Kaminoff has gathered fellow practitioners and innovators from multiple disciplines who, like himself, are deeply engaged in questions around breathing and embodiment. Each presenter will present and share about what they’re curious and passionate about in the realm of breathing. The weekend will include lecture, interactive sessions, experiential learning, movement explorations and opportunities for Q&A.
The Art of Breathing Coordination and the Kinesthetic Voice
with Jessica Wolf & Lynn Martin
Join Jessica and Lynn as they co-present the following topics:
Introduction to Breathing Coordination
Animated film created by Jessica Wolf
Common misconceptions about breathing
Guided practices to enhance awareness of body, breath and voice
Development of kinesthetic voice related practices
Lynn Martin teaches functional anatomy, Ideokinesis and Breathing Coordination at New York University, in the Tisch Dance Department, Tisch School of the Arts. Lynn has studied functional anatomy and Ideokinesis extensively with Irene Dowd, who teaches at The Juilliard School and who studied there with Dr. Lulu Sweigard.
For many years, Lynn Martin also studied Breathing Coordination with Carl Stough. As a member of the Board of Directors, she worked with The Stough Institute on special educational projects and was Associate Producer of a documentary video, Breathing: The Source of Life.
Her background also includes studies in AfroCaribbean music and dance with Montego Joe, Pamela Patrick, Pat Hall, Jean-Léon Destiné and Serge St. Juste. She studied voice with Conrad L. Osborne and has sung much of the great choral-orchestral repertoire with The Cecilia Chorus of N.Y. at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
A summa cum laude graduate of Fordham University, Lynn has also taught at the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College, the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. She maintains a private practice in Ideokinesis and Breathing Coordination and teaches workshops in New York City and Switzerland.
Jessica Wolf, M.AmSAT, is an internationally recognized teacher of the Alexander Technique. She completed her training at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in 1977 and is one of the few Alexander professionals who have been teaching for more than 35 years. Throughout her career, she has explored and conducted research in respiratory function.
In 1998, Jessica established the Alexander Technique program at Yale School of Drama, where she now holds the position of Associate Professor. In 2002, she became the founder and director of the first post-graduate training program for Alexander teachers in “Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing.” She has certified 60 Alexander teachers around the world. Other faculty appointments include the Aspen Music Festival, The Juilliard School, SUNY Purchase, Circle in the Square Theater School, Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Verbier Music Festival.
Jessica created the first three-dimensional animated film of the respiratory system and published Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing: Collected Articles in 2013. She coaches many performing artists who appear on and off Broadway, as well as in film and television. Jessica travels extensively giving workshops to performers and health care providers.
The Physiology of Healthy Breathing
with Dr. Robert Fried
Dr. Fried will help us to define healthy breathing in terms of its physiological characteristics. He will explain and demonstrate the basic instrumentation for monitoring the measurable parameters of lung and blood gases, and heart rate variability. With the insights provided by such monitoring, Dr. Fried will show how it’s possible to identify common patterns of breathing that could adversely alter respiratory function, and reveal the adverse consequences of abnormal lung and blood gases on a variety of physical conditions ranging from heart and kidney ailments to anxiety and hypertension.
Robert Fried, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor, Doctoral Faculty in Behavioral Neuroscience, City University of New York (CUNY) and Emeritus, American Physiology Society (APS) (Cardiovascular and Respiration Div.), and world-renowned expert in the treatment of stress and anxiety.
He is the author of The Arginine Solution, The Hyperventilation Syndrome, and The Breath Connection, and is former Director of the Stress and Biofeedback Clinic of the Ellis Institute for Rational Emotive Therapy in New York City, where he lives.
An Embodied Inquiry into Internal Respiration
with Amy Matthews
Amy will explore the movement of the breath after it enters the lungs, as it travels through blood to its final destination in the cells. This journey of internal respiration can be explored in relationship to any pattern of external breathing.
Embodying the processes of internal respiration can be a way to expand the experience of breathing from the landmarks of external respiration (thorax, lungs, ribcage and diaphragm) into an experience of breathing in every tissue of our body. We can also use this full body experience of our breath as a foundation for the exploration of a wide variety of specific approaches to breathing, and as a way to ground and orient our sense of self.
Amy Matthews, CMA, IDME, BMC Teacher, RSMT/RSME has been teaching movement since 1994. She is a Certified Laban Movement Analyst, a Body-Mind Centering® Teacher, an Infant Developmental Movement Educator, and a yoga therapist and yoga teacher.
Amy co-authored with Leslie Kaminoff the best-selling book Yoga Anatomy, and together Amy and Leslie co-direct The Breathing Project, a non-profit educational institution in NYC.
Amy directs the BMC® & Yoga programs in NYC and Portland, OR for the School for Body-Mind Centering, and was on the faculty of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies for 10 years. She teaches embodied anatomy and movement in the USA and internationally.
Essentials of Diaphragmatic Biomechanics
with Leslie Kaminoff
Leslie will provide an in-depth look at the structure and function of the diaphragm from a unique perspective – its oft-neglected role as a muscle of postural support. With so much popular attention being paid to the concept of “core support,” there is actually a dearth of well-defined, functional definitions of “core” that take into account the enormously powerful role the diaphragm plays in modulating our relationship to gravity. Through audio-visual presentations, kinesthetic and experiential exploration, and dynamic interaction, Leslie will lead participants in a transformative journey into their breathing, thinking bodies.
Leslie Kaminoff is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar. For over three decades he has led workshops and developed specialized education in the fields of yoga, breath anatomy and bodywork. His approach to teaching combines intellectual rigor, spontaneity and humor, and is always evolving.
Leslie is the founder of The Breathing Project, a New York City based educational non-profit dedicated to teaching individualized, breath-centered yoga. His unique year-long yoga anatomy courses are now available online at yogaanatomy.net. He is the co-author, with Amy Matthews, of the best-selling book Yoga Anatomy.
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.
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. *
July 22, 2015
* Freely adapted and condensed from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translation by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough
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.
If, however, you totally agree with me, feel free to post anything you want. 😉
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.
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.
Looking 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.