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

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13 comments on “My Teacher is Gone

  1. Unfortunately, I have never met Desikachar, but as he was the teacher of my teacher, I can say his wisdom has changed my life and really brought me close to life, relation to the breath and movment, to the air and earth, to the grace of flowing from movment to stability, putting together all these wonderful insights I had learned meditating in the bouddhist tradition, but this time feeling at ease with all the dimensions and relation of life.
    Thank you Leslie for your honesty, although this is a sad news you just spoke about.

  2. What a shame! And sad that this lack of transparency prohibits the yoga community from grieving this loss together. In addition to addressing old cultural taboos and dishonest communication, you raise another important issue: an assumption that yoga and meditation practitioners’ neuroplasticity and possible practice-generated merit will protect us from the ravages of dementia. It is my understanding that ONE IN FOUR of us will suffer from a dementia-related disease. We still have little scientific understanding of dementia and there is no treatment! Ignorance and arrogance we need to attend. Thank you!

  3. I think this is the perfect moment for the major styles that were created in the evolution of the Krishnamacharya lineage to come together under the original classical name of Ashtanga Yoga. Or at least to come together in celebration of its wide reach to hundreds of thousands of students around the world, and in honor of the dedication of its Masters Sri Pattabhi Jois, Sri BKS Iyengar and Sri TKV Desikachar.

    No less dedicated, and equally deserving of celebration are the successes of all the teachers who brought the major styles of Krishnamacharya’s Ashtanga Yoga to America and other places around the world.
    To name just a few of the great ones: Leslie Kaminoff, Larry Payne, Gary Kraftsow, Matthew Taylor, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, David Swenson, Lisa Walford, John Schumacher, Patricia Walden, Mary Dunn, Judith Lasater, Aadil Palkivala, Dona Holleman, Erich Schiffmann ….

    These are just the ones I have been fortunate enough to take classes and worshops with. They have each contributed a unique element to the lineage.

    We thank you, and every other teacher in the tradition.

  4. Dear Leslie,
    Am so glad you were moved to write this and share so eloquently. I have had the privilege of learning from Desikachar’s students too as well as being one of your 9 month students.
    Honestly when I first learnt of his demise I was living in Sydney and knew teachers who directly studied with Desikachar and Kausthab. Having 2 teenage boys myself I can only begin to understand the torment that must have unleashed in his mind. How was Desikachar to cope with that as a son too when you hold the legacy of your father’s work as the greatest teacher ? A mind can only take so much as Desikachar must have felt he could no longer hold the world up for his Dad and he ultimately felt he’d not only failed as a son now holding his father’s legacy but also as a father. His mind had to shut down as there is no way out from this when his son has decimated the teachings of the family. I can only hope that Kausthab begs and seeks forgiveness and sees the error of his ways and acknowledges this. And may Desikachar know this in his heart one day when he finally goes to complete rest. If only he knew how he is not responsible for his son’s wrong doings but how does the world begin to tell a man this when he is already gone ?
    I wanted to share your link via Elephant but need to join first I think but will try to share from this.
    My thanks to you now for carrying on your teacher’s great work.
    Sarah
    SYT Yoga Alliance

  5. this is so sad, it also happens to ordinary people all the time, the family denies the evidence, the patient struggles for some dignity, such a loss.

  6. The truth isn´t always the easiest way, for that reason thank you Leslie. Your words are an act of courage that contrasts with the cowardly and disloyal attitude toward the tradition of the great master Krishnamacharya by his own family. To hide Desikachar´s disease and allow someone so little evolved as Kausthub transmit this valuable teaching is an offense to the yogic community – and especially to those who follow the tradition with devotion and honesty. Unfortunately I know that they are still hiding and manipulating the truth and thus creating confusion among many students who are attracted by this lineage, so your words are especially valuable and clarifying for those who want to approach this wonderful tradition. I am proud to belong to this lineage, although I studied shortly with Desikachar, my learning in KYM changed my way of understanding Yoga to a deep and enriching way which I feel that we must transmit with humble honesty. Let the universe take care of the rest…

  7. With a lot of emotions we have read your message and we are very, very happy that finally also the English speaking Yoga community gets an adequate knowledge about our teachers fate.
    We also felt, that all those people who have benefitted so much from TKVs vitality, from his innovative and inspiring teaching should know about his situation instead of remaining half-informed as the family evidently prefers to keep it. That is why we – having studied with Desikachar over more than 25 years, have published the truth about his situation, in May 2013 in our German Yoga journal VIVEKA at the occasion of his 75th birthday. While the messages from Chennai were all of this well known „everything is wonderful“-type, we really wanted to honour him, and at the same time express our sadness about the great loss we all feel.
    We have observed the development of his dementia from 2005/6 already and we have see him suffer very much from the situation. We too suffered as you and Gary evidently did, from seeing him being exposed to painful situations like conferences and podiums during this time. It was very bitter.
    His contribution to modern Yoga is immense and we are sure that this will appear more and more clearly within the coming years still.
    We miss him.
    Martin Soder and Imogen Dalmann

  8. Leslie, you are never short of courage when it is needed for the greater good of the yoga community. Thank you for once again sticking your neck out and saying things that are hard to hear. I believe that in doing so you honour the teachings of your teacher, and show respect to all those of us who are lucky enough to be your students.

    • Thank you Rebecca, your words are very sweet, but I don’t feel like I’m sticking my neck out as much as someone who continues to live in Cairo 😉

  9. From one of your online students.
    Thank you Leslie. Much food for thought.
    Cultural background, tradition and belief system, our own story, other people’s stories, scientific materialism, interpretation of History……..
    ‘ Svadhyaya, Tapas, Ishvara Pranidhana.’

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