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!”

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Off the grid(ish), then back in the saddle

LK writing Truro

Greetings from Truro, MA and my annual Cape Cod writing retreat, where the days are unstructured, the sunsets are gorgeous, and data is at a premium (no wi-fi means everything goes through my cellular data plan).

I have several writing projects into which I am eagerly diving, and by which I expect to be consumed right up until the end of the month.  Then, it’s back to a busy teaching schedule in August.

First, I lead my 10th summer immersion at The Breathing Project August 8 – 12th: “Transformation Through Relationship.”  There are a few spots available, so there’s still time to sign up.  This year, we have a truly international group of students joining us from as far away as Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Israel, Sweden, Germany and Toronto.  U.S. visitors are coming from New Mexico, Minnesota, and of course, the tri-state area.

Then, the following weekend, I’ll be making my first-ever visit to the Atlanta area on August 20 – 21st to teach “Breath and Asana: an Individualized Perspective,” at East Cobb Yoga in Marietta, Georgia. I’m very much looking forward to sharing the essential teachings of individualized yoga with a whole new group of students.

The very next weekend, August 27 – 28th I am  returning to Portland, Oregon.  We have been invited by a new studio, yogaRIOT, to teach a practice-heavy weekend of classes and workshops we’ve titled: “A Breath Centered Approach to Asana.”    The event has just gone on sale, and you can get special early pricing right up until July 31st.

Once September rolls in, you’ll find us touring in the U.K. with teaching dates in Belfast, Glasgow and Cambridge.  More details on those gigs soon.

Now, back to writing, then another sunset.  Here’s last night’s…truro Sunset 2016

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Live long enough, you become part of yoga’s institutional history

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.

Amazingly awesome indeed.

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Teachers and Students: Rule Making, Rule Breaking


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.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

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Breath-Centered Yoga Therapeutics: A Four Day Immersion in Southern California

YATMI’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.

Help us get the word out!   Thanks.

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On the Road for Return Visits – Austin and Fort Wayne

It’s always gratifying to return to studios and towns where I’ve had great experiences previously, and I’ve got two upcoming workshops on consecutive weekends that fit that bill.

YogaYogaFirst, from April 22-25, I’ll be heading for the sixth time to Austin, TX to teach for my good friends at Yoga Yoga.  It’s always a pleasure to teach in the big, beautiful room at their Westgate location (see below).

Austin2015

PranayogaThen, on the following weekend, April 30 – May 1, I’ll be returning to Fort Wayne, Indiana for a Yoga Anatomy Immersion at the Pranayoga Institute of Yoga and Holistic Health.  We’ve extended early bird pricing for this workshop through Monday, April 18 – sign up now to get the discount!

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