T. K. V. Desikachar, a question of transmission

"Early on the morning of August 8, 2016, Sri T.K.V. Desikachar, son of the great yogi Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, passed away in Chennai, in the Tamil Nadu, a province of southern India.

Those whose written accounts are compiled here were his personal students for many years. Some of them, Indians, taught alongside him at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for 20, 30, or 40 years. Others, Europeans, belong to the "pioneers" who, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, went to Madras, sometimes yearly, to study with him. Some of them hard first received the teaching of Krishnamurti, in London or in Switzerland, and from there went to Madras, wishing to meet this young teacher, with whom Krishnamurti himself had studied yoga. This book bears witness, then, to the fifty years of teaching they received, and to friendship.

Beyond the content of that teaching, these accounts reflect a page in the history of transmitting that he "wrote" in his way, with the deep and specific attention and friendship that he gave to each. Thus there is no heritage, strictly speaking, only loyalties that, through experience, reflection, continuous research, and sharing, continue to recount the constantly revitalized story of this lifelong art, which is yoga".

                                                                      Béatrice Viard (editor)                                                                                                                    

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You can find my contribution below


Meeting Desikachar

My plane landed at Chennai one night in the autumn of 1986, under the pelting rain of the monsoon.
I knew nothing at the time about Viniyoga and about the people who in those years were already promoting Krishnamacharya's teaching in the West. I had been practicing yoga for a couple of years and I arrived in India after reading the book collecting the lectures on yoga theory and practice which Desikachar had given at Colgate University in the seventies. The title of the Italian translation was “Yoga and religiousness” and I had been deeply impressed by its richness, simplicity and clarity.

Night had fallen when I went up the steps of the small Mandiram porch. After a short wait at the reception, I met a man of about fifty, holding by the hand a little girl with long folded plaits: it was Desikachar with his daughter Mekhala. He had been told I was Italian, so the greeting I received, with his wide smile, came out as a mixture of Italian and Spanish: “Buonasera, señorita!”
That year I didn't study with Desikachar, but with some Mandiram teachers. I was fascinated by the teachings I received: I had yet everything to learn! The only thing which puzzled me was the âsana practice. I had been initiated to yoga according to the “Iyengar method” and had been taught to keep static postures for a long time. As I believed the âsana practice followed the principle “the-longer-you-keep-it-the-greater-the-benefit”, of my own initiative, I increased even further the duration of each posture. So, in my ignorance, when alone in my room, I happened to remain in sarvângâsana for three quarters of an hour. Although at the Mandiram this theory of mine had been clearly contradicted, I considered the practice learned at Chennai too mild for me and in spite of the many recommendations (“first of all, don't hurt”!), on my return from India I decided that I would have kept practicing âsanas the same way as before.
However, one morning, a month or so later, I happened to practice prasârita pâda uttânâsana and to keep it for quite a while; but when I tried to get up, my back failed me and I just experienced an excruciating pain which left very unpleasant consequences for weeks.

Before my departure from Chennai, during a good-by meeting, Desikachar had told me: “If you really want to learn yoga, start teaching it!” Then, seeing me to the gate, he left me with a “God bless you!” which I would have gratefully received so many times from him hereafter. This blessing surely extended to my first students, because once back to Italy, I immediately put his suggestion into practice and in spite of my reckless practice, I was so lucky not to create harm.

Desikachar's suggestion represented the first of an infinite number of stimuli to do, to experiment, to enter things which my teacher offered me during the following years. That first advice of his had introduced a number of topics that would constantly recur in his teaching: “yoga is ability in action” and “knowledge springs from experience”. In fact, when I started teaching, questions began to arise in me. I believe this was exactly the purpose Desikachar had in mind when he suggested I should start teaching.

Teaching scraps

With Desikchar I began to understand the value of questions, to see how wondering and exploring were more interesting and productive than seeking immediate answers. I soon discovered that for him questions were more interesting than answers. Not only didn't he give unsought for answers, but he encouraged one to dwell on queries, to question opinions which might not have been investigated, to seek and find answers inside oneself. Desikachar was clear on the fact that simplistic answers and ready-made solutions would contribute to block the learning process, to maintain one on the surface of things and to create dependence.
In the relationship I developed with my teacher during the following years, I always felt there were no definite or unequivocal answers, nor truths that couldn't be re-examined. This I felt both uncomfortable and unsafe, at times even destabilizing. And because of this, I sometimes felt irritated, so much so that one day I went on strike (I was still young!) and didn't turn up for our usual lesson. But my teacher's eyes were turned towards higher horizons: he was more eager that I should grow up both as a person and a teacher than interested in providing the answers I expected from him. In my experience, Desikachar always sought to activate the individual's initiative, the ability to learn through trial and error. He encouraged one to open up new possibilities and creativity. And what he had in view above all was the autonomy of his students.

Obviously, in the course of years, I received quite a number of notions and deep teachings. But what I want to stress here is that Desikachar was much more interested in his students' formation than in giving in-formation, and that he was interested above all in his students' trans-formation.

Before being introduced into the widely interesting world of yoga therapy, and before absorbing the notions and concepts underlying it, I went for a time through a peculiar experience. I attended the individual meetings which were being held by Desikachar in the evening in a banana leaf hut in the Mandiram courtyard. There, my teacher met people suffering from various health problems and seeking his help. The meetings were nearly always in tamil. I didn't know the language and didn't yet know how yoga could be applied to people suffering from various ills. I didn't get any explanation as to what was going on, not even when the meeting was over.

Desikachar carefully observed the people who were coming in as they entered. And I had started to observe my teacher's eyes in order to detect what exactly struck his attention the moment the person entered the hut. I tried to sense what was going on from spare words in English, revealing signs in the patient's body, the observation and diagnosis instruments which were being used and the âsana practices which were being drawn. I extracted information from all this. But not sufficiently, although it didn't matter much.

Basically, I trained myself to observe and above all, I became imbued with the attention my teacher paid to people, his respect and welcoming attitude, his balance, his ability to put people at their ease, his caring for people. I might say, “I caught fire”, like in the beautiful metaphor of the Upanishads, where the unlit candle simply catches fire from the burning one.

Proximity is the key to the transmission of teaching, and I'm talking here of a living teaching, not of an intellectual one. In other words, proximity is the key to the process that makes growing and positive transformation possible. I was opening up to a kind of relationship in which Desikachar brought himself, with his mindfulness, his experience and everything that life, his father and yoga practice had impressed on him. A relationship in which Desikachar felt responsible, took care without assuming charge, where he expressed his availability and sincere interest. Quoting from his words: “I believe that the human quality consisting in sensitivity and interest towards other people and empathy for their problems is of primary importance. What is fundamental for us yoga teachers is the will to understand, to communicate and to relate. The contribution we can provide in this sense is limitless. In fact we don't promise people who come to us that we will doubtlessly cure their ailments, nor make them live forever. We only assure them that we'll take good care of them. And in providing this care there are no limits”.

But all this relates to what I learned later. I went back to Chennai a couple of years later. I resumed the Yoga-Sûtra classes which I had started on my previous stay with Menaka, Desikachar's sunny beautiful wife. From time to time, Desikachar met me to go into my questions and one day he started to go through the Taimni book which I always brought with me, to find an aphorism we were discussing. I believe that the sight of that book, heavily underlined and full of notations, remarks and slips of paper struck him favorably, as the day after he announced to me that from then on he would be my teacher. I obviously experienced great happiness and gratitude for a gift that was beyond my expectations.

Not infrequently, in the course of years, I felt the strain in adapting Desikachar's teaching to my western sensibility. More often than not, this led us to investigate and discuss at length possible meanings of Patañjali's sûtras with the purpose of highlighting their usefulness for everyday life in the West. Desikachar knew how to combine flexibility, creativity and clearness. I often wonder what teacher would have had the mental opening he showed in leading me through this exploration. Desikachar proved to be a researcher and an innovator as well as a careful keeper of tradition.

The hub of my experience

Which are the elements bringing about a positive transformation? What allows an improvement in one's health? What helps people's growth? What supports the truest human development? For Desikachar, the answers to these questions revolve round two important hinges: relationship and confidence (the latter coupled, of course, with discrimination). In fact, trust in ourselves and others allows us to act, make choices, realize projects, overcome obstacles, venture on new journeys or persevere on the old track. Trust, too, gives a meaning to our experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, helps us to exploit our resources, to remain open to unpleasant events and to cooperate, when necessary, with the inevitable. And confidence, too, allows us to rely and to relax.

I learned from my teacher that most of the process of yoga learning is made up of cultivating confidence and the ability to relate. These two factors are often deeply connected. Confidence facilitates good relationships and these, if true, in turn feed confidence. Learning how to teach is also learning to convey confidence to one's student. And since we learn confidence from someone who is himself confident, a student learns to trust his resources and life from someone who gives him complete confidence, who trusts him. This is what I personally experienced with my teacher.

According to the definition given in the Chândogya Upanishad, yoga is a process consisting in going where we'd never been before, reaching new goals, expressing our potentials. To overcome our present limitations, to learn how to do what we don't know how to do yet (or think we can't do), we must somehow be confident that we can make it (or someone else may believe so). The following example, though small, is representative.
In the summer of 1991, I was studying in India and one day Desikachar told me: “I would like you to translate the next talks and seminars I'll hold in Italy.” Raising my shoulders and with a sorry expression I answered: “I'm afraid it won't be possible.” Then, exaggerating and somehow belittling myself, trying to get out of trouble, I went on “I only know 100 words in English”. “OK – he said after a moment's consideration – I will just use those 100 words!” I couldn't object to that.

The first opportunity was a lecture organized at Treviso by my friend and colleague Giandomenico Vincenzi. Later, Giandomenico himself confessed to me that Desikachar's choise had somehow worried him and that he wouldn't have bet on my performance. The lecture, however, went on without any difficulty. The confident presence of my teacher upheld me, the Italian words fluidly alternated with my teacher's and my friend Giandomenico relaxed. I thus became the official interpreter of Desikachar in Italy.

One of the many definitions of yoga that Desikachar used to give sounded like this: “Everything is linked up in the universe, there is a relationship among all things and yoga exists to remind us of this truth. 'Yoga' means 'relationship', with our body, with ourselves, with the surrounding world.”

As regard change and growth, Desikachar had no doubts as to the efficacy of relationship on one side and the âsana practice on the other. He ascribed a maximum value to the first and a minimum value to the latter. To me it appears obvious that the practice of âsanas is absolutely no guarantee of a positive change, although it represents an effective help towards it.

In the field of psychotherapy and counseling, we find full confirmation of the importance of relationship. In this field, it has been verified that there doesn't exist a better approach or a worse one, a number of techniques which may be considered more or less efficient, because the one essential condition for the success of a psychotherapy or a counseling process is relationship. Relationship is what affords and keeps together the process of change and growth. A good relationship is in itself therapeutic and brings the individual nearer his resources. This has been the heart of my experience with Desikachar. Evolution and development of our potentials can first of all take place in the rich soil of true human relationship: in mutual respect, in trust, in the quality of one's presence and in deep listening. This is the catalyzing element which removes obstacles and helps people find the way to recovery and self-fulfillment, to understand what is their task in the world, to express their individuality.

What I found most fascinating in my contact with Desikachar was experiencing the extent to which human relationship can favor individual evolution. This important experience brought me, at the beginning of 2000, to take up counseling. A counselor is by definition an expert in listening and communication, someone who makes relationship the core of his action. Since then, I passionately carry on counseling along with yoga teaching.

In the field of humanistic psychology, the American psychologist Carl Rogers identified the essential qualities that a therapist or a counselor must possess to bring about a positive transformation in a person: positive consideration, empathy and authenticity . These, in turn, can be described through words like: respect and appreciation, acceptation without judgment, warmth, deep listening, whole participation, genuine interest, true intention to understand, self-awareness, self-knowledge and genuine self-expression. . All these elements are strong catalyzes in positive transformation and I was lucky enough to actually touch them in my relationship with Desikachar.
Obviously, during the 20 years' period I was in touch with him, we also experienced frictions, little misunderstandings and small grudges on both sides. My western critical sense played its role. But all this was part of building up a true human relationship.

A time came, though, in which things turned out differently.
In 2000 a short circuit occurred between Desikachar and his western students. There was a period of conflict and incomprehension. And he was rather hard on many of us. For me, that event represented a bolt from the blue. I won't discuss Desikachar's reasons, which I only partially understood. The fact remains that this “new version” of my teacher was totally unknown to me: I had seen him being hard on other students, but never before on me. It was a traumatic experience and I felt a lot of anger towards him. I don't think he was moved by educational purposes. I rather think he had been re-examining the meaning of his teaching in the West; at the same time, his family was then going through a very difficult time (he told me so, a long time after that storm had occurred). In that situation, a number of big and small deceptions and discontent for the way his teaching was being received (or not received) by some of his western students were the sparks that started the fire.

At that moment I discovered the hardness Desikachar was capable of, I saw his anger and his inability to recognize it, I saw his actions change into reactions, I saw his deception and his frustration, I saw his lack of objectivity, I saw the awareness of his actions waver: I saw the other side of his humanity. This, of course, hurt me, but also helped me, after a metabolizing period , to see and to appreciate my teacher as a whole human being.
After that event, I kept at a distance for a while. I didn't go back to Chennai for four years, during which I got more in touch with my roots and my Western identity. It was then that I started studying Western psychology through a training of five years, which took me to my present counseling profession.

In that period I felt with growing clarity that what happened had by no means destroyed what had occurred before. A continuity had been painfully broken, but I strongly felt that the man showing his limitations could not efface the teacher, because the teacher was inside that man. Above all, I started to feel that, by then, I was carrying my teacher's gift within myself.
After that period, we met a few more times. I shall never forget the tenderness and the warmth he showed to me in his attempt to make amends, on the first of my following trips. During those meetings, I felt that not one crumb of the esteem and affection I felt for him was missing. On the contrary, I felt our relationship had strengthened. At that point, my esteem and affection were for the whole man.
My studies kept me away from Chennai for further years, but I always felt him close to me. Then, when a few years ago I decided to get into contact with him to resume my studies, it was too late: he was already ill.

There is quite a number of texts and aspects of yoga which I might have continued to study with him and which I haven't been able to go into, but I have no regrets, because I feel the most important thing is the bond there has been between us, which made me a better person: more conscious, stronger and with more life skills. I am deeply grateful to him for that.

What remains

What remains is the vastness of the teaching Desikachar passed on to me. A teaching which, to the extent of my possibilities, I continue to pass on, together with his many students who have brought the wind of his father's teachings to the West and that he was the first to make available to millions of people outside India.

What remains is the taste of our individual classes, which have so often struck the deepest strings of our humanity. There remains the deep attention with which he used to listen to me, the nearness and intimacy he has been willing to offer me.

There remains the indelible mark of respect, affection, care, interest, gratitude which for so many years have blessed our meetings and our classes.

What remains in my cells is the confidence my teacher transmitted to me, by believing in me and encouraging me to go on. Something alive: not just words or ideas which die away, but a vital force which keeps on feeding me and stays forever. This is what, in turn, I want to pass on.

Lucia Almini