In memorium: What Desikachar taught me

A teacher who had a profound influence on me passed away Aug. 9, 2016. In late September 2001, I was in Colorado for a Yoga Therapy conference. It was early in my yoga training and I had only recently left my corporate job to pursue a career that touched my heart. The world was still in shock from the fall of the Twin Towers and I was uncertain about my upcoming trip to India in October. The keynote speaker was a man of grand stature, Desikachar, the son of the father of yoga as we know it in the Western world. After workshops with the bloated egos of certain American yoga teachers who fancied themselves gurus, or otherwise hawked their trade-marked system, I was disappointed with the educational possibilities in yoga as healing in the US. That is the backdrop against which I attended the keynote lecture, anticipating a man who was larger than life. (this entry continues below the video)

Desikachar walked on stage, not in robes or beads, not throwing around namastes, but dressed in street clothes, and I was moved by the normalcy of his presence. He was an ordinary man, not a guru nor a salesman, and his humanity was to me was more yogic than his lineage or the fanfare around him. He spoke in a light-hearted, casual manner, explaining his deliberate adaptation of his demeanor to meet our American culture. He spoke of the uncertainty and fear that was heavy in the air and the progressive nature of how healing happens. I knew at that moment that I would visit his center when I went to India, but I was still unsure if I would make such a trip in a world turned upside-down by commercial airplanes used as weapons. I approached Desikachar after his talk and asked if I could study at his center during my trip. I also expressed my concern about traveling there given recent events. He referred back to his talk, about the step-by-step nature of healing. Every step is a fresh start from which you are free to take a new direction. He remarked that I had taken a step to come to the conference. And the choice to go to India was only another step. Yes, I was welcome to come to his center, but the step was mine to make. And, of course, it was merely a step. I took that step and spent most of my 5-month trip at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

Although I took a formal training at Desikachar’s center, it was my time spent outside of formal training - at the evening lectures, observing and interacting with their therapists, the regular chanting at the center, the osmosis of being present with the person in front of me, that embedded the teachings more deeply. Intention in personal interaction and clarity in first-person presence was the foundation of their message. Deep appreciation for the dimensions of a person was essential to understanding them. Clarity in your own mind was an essential resource to cultivate and draw upon. As an Asian, a teacher remarked to me that my culture was closer to Indian than American. A Japanese student even remarked that the Tamil (the language spoken in that part of India) had the same grammatical structure as Japanese. I was born in Korea but grew up in the Midwest. I always felt American, even when I was mocked every time I entered a new school for looking otherwise, but my time in India revealed how deeply cultural origins live. My parents modeled Asian behavior and thinking. I absorbed certain aspects of that in ways I hadn’t realized.

At the KYM, they taught a mature approach to yoga therapy, practiced by adults dedicated to learning the philosophy and psychology of yoga. In their embodiment and in their practice, Desikachar and his senior teachers communicated that healing happens in the relationship. I learned this in India before I learned the neurological reality of how that occurs. In essence, yoga therapy is a meditation on the person in front of you, bringing any tool necessary that you possess to help that individual in their goals. It is a process rooted in the biology of social creatures, anchored in the humanity of our intentions, dependent on the clarity of self. It is a process that I continue to follow and I am indebted to Desikachar for his embodiment of it. Without the gloss of branded ownership, he shared his humanity with me.