By Kajal Basu
Ranged behind T.K.V. Desikachar, inheritor of a whole new service industry, yoga therapy could change the logistics of human body-mind-spirit repair forever
The teachings of the patriarch are like a generic raga pradhan—to be sung or played strictly according to notations, originality limited only to choice of instrument or timbre of voice. In Krishnamacharya’s arch traditional school of hard spiritual knocks, servitude was a sign of neither sin nor weakness but of right fully earned respect.
‘We were,’ Desikachar said in an interview, ‘fifty years apart in age. His education and background were very different from mine, but what I remember most is that he always came to my level in working with me. I am a western-educated person and he was a traditional teacher’.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born on November 18, 1888 in a village in Mysore, India. Proud of its pedigree of piety, his family traced its lineage back to the sage Nathamuni, author of Krishnamacharya’s and now Desikachar’s Bible, the Yoga Rahasya. Enrolled at the clean – slate age of 12 years in Mysore’s Brahmatantra Parakala Mutt and taught the thousands of nuances and niceties of the Vedas, he took a parallel course at the Royal College of Mysore. At 18, he sped to Banaras to study Sanskrit, logic and grammar, and returned to Mysore for the finishing touch.
Krishnamacharya then went on an extended peregrination for a decade: to North India to study Samkhya, the India’s oldest and most venerated philosophical system and the roots of the yoga; then, in 1916, he traveled to the Himalayas and found his teacher, Ramamohan Brahmachari, who lived near Mansarovar. After seven hard years of learning the logistics of therapy and healing, he descended once again to the south to study ayurveda and the philosophy of nyaya. A Vedic school of logic. He returned to Mysore in 1924 and opened a school of yoga. With the local raja, or king, as his prize pupil and cash cow. For the next 22 years, Krishnamacharya dug in and taught at the school, and wrote his first book, Yoga Makarandam (Secrets of Yoga), at leisure.
It was in 1937 that he and his disciple and associate, K. Pattabhi Jois, had their first batch of foreign students. Two years later, his name had spread wide enough for a French medical team to make its way to him, intrigued by yoga’s claim that it could help control heartbeat. It was his incontrovertible data that opened the sluicegates to the West, the hotbed of empiricism and cognitive proof. Yoga began to colonize the West.
In time, Krishnamacharya’s native inventiveness made him draw up a template for yoga as therapy or service industry—a function familiar to the West.
The foundation of yoga therapy was laid in 1976, when Desikachar and father decided to set up the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, literally a hospice of alternatives treatment, in Chennai, India. Krishnamacharya died in 1989, a centenarian with all faculties intact and at his beck and call till the last hour, satisfied that his sagacity would live on in his son, his teachings true to the tiniest decimal.
It’s a low-key breakaway discipline with a pedigree a half century-long. In line with the kin esthetics of today’s fitness fad, it is referred to as ‘yoga therapy’ and it goes out on a limb promising you good health without precedence: deaden your sciatica, lubricate your spine, re-calibrate your heartbeat, and take the perspiration out of respiration, and, just may be, prettify your pancreas in the bargain (although yoga considers cosmetics for cosmetics’ sake frivolous). Yoga purists wince at the word ‘therapy’, at its seeming absence of spiritual content, at its post-trauma, curative—not preventive—function, as if repairing physical impairment alone is incidental to yoga practice and of questionable justification.
This is the kind of rejection that summarily marginalizes from the mainstream even the best of what is uninstitutionalized and alternative. Contrarily, what it did was lead me to ask Indian yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar, practicing head of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a school and sanitarium of yoga therapy in Chennai, India, a question that had been nibbling at my self-esteem for months. It had everything to do with therapy and nothing to do with yoga, but perhaps one could throw some light on the other.
I told him that I had quit alcohol six years ago after a decade of unmitigated, addictive, suicidal, marriage- breaking intemperance. Then, through no fault of my own, I went from gutter inebriate to self-righteous ass in nanoseconds and never had to suffer the terrible withdrawal symptoms that accompany going on the wagon. There was, therefore, no exercise of willpower. I could make no claim to grit or glory.
Four months ago, I did IT again, this time with cigarettes. An ego-crippling addiction of two decades of chain-smoking over 50 cancer sticks a day went up in a puff of smoke.
In both cases, conventional biological wisdom about the frailty of the human anatomy went down the tube. My problem, I told Desikachar, is that I was spiritually bleeding to death, a situation as worthy of therapy as, say, gallstones. I can’t employ this miracle to improve my life because I don’t know how I did it. This is a reasoning paraphrasing of what Desikachar said: ‘So you want to know whether it can be learnt, whether its parameters are logical, whether it can be quantified, whether it has an autonomous and entirely whimsical life of its own.’ Or, I thought, whether I should cease worrying and leave the rudders of my life in its phantom grip.
What I do know is that whatever that power is, it is therapy of the highest level of potency and accomplishment, perhaps even an instrument of transcendence.
Desikachar smiled and dropped a bomb: he said that his late father T.Krishnamacharya, would have dismissed my ‘problem’ as an exercise of a personal power that did no one but the protagonist alone any good: ‘Therefore, it is not to be trusted.’ The implications were obvious: Desikachar was perforce speaking about this ‘miracle’ from the vantage point of yoga therapy, a discipline of punishing complexity with a bottom line that says that anything of a therapeutic nature has to be open to dissemination and emulation to have any value at all—therapy is, least of all, a selfish, one-off act. On the way to his goal, the student has to empower himself enough to be, if called upon, a teacher and a physician. In a radical inversion of the logistics of most other therapeutic disciplines, yoga therapy calls upon the physician to heal himself first before unleashing himself upon the world.
Fortunately, before I could sink to the depths of all spiritual sulks, I found a sort of hazy resolution in the first issue (February 1991) of Darsanam, a yoga magazine since defunct, run by the Mandiram.
In the journal, Desikachar had said: ‘… if we are used to something, we can give it up if something else is very important for us.’ Not me—I had given up nothing. As for the role that yoga could play in the process of de-addiction and detoxification, I found an answer: ‘The yoga practice must either change the system or offer a challenge.’ Hope again, but I could see Desikachar’s point. In the unspiritual babble of the rabble, this bargaining is called a tradeoff.
‘As a general policy,’ Desikachar had continued, ‘today, we do not advise people to give up cigarettes or anything, unless it is absolutely clear to us that it is not in the interest of their immediate help…Because if a person can give up something so easily, probably we teachers have no role! If they cannot give up easily, our saying it is not going to be very effective.’ In other words, in my case yoga therapy would not have worked.
On the other hand, the yoga therapy gift hamper contains a mega-magnanimity of goodies: ‘There is something in it for everyone,’ says Desikachar.
But bring in the financial pragmatism of the real world and things begin to fall apart—one of his Australian students blurts out the this omnibus mantra is sweeping Desikachar towards a financial bust-up: ‘He thinks that frugality and a state of grace are entirely compatible, perhaps even cause and effect.’ Desikachar also believes that yoga therapy is one evolutionary step beyond the conventional guru disciple teaching system.
That is precisely how Desikachar studied under his father, only sometimes questioning where all his father’s know-how came from. Even today, he has only part of the answer. ‘In 1964, when my father suggested that I study the Yoga Rahasyaof Nathamuni, I had never heard of Yoga Rahasya or Nathamuni.’ It is this mystery that is central to the eminence that yoga therapy enjoys in the milling ranks of other yoga sub-disciplines, Krishnamacharya never got around to revealing precisely where he had encountered Nathamuni.
Thus system’s genesis may be unclear, but not its efficacy. Yoga as therapy, which is the same thing as yoga as a system of medication and convalescence—or, heretically, yoga as a service industry—is a wonderful, altruistic, saint-making idea, and is incidentally perfectly in keeping with the I-want-it-yesterday philosophy of the late 20th century and with its fetish of designer and customized items of consumption. Desikachar knows, because he considers each patient, each student, as a unique phenomenon. ‘The key in right teaching,’ he says, ‘is the adaptation of yoga to the individual to yoga…The essence of my father’s teaching is this: it is not that the person needs to accommodate himself or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person.’
It is this insistence on the personal touch that made Desikachar hires 32 teachers, sometimes numbering more than students—or patients—at any given session. Acolytes arrive from across the world, often blowing their savings on air tickets and shoestring boarding and lodging in Chennai, India. And they are a stunningly varied lot with stunningly varied motivations. Some have experiment rather than experience in mind.
Krishnamacharya broke new ground in his conceptualization of yoga’s purpose: more than a spiritual discipline, he said, yoga was ‘other things as well’, meaning that it was therapy and nursing and administering and bodybuilding and psychiatry-all without a name but with a wealth of purpose.
And it is in the fulfilling of this ‘purpose’ that distinguishes yoga therapy from its more mainline cousins: Desikachar and his intrepid band of healers/teachers consider each patient a universe unto himself, with individual signature maladies that can be worked upon only with a designer cocktail of asanas and connecting movements and duration and intensity.
To tackle such a bewildering array of patients and problems, the Mandiram actively cultivates an every-thing-is-for-the-best policy: every patient is a treasure chest of transcendental wisdom padlocked with pain. As Desikachar sees it, his job is to use yogic leverage to break the lock with the help of moves and countermoves, the push and pull of joints and muscles to unknot the body’s nervous system clenched by, among other things, stress.
All this requires immense factual and spiritual knowledge. It is Desikachar’s openness to ideas and ideation that led young Mark Hamill, a psychotherapist from Australia, to consider and then conceptualize a grafting of yoga on psychotherapy may seem to be mutually exclusive,’ he says, ‘but they are not. In the first place, neither demand a belief in God to work at their best. In the second, both are psychosomatic systems—or, rather, holistic, affecting body and mind downwards, the other from the base of the spine upwards.’
In Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya, we find many remarks about the use of yoga in the treatment of sick people. Illness is an obstacle on the road to spiritual enlightenment; that is why you have to do something about it. There are many ways of treating sickness through yoga: sometimes a change of diet, sometimes certain asanas, sometimes pranayama. And, all the time, prayer.
Yoga serves the individual, and does so through inviting transformation rather than giving information. ‘My father taught us more ways to approach a person in yoga that I found anywhere else. Who should teach whom? And when? And what? These are important questions to be asked in beginning a practice,’ says Desikachar.
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