An engineer by profession T.K.V. Desikachar decided to devote his life to yoga after he saw his father, the legendary T. Krishnamacharya, help sick people. It was the recognition of yoga being a tool of health and healing that prompted that shift, and in time made the elimination of suffering central to his lifelong quest.
Desikachar, who died in Chennai on Monday at the age of 78, was not into impressing the world with fanciful ancient philosophies or extraordinary feats of asana. “I have discovered through yoga that there is something called heart,” he once said and it was with the simplicity of his heart that he engaged with others.
He did not project the idea of yoga upon those who came to him for therapy, but instead listened to them with childlike receptivity while he attuned himself to not only their condition but also their social and cultural context. His yoga was the yoga of the moment, not burdened by a hoary past that needed preserving.
When I opened my yoga school at Delhi many years ago, I called Sir for his blessings and to ask him how I could identify the type of yoga we taught, and his firm advice to me was to just call it yoga, at most Patanjali yoga, and no more. He clearly saw branding or even standardisation of style as antithetical to yoga, the very nature of which was fluid in his view.
“Until I breathe my last breath, I am going to fight against this,” he told one of his American students, Leslie Kaminoff. “We always call it yoga,” he added. “It is the individual that is important, not the style, whatever technique works is fine for us.”
Similarly, when he decided to study yoga from his illustrious father, his first condition was to be taught yoga without God, to which Krishnamacharya readily agreed.
Desikachar’s yoga approach was unique in that it remained undogmatic, non-denominational, secular, fluid and open-minded and enquiring to the core.
These unconventional choices that he made might have come easily to him, but they reveal incredible clarity and foresight particularly when viewed from the present context when patenting, branding, and religious brandishing are threatening to become the creed. We, therefore, cannot ever lose sight of the astuteness and uprightness of Desikachar’s decisions which may have protected our yoga practice from fundamentalism for all times to come.
Considering that he hailed from one of the most illustrious yoga lineages, he wore his mantel very lightly. Growing up in post-Independence times that idealised and valorised tradition and the past, he went against the grain to make yoga “un-precious” and brought attention to the present moment, and in fact, on the human. He did not lay tall claims to the past nor advocated preserving the perennial knowledge of ancient doctrines. For him if there was one perennial tradition, it was that of human suffering and the human quest for happiness. “Whether we preserve or not,” he stated with profound simplicity, “this will always continue!”
And it was squarely within this basic, most ordinary human condition that he located his highly nuanced and sophisticated practice of yoga.
On this sad day when my teacher is no more and yet his legacy and teachings shall continue, I reflect upon what I received from him. From my perspective, all that I humbly offered him was my respect and faith, and in return I received freedom, quite literally — perennial freedom to enquire, experiment, adapt, and in fact, play with this rich knowledge to make a practice for the moment.
What I learnt from him is to exercise common sense and sensitivity, be human, and listen and most of all “attend” to the subtle and sensitive responses of the body, breath and mind in order to gauge that nameless “something more” that Sir sometimes alluded to in his teaching. I offer my deep gratitude and salutations to the great master who made “ordinariness” so special.
(The writer is a Bharatanatyam exponent and choreographer)