I distinctly recall the feeling of the south Indian breeze (and humidity) flowing in and out of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM)’s windows on our first day of training. I was nervous, yet extremely excited, as twenty-five of us students from all corners of the globe sat eagerly awaiting Sir Desikachar. In line with tradition, we all stood to our feet when he entered the room. His presence was warm and welcoming. He took the time to look at each of us individually, then he asked each one of us to share what yoga meant to us. As we went around the room it was apparent that he was genuinely interested in how we each defined yoga for ourselves. It was our first lesson on pausing to reflect rather than searching for the “correct” answer. Over the next two and a half years and three trips to Chennai, my mind and heart were filled with his teachings.

Forty years ago, Sir Desikachar founded KYM in Chennai, India, with a goal of sharing the wisdom and teachings of his father, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Through KYM, he revived yoga’s ancient and powerful teachings while making them accessible and relevant to people from all cultures and traditions. As a graduate from KYM’s teacher training program, the following are a few of Sir Desikachar’s teachings that continue to guide my personal practice and work as a yoga instructor.

Connect with the Power of the Breath

“Anybody can breathe; therefore, anybody can practice yoga.” T. K. V. Desikachar [1]

One of the defining aspects of yoga in the Krishnamacharya tradition is a strong emphasis on the breath in all aspects of practice. In fact, Sir Desikachar highlighted that linking the breath and body is the first step in yoga. This link is a tangible way to observe what is going on in the body and mind. To underscore this connection, he often cited the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the oldest texts on Hatha yoga, “When the breath is disturbed, the mind is disturbed. When the breath is calm, the mind is calm.”

On a subtler level, he emphasized that the quality of our breath is an expression of our inner most feelings. In our training, learning the patterns of our breath wasn’t a physiological exercise. It was a means to becoming aware about how we could shift our energetic states. The act of pausing to mindfully observe the breath is a simple way to develop a more intimate awareness with oneself in yoga.

Ensure Yoga’s Accessibility to All

“It is not that the person needs to accommodate him or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person.” T. K. V. Desikachar [1]

Sir Desikachar carried out his father’s legacy of adapting yoga to the unique needs of each individual. This is a profound and liberating concept as a yoga practioner and instructor. In a personal practice, this requires one to be mindful and reflect on what is needed in that day and in that moment. In a teaching context, Sir Desikachar noted that one should consider each person’s background and culture as well as their physical, emotional, and mental states – all of which change from day to day. One of the greatest lessons I learned at KYM (and continue to learn) was how to cultivate this atmosphere in a group class. For example, one strategy is to offer participants one or two modifications of a posture or breathing practice, provide them with a mindful pause, and invite them to reflect on what they need in that moment.

One of Sir Desikachar’s pillars to ensuring yoga is accessible to people from all walks of life was by inviting transformation instead of simply giving someone information and expecting them to absorb it. In one lecture, he spoke about the importance of honoring each individual’s path in yoga. I remember how he would often pause after talking and scan the room – he wanted to ensure we understood his message. We were discussing how to incorporate yoga’s subtler elements, such as meditation, when most people came to class for the postures. He emphasized that this is their path in healing and transformation. It was the teacher’s responsibility to honor that path while creating a space where students could explore other aspects of yoga further.

Live and Practice Yoga From the Heart 

“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.” T. K. V. Desikachar

One of Sir Desikachar’s definitions of yoga was “an awareness of and positive attitude towards what is happening within and outside of oneself”. His teachings encouraged people to look within themselves – into the heart, where he noted our true nature resides. In one lecture on meditation, he spoke to how we rarely take the time in our busy lives to actually listen to our feelings. Sir described meditation as an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, “open the door to our own hearts”, and listen to what was happening deep within ourselves.

Classes in the tradition of Krishnamacharya are thoughtfully sequenced to offer students tools for connecting with the heart. Of all the practices Sir Desikachar taught, the ones that I found most moving used nyasa, a technique where one touches a specific point on the body while chanting a mantra. For example, on the inhalation he would instruct us to stretch our arms open to the sides, and on the exhalation to chant “Aum” while placing our palms over our heart. There are infinite possibilities of mantras and energetic points one could use – adding to the richness of Sir Desikachar’s teachings. The use of mantra and nyasa in this way is a powerful means to deepen my own practice, and a tool that I consistently rely on when teaching.

His Light & Legacy

Sir Desikachar is a profound example of what it means to live and follow the path of yoga. I was always moved by his welcoming demeanor; he greeted and listened to everyone without judgement. Through his institute and travels worldwide, he positively touched the lives of thousands seeking healing through yoga. While our teacher has passed on from this world, Sir’s spirit and teachings remain alive, not only through his students, but through the cultural impact he has had in redefining the fields of yoga and yoga therapy. He will be deeply missed and remembered as one of the most influential teachers and masters of yoga.

Sir Desikachar
TKV Desikachar passed on at age 78 at 2:45am local time, August 8th.

Other books by Sir Desikachar:

Desikachar, T. K. V. and Neal, M. (2001). What are we seeking? Chennai, India. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

Desikachar, T. K. V. and Cravens, R. H. (2011). Health, Healing, and Beyond. Yoga and the Living Tradition of T. Krishnamacharya

KYM has several apps to support study of the Yoga Sutras and chanting. Visit the KYM website for details.

Resources:

[1] Desikachar, T. K. V. (1999). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester, VT. Inner Traditions.

[Photos from KYM.org]
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Robyn Long

Robyn Long is passionate about sharing Yoga with people from all backgrounds. She has been teaching yoga regularly since 2009 and has more than 1,100 hours of formal training in teaching and developing therapeutic practices for a range of conditions. She values, practices, and draws upon all of Yoga’s tools, including asana (postures), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (inward focus), dhyana (meditation), chanting, and mantras. Robyn teaches yoga at Aditi Studio and leads community outreach programs for mindfulness through the UW’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being. Visit her website to learn more.

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