T. K. V. Desikachar

Posted on in On Our Radar by Gary Kraftsow

June 21, 1938–August 8, 2016


My teacher, T. K. V. Desikachar, passed from this life on August 8, 2016. I first met this great influence while attending an India study group with Colgate University in 1974. Mary Lou Skelton, who had been a student of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, (Desikachar’s famous father, who is broadly considered “the father of modern yoga”), invited me to join the group. That year, I was fortunate to attend classes with Desikachar several days a week for four months. I still remember one meeting where he said to me, “I don’t know if we will meet again.” I remember thinking to myself, “I am very sure we will meet again.” Even as a 19-year-old, I felt the compelling clarity and depth of his presence and was certain to return as soon as possible.

In 1976 I spent a month living with him at Chapel House at Colgate when he came for a winter program. That experience made my next step certain. I returned to Madras the next summer and several times thereafter. Each trip deepened my studies of key yoga texts and yoga therapy. After each visit, I returned to the US to my work with new inspiration and greater skill.

One of the extraordinary things about Desikachar was his ability to “see.” From the beginning, I felt that when he looked at me he could see everything about me—not just how I presented myself, but who I was down deep.

As a teacher and a therapist, he taught me how to see, understand, and connect with people in a multidimensional fashion. On my multiple visits to Madras, I had the rare opportunity to sit with him as he saw clients. He taught me to look beneath what was manifest to a deeper causal level. He taught me that this deep seeing is the necessary starting point for the process of transformation. In fact, I remember he told me yoga is considered the art and science of observation, what he called Vijnana Darsana.

In keeping with the teachings of his father, Desikachar once told me that sthiti (stability-steadiness) was the first goal of yoga. He helped me understand that stability is a multidimensional quality that impacts our structure, our physiology, our emotions, our thoughts, our behavior, and all of our relationships. He helped me to think clearly about each of these dimensions, what priorities should be at each level, and how to actualize them.

In 1977, Desikachar began to teach me how to teach. From the beginning, he emphasized what his father told him: “The teaching is for the student, not the teacher.” He taught me that I was not teaching students to do yoga techniques correctly, but that I was teaching them how to use techniques to help them understand and transform themselves. My job, he told me, was to see the students’ needs and interests, meet them where they were, and provide appropriate and accessible tools to help them move to where they wanted to go. He said that my goal with students should be to inspire and empower them to deepen their own commitment.

Sometimes, Desikachar shared a little bit with me about his personal experience when he was still a young teacher. He taught the famous J. Krishnamurti, who told him, “Don’t be another monkey. Don’t imitate others: think for yourself.” Desikachar often shared examples of students and teachers who had lost their perspective, either by following a charismatic teacher or by becoming enamored with their own self-importance. Reiterating that teaching is not about the teacher, he reminded us that “the physician should wear neutral clothing.”

As a practitioner, teacher, therapist, and trainer of teachers and therapists, I know one of the greatest gifts I received from Desikachar has been an understanding of the depth and breadth of yoga, including asana, pranayama, chanting, mantra, meditation, and Tantric practices, and the knowledge of how to apply them for each individual. Another of the great gifts of his teaching is the ability to create integrated practices, where all of the elements are woven together in an elegant and integrated whole, calibrated and adapted to the unique needs and interests of the student.

The last deep conversation I had with Desikachar was especially important to me. He reminded me of something he had told me long ago, through the story of Hiranya Kasipu: the purpose of sadhana (practice) is to prepare us for the moment of death.

Looking back over the 42 years of our relationship, I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude and an ongoing commitment to sharing these profound teachings. Desikachar continually encouraged me to be stable, see clearly, and take care of what is truly important. The depth and breadth of his knowledge, his extraordinary capacity to see, his creative and effective application of yoga practices, have given me a lasting example—one that has set the course of my life. I feel deeply honored to be a part of this great sampradaya (great tradition) and remain dedicated to its ongoing transmission.

Gary Kraftsow began his study of yoga in India with T. K. V. Desikachar in 1974 and is the director and senior teacher of the American Viniyoga Institute. ViniYoga.com

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