Kausthub Desikachar certainly is his fatherís son. For the last twelve years, he has studied yoga under his father, Sri T.K.V. Desikachar, who, in turn, studied for three decades under his father, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharyaís teachings are widely considered to have fueled the upsurge in yogaís popularity around the globe. This is no ordinary family tree.
Like his father before him, Kausthub was resistant to yoga at first, but after years of reluctance, eventually had a change of heart. Now twenty-nine, Kausthub credits his parentsí unwillingness to pressure him into yoga, mixed with the ever-presence of his grandfatherís teachings, as the main reasons he began to understand the value of yoga. After completing a masterís degree at The Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences in Pilani, he returned to his hometown of Chennai in 1997, eager to further his studies with his father.
In 2002, after working under his fatherís guidance for five years, Kausthub took over the position of executive trustee of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, which Sri T.K.V. Desikachar started in his fatherís name in 1976.
Now a father himself and a recognized teacher of Vedic chanting and yoga for children, Kausthub is steering a ship that continues to have a direct impact on the way yoga is practised around the world.
To date, Kausthub has published three books with his father: The Vedic Chant Companion, The Viniyoga of Yoga and Adi Sankaraís Yoga Taravali, and has published one book on his own: Le Yoga des Jeunes. He has also rendered an audio CD of Patanjaliís yoga sutras.
In conversation with ascent magazine, Kausthub Desikachar discusses his fatherís and grandfatherís teachings, his own winding path to yoga and his feelings about the voluntary burden of being the tradition-bearer in a line of well-known and respected gurus. Ėla
Luna Allison†† Growing up in the family you did, what does it mean to you personally to be a practitioner of yoga?
Kausthub Desikachar†† Personally, yoga means a lot to me. I have a busy life as a student, teacher, administrator and father. These responsibilities can put enormous pressure and stress on my life. If I continue to remain stable, sane and effective in all of these areas, I attribute it to my practice of yoga. I have changed a lot in the last few years and become a better teacher, administrator and father. So, yoga means a lot to me, not just for my benefit, but also for others.
la††† Thereís a much-told story in which your father, at the age of eight, climbed a tree in the yard to avoid having to take a yoga class from his father, Sri Krishnamacharya. Did you go through a similar period of resistance?
kd††† When I was a young boy, I was a very, very reluctant student. I was the last person in my family to actually get interested in yoga. I have an elder brother and a younger sister and they started doing yoga because my father started a club for children. When they went, I was left alone in the house, so I went to class because I was too young to stay home alone Ė for no other reason.
I think my initial resistance was normal Ė many people in the world donít want to do what their parents do. I think that life goes through these kinds of cycles. But when thereís value in something, and you realize that value, you probably come back to it.
la††† Do you feel there was room in your family for you to come into yoga on your own terms?
kd††† The great thing about my father and mother was they never forced us to do anything we didnít like. They never forced us to do yoga because they thought it was good for us. They allowed us to get ourselves interested in whatever we wanted. I was never pushed by my family to do yoga or to teach yoga or anything. Even though my father could have insisted from a very young age, he never did.
I think it was because he realized from his own experience with his own father that it might not work. My grandfather was very keen on him taking up yoga. With us, my father just allowed it to flow. So, when the time was right and the interest was strong enough, I wanted to become his student. When I expressed interest, he just accepted it, because it was something that came from within me.
la††† And yet, while you were a student of his, you also pursued a business management degree. How do those two things come together for you?
kd††† I started teaching yoga at the age of thirteen and I was in school still. When I completed school, I was very keen on going out of the house, going to university as far away from home as possible. I wanted the university experience rather than the degree.
At the end of the five years that I was away, I got more and more restless to come back to my home and start linking myself with yoga. I saw how my life was not going to be in the world of business.
la††† Do you believe thereís an important place for non-yoga-based education?
kd††† Itís been a useful experience. I definitely think there is a need for non-yoga-based education because we live in the real world. When I teach people here, I teach people who are not yogis all the time. They are normal people who come to yoga for health problems, or for some advice about how to reduce their stress.
When youíre working with normal people, you need to have an understanding of what they are going through, what is happening in their lives. Thatís something which yoga education is not going to provide. You need to understand why people get stressed, why people get sick. Outside education actually contributes to our work in a great way.
la††† Iíd like to switch gears and ask you about your grandfatherís teachings. I would say many yoga practitioners today arenít aware of the shared lineage of several forms of Hatha Yoga, which are based on the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya. Do you feel itís important to honour those connections and acknowledge the roots of the teachings?
kd††† In India, there is definitely this strong idea that you have to honour the source. And that is why when my father started this centre in Chennai, he called it Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a yoga centre named after my grandfather.
Having said that, I think many of the masters today are definitely talking about Krishnamacharya. One thing I have to say, though, is that there is a lot of misunderstanding about both yoga and Krishnamacharyaís yoga, in the sense that a lot of people today are associating yoga with the physical form of the practice called asanas Ė which is not yoga in its entire spectrum. And a lot of people associate my grandfather with being a very physically oriented yogi, which is also not correct.
la††† How do you think that belief came about?
kd††† The reason is probably more historic than anything else because two of his students who are very popular Ė Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar Ė have focused on asana teachings.
But if you look at other students of his, like my father, he doesnít only talk about asanas. If you look at the work we are doing at our centre, asana is a very small part of our teachings. My grandfather taught a lot of people differently because their needs were different.
la††† Some would say your father and grandfather were the first to suggest that yoga could be adapted to suit the needs of the individual, rather than the individual having to conform to the structures of yogaÖ
kd††† I have to clarify this as well. I would not say that my father and my grandfather were the first people who said that. It has been said by yogis for a long, long time Ė including Patanjali, who said in the yoga sutras that we must respect the abilities and the needs of the individual because what people come for is different from individual to individual. A lot of people have forgotten this in recent times.
I would say my grandfather reintroduced this idea and revived it in modern times. My grandfather would not accept it if I said that he discovered this idea Ė it was not his idea. But whatever we teach must respect the individualís needs. If one person comes to yoga for health and another comes for relaxation, while someone else comes for spirituality Ė the same thing is not going to work for the three people.
My grandfatherís great contribution was re-educating people about this old teaching. Before my grandfather and my father, a lot of people were teaching yoga the same way to everybody: itís like going to the doctor and the doctor saying everybody in this hospital is going to be given the same pill.
la††† A moment ago, you were discussing how some of your grandfatherís students are overly focused on the physical aspects of yoga. Is that focus incomplete?
kd††† The body is the temple of the spirit, but you donít go to the temple only for the architecture. You go to the temple because there is something spiritual inside. So, maybe the asanas are a starting point for us to make sure that we have a healthy body, because a healthy body is a good foundation for spirituality; if our body is sick, we canít pursue spirituality in a nice way. I might be more concerned about my back pain rather than spiritual transformation and will not have the energy to think about more spiritually profound things.
So that is why asanas are conceived as a starting point for deeper practices. If you look at the yoga sutras Ė the most important texts on yoga Ė asana is mentioned in 3 sutras out of 195. Yoga is about the mind, transformation, spirituality, how to live life better. We canít only be worried about how the temple appears all the time, we need to go inside Ė we need to go to the sanctum of the temple. The most precious thing is there.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Iyengar during his eighty-fifth birthday celebrations. I asked him about this and he said, ďI studied with your grandfather for two years, and all he taught me was asanas. Your father studied with him for more than thirty years, that is why he learned other things.Ē Some of the teachers have learned only asanas, while other students who spent a longer time learned other things. Of course asana is important, but if people are stuck with asana, they are not moving forward.
la††† What principles or practices do you feel defines a yogi?
kd††† Itís very clearly mentioned in the yoga sutras, which is what we use as a reference text, that if somebody is to be called a yogi, that person has to have a stable mind. A stable mind. That is what yoga is defined as in the yoga sutras: Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah.
How do we understand that a person has a stable mind? Through their actions, through the way they interact with people, through the way they relate with their family. So, this is how we understand whether somebody is a yogi or not: the attributes of how we behave with other people. A yogi is somebody who behaves well, interacts with people well Ė is calm and stable in their life. Not somebody who is agitated, frustrated, but with a flexible body.
If a flexible body were the only criterion for being a yogi, every gymnast would be a yogi. Yoga is not defined by how beautifully postures are done, but how it influences our lives...that is the power of yoga. If it was other than that, if it was about the body, only gymnasts and no one else could be said to do yoga.
la††† What do you personally bring to the tradition that youíre carrying forward from your grandfather and from your father?
kd††† Well, I try to remain as close to the tradition as possible, but since Iíve been educated in a modern education system, and have also been a traveler, my contribution is to making it more contemporary, more relevant to our changing society. Apart from that, I donít think Iím contributing anything Ė I am just a postman, transmitting what Iíve learned from my teacher, my father, to my students. The way I present the teachings may be different from the way my father would present them, but I donít think Iím saying anything different.
la††† May I ask how you feel about inheriting this lineage?
kd††† I donít think you can inherit any lineage. Itís not like the way wealth is inherited. You canít inherit spirituality. You have to deserve it. You have to seek it and you have to evolve it. I donít think Iím here because I was born into my fatherís house Ė maybe partly, because I was exposed to it very easily Ė but I have a brother who was born in the same family, and in fact, heís the elder brother. If you see it by inheritance, he should be number one. But heís not interested in yoga at all. Maybe you can inherit wealth, but these things you donít inherit. It is your interest that gives you the responsibility. Sometimes, Iím actually very worried about being my grandfatherís grandson.
la††† Why is that?
kd††† The reason I worry is because I am trying to represent my grandfather and father, who are such great teachers, and I donít want to make any mistakes. So, Iím often in fear that I should not be making any mistakes because I represent two great masters and I donít want to bring disrepute to them. Maybe I feel the responsibility more because Iím not only their student, but also their family.
la††† Have you learned anything from your father that helps to counterbalance that fear?
kd††† My father strongly believes that yoga is relationship. If we want to test if yoga is working, then it should show in the relationships that we share with our family, our friends, our colleagues. I feel that if yoga is pursued in the right manner, it can definitely help to make our families stronger. It has for me. And this makes me less nervous.