the desikachars

father & son, teacher & student – TKV & Kausthub Desikachar dialogue on the importance of commitment, teaching in the West & how Patanjali never needed to patent his yoga …

photo courtesy Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram

In an interview published in ascent #25, Kausthub Desikachar recalled being “the last person in my family to actually get interested in yoga” and also a “very reluctant student.” His teacher and father, TKV Desikachar, was also known to be a reluctant student in his youth. The story goes that a young TKV would hide in a tree in the family yard to avoid taking a yoga class from his teacher and father, T. Krishnamacharya. Over time, the youthful disinclination of both students ceased, as the value of the dharma teachings was unveiled and appreciated through years of study and application. Today both TKV and Kausthub Desikachar are world-renowned yoga teachers in the tradition of Krishnamacharya, recognized by many as a key figure in yoga’s adoption and popularity around the world.

ascent asked this celebrated father-son/teacher-student team if they would be willing to sit down for a face-to-face dialogue on what is a sacred, sought-after and often misunderstood relationship in the yoga tradition: the teacher and the student. With more than three generations of teaching, learning and playing hooky behind them, we left TKV and Kausthub to question each other about the hunger for a deeper knowledge of yoga, how to bridge the gap between East and West, and why it’s never a bad idea to question your teacher. – AD

TKV Desikachar  Today, there are so many students who are searching for a teacher, yet they don’t find one, because they are not ready to be a student yet. They want information, but not transformation. What do you think of that?

Kausthub Desikachar  I remember a story from my college days. My friends in college would walk miles to get a cigarette in the middle of the night. But attending classes was not an option because the 500-metre walk to campus was too far. Basically, what I say to people is that when you really want something, you will find it. When you really want teaching and are desperate for it, you will be committed to finding it. “Committed as long as it’s in my neighbourhood” is not really commitment. I grew up in the same house as you, my teacher. Yet you were never my teacher by default. You became my teacher only when I was hungry to learn and be a student. In the past, did teachers ever reject students?

TKVD  In the past, a teacher would test students for sincerity and commitment before accepting them. Only when the student proved his commitment to the teacher would learning begin. So surely, teachers rejected some of the students who were not committed. It was done in this way, because without commitment it would be a waste of time for the student and the teacher in the long run.

I went through tests with my teacher. For a year, he made me come for class at 3:30 in the morning. It is not easy to do that. But then when I did, he saw that I was committed.

Personally, I also use similar tests, though in a subtler and gentler manner. I made you learn chanting from your younger sister before I taught you. This was a test for you. You passed it, and it showed your commitment.

KD  I did find it difficult in the beginning to learn from her. But then I realized that it was not “my sister,” but my “teacher” who was teaching me.

What would you say is the most precious aspect of the teacher-student relationship?

TKVD  The most important factor is dharma. When proper ethics and values are maintained in the relationship, positive things can happen. If there is exploitation or manipulation by the student or teacher, or both, then there are only bad results.

When dharma is maintained, trust is built in the relationship. When there is trust, there is confidence, and when there is confidence, there is learning and transformation. This is also why it is important to have a continuous link with our own teacher, even if we are a teacher already. Our teacher will remind us of our dharma and set us on the right path in case we are moving in the wrong direction.

KD  I agree with what you say about dharma, particularly about how we must have guidance ourselves, even if we are a teacher. For example, years ago, when one of my students got married and became pregnant, I did not know how to deal with her new situation because I had never taught pregnant women. You suggested that I allow my colleague to teach her, and that I sit in on the sessions to observe and learn. This was a big lesson for me – a lesson in dharma. My status as her teacher was not important. What is important is that the student receives the best attention. At the same time, you used the experience as an opportunity to begin teaching me about yoga for pregnant women.

When does a student become a teacher, and how did you feel when you made the transition from being a student to being a teacher?

TKVD  In the classical yoga tradition, the student became a teacher when the teacher felt the student was ready to teach. When my father, Krishna- macharya, asked me to teach I was in my twenties, and I was nervous about the responsibility of presenting his teachings. I knew he was a great and well-respected man, and I needed to be a good representative. This was the feeling I had.

As teachers, we must teach what we know and not what we think we know. A good teacher must be an example. The term used in the yoga tradition is “acharya.” This means that the teacher is someone who has himself/herself been a student first, learnt and practised with a teacher, and is now ready to teach. He/she must also have a good relationship with his or her own teacher – even after becoming a teacher. A teacher must be an example of what they represent and of what they expect from their own students.

KD  For me, I see that a good example of a teacher is that they respect the student’s needs and abilities. The tools are meant to serve the student, not the other way around. Also, as a teacher I often tell myself, and my students, that I am only human and I have made and probably will make mistakes. This is something I have learnt from you.

Some people in the East and maybe in the West have the idea that the student must never question the teacher. What do you think of that?

TKVD  That idea is wrong. Almost all of the greatest teachings from our tradition are in the form of an interaction, where the student asks questions and the teacher responds. Many Upanishads are like that. The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Yajnavalkya, Siva Samhita and many other yoga texts are also in the form of an interaction or dialogue. Students are definitely allowed to ask questions, but they should do so in a respectful manner, not in an arrogant manner.

KD  Do you feel there is any difference for you between teaching Indians and teaching Westerners?

TKVD  Personally, for me the approach is the same. I always try to gain their trust first and move on from there. The modalities of gaining trust, the language of communication and the style may be different, but in essence, there is no difference in the teaching.

KD  I see quite a big difference between teaching Indians and teaching Westerners. I am not saying that one is better than the other, but there is a difference. I find that Indians are more open to placing trust in the teacher, and they understand the dharma of the teacher-student relationship better. The negative side to this is that they don’t question much or try to understand why the teacher is suggesting what he/she is suggesting.

When it comes to people in the West, they question everything and want to intellectualize everything before they accept it or practise. There is a certain lack of faith, especially in the beginning. I would really appreciate if the two sides moved toward each other and met in the middle: a reasonable amount of faith with a reasonable intellectual interaction. Because the full beauty of yoga cannot be explained logically – it has to be practised and experienced for understanding to arise. However, it is not that yoga is all mysticism and no logic. In fact, I feel yoga is one of the most practical philosophies.

TKVD  So what method do you use to bridge the gap between the Western mindset and that of the East?

KD  It is not easy to answer this question, because there are so many different ways this can be addressed. Often it depends on the relationship I share with the student. With some students, I move along their intellectual path to a certain point, where they can see that there is something logical and relevant in what I teach. At this point faith comes more naturally than if I were to insist it right at the beginning.

At other occasions, it could be through asking them to observe my own example, of how I deal with you, as a student. Some of them are touched by our relationship and see the role of faith in my own evolution. Hence it’s easier for them to place that trust in me.

So I actually use a number of ways to try and bridge that gap. An important common element is the empowering of the student. They need to be empowered so that they can make that decision for themselves. Faith cannot be imposed. It has to come from within. This is empowerment.

TKVD  I see that you are doing a good job in this direction. Now tell me, what do you see as other challenges you have faced in bringing yoga to the West?

KD  Eastern traditions like yoga have been passed from one generation to another orally – based on faith. The reason I say this is because the teacher had absolute faith that the student would faithfully pass on this tradition to the next generation, without corrupting it with his or her own ideas/agendas. The fact that almost every major philosophy from India was handed down for thousands of years in such a manner shows the great trust and faith the teachers placed in the students, and the students in the teachers/teachings.

This also indicates that none of the people who passed these teachings from one generation to another possessed ownership of them. There was no egocentric nature involved here. For example, look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: in no place does the word “Patanjali” appear to prove that it was indeed he who composed it. Patanjali never needed to put his own stamp of authenticity on it.

TKVD  Yes, great masters like Patanjali and Yajnavalkya studied for many years with their own teachers. Then they practised for many years before they had the wisdom of these teachings. It was then that they composed all these great works, and still they never claimed ownership of these teachings, but rather acknowledged them either to their own teachers, or to the greatest teacher. My father himself was an example of this. He never claimed to discover or own anything he taught. Yet today it saddens me sometimes, that many with very little time with a teacher, and even less time practising, immediately branch off and want to start their own style of yoga.

TKV Desikachar is a world-renowned yoga teacher, lineage holder of the tradition of T. Krishnamacharya, and founder of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), a non-profit yoga and healing centre in Chennai, India. He is also the author of numerous books and publications, including The Heart of Yoga and Health Healing & Beyond.

Kausthub Desikachar is the son and student of TKV Desikachar and an internationally renowned yoga teacher. Through the KYM-Mitra, which he founded, Kausthub takes yoga to the socially and economically underprivileged. He is the author of The Yoga of The Yogi, a patron of the British Wheel of Yoga, and an advisor to the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Kausthub will be leading the ascent Intensive yoga workshop in 2007 at Yasodhara Ashram.


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