By Julie Deife
Kausthub Desikachar is the son of world renowned yoga master TKV Desikachar and grandson of Krishnamacharya, often called the father of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya taught BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami and a wide range of India's nobility. Kausthub Desikachar is following in his grandfather's and father's footsteps. He graciously shared his thoughts with Julie Deife while he was recently teaching in Los Angeles.
Julie: Was there a defining moment when you decided to follow in your grandfather's and your father's footsteps?
Kausthub: No. When I was 10 or 11 I was not interested in yoga classes but I was forced to attend my father's classes because my sister and brother were attending. But by the time I was 13 I was very interested and was asked to teach the other children because the children's class was growing. I left Madras to go to college to study in north India when I was about 17 and I had no interest in going back to yoga or talking about it until about the 4th or 5th year, but my mother insisted that I complete the university. Afterward I resumed studies with my father and I have been full time involved in yoga since 1997.
Julie: Can the styles that BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and your father and others developed, which are quite different from one another, after studying with your grandfather, be partially attributed to the age of your grandfather when he taught them?
Kausthub: No. It is not the age of my grandfather that mattered; it was the age of the students. My grandfather was already in his 50's when he started teaching people like Mr. Iyengar and Mr. Pattabhi Jois. These students and others in the yoga shala were all in their teens. He taught them a lot of asanas: dynamic movements and postures. At the same time he was teaching the royal family - the king, the queen - he was teaching the other ministers in court, and most of these people had health problems. What he taught people depended on their age and their stage of life, rather than his own age.
Julie: What is your relationship with your grandfather's teachings?
Kausthub: My relationship with my grandfather’s teaching is through my father. My father, my teacher, is probably the only student who spent nearly three decades studying with my grandfather continuously; they lived in the same house, which was a big advantage. My grandfather died in our house. In our center we honor what my grandfather did. If there are young, fit people coming, we teach dynamic, active practices which build strength. For a stroke victim we teach differently. Many westerners who come, ask, "Do you teach ashtanga?" We don't call it ashtanga, vinyasa, whatever...we just call it Yoga.
Julie: Besides your father and grandfather, how do you frame your yoga?
Kausthub: I was a very urgent student when I was beginning with my father and I asked him, "which is the most important text in yoga, just teach me that, I don't need anything else." I was a bad student. My father told me if I could only study one text, then study the Yoga Sutra. I have had interactions with psychoanalysts who when I am talking to them about some of the concepts of Yoga Sutras, third & the fourth chapters, they open their mouths and say "this is psychotherapy, psychoanalysis," and I say no, this is Yoga Sutra. For me yoga sutra is all about yoga. Yoga is all about life.
Julie: As simply as you can explain it, what is your definition of yoga?
Kausthub: Relationship. How we relate to our society, to our job, with our friends, with our bodies, with our minds. Yoga is essentially about nurturing good and committed relationship to each of these things. If doing yoga does not make my life better, why do yoga?
Julie: Do we need to study yoga with a teacher in order to learn how to have healthy relationships?
Kausthub: If we can do things without a teacher, we don't need a teacher. The teacher's job is to give us enough skills so that we start seeing and become more independent. Ancient teachers would never bind the students to themselves, saying you have to be my student for the rest of my life. They would say after some time, we have given you enough tools, now you go away. But until the tools sink in, we need the help of a teacher. A blind man needs a stick or probably a dog as long as he is blind. The moment we do an operation and give him eyes, he doesn't need the stick or the dog anymore. So the teacher's job is to make us open our eyes from this darkness to light.
Julie: Then we are no longer students?
Kausthub: No, my grandfather, when he was 100, would still say he was a yoga student, and he would always place the sandals of his teacher on his forehead every morning as a gesture of gratitude towards his teacher.
Julie: Teaching yoga to children is one of your areas of focus. What are the top three or four things that should be considered in teaching yoga to children?
Kausthub: The energy level and attention level kids have is different from adults. They have short bursts of energy but they get tired very quickly, and they have short attention spans and get bored easily. Have shorter classes because you can't expect an hour and a half class for a child. Adults have problems with an hour and a half.
Our competition with respect to yoga for kids is not other yoga teachers or other yoga styles, it is television and computer games. We have to make yoga juicier for the kids than video games or the television program because if they have to give up that time to do yoga, yoga has to sound more interesting for them than Super Mario Brothers. So we must make it fun.
Also, think and behave like young children when you are teaching them. Don't try to behave like an adult, being very uptight; that is not going to work. Dynamic, with movement, a lot of stories, conceiving themes around the practices like telling them stories. Today let us do the story of Helen of Troy, where you have horses galloping. So do a posture, which represents the horse and there are people with the bow and arrow, so do a posture with bow and arrow. Mix a story with the practice so that they are eagerly listening to what you are saying not just doing some postures.
Julie: How can yoga help us in our social lives?
Kausthub: If you look at Yoga Sutras, the first two aspects of yoga itself are yama and niyama. Attitudes. Attitudes are essentially a part of yoga. How I relate with other people, how I'm behaving with myself. Am I taking care of myself or am I not taking care of myself? If those aspects expressed themselves more in the yoga community, it would be a much better world. We must remember that yoga is not a sport.
Julie: Do you think people know more about yoga than they might be given credit for?
Kausthub: Even though many people are focusing on yoga as a physical form of exercise, they are still coming to yoga because consciously or subconsciously they know there is something more than the physical body. If we can address that as teachers, it'll be fantastic. Maybe they are not yet open to, but there is a search.
Julie: Please describe how yoga in the US is perceived from your view, coming from India?
Kausthub: One of the things which people do is generalization and generalization is not always accurate. However one thing that I have noticed, is the amount of branding in the American yoga world; it is not there in the other parts of the world. Now it is coming because of American teachers. Yoga came to Europe long before it came to America, but this idea of segregation into different styles never happened. People always say 'Yoga'. I have gone to Iyengar centers in Europe and they are always called 'Yoga' center. I am going to Ashtanga centers; they always call themselves 'Yoga' centers.
Julie: But some of the major styles in America are from Indian teachers: Bikram, Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, for example.
Kausthub: Exactly, but the branding probably came from the United States. Only when yoga became popular in the US in the late 80’s did the branding come into play.
Julie: But we have more people practicing yoga in the US than anywhere besides India, don't we?
Kausthub: Yes, but I met an Indian lady on the plane from San Francisco to Madras, who has been living in America for about 40 years. She asked me what I was doing and I said, "I am a yoga teacher." She said, "Oh, you came to study in California?" I replied, "Why do you ask that?" And she said, "Isn't California the Mecca of yoga for the world?" That is the perception.
Julie: Why do you think so?
Kausthub: Americans are much more open-minded and they like to try new things. That is a great plus in the United States. That is why everything in this world has a market here, because people are open to try nearly everything.
Julie: Should we at some point go to India to study?
Kausthub: If you would like to learn French, probably going to France would make a big difference. If you would like to learn Spanish, going to Spain would make a difference. Similarly yoga is part of our culture. You will find yoga on the streets where people may not know that they are practicing yoga, but it is there because yoga concepts have been integrated into our culture.
Julie: You are young. What are your goals for yoga?
Kausthub: I hope that one day soon, people will realize the vast potential of yoga and start moving deeper from just the bodies to connect to the heart. And when that happens I am sure that divisions because of different body positions will also cease. It is not 'if I do a posture with my arms like this, it is one style, if I do my arms like this it is another style'. That is not important. How these things affect my heart and my life - that is important. And when that happens we will not have a division based on the arm positions.
Julie: Would you explain what you mean when you say there is a different spirit behind every technique?
Kausthub: There are different techniques in yoga. Asana is a particular technique, pranayama, meditation, etc. These tools were conceived to serve a particular function and that is the real spirit behind a technique. For example, if I raise my arms it is to stretch. Maybe if I raise my arms and raise my toes I am stretching my body in this direction. The function is to stretch, the form is this...this form has been conceived for a function. So the function is the real spirit behind these things. Now many of us, we forget the function and get obsessed with the form. If I do warrior in this way it is one style, if I do warrior this way it is another style. Thus we are getting attached to the forms. But what is the function? What does the warrior do to me? That is the real spirit behind these tools. We get so attached to the form that we forget that this symbol has no form if we forget the symbolism. So these symbols were conceived in order that we reach the symbolism behind it and that is the real spirit behind these tools.
Julie: What would you like to say in closing?
Kausthub: I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share what little I know of yoga to the yoga world here. I really like the American yoga world because of the openness. I only hope that commercial interests will not divide the American Yoga world. It would then be irony to the very word yoga – union.
Kausthub Desikachar's yoga center is in Madras, India and he also teaches throughout the world. See www.yogaofyoga.com.