The Man Who Taught Me to Teach

I first met T. K. V. Desikachar in 1974, when I was an undergraduate student attending an India study-abroad group with Colgate University, where I was a religious studies student. I was fortunate to attend classes with Desikachar several days a week for four months. I still remember our last meeting before I left: He said to me, “I don’t know if we will meet again,” and I remember thinking to myself, “I am very sure we will meet again.”

The extraordinary clarity and depth that I felt in his presence was compelling, even at the young age of 19, and I felt sure I would be back 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 yoga practice and key yoga texts, as well as yoga therapy. After each visit, I returned to the US and to my work with new inspiration, deeper understanding, and greater skill.

One of the most 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 to him, but who I really was down deep.  

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

Desikachar told me that, according to the teaching of his father, T. Krishnamacharya, sthiti 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 the 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 had 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 yoga techniques to help them understand and transform themselves. My job, he told me, was to see the student’s needs and interests, meet them where they were, and provide appropriate and accessible tools to help them move from where they were to where they wanted to go. He said that my real goal with students should be to inspire and empower them to deepen their own understanding of yoga and to commit to a personal practice.

Sometimes, Desikachar shared a little bit with me about his personal experience when he was still a young teacher, teaching yoga to the famous J. Krishnamurti, who told him, “Don’t be another monkey.  Don’t imitate others: think for yourself.” Desikachar often shared examples of yoga students and teachers who had lost their way, either following a charismatic teacher or becoming enamored of their own self-importance. In either case, his message was that they had lost perspective. Reiterating that teaching is not about the teacher, he shared from the ancient text Caraka Samhita: “The physician should wear neutral clothing.”

He always reminded me that true progress required an ongoing commitment to a personal practice that includes deep self-reflection: svadhyaya. He told me that there are signs through which we can measure our progress, not only by how we feel inside, but how other people are relating to us. If we are on track, we will be more stable, feel better, sleep better, have more energy, be happier, be less self-important, be less attached, and be more tolerant of others, but also that others will feel better when they are around us. He said, “We can always measure ourselves by how the people around us are responding to us; we can see ourselves in the mirror of others.” He warned me that this work is not easy. I will never forget when he told me that, at times, he felt like he was “walking on thorns with a sword above his head.”

As a practitioner, teacher, therapist, and trainer of teachers and therapists, I know that one of the greatest gifts I received from Desikachar is an understanding of the depth and breadth of yoga practices, 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 Desikachar’s teaching was 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. This enables practitioners to really experience the multi-dimensional promise of yoga sadhana.

The last deep conversation I had with Desikachar was very important to me. He reminded me of something he had told me long ago: the purpose of yoga sadhana 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 adaptation and application of yoga practices, and his steadfast commitment to study, practice, and teaching have been an example and an inspiration to me. In fact, his example and inspiration have set the course of my life. I feel deeply honored to be a part of this great sampradaya, and remain dedicated to its ongoing transmission.

Find out about a special program at Kripalu honoring the legacy of T. K. V. Desikachar.