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The Yoga of The Yogi
The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya
By Kausthub Desikachar
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Kausthub Desikachar
All rights reserved.
From Birth to Rebirth
yoga's long journey
the only sure thing is change.
"India is shining!" shouted recent billboards in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and across the country.
India has always been a crossroads of many worlds, a shining place. But today, it is a different India that shines. People all over the world are watching this ancient country with renewed interest. The computer revolution is changing the business landscape at an incredible rate, increasing the efficiency of India's corporate enterprises and government agencies. Pharmaceutical industries are producing high-quality drugs at a fraction of the cost of many modern countries, making expensive medicines more accessible to poorer nations. All over the country, industry is booming and national pride is on the rise. Despite the persistence of internal social and political challenges, India is well on its way to becoming a modern nation. It is not yet clear what gifts this new, modern India will bring to the world, but ancient India brought many gifts to humanity.
For centuries, people have been drawn to India as a land of many mysteries. India attracted invaders who coveted its land, sacred masters seeking to further their spiritual horizons, and merchants hoping to secure its resources for trade. From the digit zero, which revolutionized mathematics, to Mahatma Gandhi, who showed the world how a war could be won with love and peace; from New Delhi to New York; from the esoteric to the mundane, karma to curry, bollywood to bangra, the world has long been fascinated by all things Indian.
And today, the world is fascinated with yoga.
Once the realm of sacred masters in the Himalayas and spiritual ascetics, yoga is now practiced by people of every shape, size, and gender in every corner of the globe. And many of them want to know more about this ancient discipline.
Why was yoga invented? Who created it? What are its basic principles? What are its tools, and how can they be used? Are these poses that I do with my body truly yoga? And if this is all yoga is, then what is the difference between a yogi and a gymnast?
We can only imagine what life must have been like thousands of years ago when people first began practicing yoga. There were no cars, trains, or planes to take people from one place to another. If you wanted to go somewhere, you walked or ran. None of our modern means of communication existed. There were no telephones (mobile or otherwise), no postal service, and certainly, no e-mail. If people wanted to communicate with each other, they had to come together, face-to-face, and talk.
This was a time without pizza-delivery service, when the ingredients for every meal had to be hand-picked, hand-washed, and then cut and cooked by hand. The concept of pre-packaged food, a lifeless blob of indeterminate substances transformed after a few seconds in the microwave into a sticky toffee pudding, was as distant a dream as sending men to the moon. There were no dishwashers, no washing machines, and no bathtub to soak in after an exhausting day's work. If you wanted to wash anything, you needed a strong back and two strong hands, and hopefully, there was a clean water source nearby. If not, it meant only one thing — a very long walk.
It was in this physically demanding world that yoga originated. In other words, the first people to practice yoga did not need an exercise regimen. Everyday life provided them with more than enough opportunity to engage in physical activity. We need to keep this fact in mind as we consider the purpose for which yoga was conceived.
What our ancestors did share with us, if not our modern conveniences and sedentary lifestyle, was the urge to explore, not just the physical world, but the spiritual one, as well. Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? What are my responsibilities? They were concerned with issues of the mind and soul, with the causes of psychological and spiritual suffering, or duhkham, as it is called in Sanskrit.
Eventually, the efforts of early Indian philosophers to find the solution to duhkham resulted in the founding of the various schools of Indian philosophy. Although the goal of each school was the same — to reach the spiritual core of the human being and eliminate duhkham — their paths were distinct. Of the countless philosophical schools that arose in India, there are six that came to be considered the most important, because they shared a common source, the Vedas.
The Vedas are a vast body of teachings believed to be the oldest source of knowledge in India. They are known as an agama, or a "definitive reference." No one knows who created the Vedas, when they were created, or even whether they were all composed by the same author. Only one thing is certain; they are considered the most sacred among all the Indian teachings. It is believed that almost all that is important to know has been discussed in the Vedas. In India, the Vedas are considered the absolute reference for any teachings or teacher.
Collectively, the six philosophical schools were known as the Sat Darsanas. Sat, meaning "six," and Darsana, meaning "philosophy" (coming from the root drs — to see, to understand). Yoga is one school among these Sat Darsanas. The other five schools are Mimamsa, Nyaya, Vaisesikha, Samkhya, and Vedanta. All six schools share the goal of removing duhkham through spiritual practice, but beyond this, yoga differs significantly from the others, especially in the way it approaches duhkham.
Mimamsa emphasizes the role of our actions and rituals in reducing duhkham. According to this school, if we perfect our actions, mundane and spiritual, we will never suffer.
Nyaya emphasizes logic and establishing cause-and-effect relationships between everything that is happening in the world. Everything happens because of a cause, including suffering. If we address the cause of duhkham, we can rid ourselves of it.
According to the teachings of Vaisesikha, everything in this world goes through a stage of evolution and dissolution, including our actions. If we understand this correctly, and act according to the right stage of our action's evolution, then we remain happy and avoid pain.
Samkhya says that life is a combination of two things: a part that is conscious (purusa) and a part that is not conscious (prakrti). While the consciousness is purusa, the body, mind, and senses are prakrti. Prakrti depends on purusa for existence. At the same time, the purusa needs the prakrti in order to function. This close link between the two is what allows life to proceed successfully. Sometimes, however, there is confusion over who is the master. Imagine, for example, if the horses thought they were in charge of directing the course of the carriage. When this happens there is a runaway carriage, and this can cause a lot of trouble. Samkhya helps clarify the roles of purusa and prakrti, so that we don't get into trouble.
Finally, Vedanta holds that religion is the cure for suffering. Vedanta became the foundation of what is now known as Hinduism.
To find out what yoga has to say about duhkham, we start with the Yoga Sutra, an ancient text of yoga teachings compiled by a great yogi called Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra is considered the definitive reference on yoga. Yogis revered this text to such a degree that disputes were often settled based solely on the content of the Yoga Sutra.
From the outset, Patanjali makes it very clear in the Yoga Sutra that yoga is more about dealing with the mind than anything else, including the physical body:
yogah citta vrtti nirodhah | Yoga Sutra I. 2
yoga is to direct the mind on a chosen focus and maintain that focus without distraction
Presented in a simple aphoristic style over four chapters, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra lays out the road map of yoga. The basic premise of Patanjali's teaching is that our human mind is both the source of and solution to our problems. If the mind is distracted or agitated, then we get into trouble. But if the mind is focused and calm, it helps us solve the problems we encounter in everyday life and leads us forward on the path towards our spiritual core. This is the simple essence of the teachings of yoga, and the reason why it was developed thousands of years ago.
But dealing with the mind is not a simple task. Before we can direct our mind, we must first develop an understanding of its workings and identify any obstacles that must be overcome. This takes considerable time, effort, and careful guidance, which the Yoga Sutra offers us.
Patanjali had a profound understanding of the way the human mind functions. He understood that the mind has many different dimensions and supports many different activities, states, and functions. He also understood the multitude of influences that affect the mind. These influences, in turn, affect the mind's character, functioning, and even its qualities.
Patanjali knew, for example, that the body influences the mind. If my body is tired or stressed, so is my mind. If my body is relaxed and calm, then my mind is relaxed and calm. He also understood the role of the breath in affecting the mind. When the breath is agitated, the mind becomes agitated. When the breath is smooth and steady, the mind is smooth and steady. Similarly, the food we eat, our lifestyle, the company we keep, our emotional state, etc., all of these things affect the mind.
The reverse is also true. If we influence our state of mind, other aspects of the human system are influenced in a similar manner. For example, if my mind is agitated, my breath is agitated. But if I then listen to some soothing music and calm my mind, the breath also becomes calm.
In essence, what Patanjali grasped was that all aspects of the human system — the physical aspect, the breath, the intellectual aspect, the personality, the emotions — are interrelated. And so he gifted us, through the teachings of yoga, with a wide range of tools to treat the needs of the entire human system holistically. For Patanjali, there was no such thing as a "one-pill-cures-all" approach. The yoga toolbox provides a wide range of tools, and they can be utilized based on the student's needs in an infinite number of combinations for health, healing, and spiritual evolution. These tools include conscious breathing regulation (pranayama), body positions (asana), dietary recommendations (ahara niyama), lifestyle recommendations (vihara niyama), social attitudes (yama), personal disciplines (niyama), meditation (dhyanam), visualizations (bhavana), sensory control (pratyahara), and more.
A few years ago I asked my father, who is also my teacher, "If I had to study just one text on yoga, what would you recommend?" Without a moment's hesitation, he replied, "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali." He added, "I too asked the same question of my teacher and got the same answer."
Of course, this does not mean that the other texts are not important, but since these texts base their teachings on the Yoga Sutra, it makes sense to concentrate more on the agama itself.
I believe that it was the same for many yoga masters throughout history. Naturally, these masters drew inspiration from the culture, lifestyle, and habits of their times in order to evolve teaching paradigms that fit the context of their lives and the lives of the people they worked with. This is why the teaching practices of the various yoga schools differ. However, what they all teach is still yoga, and at the end of the day, most still consider the Yoga Sutra their definitive guide.
For all of its promise and successes, yoga has not always enjoyed the popularity it does today. Time and time again, outside forces invaded India and sought to destroy the native culture and replace it with their own. But because of the spiritual strength of the teachings and of the great masters, this knowledge outlived the invaders. Over time, it helped to maintain the integrity of the Indian land and its wisdom. Of course, not everything survived the test of time, and India lost many great teaching traditions, but we are thankful for the wealth of knowledge that remains.
One of these cultural declines occurred in India at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many traditions, including yoga, were facing extinction as people looked to the rapidly modernizing and expanding West. Under British rule, Western medicine, the Western educational system, and Western values were promoted throughout India and slowly began to replace the existing native institutions. Yoga, among many other traditions, was dying. Few people were interested in its ancient teachings, and those who were did not have access to the most profound secrets. Yoga's teachings were at risk of being diluted, transformed into a dull handbook of physical exercises.
When we enter a tunnel, the darkness surrounds us, giving the impression that all is lost. But sooner or later, the light breaks through again. And so it was with yoga. This light came in the form of a man from South India. Over the course of a lifetime that spanned more than one hundred years, he would bring life back into the dying world of yoga and revolutionize its practice for a modern world.CHAPTER 2
A Boy Always Hungry
the torch is lit
when we are really thirsty, we will definitely find water.
In India, there are many different religious traditions, and each tradition worships a different God as the primordial Being. For example Vaisnava followers worship Lord Visnu as their only deity, while those belonging to the rival Saiva tradition worship Lord Siva, the dancing God.
In South India, the most popular religious school is Sri Vaisnava Sampradayam. Followers of this tradition worship Lord Visnu, along with his consort, Goddess Laksmi, as the primordial Supreme Beings. Those who practice Sri Vaisnava Sampradayam today owe the tradition's richness and longevity to a master called Nammalvar. Little is known about Nammalvar, but he was one the first masters of the tradition, establishing the Sri Vaisnava Sampradayam school with the help of some of his contemporaries. Together, they were known as Alvars.
Nammalvar was born into a family of hunters. The exact date of his birth is unknown. He was called Maran, which means "abnormal" or "different from others" (it was only later that he would be known as Nammalvar). His parents gave him this unusual name, because he did not cry at the time of his birth, or drink his mother's milk, or do many other things that normal children do.
One day, Maran's parents heard a voice tell them to leave the infant in the hollow of a tamarind tree. Believing this to be the voice of the Divine and that Maran must be destined for great things, the couple sought out the tamarind tree and left the child there. The tree became Maran's home.
Sixteen years later, a learned man named Madhurakavi was traveling through the north of India when a strong light suddenly appeared in the south. Every day, Madhurakavi would see this light glowing in the south, and he decided that God was directing him to find the source of the light. He turned south, and eventually, he arrived in a small village in South India called Alvar Tirunagari, in Tirunelveli district. Here, the shining light merged into the figure of a young man sitting quietly in the hollow of a tamarind tree. The young man appeared lost in meditation.
Madhurakavi tried to get the meditator's attention. He threw stones on the ground. He clapped loudly. He called the youth names. But the boy remained unmoved. Finally, Madhurakavi decided to ask the young man a question. "When the un-manifest takes birth in the manifest, what will it eat, and what will it do?"
The youth's eyes immediately lit up, and he answered promptly, "It will eat the manifest and remain in it."
Stunned by the boy's riddle-like, yet profound reply, the learned Madhurakavi prostrated himself before him (an unconventional act in those days, when the younger one was required to prostrate to the elder) and declared that he, Madhurakavi, had finally found his teacher.
It was after this incident that Maran, the young man under the tamarind tree, became known as Nammalvar. The word Nammalvar has many meanings, including "the one who has come to lead us."
Over the next decade, Nammalvar's teachings, Tiruviruttam, Tiruvasiriyam, Periya Tiruvantati, and the classic Tiruvaimozhi, formed the foundation of Sri Vaisnava Sampradayam. The writings were devotional in nature, instructing students to love God in a sublime way.
Excerpted from The Yoga of The Yogi by Kausthub Desikachar. Copyright © 2005 Kausthub Desikachar. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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