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One Month at the Mandiram

by Andrew Sugerman

The "Introduction to Yoga" course at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India, presents a comprehensive initiation into the science, philosophy, and application of yoga, faithful to the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya as preserved by his son, T.K.V. Desikachar.

As a young man in 1961, Desikachar abandoned his career as a structural engineer to preserve the work of his father, healing people with Yoga. He lived and studied with his father until 1989, when Krishnamacharya passed away. Because his education and orientation are decidedly Western, Desikachar confesses that he is able to transmit only a fraction of the knowledge his father possessed. I suspect that today, none of Desikachar's Western students would claim the ability to transmit the scope of knowledge their teacher possesses.

Desikachar founded the KYM in 1976. The Mandiram functions as a Yoga clinic as well as a clearinghouse for the preservation and dissemination of Krishnamacharya's wisdom. Ironically, even in India, few people know much about Yoga and fewer think of it as a field of therapy, so, most who have sought help there did so as a last resort. This is how
most of the KYM staff first discovered Yoga and the Mandiram. Along with medical, emotional and psychological maladies, they came with diverse backgrounds; they were highly educated, prominent and successful in their fields: engineers, psychologists, bankers, lawyers, and so on. Like Desikachar, it seems they each felt a calling to move on from their past careers. Today, they have faith in the power of the individual to heal with yoga. Through their devotion and dedication, the work of Krishnamacharya lives on.

Although seldom seen by us throughout the month, Desikachar's steady guidance was palpable and reassuring, like a captain unseen in his pilothouse, keeping his ship on course. Equally present, in spirit, was his teacher, Krishnamacharya. Photographs of Krishnamacharya are ubiquitous throughout the building. Some show him smiling and jovial; in others, he is in prayer. For those committed to remaining linked to the wisdom of this great master, the pictures serve as the rudder that directs the KYM ship. In accordance with Desikachar's aim to illuminate the distinction between Yoga and Hinduism, there are no religious trappings of any kind displayed in the Mandiram, nor is the symbol for OM visible anywhere.

The Participants

The majority of the thirty participants in the "Introduction to Yoga" course were American, with a handful from Europe. Some had no previous experience with yoga, some were yoga teachers, and many were regular practitioners. Although many of us came with some knowledge of this tradition, the course was neither redundant nor elementary. Because yoga is an internal, individual phenomenon, a review of the basics will always produce fresh insights and promote a more profound understanding.  

The Setting

The KYM recently purchased a large plot of land in Tiruvanmiyur, located in the southern region of Madras, where its future home will be built. Today, the Mandiram is housed in what appears to be a former single family home. Alongside the building is a small, rectangular yard, shaded by tall coconut palms. This is where we were served our breakfast each morning, and a fresh coconut in the afternoon. On the first day of the course, the students were seated in the yard on blue plastic chairs arranged in a long, narrow U-shape. Desikachar, dressed in a white dhoti, swept in and went down the line, personally greeting each of us. After all hands were shaken, Desikachar swept out of the yard and we went upstairs for our morning asana class. 

It is common in warm climates for buildings to have a roof top terrace. Three-quarters of the Mandiram's top floor is a terrace, covered by a hand-woven thatched roof. Suspended from the crude rafters are fluorescent lights and ceiling fans which, we were told, are used to dispel mosquitoes as much as to repel heat. The roof acts as a barrier against the sun and rain, but not against the ambient sounds of the neighborhood. We heard every crow that squawked, every chipmunk that chirped, every child that yelled, every motorcycle that roared, every produce monger that hawked, every religious procession that banged drums and blew horns, every saw that cut stone and hammer that hit a nail. A public address system was necessary in order to hear anybody speak.

This was our classroom. Often it was very hot, but most romantic during a sudden, heavy downpour. Thin, straw mats covered the concrete floor, and colorful cotton rugs lay over the mats. Along the perimeter were several low, wooden tables and a bunch of small, flat cushions. A large blackboard stood beside a portrait of Krishnamacharya. After a couple of days, I faced the fact that, unlike most native Indians, I could not comfortably sit on the floor for the duration of the lectures. I brought in an extra chair from outside. Gradually, a collection of blue chairs gathered at the back of the classroom, and by the last week, they numbered around a dozen.

The Classes

Our teacher for both the asana and pranayama classes was D.V. Sridhar, the current director of the KYM Institute of Yoga Studies. Over the course of the month, the format was a balance of lecture and practice. He spoke in detail about the hallmark of Krishnamacharya's approach to practice: the integration of breathing with asana, both with movement and when staying. The pranayama class often included movement with the attention on the breath. He described the classical form of the asanas according to this tradition, and scratched the surface of modifying them for individual needs. He spoke a bit about the theory of sequencing and of counter pose. As Sridhar instructed, his assistant, Srimathi, demonstrated. In deference to the culture, dress was modest. She, as well as the women in the class, wore a Punjabi outfit. The men wore pants and short sleeves. I wore a dhoti. Sridhar went over the basics of pranayama techniques, briefly touching upon the subject of bandhas.

Radha, D.V. Sridhar's wife, taught meditation in the evening. She revealed that Desikachar reviewed her lesson plan each day before she presented it to the class. Each meditation class began with a short series of asanas to prepare our bodies for sitting. Radha's overall design for the class was to begin with a gross object for contemplation and, over the period of twenty classes, move toward the subtle. For the first few days we concentrated upon our right knee, our left elbow or right shoulder. Later, we speculated on the meaning of various models and abstract diagrams. One day we sat while a woman chanted the Yogasutra. Simultaneously S. Sridharan, executive director of the Mandiram, chanted the first sutra over and over. Our instructions were to count the number of times he repeated the sutra. On other days, we pondered questions, such as: What is mind? What has mind got to do with this diagram? On the last day, we sat in the Sannidhi, the shrine to Krishnamacharya adjacent to Desikachar's house, where his father's padukas, heavy wooden sandals encased in silver, are displayed.

Kausthub, Desikachar's second son, lectured on the Yogasutra of Patanjali, covering the fundamental philosophy and application. He began each class by chanting those sutras relevant to his presentation for the day. He allowed ample space for questions and answers. When his father gives his public lecture on Saturday mornings, there is no opportunity to ask anything. Towards the end of the course, we requested that Desikachar teach a single Yogasutra class. With a skill that reveals his mastery, he spoke engagingly for the entire hour about the first word of Patanjali's Yogasutra: Atha. I think if he'd continued to talk about it for several more hours, it would have remained just as interesting. He explained that he studied the Yogasutra with his teacher from beginning to end many times.

Application of Yoga classes, led by Latha Nithyanand, PhD, offered us a glimpse into the primary work done by teachers at the Mandiram. Each day, Dr. Nithyanand arranged for patients of the Mandiram to talk about the condition that brought them to seek help, describe the program they received from their teacher, and how a Yoga practice helped improve their problem. Then, their Yoga teachers would describe the process from their perspective, after which we could ask the patients and teachers questions.

I was always touched by the courage of these people to get in front of a group of foreigners and talk about their problems. One example was a man in his fifties who had suffered a stroke in his forties and lost the use of his left side. He was slowly and steadily regaining that control. It was powerful to witness his confidence and determination as he climbed the stairs to the classroom with the aid of a cane. Another example was a post-menopausal woman who had come to the Mandiram for treatment of asthma. Yoga had helped her gain the sense of security that she will not suffocate, allowing her freedom of mobility and activity. We also met a young man who was able to pull himself out of a severe depression with the help of his Yoga teacher and a daily practice. We saw some cases of the work being done to elevate the functioning levels of mentally retarded children.

Following the Saturday lectures during the run of the course, we had a group meeting with Desikachar. He was very interested in hearing our thoughts and suggestions for the program, concerned about improving the format at once for our benefit, as well as for groups in future courses. When a request was made by anyone in our group, he turned to face our teachers, all seated in a row to his left, and instructed them to make it so.

This was an opportunity for us to witness the quality of relationship Desikachar has with his Indian students. When he speaks with them, their countenance and posture become humble, serious, almost childlike. Many seem to find it difficult to look him in the eye or sit before he does. Most will not touch any part of him besides his feet, or only the ground by his feet. By contrast, when conversing with his Western students, he will maintain solid eye contact and shake their hands. In all his interactions, he is consistently present, humble, gentle and authoritative. He has a firm hand on interpersonal
boundaries. When I've spoken to him, now a window of intimacy is open and his eyes are bottomless pools of ink; now that window is shut and his manner is light and jocular.

Returning Home

Yoga was born in India and maintains its citizenship there. Its roots reach deep into the soil of Indian culture. I feel that to find the soul of Yoga today, one must search in India. Participating in this course was an invaluable experience. However, to move beyond the general concepts and practices, to a more personal, transformative experience, a relationship with a teacher is essential. Having gotten closer to Yoga's soul, it is more frustrating now having only minimal access to it. I suppose one could move to Madras and study with a teacher at the Mandiram, but it is not an ideal option. Regardless of
whether such a move is practical, it may not be possible to fully bridge the culture gap between a Western student and an Indian teacher.

This signature approach to teaching the ancient practice of yoga is often referred to as viniyoga, a Sanskrit term which implies deft adaptation to a given set of circumstances. Krishnamacharya taught that Yoga is a vast, complex resource, which can be drawn upon to suit the requirements of the individual, and not a rigid, intrinsic standard to which the
individual must aspire and adapt. The greater spirit of Yoga is fractured by an attempt to isolate, contain, categorize, or trademark any aspect the practice. Yoga doesn't come in varieties; only people do.

The field of Yoga is dynamic, elastic, evolutional, and creative. The essence of Yoga can be distilled from its heritage and has, like a seed, been carried on the wind to places far from its home. I suspect it took time for Yoga to blossom in Indian soil as a sapling of Indian culture. Similarly, I surmise, this seed, having found its way to distant parts, will, in time, evolve as a phenomenon, profound and meaningful in the context of its adopted cultures


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The Art of Breathing - Patricia Sanzone & Andrew Sugerman

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updated March 27, 2008

March 27, 2008