Archive for July, 2010

Stepping out for a walk before 6 in the morning might seem heroic.   But in Chennai one realizes that the rest of the world came awake long before that hour.  Even if one puts it down to Chennai being on the east coast and, therefore, having the sun rise specially early, it is still quite a marvelous sight to find the streets already swept clean by municipal workers.  Every bungalow and shop front sports a fresh kolam (hand-drawn ceremonial welcome design, using rice flour) on the still-wet entrance floor.  In little shrines dedicated to him at the gates of many bungalows, Ganesha is already resplendent in fresh white dhoti, with flower offerings at his feet.

Milk and newspaper  delivery boys/men are already cycling back home, their early morning chores done. Hari, who owns a hole-in-the-wall daily needs store at the end of my lane, is arranging his wares, while the vegetable hand-carts are doing their rounds of the side streets.  Working class women and men are at large, the women making a striking picture in their colourful bordered cotton saris, with jasmine flowers woven into their oiled and plaited hair.  The daily labourers among them can be seen congregating at traditional hiring spots along with their menfolk, while women domestic workers servicing middle class homes are cycling to their workplaces in the apartment complexes that abound in my locality of Tiruvanmiyur.

Chennai is a city of neighbourhoods, and the neighbourhood of Tiruvanmiyur presents not only a clean, but also thoughtful and seriously engaged picture at the hour of 6 a.m.   The tiny Vara Siddhivinayak temple on Kalakshetra Road has been cleaned and opened to worshippers; there are already a few pairs of footwear outside the entrance.  The wicks have been trimmed, the lamps lit, and the officiating priest is conducting prayers.  The shoes outside belong to a few early office/school goers who have lined up to witness the aarti (lamp offering to the deity).  Although its old-world tiled roof and mini gopuram (temple spire) are dwarfed by the plush modern highrise apartment complexes that have sprung up all around it, the temple is full of character, rather like the “Old Curiosity Shop” in London that is dwarfed by the buildings of the LSE, but holds its own nevertheless.  Like the parish churches in the predominantly Christian locality of Bandra in Mumbai where I live, it is also a social space for neighbourhood interaction.  In the evenings, at dusk when the temple lamps are being lit, I have seen small congregations of elderly ladies assemble to serenade Ganesha with classical and semi-classical devotional songs.

Summer mornings are hot and muggy in Chennai, and although it is only nearing 7 a.m., I am ready to wind up my walk long before I had intended to.  As I turn into the apartment complex in which I am in staying,   I hear a deep male voice singing classical music.  The sound is coming out of one of the apartments in the complex  (my son later tells me that he has heard this man doing his practice every morning, and takes inspiration from him).  As I continue walking down the lane towards my apartment, the rhythmic patter of feet that I had heard on my way out is still ongoing.  Somebody is doing serious dance practice; must be someone with stamina and dedication, I muse,  feeling guilty about how daunted I already am by just the idea of putting more effort into my mere morning walk.  Whoever it is has been going on for over an hour, and even now the sound of the feet does not appear to flag.  As I crane my neck to try and locate the flat from where the sound is coming, I suddenly notice the face that belongs to the feet, through the window of the ground floor flat that I have come abreast of.  She is facing the window…the sweat is streaming down her face and her blouse is drenched… but she is moving gracefully, without any expression of fatigue.  A man is sitting facing her, with his back to the window; I assume it is her teacher monitoring her.  It is a comfortable-looking space that the two of them inhabit.  As I near my apartment, the sweet notes of a violin,…a familiar composition… come floating down to me.   It is my son; he is already up and practising before he leaves for this morning’s master class.  My heart swells with pleasure at his willing submission to a discipline that invisibly binds him to these other two practitioners in a notional fraternal relationship.

It is two hours since Raju, the little newspaperboy, has delivered our newspapers, the Times of India and The Hindu.   His employer tells me that Raju is only 9 years old – he looks 7 – and desperately wants to study.  With a father who is an alcoholic no-gooder and chronically unemployed, and a mother who barely manages to bring food home from her daily wage labour, Raju earns his school fees from his work as a newspaper delivery boy.  Raju is mature beyond his years…waking up at 3 a.m. every day and doing an hour of study before reporting for work at 4.  He has never reported late for work so far.  And continues to do well in school.  Probably reacting to the interest in my eyes, the newspaper agent assures  me that he intends to stand by Raju.  I handle my newspaper with greater respect from knowing the dreams and hard work that have brought them to my doorstep.

‘The Hindu’ does not disappoint either.  Of all the metropolitan English newspapers in India, The Hindu is perhaps the most quality conscious, maintaining high standards of analysis and writing, always striving to give its readers news that is fit to read. No beauty queens in crowns and plastic smiles clutching bouquets, on Page One.  No Page Three socialites and party animals. No obsession with the trite doings of film stars…just one supplement a week devoted to films, with a few intelligent articles on cinema thrown in for good measure.  At least one day in the week, there are well written book reviews, reviews of art exhibitions and of music concerts.  And in which other main paper would you find a small daily column devoted to classical music (‘Know your Raga’)…? Morning after morning, The Hindu brings its readers news, analysis, editorials, and a cultural calendar that convinces me that Chennai may still be a small town compared with Mumbai or Delhi,  people may still be living their lives in neighbourhoods rather than in ‘global’ standard residences; and the sight of women in cotton saris with flowers woven into oiled hair may still be a commoner sight than designer wear.  But it is definitely a happening city, offering a wide fare of both high brow and popular culture.

I pick up the newspapers from the doorstep and enter the flat.  Making myself some of the coffee that I had put to perk before I stepped out for my walk,  I go out on to the patio, cup in hand.  It is hot and still, and barely a breath of air disturbs the leaves of the trees around me.  But I am otherwise rewarded.  From where I am standing , I have a panoramic view of the flat rooftop terraces around me, interspersed with palm fronds and luminously leaved mango trees  that look langorously weighed down by deep-greenish-blue fruits.  On quite a few of these terraces people of various ages are doing yoga.   It is a remarkable sight, quiet and reflective.  My mind idly goes to the waterfront promenade opposite my flat in Mumbai at this hour, crowded with enthusiastic walkers in designer jogging wear, engaged in loud discussion of the price of shares and the doings of the stock market.  Different cites.  Different interests.


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Every autorickshaw driver in Chennai knows where the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) is. Once you agree to the shamelessly overpitched fare, the auto-man will take you there in the shortest possible time; he knows that once he drops you off, he will immediately be able to pick up another passenger. The KYM is the only busy destination in an otherwise quiet street.

The walk from the gate to where the steps climb up to the reception hall is barely a few yards, but there is a perceptible feeling of having entered a world of calm and silence that is also at least a couple of degrees cooler than the street. Tiny lotus ponds glitter within lush mounds of soft grass, and a crazy-paved path bordered by verdant foliage leads off to a tranquil little shrine to Patanjali, the Giver of Yoga to the World that nestles in a small and dense grove of trees. In the reception hall and beyond, administrators and visitors/clients look seriously engaged, and consultant therapists (who examine new patients) and teachers (whom the consultants refer patients to for individualized therapy sessions) perform briskly and quietly.

The KYM commemorates the greatest yoga guru – Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) – that India has produced in recent times. In whatever way yoga is taught and practised today, in whichever part of the world, it owes its foundations to Krishnamacharya. As Fernando Pages Ruiz puts it, “You may never have heard of him, but Tirumalai Krishnamacharya influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga… Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customized vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village.” (“The legacy of Krishnamacharya”, http://www.yogajournal.com)

The story of Krishnamacharya’s life – long, scholarly, intensely dedicated, innovative – makes for fascinating reading, as I discovered from a biography written by his grandson Kaustubh Desikachar. For me, my encounter in the KYM library with the life history of a man who introduced me to yoga over 40 years ago, was very very special.

The modern, professional-looking and bustling Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram set up in his memory is a far cry from the spartan house in Gopalapuram (in Chennai) where I first encountered Krishnamacharya, and yoga. I was a young teenager on my summer vacation after my first year out of high school, when I was appointed by my father to accompany my invalid mother, who had suffered successive accidents that had rendered her virtually immobile and almost always in pain, to Chennai. There, Krishnamacharya, whom my father knew through a common friend, was going to use yoga to help her heal. For a young teen to be asked to spend her annual vacation in a city with no friends, and with nothing to do but to escort an infirm parent to some old healer every day, was not the most attractive deal. But my authoritarian father was not one to be questioned, and I resigned myself to my fate.

Every day, once in the morning and again in the early evening, my mother and I would take a taxi from our hotel to Krishnamacharya’s home for an hour’s instruction. He always appeared remote, wrapped in some self-sufficient world that did not require communication with visitors beyond classroom instruction. His was not a severe face; indeed it was a handsome sharp-featured one, with large luminous eyes and an enigmatic smile that lit up his features, although the reason for its existence did not seem to be to enhance social interaction. I don’t remember him ever make small talk, or even show the slightest interest in us beyond addressing my mother’s ailments. But he gave us his undivided and intense attention while teaching, and taught my mother with great gentleness.

Within a couple of days of starting her instruction, he seemed to notice my presence, and commanded me to take my place on another mat. I complied wordlessly; his voice did not give me a choice. For the next two months, every morning and evening, he taught me yoga with the same attentiveness that he showed my mother, even though teaching me was not part of the original understanding with him. He also taught me how to assist my mother in performing her asanas. He demanded the slowest of breathing and movement, and his hawk eyes never left me for a minute, making sure that every movement was executed absolutely correctly. I learnt to be terrified of him, as he was as ferociously strict with me as he was gentle with my mother. But I could also sense his restrained pleasure in seeing me respond easily to the instruction, young as I was and unhampered by ailments; and the perfection that he expected from every movement, and his unrelenting supervision, motivated me to try harder to come up to his expectations. By the end of our time with him, he had even taught me the Sirasasana (head stand).

At the end of the two months, our relationship with Krishnamacharya terminated as abruptly as it had begun. My mother had improved vastly. And I had discovered that I had a naturally supple body. We went back to our lives in Bombay and in due course, I stopped doing my yoga practice and forgot all about the old man who looked, lived and behaved like an ascetic, and who had introduced me to what was potentially a whole new world, a significance that I did not grasp at the time. My father – the family’s yoga enthusiast – continued to do his asanas (for which, mercifully, he attended a yoga institute closeby); but he would do what looked to me ghastly tricks – called kriyas – at home, like swallowing yards of cotton tape and pulling them out of his mouth. I sometimes watched from afar with morbid fascination. I did not want to be part of that obsession. It was also comforting to go back to being the couch potato that I was naturally inclined towards.

In modernizing metropolitan India of the time, yoga had not yet come of age in the popular consciousness, and it was generally seen as a traditional, ‘old people’s’ thing. For me, Krishnamacharya…my father…exemplified this. Sadly, as with most other things in India, it was the discovery of yoga by the West and its triumphant return to India from the global stage, borne aloft on the shoulders of B.K.S. Iyengar, that prompted Iyengar’s countrymen to pay attention to this ‘new’ form of ‘exercise’ and, indeed, way of life.

When I awakened to the benefits of regular exercise, my first instinct was – like my peers – to take to popular fitness regimens…aerobics, gym, jogging, karate… It was some time – and quite a few injuries later, born of over-enthusiasm and lax supervision – before my early influences caught up with me. I enrolled myself in my father’s yoga institute on Bombay’s Marine Drive. I had declared myself a beginner on the enrolment form. But the ease with which I was able to learn astonished even the teachers. I had underestimated the strength of the foundations that Krishnamacharya had laid. I particularly found his teaching of how to synchronise my breathing with my asanas, the stress on the sequencing of asanas, and the importance of being conscious of the correct structural alignment in every asana, coming back to me.

On professional trips abroad, I would meet people who raved about a man called B.K.S. Iyengar, and sometimes these trips coincided with Iyengar’s visits to these cities, and I would hear about hundreds of people attending a Master class by the visiting yogi. My curiosity about Iyengar was aroused, but I was still unaware that I too was part of this yoga web… albeit as an insignificant and unworthy strand. It was a chance visit to the Iyengar Institute in Pune (near Mumbai) which brought the memories of the old teacher rushing back.

I was in Pune with my family on holiday, and we happened to drive past a signboard on a gate announcing the B.K.S. Iyengar School of Yoga. On impulse, I hopped off telling my family that I would meet them back at the hotel. It was an intriguing looking campus, with complex yoga postures sculpted along the walls of the compound. I had never been in quite such a place. It looked a bit weird. I saw some lights on the first level, and my excitement mounted as I took the curving flight of stairs going up. I couldn’t believe that I had actually found the ‘source’ of the global phenomenon that was Iyengar! All those people in all those distant foreign countries waiting for him to turn up for a Master class… And here he was, in my own home, so to say…

At the top of the stairs I stopped short in total astonishment. On the wall to my left was a larger than life black and white portrait of Krishnamacharya, hands folded in namaskar, his luminous face and enigmatic smile exactly as I remembered it. I hesitated for a moment, staring at it …after all these years… what was the old man doing here? I raced across the hall to the lone person sitting behind one of the many empty counters.

“Excuse me”. He looked up with the blank clerical face that you see behind every counter in every office.

“The office is closed. Come back later”. And he went back to whatever he was doing.

“I need to know…Who is the man in that photograph?”

No reply.

“Who is he? And what is his connection with this place?”

He looked momentarily startled by the urgency in my voice (and probably as much by my question). But his clerical instinct bounced back. “I told you, no? Office is closed. Come back in the evening”.

I stood my ground and repeated my question twice more before he could bring himself to answer what he clearly thought was a lunatic woman.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I know him.”

He looked at me unbelievingly.

“Please tell me… why is he here? “ I was almost pleading for a reply.

“He is our guru’s guru”, was all he said.

I felt faint as I turned to leave. Here I was, full of admiration for B.K.S. Iyengar. And of course, for all the right reasons. But, we had actually shared the same guru! How much more unworthy could I have gotten? That, in all those intervening years I had not recognized the value of the instruction that I had received, or the person who had taught me, dismissing him as a crochety old man who had been a friend of my father’s?

All these memories came flooding back as I picked up Krishnamacharya’s biography – with his familiar face on the jacket – in the library of the KYM (Desikachar, Kausthub. The Yoga of the Yogi : The Legacy of T Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, 2005). I knew that I would be buying a copy before I left the place. But I couldn’t wait until I got back home. Sinking into one of the chairs right there, I began to read.

Krishnamacharya was a driven man from a very early age. First it was the intense desire to master the Indian classical disciplines. For this he travelled out of his village in Karnataka and across the country to wherever – Benaras, Calcutta, Patna – he could find the best teachers. And with his strong foundation in Sanskrit acquired in childhood, he shone wherever he went. Along the way, he mastered the six systems of Indian philosophy and Ayurveda, and obtained degrees in philology, logic, divinity and music. His next search was for the quintessential guru with whose guidance he could deepen his knowledge of yoga. Trekking all the way to the Himalayas on a tenuous lead that there lived a hermit in a cave who had mastered the science, he finally found his destination on the shores of Lake Mansarovar in Tibet at the base of Mount Kailash – the proverbial cave, and a bearded, wise and accomplished giant of a man who lived in it with his family, in total isolation. Krishnamacharya spent the next seven years there as a fiercely dedicated student, absorbing all that his teacher could teach him, which included over 3000 asanas, pranayama, meditation and the therapeutic properties of yoga.

When his guru deemed Krishnamacharya fit to leave, he asked for only two promises in lieu of gurudakshina (student fees). That he would henceforth dedicate his life to teaching yoga. And that he would marry and lead the life of a householder, and thus teach a yoga that benefited the widest cross section of people (rather than become a renunciate). With a clear mission to his life, and his promise to his guru ringing in his ears, Krishnamacharya returned – on foot again – to Benaras and thence to Mysore state, a princely kingdom. He was welcomed back as a homecoming vidwan (savant) and offered illustrious professional positions at several places across the country. And in Mysore, honorific titles were conferred on him.

But Krishnamacharya declined all lucrative and prestigious employment opportunities, and association with the wealthy and powerful. Instead, he chose to tirelessly seek out opportunities to teach yoga to ordinary people, and popularize it through lectures, demonstrations and publications. The challenge of reviving interest in a forgotten science that nobody was willing to pay to learn, rapidly brought him to a state of acute poverty, until he found a patron in the Maharaja of Mysore who founded a ‘school of yoga’ within the palace, that was open to everybody. The Maharaja also enthusiastically supported Krishanacharya’s travels for the purpose of lectures and demonstrations. Backed by economic security, Krishnamacharya was able to work on his teaching style, innovating and developing techniques that resulted in the teaching of an energetic and dynamic form of yoga to an ever-widening audience of youthful students, as well as a personalised and therapeutic form adapted to individuals with physical limitations. A deeply spiritual man himself and immersed in Hindu philosophy, he nevertheless totally respected his students’ independence and right to choose their own worldview.

With Independence and the abolition of the princely states, the Mysore Court’s patronage for the teaching of yoga ceased to exist. The yoga school was shut down by the new state government of Karnataka and Krishnamacharya was once again pushed to the edge of poverty. He moved to Chennai in search of more teaching opportunities with which to support himself. Here his teaching style developed further in the direction of a one-on-one approach, treating each student as a unique individual. He placed an increased emphasis on healing the sick, and drew from his diverse and vast store of knowledge, carrying it forward through application and innovation. In Chennai, he soon became well known for his therapeutic style of yoga instruction.

Considering his unparalleled contribution to laying the foundations of yoga as we understand it today, Krishnamacharya’s life was one of relative obscurity. It is through his students that he has come to be known across the world. Among his earliest disciples in Mysore who went on to become world-renowned practitioners and teachers who have made yoga the global phenomenon that it is today, were B.K.S. Iyengar (his own brother-in-law) and the late Pattabhi Jois. Each of them took Krishnamacharya’s dynamic teaching style of those early years in Mysore, and adapted and developed it in ways that suited their own genius. Today, the Iyengar Yoga and the Mysore Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga schools, respectively, are internationally renowned, and have thriving and growing bodies of practitioners both in India and across the world.

Two other students who were carriers of the ‘light of yoga’ to the world at large were the late Indra Devi (his first European and woman student in Mysore) who spread the message of yoga in China, Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, his best known disciple of his later years in Chennai, who has immortalized him through the KYM in Chennai.

The hallmark of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) in Chennai, today,  is the customized, therapeutic Viniyoga style of teaching that Krishnamacharya developed and refined towards the end of his life. The KYM runs regular yoga classes as well, to which young people from across the city flock. And its yoga teacher training courses generate a large number of well trained teachers, who go out and set up classes across the city. In my time in Chennai, I encountered yoga being taught everywhere, and routinely practised by young and old.

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