The Power of Transformation – Celebrating TKV Desikachar
The 21st of June marks three important events: the birth day of TKV Desikachar, for whom the sun was an important symbol of a Higher Force; the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky thus giving the most daylight hours; and the International Day of Yoga, a date first proposed by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the UN General Assembly in 2014. The motion received support from 177 nations, the highest number ever to back a resolution.
I am not going to dwell on either the International Day of Yoga or the Summer Solstice, but I do want to reflect a little on what Desikachar brought us. Many of the people who are now a part of TSYP never met TKV Desikachar, and yet they are still profoundly moved by what are often referred to as ‘the teachings’. Many have summarised the key points of TKV Desikachar’s teachings, and in his plenary sessions at last year’s Roots and Branches Annual Gathering with aYs, Martyn Neal offered us a vision of what he personally saw as the prevailing tendencies of Desikachar which can be found on our website here.
Desikachar made it clear that for him, yoga was about the individual and particularly about how that individual could become their best self. This entails a process referred to as transformation.
Put simply, transformation is about change and it is open to anyone and everyone. We all have habits that are both helpful and not so helpful. Either we think we are pretty perfect already (which means there is certainly room for improvement) or we focus on our faults (so yet again room for improvement). We repeat the same mistakes with alarming regularity (well I do!), have the same repetitive arguments, and encounter the same types of people who rile us. Yoga helps us develop the good habits that counterbalance the not so helpful habits1. What might seem like an unattainable fancy ‘transformation’ path just means that you can change and become better and happier.
When we hear people are going to do yoga or celebrate the International Day of Yoga, much of the emphasis is on āsana, with a bit of prāṇāyāma and often to groups. However, I want to pick up on something more subtle and more profound, and that is the power of transformation, which is so intrinsic in this teaching.
When Desikachar was interviewed he was asked why he did not want to lecture to large groups – his reply is powerful2:
‘There are two tracks: one is called information, the other is called transformation. With information we can communicate to thousands of people, but transformation, it is almost like surgery, where one doctor cannot do … surgery for a thousand people.’
From suffering to freedom
So what is this gift of transformation that makes yoga so special? Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra-s speak of a model that leads us from a place of suffering to a place of freedom. It describes how the cause (hetu) is avidyā3_ our fundamental misunderstanding of who we are; when we confuse the permanent with the temporary, the pure with the impure, pain with pleasure, and above all our true self (the ātmā) with our superficial self4. When we get too caught up in the everyday, this is called saṁyoga – a very intense link between our deepest self (our heart centre) and the material world.
We all know how this feels – we identify with what is bugging us. The more something ‘pushes our buttons’, the more we think about it, and the more our mind finds it impossible to focus on anything else. Who has not had a time when almost everything is going well, but despite this is eaten up by anger or anxiety over something quite small which ends up taking every waking thought? More often than not we are used to being in this perpetual state of unrest and are simply not aware of what is awry. It might take a simple yoga class where we feel something different at the end, a certain peace, a certain centredness, for us to begin to wonder how we can have more of this magic. As Desikachar wrote, one definition of yoga is ‘to attain what was previously unattainable… Every change is yoga’5.
Once we learn how to distance ourselves and focus more on what is real, then we gain some perspective. It is our practice (sādhana) which slowly, little by little, leads us to a place where we have more peace and space and light: more freedom to realise our true potential. Kaivalya6 is the ultimate transformation – we are no longer bound by suffering.
So how do we get from a to b? How do we come closer to our heart, where we have more clarity? Would life be easier if we could simply run away from the world? We can sit by a river, on a mountain top, or in a cave, but if our mind stays the same then our old issues will not resolve – they might even just multiply! The Yoga Sūtra-s tell us that the world is there to set us free7. My mother used to tell me (very annoyingly!) that those who wound me up the most were my best teachers. These are the situations and people who show us what we are not seeing. Yoga is one of the six ‘darśana’ of Indian philosophy. A darśana is something that offers us insight. Yoga gives us a mirror with which to see ourselves clearly – on every level. To see and thus to alter our habits or saṁskāra-s.
Chapter 3 of the Yoga Sūtra-s speaks to us of transformation … how the mind only has two settings: disturbed or focused. When it is disturbed, we are bound up in the external. When our mind is contained, we come closer to our true nature. Through yoga we can gradually train the mind to spend more time being focused and less distracted. This training (and it is training) leads us to the gift of meditation. Our mind becomes focused without interruption on the chosen object. We then begin to absorb the qualities of that object and something changes. A new pattern appears. That new thing is peace and so we see things differently, we are quite literally transformed.
Patience and tenacity
As Desikachar says though in What Are We Seeking? there needs to be some evolution in ourselves to see the simple things in life from our heart. Great gifts need hard work and are not given without us using effort. We live in an Amazon Prime world – we are used to getting something straight away at the click of a button while sitting in the comfort of our home. Yoga does not work like that. A student needs patience and tenacity.
As in all journeys, having a guide is helpful. They help us navigate tricky territory and, if they have taken the path themselves, can offer us encouragement to keep going. Professor Krishnamacharya said ‘It is the message that is important not the teacher’8. However, that message usually comes through a teacher who is the channel – a conduit. What I have written is a personal reflection of what these teachings have meant to me and why. Despite the fact that I never met ‘Sir’, I have been blessed to have a number of inspirational teachers in this tradition – teachers who have been able to craft their explanation of ‘the teachings’ into something that resonated for me – at that time and in that place. The texts I have referred to will undoubtedly be interpreted differently by different people. That is one of the profound joys of these teachings – they are for the individual. And this is why what this approach offers is so extra-ordinarily special.
Do please join us at 7am on Tuesday 21st June for Andy Curtis-Payne and Helen Macpherson’s free one-hour meditative practice, Blessings of the Sun. Full details can be found here.
For further information on this discussion, please see Chapter 4 of Freud and Yoga, by TKV Desikachar and Hellfried Krusche.
1 YS 1.50
2 In Conversation with Rajiv Mehrotra
3 YS 2.24
4 YS 2.5
5 The Heart of Yoga by TKV Desikachar p 5
6 YS 2.25
7 YS 2.23
8 What Are We Seeking? by TKV Desikachar and Martyn Neal p 84