“Yoga has to be adapted to the individual, never the individual to Yoga.”
Sri Krishnamacharya believed yoga is personal and Sri Desikachar has continued his father’s teachings. Krishnamacharya taught Patthabi Jois, who has become well-known for a style of yoga called “Ashtanga,” a very active asana practice because he came to his teacher as a young man with a lot of energy. While BKS Iyengar of the “Iyengar” yoga fame came to Krishnamacharya when he was ill and therefore was taught a very different, therapeutic practice with an emphasis on alignment. These two men learned two very different asana practices from the same teacher and they went on to spread their respective style of practices to the world.
KYM teaches its students individually, especially in yoga cikitsa or yoga therapy. A few weeks before I left the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai I made an appointment for a therapy consultation with my principles of asana teacher and Kausthub Desikachar’s student, Sangeetha. My consultation differed very much from a traditional Western style doctor’s appointment. It consisted not just of my medical history, but also my family structure (whether I am single or married, whether my parents are still together, if I had any siblings, etc), my work history, and my close friends and relationships. While it was important for Sangeetha to learn about my medical history and what I presented to her as my areas of concern, she also wanted to know me.
In India I learned that an ayurvedic doctor uses 21 different observation techniques. Sangeetha seemed to be using some of those techniques herself. She had me hold out my hands, she touched my palms, my nails; she looked at my tongue, felt my hair, and also took my pulse. During an application of yoga class, Kausthub Desikachar told us that they even consider how a person walks into the room, the way he sits, the tone and quality of his voice, as well as the color and appearance of his skin.
She asked me what made me happy and how I was doing with my traveling, and how I liked India (did I like the food, was I sleeping well, etc). She later told me that whether I had a support system and/or a strong community of people (sanga) around me was an important factor she always considers when working with someone. And the question about what made me happy led her to come up with an image for me to visualize for my meditative practice.
I was very curious to see what my personal practice will be like and I didn’t have to wait too long to find out. Sangeetha took a day to come up with my therapeutic yoga practice and after that, I had two personal classes with one of the therapists to learn the practice. I have three practices in total. The first one is to be done for about a month or two in the morning, and it takes about an hour. It starts with a pranayama (literally means to stretch your prana, the life force) where I have to inhale and exhale through different nostrils and try to extend my exhalations. Then I have some stretching postures, followed by twists, gentle backbends, inversions, and forward bends. I end the morning practice with the same pranayama I started with. After a month or so of this practice, I have to substitute certain postures and/or add some new ones. But overall, as a Vatha-Pitta (my dosha being air and space dominant), the aim of my practice is to ground me and also to work on my Vatha specific physical ailments. The exhalation focus is therefore appropriate to calm me down and to also bring out all the malas (toxins) in my system. The practice is drawn out on a sheet of paper, using stick figures to show exactly what the posture should look like and how many repetitions I need to do. Since I am familiar with the Sanskrit terms for the asanas I am able to relate to what I have to practice without the drawings but for the other local Indian students who are not yoga practitioners, it is absolutely essential that there are illustrations of their practice. My practice looks very simple on paper but at 5:30 in the morning, I find it to be exactly what my body needs. And because I am used to a more physically active practice, this simpler and slower practice is, in a sense, harder for me to do. I have to focus and steady my mind, and have more patience to go through the whole practice.
In the evening I have a completely different practice. I start with a simple series of basic postures to get my body ready to sit down for meditation. I have been given a mantra to chant with each and every breath I take, there are specific instructions as to how many breaths I am to take, what I should visualize, and what I should think and focus on, and there are mudras as well (while seated I have to move my fingers in a certain way). I end my evening practice with some twists and with a pranayama technique called “nadi shodhana,” alternate nostril breathing which aims to balance you.
I’ve spoken with two other students who are Vatha-Pitta like me and have gone to Sangeetha for their consultations. While certain parts of our practices are similar, there are definite differences. I don’t know enough to understand the reasons why but all three of us are happy with our practices and are thankful for them. Sangeetha told us in class that for some people, the practice remains the same until his/her teacher changes it. She said that her practice, given to her by her teacher Kausthub, has not changed at all for years. For her, she has a difficult time meditating while sitting still so her meditation practice is with movements.
I find all of this so interesting, especially since in the West we are so used to going to group classes and doing the same postures as everyone else. To learn from a teacher individually and to have your own practice seem like such a wonderful gift. I look forward to doing my practice everyday and hope to return to KYM in the future to learn more.