Yoga Suffers When Taken Out of Its Indian Context: Nrithya Jagannathan

The Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) is a 44 year old institute, well known in India and abroad as a centre for Yoga Therapy as well as Yoga Studies. The institute, since its inception in 1976, has been committed to carrying forth the teachings of Sri T Krishnamacharya, as taught by his son and long time student, Sri TKV Desikachar, a tradition which is the fountainhead of modern yoga and from which distinguished yoga schools have sprung from.

In this interview with CSP, Nrithya Jagannathan, senior yoga therapist and Director of the KYM Institute of Yoga Studies, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, the training and certification wing of KYM says Sri TKV Desikachar stressed that at its core Yoga is connection, Yoga is relationship.

She will be speaking at Indica Yoga's Webinar on Yoga and Wellness on Saturday June 13 at 4 pm. Please register by sending a mail to indicayoga@indica.org.in or at https://chat.whatsapp.com/Dtwn5r2OnP6AhTTbSo7zLB

Nrithya Jagannathan with her students at KYM

What has been the role of KYM in standardising the practice of Yoga both in India and Abroad?

There are a number of unique features of this tradition, the most important being the concept of "Yathasakti," the adaptation of practices to suit individual needs. I would say, more than standardising the teachings of Yoga per se, the KYM has been working to ensure the highest standards in the personalised teaching of Yoga, be it through our one-on-one Yoga therapy interventions or through our carefully structured 800 hour yoga teacher training programme and the 800 hour Yoga therapist training programme.

Over the years, many students have graduated from the KYM, going on to establish their own centres in the KYM tradition at various locations around the world. They continue to stay in touch with their alma mater, teaching others in turn while also returning at regular intervals for continuing education. This is one significant way in which the KYM has supported the unbroken continuity of the teachings of Sri T Krishnamacharya and Sri TKV Desikachar.

There are different standards in Yoga Teacher Training programmes worldwide. What do you think are some of the things that should be kept in mind while updating Yoga courses?

To become a Yoga teacher requires a certain aptitude, an ability to empathise and an interest in understanding the philosophy, practice and application of Yoga both in their traditional and contemporary contexts.

As Sri TKV Desikachar taught us, at its core, Yoga is Connection; Yoga is relationship and this needs to be emphasised in any teacher training programme.

Also while there are a number of short term teacher training programmes, the KYM believes that it takes a much deeper and also longer study to mature as a teacher of Yoga, rather than merely graduating as someone who is proficient in demonstrating asana.

A good teacher training programme must give due weightage to a thorough training in the classical techniques and applications of asana, pranayama and meditation while also ensuring a sufficient grounding in the philosophy behind the praxis.

Yoga suffers on account of it being taken out of the context in which it evolved in ancient India, where the practice of Yoga was intended as a path that progressively led the practitioner to a state of meditation and deep concentration. Unfortunately, the trivialisation of Yoga as merely a set of physical practices for fitness has also spawned an entire generation of neo-yogis who hold degrees in acroyoga, beer yoga, gun yoga, goat yoga and standup paddle boat yoga and so on. Unfortunately, it is also a sad reality of our times that there are many who acquire a certificate as a Yoga teacher after just a few weeks of training. It is important to design courses that go deep, that have some system of mentorship and that have a sound system of assessments and evaluations prior to graduation. I believe that when one offers a teacher training course in Yoga, an attempt must be made to help the students understand and integrate the higher purpose of Yoga, while also equipping them with the necessary skills to apply these techniques in a modern day context.

As you say there has been a burgeoning of short time courses and weekend Yoga retreats. What do you think is the purpose of these courses?

The mushrooming of short-term courses is in alignment with the increasingly fast paced nature of our lives where education has been reduced to merely acquiring a paper degree. Some of these courses are intended to offer participants a glimpse into certain aspects of Yoga, others are intended as short getaways for relaxation. Still others even combine the retreat experience and the teacher-training, which in itself is an anachronism. Unfortunately, Yoga is not something that can merely be learnt and regurgitated. A good teacher of Yoga needs to have a sound personal practice designed under the guidance of a competent mentor. It is over time and with consistent practice that our abilities to observe keenly and therefore, to teach what is appropriate to a student, blossom.

Many people do seek a yoga retreat experience both for the sense of "taking a break" as well as to receive comprehensive education in specific focus areas. This is definitely not wrong and can be offered within certain limits. The retreat experiences can be designed to offer scope for deep and intensive learning but again may not be considered sufficient as a teacher training programme. I think it is important to define very clearly what can and cannot be covered within the duration of a teacher training course or a retreat and plan the programme accordingly. At KYM, we do offer a number of short-term courses and retreats on specific topics but none of these programmes certifies the participant as a teacher. These are very popular among our students and offer niche learning that brings together theory and practice in small capsules. However, only those who graduate from our intensive 800 hour teacher training programme are eligible to be considered as Yoga teachers in the tradition of KYM. Naturally, the process is length and requires great Sraddha, but it is in staying with this process that one’s own evolution happens.

Another means for realising the concept of sthirasukha consists of visualising the perfect posture. For this we use the image of the Cobra Ananta, the king of the serpents, carrying the whole universe on his head while providing a bed for the Lord Vishnu on his coiled body. Ananta must be completely relaxed in order to make a make soft bed for the Lord. This is the idea of Sukha. Yet the snake cannot be feeble and weak; it must be strong and steady in order to support the universe. That is the idea of Sthira. Together these qualities give us the image and feeling of a perfect āsana. Source: The Heart Of Yoga, by Sir TKV Desikachar

How has Rishikesh become a Yoga hub for foreigners? What was your experience at teaching at Rishikesh?

I suppose the immense beauty of the Uttarkhand region has been what has attracted spiritual seekers to Rishikesh since time immemorial. There is an aura of tranquility in Rishikesh that is very hard to describe. One can say that Rishikesh is truly an experience. Nevertheless, while considered to be the Devabhoomi, the land where the Ganga touches the plateau, one at times does find many discordant notes in the large scale yoga festivals that Rishikesh is known for. These festivals attract an array of very different kinds of seekers, some serious and others more frivolous and yet others who merely seek the "high" that they expect from some esoteric practices of Yoga. And so alongside the silent walks and the meditative sessions, are also thousands tourists jostling each other on the narrow Ram Jhula and along the tiny lanes of Rishikesh. While one must appreciate the considerable interest in Yoga, these large scale festivals are also at times overwhelming for me personally. However, I have taught several short courses at the Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh to small groups, each of which has been a very profound experience that both the participants and I have cherished. For no matter the crowds and the large scales of these yoga festivals, in Rishikesh, the Ganga is the undisputed queen and in seeing the Ganga and sitting on her banks, all other concerns fade away.

You have learnt from Sri Desikachar. What are some of the things that were important to him while teaching trainers?

It has been a great blessing in my life to have had the opportunity to study under and interact with Sri TKV Desikachar. As a teacher, he was extremely perceptive and keenly observant, always able to identify skills that one rarely knew one even possessed. He was uncompromising in his attention to detail. He taught with great clarity and expected unwavering attention. Anyone would be tested at any time, in front of an audience, on any subject and you were expected to be prepared. He could be very firm in his expectations from you and yet gentle in his reprimands. Over and above everything, Sir as we called Sri TKV Desikachar, believed in establishing a strong personal connect with every one of his students. He taught hundreds over the years and yet each will recollect very special and unique ways in which he connected to them. This was a remarkable quality of his. Another was his demand for complete commitment from his students. He would often test our Sraddha and commitment to learning, by scheduling classes very early in the day or even at times when he knew we may have other commitments. He would be free with his praise when deserved and yet uncompromising in his expectations from his students. In this way, he was truly an epitome of sthiram and sukham.

Another aspect of Sir's approach to teaching was his punctuality and the regard that he had for the other person's time. When it came to his therapy care-seekers, he would always welcome everyone with a smile, find some way of connecting to every individual at his/her level be it a child or a senior citizen and would also take the effort to walk the student out to the gate at the end of the class. He did not stand on formality or expect to be treated as a ‘Guru’ and yet he instantly commanded respect and attention with his very demeanor and his charismatic teaching. His diagnostic and observation skills were remarkable and he would often have completed his assessment of a student even as he/she sat in the reception of the KYM filling up the care seeker's form. All of these nuances were brought into his teachings in a myriad ways.

Also, he was extremely particular about communicating fully and completely the teachings of his father, Sri T Krishnamacharya, whom he held in the highest reverence.

What is the connection between Yoga and other Indian art forms? What is the crux of your Phd research on Natya and Yoga?

Essentially all art, knowledge and literature in this ancient land of Bharata, draw from one single source - the Vedas. Quite naturally they are all intertwined. Be it art, literature, music, dance, sculpture, dramaturgy, or Yoga, all these seemingly diverse branches share numerous common resonances and therein lies the beauty of Sanatana dharma which is the common thread that ties all this together. Our purpose of life as humans is to realise the nature of the self within and our ancient masters gave us numerous pathways to reach this. My Ph.D research focuses primarily on the shared philosophical meeting points between Yoga and Natyam, focusing specifically on how Yoga in the tradition of the KYM can be a very powerful support for a dancer.

What is the role of chanting in Yoga? There are so many variations and inflections even within the Vedic tradition. Can that be standardised too?

The KYM tradition specifically highlights the importance of integrating sound and/chanting into practices of Yoga - be it in asana, pranayama or dhyana. There are a number of reasons for this

•Physical – activation of throat and the facial muscles; the science of phonetics delves deep into the nuances of sound production
•Physiological – exhalation function improves, the use of simple sounds can significantly lengthen the exhalation, using which the other componenrts of breath may also be regulated or lengthened.
•Cognitive – enhance focus and attention; reduces distraction, improves memory and retention
•Emotional – grounding, reduction of agitation (as an outcome of lengthened exhalation)
•Spiritual – svadhyaya manifests the istadevata (Yogasutra 2.44)

We teach Vedic chanting from the Krishna Yajurveda and several other Smrti texts as taught by Sri T Krishmacharya. It was Sri Krishnamacharya’s view that at a time when the very Vedic tradition is in danger of dying out, it is important that all those who are interested in learning and preserving this oral tradition do so. It is thanks to his vision, that there are so many people, including women and those of other nationalities who today have received the gift of chanting.

While there may be regional variations in the rendition of the chants and in the inflections, the Veda-s per se are sacrosanct. One must be very clear about the context in which these Mantra-s are used, for their use in various rituals and yagya-s must necessarily follow the prescribed tradition. However, when it comes to the integration of chanting in Yoga, I believe that as with Yoga, even the selection and use of chants in Yoga practices needs to be individualized and based on what an individual is interested in or has a belief in. In the KYM tradition, the choice of chants or sounds is not limited only to Vedic mantra-s but we also use simple sounds from the individual student’s own traditions and integrate these into the practice. We have designed Yoga practices using “Amen,”or “allahu-Akbar” in accordance with the student’s preference. While we don’t impose chanting on all students, we certainly ensure that if used, the student is entirely comfortable with the use of the chant.

What were some of the things that are raised at conferences such as the international conference in China held in 2015?

The KYM has been a part of numerous conference on Yoga in China and elsewhere. Significantly, what I have observed at many such occasions is how interested people are to learn that the scope of Yoga extends well beyond asana. There has been tremendous interest in understanding the philosophy of yoga as well as many other aspects such course planning, applications of yoga in various contexts, one-on-one Yoga based interventions for therapy and also the integration of chanting in practices of yoga - all of which are important components in the KYM tradition.