Interview by Evelyn Einhaeuser
You have seen your father-in-law T. Krishnamacharya, one of the most revered Yogacaryas of our time, cure and help people. What were some of the most fascinating cases that you have seen yoga therapy cure?
I remember one incident that happened soon after i had married and moved in. One of Sri Krishnamacharya's students suffered from a paralytic attack. He could not move at all, he could not talk, he was bedridden. I remember that they had to bring him in a car and the man could not get out of the car. Even though my father-in-law was already in his 80s, he instantly came down (we lived upstairs) and taught and treated that student in the car itself, moving his body into certain postures. Eventually through his guidance and care, the person was able to walk again with a stick and talk. He would then come to class with a stick and soon after he completely healed. This person is now in his 80s and still able to walk.
What was special about Krishnamacharya as a healer and yoga therapist?
It is easier expressed by another example. One of the daughter's of a student had severe breathing problems. I saw her myself, she was literally gasping for air. Krishnamacharya took her pulse and he gave her an Ayurvedic medication that he had mixed himself. Within five minutes she was able to breathe freely. I saw how her breathing changed. It was extraordinary. He was extremely knowledgeable. Afterwards she had no breathing problems anymore.
What was special about your own husband, TKV Desikachar, as a healer?
He was so precise in his pulse reading, which is an integral part of yoga therapy. One time a woman came and claimed that she was pregnant because she felt something in her belly. He took her pulse and then said: "Something is wrong, please check with a doctor." She went and it turned out that she wasnt pregnant, but instead there was a cyst growing. So the pulse can indicate if someone is pregnant or not. In the same way he could tell from the pulse if someone had diabetes or a history of hepatitis. He was remarkable in pulse reading and he could tell so much about people's sicknesses by it.
It takes a lot of experience to become so accurate. He would also read his own pulse also a lot, before and after his practice for example. He would also be able to help people that doctors had given up. One boy came with a severely deformed back. One shoulder was up and the other down. He gave him some asanas (postures) and the back profile changed in due course. Another student had an injury with her scooter and one of her knees was so damaged that the doctors said she needs to operate it. Instead my husband gave her asanas, in the beginning it was painful for her and the practices hurt. It took one year but then the knee was good again.
What makes up a good yoga therapist and teacher?
The most important thing is patience and compassion. And faith in what you are doing.
And you shouldn’t get impulsive when you offer care. You should have empathy. And you should be very honest. When people look at you they should be able to give you respect and put faith in you.
And in therapy it is important not to project your ideas on students, but listen to them, analyze and perceive them in a neutral way. Listening is so important. By listening we are already healing people, because many people don’t have the chance to freely express themselves these days, so listening has become even more important for healing.
You were there when the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the world's first yoga clinic, was founded. Have the sicknesses of people changed in the last 40 years?
These days definitely more people come because of stress. Whether it is tension in their home, or in the office, or whether they are worried if their children get good education. So the people come because of back pain, diabetes, infertility, obesity, depression or neck problems, but the root cause is often stress. And of course a different lifestyle, all the cell phones and computer. And most people dont move at all anymore, they have sedentary jobs. So that has changed drastically. 40 years ago, people were not so stressed, life was more relaxed.
What is for you the most effective tool of yoga therapy?
Sound, and by sound i mean not just chanting. Not every student is open for chanting even though it is a really transformative tool. But we always have to respect what people are open to and we have to work with what works for them. And small sounds can already make a huge difference, even in changing breathing patterns. You could include small sounds like "Ha" or "Ma" into their asana practice for example to work on their exhalations. But you have to find something that resonates with them.
Why is sound so efficient?
Even when we look at it only physically, in order to produce certain sounds you need to aspirate and you also need to use the nose or the throat, etc. So sound engages different parts of our body. If I want to produce a sound with what we call Maha Prana it will cause a contraction of the stomach and thus also works on the internal organs. It is known to reduce weight and even regulate the menstruation of women. One woman had a problem with her menstrual cycles ever since she got it in puberty. She learned chanting and after having chanted regularly for two years her period became well regulated.
And as a tool for therapy, especially when we talk about stress, chanting or sound can relax people immensly. It can be a great helper against sleeplessness.
I have also worked with mentally retarded children and have seen a lot of positive effects with chanting. Problems like drooling or stuttering can be reduced. Some of the friction sounds like "Hram" for example can help them so much.
Also according to Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, the vibrations created by sound influence the subtle elements that constitute our human body. Thus using sound can facilitate transformation from within.
Overall I would say your health gets better through chanting. But again, it depends always on the openness and interest of the student, how much they have faith in this tool. In yoga faith is an important factor and having faith in the practice is a necessity.
What is your favorite mantra?
I do Poojas for Hanuman, Narayana and Laksmi. Om Srim Sriyai Namah, Om Namo Narayana, Om Anjaneya Namah are therefore my most important mantras. But such a mantra has to be chosen individually. See, my husband chose the Hanuman Mantra for me, because I was a very timid person. Hanuman stands for courage and bravery, so my husband gave me that mantra. I have chanted this mantra now for the past 35 years. After 4 or 5 years I think something was changing. You have to ask other people, they might have a more neutral view about that. But one day my husband told me that I had been like a cat, and that through the mantra I had become a tigress.
How important is spirituality in healing?
Many of the people who come nowadays for therapy are not really interested in spirituality. They just want their sickness or pain to go away and dont search for a spiritual path. But of course if they believe in a higher source, it can support their healing process so much. For example when you think of people with mentally retarded children. God or a higher source can give great strength when you have to deal with such a child. Also I have seen that when everything goes beyond our control, people find back to god. Often they don’t realize the reality in that. But sometimes sickness or problems bring us closer to God.
What is for you the most important text for Yoga and Therapy?
For me the Yogasutra and the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is very spiritual yet practical. The Yogasutra is also practical, but also good for the intellect. We need to put that into practice what we read in these teachings. This is the most important thing.
How much did the yogis of the past also know about Ayurveda, astrology and other healing devices from the Vedas?
For the people I have experienced, they had great knowledge also in Ayurveda and Astrology. My mother-in-law used to prepare the Ayurvedic recipes for my father-in-law in our kitchen. So before he started buying them in Ayurvedic pharmacies, he knew exactly how to prepare them by himself. And astrology is an important part of our culture, for some people certain days are very important and we need to respect that.
What has changed from the attitude of Yogis in the past and nowadays?
It is very difficult to generalize. But Sri Krishnamacharya and my husband really wanted to help people. They really served society. They didn’t expect anything from anybody in return. They were very selfless, and they were teaching and treating people in hospitals and at home. My father in law, he was already 80 and he helped whenever he was needed.
And I remember that one time one of my husband's students had cancer and she was about to die and she asked him to come. So he went to the USA to see her and he spent his own money to fly there. Within the same week the woman died. Nowadays who would spend his own money to go and fly to a student to support them in their passing? These two people really served to help people. Today these kind of people are rare.
What is it that most people dont understand about Yoga nowadays?
Everywhere you find a yoga school, people are aware of Yoga nowadays but how far has it changed and how much do they really understand? I dont know. Some people think it is only a physical practice. And some say it is only a mental practice. But there is always a part that is beyond that. After the physical and mental, yoga reaches beyond. So people nowadays often get stuck. And then there is another extreme that thinks only sannyasins can do yoga.
One wisdom that you have learnt from your teacher that has accompanied you through your work and life?
If you have really learnt yoga well it should change you. You have to try to apply a little bit of it in your life and try to become a bit better than you were yesterday. It should make you a better person. It might be difficult, but we can try our best. It will take a long time and many births.
Do you have a favorite story from the Vedas?
My father-in-law used to tell me, God is always inside you, so you do not have to go to the temple to find him there. I liked that very much. He also told a story to accompany that idea. Long, long back God was moving like us in this world. But because people knew he was God, they used to chase him everywhere. And even though he was providing everything, they were so greedy, they only asked "give me this", "give me that". So he got fed up and he said I have to hide myself from these people, so that they don’t find me. So he went inside the heart of each one. And only those, who dont look for more outside, but start looking for God within, will find him.
Why do some people lose their ways even though they have practiced Yoga for a long time?
If Yoga has not changed them and is not changing them, their practice is superficial. Yoga has to transform old samskaras (patterns and habits) into new samskaras (patterns and habits). If we look at the different layers of the human being according to Yoga philosophy, the practice has not reached their vijnanamaya (layer of personality). It has not gone there or beyond, it has only reached their mental layer, the manomaya.
You are still teaching Yoga and giving Yoga therapy sessions. What is your favorite part about therapy or teaching?
When I teach or do therapy and people have become better through their own practice then I feel happy because I have done justice to my work and have been able to support them.
Menaka Desikachar is one of the most renown yoga teachers around the world and has been practicing Yoga and Vedic Chanting for over four decades. She is one of the senior students in the lineage of T. Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar and an authority in the field of Vedic Chanting. Her husband TKV Desikachar has founded the first yoga therapy clinic in India in 1976 and Menaka has conducted numerous yoga therapy sessions ever since. In 2012 she has cofounded the Sannidhi of Krishnamacharya Yoga in Chennai (www.sky-yoga.net), an organization that strives to pass on the authentic teachings of Yoga in the tradition of T. Krishnamcharya and TKV Desikachar. SKY Yoga offers Yoga Therapy sessions and training programs as well as chanting seminars and training programs in India and throughout the world (please also visit our Vision section for more information on upcoming chances to study with Menaka).