Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Long Journey of a Blue Letter: Chanting and Yoga with Mekhala Desikachar of Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram

(One of several chanting cds featuring student and daughter of yoga master T.K.V Desikachar, granddaughter of yoga master of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacarya)
  W hen i was young, I remember blue aerogramme letters coming to the house. They would come every three and a half weeks; and then a return letter with what looked like a hundred stamps would get mailed back in a bleached white envelope marked air mail, return address Canada. That's what it was like communicating with India. My family seemed ok with it; although there were grumblings about the postal system and letters never received. In my mind, you might as well have set sail yourself aboard a rickety ship every 4 weeks, charting your own course round the perimeter of the stormy and fickle Arabian seacoast...the journey for each single piece of mail seemed equally arduous and unpredictable.

And then came phase two of filial relations with the old country: the phone conversation. In the 1970's families in Kerala started getting home phones; and we would make calls from our home in Montreal to my grandparents in South India, where my parents would take turns yelling into the receiver, only to hear unintelligible echoes, some crackling, and more echoes in return.  My brother and I would even get invited to come and yell our broken communications over to aunts and uncles or cousins, signaling the tail-end of a chaotic cross-continental phone call.

So when I was reading the weekly sutra on the Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram (or KYM) website about a month ago, it occurred to me that I might as well take advantage of the sweep and scale of change that has overturned India, and interview someone from KYM who can speak to the state of yoga in the blizzard of modernity that is India today. And that's when I thought of Mekhala Desikachar, student and daughter of yoga master T.K.V Desikachar and the granddaughter of yoga master of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacarya. Not only does she have access to an illustrious history, and the knowledge and background that it likely confers, but she is also part of a generation that grew up in the new India, a locus of hyperactive flux.

(D. Mekhala)
D. Mekhala has been on the faculty of the Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India since the age of 13 teaching children and assisting main instructors. She started teaching private classes for children with health problems at the age of 15 and has been teaching individual adult classes for the last eight years, as well as assisting her father T.K.V Desikachar in many of his seminars worldwide. Like her father, she earned her degree in engineering, but her passion is Vedic chanting. Mekhala has recorded cd's on Vedic and yoga sutra chanting, including two with her father Desikachar.  She has been studying Vedic chanting for the last 27 years.

I was quite grateful that despite the demands on her time her new role as mother (her newborn son is primary concern these days), Mekhala generously accepted the invitation to an interview which we completed thanks to the flicker speed of email communication. Her succinct replies evoke her childhood memories of playing with her grandfather Krishnamacarya at age 99,  early yoga classes with her father Desikachar, and the significance of chanting in her own practice. Moreover, she contributes to a greater conversation about the shape of yoga in contemporary India with consideration and simplicity, as she details how, "the winds of yoga blow in from the west".

"In the Indian tradition, the idea of good health extends far beyond mere physical fitness, encompassing the mind and spirit as well...No matter how each of us defines wellbeing, what lies at the core of this concept is a healthy mind in a healthy body, empowered by an indomitable spirit. This may sound an ambitious proposition. Nevertheless, it must be possible for all our ancient texts speak about this harmonious integration of mind, body and spirit. How does one work towards what seems a challenging goal, given the pressures of life today?
Great masters have shown us the path – a path that is paved with the stepping stones of devotion, sincerity, commitment, detachment and surrender... Just listening to these chants can heal, for as TKV Desikachar (son and student of legendary yogi, T Krishnamacharya) says, "Chanting can open our hearts."
(Excerpt from KYM Website)
"Chanting was so much part of my household. My father was teaching it to his students including my mother and then there were their own practices. There was so much that I think at one point I was chanting it all in my mind. I must have been 7 or 8 at that time" (Mekhala Desikachar)

(D. Mekhala on left, her father and teacher, T.K.V Desikachar on right)

Priya Thomas Interview with Mekhala Desikachar April 2011:

Priya: When did you start practicing yoga?

Mekhala: To tell you the truth, I started practicing even before I was born, indirectly through my mother in her womb!!!! My earliest memory of practicing yoga is around age 7 at KYM with my father. He was teaching the children’s class every Saturday.

Priya: Did you begin practicing yoga because it was part of your family's tradition? Or would you say your own choice to pursue yoga was a personal decision?
(Krishnamacarya teaching his son TKV Desikachar)

Mekhala: As I mentioned earlier I started attending the children’s class at KYM as my father was teaching it, and it was natural I attended the class.  In addition, the classes where challenging and interesting which kept my motivation not to miss it. So I would say, to start off, my exposure to yoga was because it was part of my family tradition.

Growing up I saw the respect my father had, though I didn't clearly understand his contribution in this field. I began assisting teachers at the KYM (as a demonstrator) when they were giving classes and this exposure added on to my previous, made me understand my father’s work. Then college took me away from home. Being away from home helped me to reflect on what I would like to do when I had to opt among many choices. What I wished and told my mother had stayed unconsciously in my mind and finally I decided without any pressure from the family that I wanted to work in the field of yoga.

Priya: So would you say there is an interest in yoga amongst 20 and thirty-somethings in India?

Mekhala: The wind always blows from the west. With the popularity of yoga in the west and the association of yoga with everything (from ads, to its association with wealth and with brands), I would say yoga has definitely gained its audience among youngsters in India.The stress level among the young in India is tremendous now resulting in a lot of disorders in every aspect of life.  Their newfound financial independence has lead to unstable relationships, lack of contentment and spiritual emptiness. With the association of yoga with meditation (in India, yoga means to sit with eyes closed and meditate) and its popularity in the west, the young are seeking yoga as a means to help them gain health and happiness. And yoga is certainly winning hearts.

Priya: Do you think the rapidity with which India is changing and developing might, in some ways, be challenging to the tradition of yoga?

Mekhala:  If no benefit was seen over the years till now, yoga would have died long back. Yoga emerged hundreds of years ago. People gained from it then, are gaining from it now and will continue to gain. The only difference is in what they are gaining.

Priya: Conversely, there is enormous interest in yoga North America...but some would argue that the practice is often either casual or inflected with commercial interest that it may not have potential to elicit profound change or heal...What do you think the impact of commercial interest is on the effectiveness of yogic practice?

Mekhala: The commercial interest has definitely popularized yoga and attracts people to learn. If the interest in the person is casual, a casual practice is what they seek. Only if someone wants to change can they be changed and such will go beyond and find the true potential of yoga, which of course needs an able guide.

Priya: What do you think of new forms of yoga? There seems to be a new one each day. A recent one I heard about was "horseback yoga":) Please don't ask me what that is...I've only heard rumours!

Mekhala: As you have already mentioned, yoga is being commercialized and giving it different names is a part of it!

Priya: You have a special affinity for singing. When did you begin chanting?

Mekhala: Chanting was so much part of my household. My father was teaching it to his students including my mother and then there were their own practices. There was so much that I think at one point I was chanting it all in my mind. I must have been 7 or 8 at that time.

Priya: In your opinion is there a distinction to be made between singing and chanting?

Mekhala: Some differences are… Singing involves 7 notes, while chanting has only 3 basic notes.   One cannot change the way a passage is chanted as it can alter the effect and meaning of the chanting. But in singing you can play with your notes and add your own little contributions to make it more melodious. Vedic chanting is in Sanskrit while songs can be in any language.

Priya: Can you tell me about your first memory of learning to chant?

Mekhala: There was so much chanting in and around growing up that learning was subconscious. It was only in my teenage years that I actually remember learning new chants.

Priya: That's quite interesting. Can you speak a bit to the purpose of chanting in a yoga practice?

Mekhala: To mention a few…Chanting has a very healing aspect to it. It enhances the quality of the practice with regard to concentration, breathing and involvement, especially for beginners. In preparing the mind for meditation, chanting is a very excellent tool.  The ancient texts have also mentioned that pranayama with mental chanting is very effective. During my work at the KYM I have seen the therapeutic effect of chanting in aiding student with speech problems, asthma, diabetes, psychological conditions and many more. For young children chants can substitute for breathing. It also helps to make the practice lively as they tend to get bored with serious practice.

Priya: What appeals to you personally about chanting?

Mekhala: The way it sounds and the effect it has on the person who chants.  The moment I hear chanting, I feel calm and composed.  I also feel good vibrations in me. 

Priya: Do you think it is important that a yogi be able to chant?

Mekhala: It's not necessary.

Priya: You teach chanting classes at KYM. Are these classes open to anyone willing to learn?

Mekhala: Yes of course. These classes are open to everyone willing to learn.

Priya: There is a conception in North America that yoga in India is male-centered. You and your mother are both long-practicing yoginis. What has your experience of studying yoga as a woman in India been? 

Mekhala: It is true that women in India have much more responsibilities than men, considering that it is still male dominated. But everywhere around the world, the stage of life that a woman is in determines how much time she can devote to other things. For example, while doing your interview, my son got up three times. Even with someone around I cannot hear him cry and manage to concentrate.  But if I had done this before I married, I would have finished this in one go. However I would prefer to answer this question as this. Yoga means to focus on the task at hand. If I am able to do that being a mother and a wife in the morning and a yoga teacher during the day, I would call myself a yogini.

Priya: I'd like to quote from your father...When asked, “How can we unite as yogis?” his answer was, “We can unite by honoring the yoginis.” He continued, "The sense of gratitude that women have and their values and feelings are different from men’s. That’s why we have to honor women, encourage women and give whatever we can to women, and we should not exploit women. I’m very sure that the future of yoga will be safe and solid because of all the yoginis. I hope there will be some yogis also." Do you think women have a unique or special contribution they can make to the practice?

Mekhala: I think half the answer is in my father’s quote. If the women involved in each man’s life does not take care of things that need to be, men cannot concentrate on what they want. A famous quote says, a woman can make a man’s life or take a man’s life.

Priya: Would you describe yourself as a religious person?

Mekhala: If a religious person means, someone who believes in god, them I am. If religious means following certain principles and disciplines in life, then I am. If a religious person means a person who does puja everyday, then I am not. 

Priya: Do you have memories of your Sri TKV Krishnamacarya, your grandfather? 

Mekhala: I was very young when my grand father died. The memories I have are mostly playing with him and making him wear my earrings. I  remember him having lots of apples and milk. When I think again now, in all his classes to my father, he never had any notes. Even when he was 99.  It was all in his mind.

(T. Krishnamacarya)

I t's fascinating to hear Mekhala Desikachar, grandaughter of Krishnamacarya, a man so many consider the godfather of our modern practice, talk about how the popularity of yoga in the west has influenced its practice in its home country.  And this is made even more interesting by the fact that our most recent interview with Philip Goldberg chronicles the staggering impact of philosophies that had blown westward to the United States from India. And yet, Mekhala (as if to clarify to a western reader with an asana-based approach to yoga), notes that in India, to do yoga means to sit in silence and meditate.

And so you can see how yoga is in perpetual motion, its weather front collecting data and shifting winds; taunting you, if you dare, to anchor it. Mekhala Desikachar takes the many names and new varieties of yoga in stride; understanding that the multi-stamped letters that blew west can blow right back east.  And like any interesting conversation, who knows exactly where it started or whether anyone could or should claim ownership. And so round and round that weather system goes hurtling across this quick, elastic blue aerogramme letters changing hands, interpretations and destinations. Aren't you glad that yoga, like any real, live riddle of a conversation keeps moving...and keeps you guessing?

The Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram will be offering an International Vedic Chant Seminar from 24th Oct - 4th November, 2011

A Two Week Program called A Pilgrimage of Sound, the Power of Chanting from the 10th through 21st of October 2011. 

You can also order all of Mekhala Desikachar's cd's online through KYM's bookstore, which also features a wonderful selection of books and other miscellany.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that she interprets that last quote by Desikchar, about "honoring the yoginis" the way she does. I had interpreted it quite differently on first reading. Does honoring mean letting them fulfill their household duties with appreciation so the men can concentrate on yoga? Are women able to do yoga if they're fulfilling traditional roles, in terms of finding the time I wonder? Mekhla obviously is able to juggle two roles. But home duty I suppose will always be the first priority-and perhaps that is the ultimate yoga...And I suppose this is Krishnamacharya's contribution to yoga history- that you don't need to be in a cave to do yoga, you can be a householder in the world.