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)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome to the Prism: Infinite Refractions, The Variety of Vedanta and Yoga in America with Philip Goldberg

(American Veda by Philip Goldberg)

R eading is a solitary thing. For the most part, nobody joins you in the process, save for the occasional elderly cat -i have one such- that takes delight in napping on top of the best paragraphs.  But reading is also part of a breathtaking human process of experimentation; of taking things in and radiating back out; and not unlike inhaling and exhaling, there's a circulation of energy. So I'm grateful when readers step off the page to tell you about what books they've loved, letting ivory towers crumble...sharing ideas. So when a Shivers up the Spine reader suggested I get out and read American Veda by meditation teacher and ordained interfaith minister, Philip Goldberg, I was on it.

(Bob Dylan)
American Veda is a celebration of the history, legacy and profound impact left by core teachings of Vedanta and yoga on the religious and ethical sensibilities of Americans. Specifically, it looks at the dark and forgotten closets and cupboards of the nation to find the staple stash of Hindu thought that has been re-created and served up as a side dish with dinner each night for more than a hundred years. And from Emerson to Bob Dylan to George Lucas, artists and storytellers have certainly been dipping into that back pantry for inspiration and serving it up with great and colourful variety to sometimes completely unsuspecting audiences.

("Avatar", by James Cameron)
Would American rock band The Doors have tested the limits of perception without the cultural backdrop and impact of meditation practices and its accompanying interest in altered states? Just how common have Sanskrit words become in America that the word karma is ubiquitous enough to be used in the titles of pop songs that span the last three decades? (Consider for a moment: "Instant Karma" by John Lennon to represent the 1970's, "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club for classic 80's and more recently "Karma Police" by Radiohead...) Or what about the word avatar, and that once trendy, and highly contagious virtual reality site called Second Life with its population of avatar protagonists? Do I even need to mention director James Cameron and his epic blockbuster which pays repeat homage to the word avatar (or incarnation) and its Indo-European legacy?

(Philip Goldberg)
Philip Goldberg is a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister. The author or coauthor of 19 books, he lectures and leads workshops throughout the country. A novelist and screenwriter as well, he lives in Los Angeles, where he founded Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates (SWAHA). He is Director of Outreach for and blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and And while there have been other books that look at the history of yoga in America, American Veda has a unique bent; and it's one that is shaped by its author's own life-changing experience with the persuasive power Vedanta and yoga, its varied expressions in popular culture, and his explicit interfaith mandate in writing the book. 

In our interview, Goldberg, a veteran interviewer himself (he completed several hundred interviews in the course of research for his book) offers his thoughts on why an interfaith perspective is crucial to understanding the variety of practices that have emerged out of the Vedanta and yoga contexts. Goldberg hones in on one of Vedanta's key messages "truth is one, its names are many",  and explores how its message has reshaped not only American popular culture, but also the sheer range of religious expression and practices available to the average American. Seemingly immune to doctrinal differences, the collision of practices such as postural yoga, meditation, and self-help circles has resulted in one hell of a mash up; from Christian yogis to Kirtan chanting rabbis, Americans have inhaled a happy puff of yogic smoke and exhaled an electric cocktail of hybrid spirituality. Truth may be one, but its forms are many, many, many....