Modern Yoga's Midlife Crisis

Modern Yoga's Midlife Crisis

Modern yoga has reached a critical point in its evolution. Some are even calling it a crisis. With the revelations regarding the abusive behaviour of two of modern yoga’s founding fathers, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, many teachers and practitioners are struggling with the question of “where do we go from here?” and asking, “If we can’t trust the teachers, can we trust what they taught?”

J Krishnamurti, Desikachar & Krishnamacharya

The philosopher J Krishnamurti was often critical of yoga as a pursuit for spiritual enlightenment, but he saw much value in yoga as a way to care for the body and settle the mind. For many years he studied with BKS Iyengar, who was an early student of T Krishnamacharya as well as his brother-in-law. In the 1960s Krishnamurti went to Krishnamacharya to learn directly from the master. Not wanting to impose on the elderly Krishnamacharya, J requested that his son, TKV Desikachar (who was, at the time, only in his late 20s) become his teacher. J studied with Desikachar for many years, until his death in 1986. The following excerpts, from both Krishnamurti and Desikachar, offer a glimpse into their relationship and J’s refreshingly pragmatic view of yoga.

“Yoga is the fashionable thing now. Yoga, as translated, means joining, yoking two separate things together. I am sure it had quite a different meaning at the beginning. Yoga meant probably harmony, not bringing two things together, the soul and the body. Yoga has been brought to the Western world to make people healthy, happy, young, find God. Originally, from what I was told, there was a certain leaf in the Himalayas which only very few people chewed, and it kept their brains and their minds tremendously alert. And as the vine or the bush disappeared, they had to invent a system called yoga which kept all the glands perfectly healthy, operating efficiently. And that is how yoga came into being, the exercises. Also in it is involved a moral way of life, not just doing some silly little exercises.”

Krishnamurti at Brockwood 1972, Talk 4

“I was told that word yoga means harmony, skill, not only in action but also inwardly, to have great skill in all action, which is in all relationship. And in doing yoga exercise, it is also necessary to find out and be taught, perhaps, how to breathe rightly, which is called pranayama, so that you have more oxygen in your blood. The speaker does yoga and pranayama every day. It is not a religion; it is purely an exercise to keep the body healthy, vigorous, vital. When the body, the sensory perceptions are extraordinarily alert, sensitive, clear, which can obviously only exist when the body doesn’t overeat, doesn’t drink – you know all those things, which are obvious – then the body, the organism, is extraordinarily alive, sensitive, aware, watchful, and we can proceed to find out how the mind, the brain, also can be vital, alive, highly sensitive. And that very sensitivity, which is intelligence, brings about that quality of silence in which alone you can observe.“

Krishnamurti in Saanen 1969, Talk 6

Desikachar on Krishnamurti & Yoga

by TKV Desikachar

In the 1960s, teaching yoga was not seen as a serious profession. A turning point in the popularity of yoga was when I started teaching Krishnamurti. I first became aware of Krishnaji in a letter my uncle B.K.S. Iyengar wrote to my father from Switzerland. For my uncle, it was a great event when Krishnaji attended his asana demonstrations in Saanen. My father showed me the letter, but the information had little impact on me. Eventually, however, events brought me very close to Krishnaji. We were to meet year after year, travel together, share thoughts, and chat about mutual friends and all despite, or perhaps because of, the very traditional student-teacher relationship which I maintained with my father the great yoga master and philosopher T. Krishnamacharya.

In December of 1965, Alain Naudé, the secretary to Krishnamurti, called on my father at our small flat in Madras. He had a message from Krishnaji. It was a request for my father to visit his residence and demonstrate to Krishnaji how asana and pranayama (yoga postures and breath control) should be practiced. My father readily agreed. On the appointed day, Alain Naudé came to take him to Vasanta Vihar (Krishnamurti Foundation India). My father asked my brother and me to join him. When we arrived, Krishnaji came out with folded hands and thanked my father profusely for the visit.


In spite of his 69 years, the postures he demonstrated were of the most advanced nature.

My first recollection of Krishnaji is of a gentle, elderly person with a long, flowing shirt and very straight back. He took Krishnamacharya’s hand and led us into his room. Soon he expressed his wish to see how we practised yoga. On my father’s instruction, my brother and I began the demonstration of yoga postures. After some thirty minutes of observation, Krishnaji enthusiastically requested of my father, ‘Sir, I want to learn asanas from you, but you should not be disturbed. Can you send one of your sons?’ I translated this request to my father. My father assured Krishnaji that he would arrange something soon.

This first visit in December of 1965 started an association with Krishnaji which was terminated only by his death. The following day when Alain Naudé again called, my father directed me to go to Krishnaji, insisting I should show the greatest respect. When I went to his residence, Vasanta Vihar, there he was on the porch with open arms to welcome me. As he led me to his room, he enquired affectionately about my father as if they had known one another for ages. Before beginning our first lesson, I expressed a desire to see Krishnaji’s yoga practice. He was ready in no time. In spite of his 69 years, the postures he demonstrated were of the most advanced nature—all the variations of headstand, shoulder stand, hand balance, and many difficult back arches. And although his frame was small and the postures varied and stupefying, his chest was as tight as a barrel. I also noticed that his breath was restricted and panting, his hands trembled, his neck was like granite, and his eyes sometimes rolled with tears. Yet his enthusiasm never flagged.

I explained to Krishnaji that he must practice postures and breathing exercises that could reduce these problems, and certainly not ones that would increase them. He simply accepted my advice and assured me that he was there to learn whatever I would teach. He also gave me more information about his health. It was obvious that he needed special attention, and clear that I needed guidance in these matters. I took leave, confessing that I would ask my father for direction. Krishnaji was pleased. We agreed to meet the following day.

I discussed Krishnaji’s yoga practice and health problems with my father. He felt that Krishnaji should do very simple postures and breathing regimens. He gave me clear instructions, some of which were so unique to my experience that I was taken aback. For example, he wanted me to teach Krishnaji a pose with his legs raised against the wall. Here he should remain doing deep breathing. No more headstand! His neck stiffness was to be corrected by the most simple of head movements. I faithfully carried out my father’s instructions. Krishnaji was so keen to learn that I saw him every day, some days more than once. I was amazed at his remarkable ability to adjust to this new instruction, so contrary was it to the instruction which he had previously received and practised. In a few weeks, there was no trace of previous training.

I was amazed at his remarkable ability to adjust to this new instruction. 

His practice was so regular and punctual that it amazed me. Every day he would be on the porch, right on the dot, to receive me, sometimes with a rose in his hand. I would teach him in the morning for 20 minutes before he gave his talk, and then again in the evening. His place of practice was immaculate. Everything was in its place, right down to his pencil and magazine. He was always eager to understand the significance of what was taught him. Thanks to his probing questions, I was forced to learn more and more about yoga from my teacher. He often would ask me, ‘What is yoga? What is Yoga?’ And the only answer that seemed to have satisfied him was when I defined it as Shanti. [Peace is the equivalent English word.] His attitude towards me was exactly as a student towards his teacher. He would not sit before I did. He would lead me into his room. He would never let me help him to arrange the carpet for his practice. It was not easy for me, in my 27th year, to let this happen, especially when the student was 69 and J. Krishnamurti, but I had no choice.

His health began to show signs of improvement. He was so pleased with the improvement in his health that he began to advise those who came to him to practice yoga as well, and yoga became more and more popular in the city. When he left Madras for Rishi Valley, he invited me to join him. Later he invited me to Saanen. He insisted that I must go there to continue our classes and to teach some of his friends. I assured him that I must first consult with my teacher in Madras and would respond. Back in Madras, my father advised me to accept the invitation. But I felt that first my uncle, Shri B.K.S. Iyengar, who for many years had taught both Krishnaji and other friends of Krishnaji’s in Saanen, must approve this arrangement. I wrote to Krishnaji accordingly. Krishnaji met with my uncle in Bombay, and I soon received a positive letter. So while hesitant, I was left with no choice but to accept Krishnaji’s invitation.

In June 1966, I went to Saanen where I stayed with Krishnaji in Chalet Tannegg. In a few weeks, my uncle arrived to give his classes. He also stayed in the chalet. Here I was, teaching Krishnaji, while in the same chalet my uncle was teaching his students. And it was here just the previous year that it was he teaching Krishnaji. The potential for tension was real, yet Krishnaji did everything possible to make me at ease in spite of the delicate situation. Thanks to his care my first visit to Europe came off well and nothing happened to strain my relationship with my uncle.

Every year for nearly ten years I gave lessons to Krishnaji. 

Krishnaji introduced me to so many distinguished visitors. He showed me some of the best places in Switzerland. He himself would drive his Mercedes and talk about the special features of the car. In all the conversations I found that he was so well informed about different parts of the world and various customs of the West. In fact, my first lessons on Western table manners came from him: ‘Don’t rest the elbows on the table. Use the left hand for the fork. Don’t spread your elbows. Don’t take your mouth to the plate. Wait for the second helping.’ He also introduced me to the value of eating fruit first, why salads must precede cooked food, what nuts were best, how to crack Brazil nuts. He was so meticulous about different household chores. He used to clean the bathroom himself. I used to see him, many times, cleaning the bathroom, and he would say, ‘One should leave it as clean as it was before it was used.’ His advice when dealing with people and situations were unequivocal: ‘Don’t be another monkey.’ ‘Be yourself.’ ‘Watch the other fool’ (when driving). Often he would take me for walks, where he would urge me to study, to learn everything my father had to teach. He even offered me a scholarship so that necessity would not keep me from this study, and that was when he himself had financial problems. One day he told me, ‘Sir, if necessary, I will sell my shirt and send you money, but please study; you must.’

The following year, when Krishnaji returned to Madras, I phoned Vasanta Vihar for an appointment. The gentleman who received my call did not know me. He replied curtly, ‘You cannot see Krishnaji. Maybe after a few weeks, not now.’ I responded, ‘Sir, it is not so much that it is I who seek to see Krishnaji. It is perhaps Krishnaji who would see me.’ He was surprised: ‘What is your name?’ I gave him my name. He tersely told me to wait. In a few seconds he came back. ‘Excuse me. Krishnaji is on his way to speak to you.’ When Krishnaji arrived, he was so apologetic, even though I made no mention of this interchange. Krishnaji expressed a wish to see my father. He came to our small flat in Mandaveli. He sat on the bare floor facing my father. Even though my father is not conversant in English, he made sure that my father got the following message: ‘Sir, please teach your son Desikachar everything you know.’

Every year for nearly ten years I gave lessons to Krishnaji, sometimes in England, sometimes in Switzerland, often in Madras. Every time I saw him, he was a “fresh” student ready to learn something new. I always had the privilege of visiting him whenever I wished. However, after our formal lessons ceased, I did not see him for several years because I did not want to disturb him. In 1984, we met after a break of two years. I was surprised when he challenged me, ‘Why have we not met these years? Maybe you have become a big shot.’

I don’t pretend to know what Krishnaji taught by the word, but he taught so much by his example.

In January 1985 we met again and he invited me for lunch. I suggested that it was I who should invite him. ‘Maybe I can offer a meal of Vedic Chant?’ He was quick in response, ‘Sir, do it. Do it now.’ I suggested bringing a small group to make it more interesting. We did the chant. He sat attentively through ninety minutes, sometimes chanting with us. At the end of the session, he asked for a specific piece, it was a prayer to Krishna, from Mukunda Mala.

In January 1986 I met with him a few days before his sudden departure to the United States. He was his same old self. He enquired about my family and wanted me to take his respects to my father. Spontaneously I made a totally uncharacteristic request, ‘Sir, I ask for your blessings.’ He replied, ‘No sir, we are friends.’ That was the last message he gave me.

Krishnaji never accepted the role of guru, but those like me who had the opportunity to teach him something know he was the perfect example of the student. I wonder whether he wanted us to go and do likewise before even seeking a teacher? It is said that the teacher appears only to the earnest student. I don’t pretend to know what Krishnaji taught by the word, but he taught so much by his example: cleanliness, punctuality, dignity of labour, respect for others, humility before the teacher whatever his stature or age, keenness to learn thoroughly, consideration for other cultures. Often it is said that he was not aware of the common man’s problems, but his concern for the poor Indians who are exploited by everyone was overflowing. He was sad when religion exploited the poor. He used to share all those feelings of sadness, which was evident in his eyes.

Krishnaji is no more. I, for one, can say he never showed less concern for me than for those who were associated with his following. He was always warning, ‘Sir, don’t become a guru, don’t exploit, don’t become rich.’ Thank you Krishnaji. I will remember you and your advice.

From the book Krishnamurti: 100 Years

Be a Flower Blooming In Your Own Garden

My teacher Mark would always say, “Be a flower blooming in your own garden.” It’s a lovely statement and I remember when I first heard it that it landed for me and felt like a truth but it’s taken me a long time to come to my own understanding of what it means. I find that sometimes the things we read in spiritual books or hear from teachers can take time to fully understand. “Be a flower blooming in your own garden” was a seed that was planted when the ground was fertile and took root. Over time, by cultivating that seed through daily practice, it has blossomed into my own understanding. Recently while teaching at an ayahuasca retreat I had the following insight.

When we are children, we are a small delicate seedling growing in the garden that our parents or caregivers cultivate and tend. For many of us, this ecosystem lacked all the nourishment and space we needed to grow into our fullest expression. As we grow older and go to school and enter into society, we often find that we’ve been transplanted into environments that restrict our growth or fail to provide nourishment in other ways. It’s not until we’re adults and out on our own that we finally have the opportunity to create our own garden that will provide us with everything we need to grow into our full potential. This is our responsibility as adults and it’s what is required if we want to grow beyond the limitations of the family and culture we were born into.

The soil of this garden is the unconditional love and acceptance that we may not have had when we were growing up, but which is needed for our true self to blossom. The nutrients for that soil are the lifestyle choices we make and the relationships we choose to engage in. The energetic and emotional release that happens through the breath and movement practices are like removing the weeds from your garden to create space to grow and light to come in. The awareness you develop is like the light of the sun, showing you not only your potential but also the areas that are restricted and need tending. A daily practice sends your roots deep, providing the resilience and support needed to survive challenging conditions when they arise like a storm of wind and rain.

Some people are naturally more like sunflowers, big and strong with a thick stalk. Some are more delicate like an orchid. Each person requires a different approach to practice just like every flower has different requirements for care. Sometimes if the garden hasn’t been tended to for some time, or if the environment we were raised in was especially harsh, we need to do some heavy labour to restore the nutrients in the soil and remove the overgrowth of choking weeds. This is where plant medicines like ayahuasca can be very helpful. A powerful medicine like ayahuasca has the ability to clear away the thorny brambles that we’ve cultivated as a protective barrier but which eventually block the light and restrict our room to grow. A daily practice is a way for you to maintain your garden, keep the weeds at bay and nourish the soil in which the flower of your true self can bloom into its full expression.

Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe

Yoga & The Meaning of Life

This morning a fellow teacher posted on Instagram about how a student recently asked her, “How does my yoga actually help with the conditioning that makes daily life difficult? And why does it matter how I do the yoga, exactly?” It’s a great question, and I thought I’d attempt to answer it based on my own experience.

On one level, a regular yoga practice can help to relieve the physical tension and mental-emotional stress that causes so much unnecessary suffering for many people. At this level, it’s a matter of basic self-care that everyone can benefit from if the practice is adapted to their particular needs.

On a deeper level, much of our suffering is due to a lack of meaning and purpose in life. Psychologists and philosophers are even saying that we’re currently experiencing a “meaning crisis” that’s responsible for the rise of anxiety, stress, depression, addiction and suicide in our modern world. But what do we even mean when we talk about “the meaning of life”? When I think about the question, “What is the meaning of life?” it seems like an intellectual exercise. It’s all in my head. And I don’t think the answer can be found in thoughts and concepts.

In Spanish, instead of “meaning of life” they say, el sentido de la vida — the sense of life — which gets us closer to understanding how practicing yoga in a particular way offers an answer to the meaning crisis. It’s something that is felt rather than understood. When I practice yoga by moving in unison with my breath, my awareness merges with the breath and my movement becomes an expression of the breath. I am fully embodied and at one with the pulse of life as it enlivens my whole being. At that point, the question “what is the meaning of life” simply dissolves. I am filled with el sentido de la vida, the felt sense of being fully alive. There are no more questions, and my mind settles into an alert and restful state. I am open to the fullness of life.

I think in our culture we’re conditioned to believe that life isn’t meaningful unless we’re suffering. Even the Buddha said, “Life is suffering”. No wonder so many Buddhists I meet are so solemn! Indian philosopher UG Krishnamurti said, “The plain fact is that if you don't have a problem, you create one. If you don't have a problem, you don't feel that you are living.” Sadly, I think this is true for many of us. Suffering = meaning.

A daily yoga practice, when approached with an attitude of non-striving and care, makes us more sensitive to our own condition and to the condition of others. We become more empathic to the joys and sorrows of life and realize that we only suffer when we become too attached to either pleasure or pain. We learn to relax into the flow of life and take things as they come. We find meaning in simply living life to its fullest. As my teacher Mark Whitwell would always say, we stop looking and start living.

Waking Up & Growing Up

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“There is a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

There are two aspects to personal transformation that are equally important: waking up and growing up.

Waking up starts with the recognition that we’re not living life to our fullest potential and that we’re suffering unnecessarily. For me, this was waking up to the fact that I was stuck in emotional and behavioural patterns that were causing conflict within myself and in my relationships. I could see that these patterns were causing me to react to things people said and did in a way that was creating a great deal of stress and anxiety for myself and others. I could also see how my attempt to manage that stress and anxiety through drinking and other behaviours was just adding to my problems. Being tired and hungover all the time made me more reactive and less able to handle the pressures and challenges of my job and personal life.

My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness.

My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness. Deep down I knew that it was time to take control of my life and free myself from the patterns that had been running the show for too long. I needed to turn off the autopilot and take the wheel, but I had no idea how to even find the off switch.

Like many people who have had a wake up call, I began to seek out ways to understand what was going on below the surface and find out what was causing all the turmoil in my life. This lead me to working with a counsellor who focused on dream analysis, committing to a regular yoga practice, and eventually working with ayahuasca for many years. Through these experiences I became aware of the deeper aspects of myself and began to make the connection between what I experienced in my body and what was going on in my mind.

As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear.

As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear that I experienced as panic attacks, which often came on while lying in shavasana. Because I didn’t have a relationship with a yoga teacher or somatic therapist to help me understand that this was all part of the healing process, it was a confusing and scary time.

I realized that I need some outside help and found a counsellor who had been trained in Jungian dream work. I’d always had a vivid dream life and somehow knew that I might find some pieces of the puzzle within my dreams. In my sessions with him, I discovered that my unconscious mind had been desperately trying to speak to me through my dreams and show me aspects of myself that I’d been hiding from for years. Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.

Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.

Encouraged by this work and wanting to go deeper, I returned to psychedelics, which I’d experimented with since I was a teenager, but never with the clear intention to learn about myself. In the first ayahuasca ceremony I attended, I had a profound experience of death and resurrection and a reawakening to my heart, which I realized I’d been disconnected from for many years. This experience gave me a taste of the freedom that was possible and put me back in touch with who I really was at my core, underneath all the stories and beliefs I held about myself. It was an incredibly freeing experience and after that, like magic, the urge to numb myself with alcohol simply evaporated.

This kind of awakening experience can certainly be, as it was for me, profoundly transformative and even create immediate shifts in how we think and behave, but it’s not the end of the road. As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.

As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.

My waking up experiences helped me break through the protective defenses I’d constructed early on to help me deal with the pain of the trauma I experienced as a kid. Breaking through allowed me to reconnect with my true self, but it didn’t make all the thought and behaviour patterns that I had developed in the wake of trauma simply go away. I came to see that early on in my life, I had made an agreement with myself that I would keep people at a distance to avoid further hurt and betrayal. Over the years I built a wall around myself, like a fortress protecting a wounded child king. Every defense mechanism, every avoidance tactic, every coping strategy was another brick in that wall. My awakening experiences may have briefly opened up an aperture and given me a glimpse of the freedom and potential for deep connection and peace that was possible, but it would take years to dismantle the wall, piece by piece, brick by brick. Every callous word that came out of my mouth, every emotional overreaction, every judgment and criticism, was showing me just how much work I still needed to do.

After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last.

This is where ongoing psychological work comes in. After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last. What I’ve found is that this is really a process of growing ourselves up, so that we’re not perpetually repeating the patterns that were programmed early on in our childhood. Whether we learned them from our parents or developed them to fit in with our family and schoolmates, these adaptations worked when we were kids, and in some cases were even necessary for survival, but at a certain point they keep us from developing real intimacy and experiencing lasting peace and fulfillment in our adult lives.

There are many ways to do the work of growing yourself up, and over the past number of years I’ve explored many of them, from The Work of Byron Katie, to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to Internal Family Systems, to body-centered psychotherapies like Hakomi and Somatic Experiencing, and most recently, an approach developed by Dr. Gabor Maté which elegantly synthesizes many of these modalities into something he calls Compassionate Inquiry.

So, if you’re wondering how to integrate your awakening experience and truly transform your life, I encourage you to explore all the myriad tools now available and seek out an experienced guide to help you navigate this process, preferably someone who has had an awakening experience and done the work of growing themselves up. If you want to improve your relationship with your spouse or find a life partner, seek out a guide who is in a long term relationship. If you want to learn how to be a better parent, find someone who has a good relationship with their kids. If you want to get along with co-workers better and find more fulfillment in your career, find someone who has been there and done that.

Whatever route you take, the bottom line is that while the profound awakenings experienced through yoga, meditation and psychedelics can offer us a taste of freedom and provide us with much-needed inspiration and hope, we need to get our hands dirty and do the work of dismantling the walls that limit us, piece by piece, brick by crumbling brick. It’s often uncomfortable and difficult work to face the fact that we’ve constructed our own prison, but it’s also liberating and empowering. After all, who’s better equipped to plot the escape from prison than the person who built it?

If you’re interested in going deeper into this work and think I would be a helpful friend and guide, I invite you to reach out and book a coaching session with me.

Painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1830