Everything that happens in your mind is reflected in your body, says T.K.V. Desikachar. So, meditate on the good!
Wearing a khaki shirt and trousers, his eyes twinkling behind oversize glasses and a shy smile on his lips, T.K.V. Desikachar doesn’t fit the Western stereotype of a great yoga master. But that may be, he says, because “a lot of people are confused about yoga.”
Americans typically use the word “yoga” to mean “posture,” he notes, and mistakenly measure progress by the ability to perform complex poses. But “yoga is definitely not just posture,” Desikachar asserts, hiking up his pants to assume a dramatic Warrior Pose, then bursting into an infectious laugh. “A lot of people are doing postures, but are they happy? They can do a beautiful posture, but their life is a big headache.” Mastery of yoga is really measured, Desikachar says, by “how it influences our day-to-day living, how it enhances our relationships, how it promotes clarity and peace of mind.”
The son and senior student of one of the greatest yogis of the modern era, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, Desikachar made these comments last year at “Meditation as Medicine,” a four-day workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he taught with his son and student, Kausthub. A pioneer of modern therapeutic yoga, Desikachar is founder of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a nonprofit healing center in Chennai, India, which offers yoga therapy to thousands of people from around the world each year. The therapy is based on his father’s fundamental belief that practices must be adapted to suit each person’s needs and abilities. “It is not that I must conform to the yoga practice,” Desikachar says, “but rather that yoga practice must be tailor-made for me.”
Yoga places special emphasis on the role of the mind in the healing process, explains Desikachar, who says, “A peaceful, stable mind is essential to well-being.” Ancient yogis developed numerous techniques, including meditation, to calm the mind and channel its power into physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Meditation acts the way medicine does, Desikachar says, by transforming the mind’s agitation to peace.
Desikachar’s teachings hold special significance for me, since my own yoga practice changed dramatically three years ago. During a marathon in Jamaica, I drank so much water that my blood sodium levels dropped dangerously low. I suffered seizures and an irregular heartbeat and was airlifted home to North Carolina, where I lay in a coma for four days. When I awoke in the neuro-intensive care unit, I wasn’'t scared, angry, or upset. Instead, I experienced a sort of posttraumatic bliss syndrome. Grateful to be alive, I was surprisingly unconcerned about my physical condition—although I couldn'’t walk unassisted and my doctors worried that I might have permanent kidney damage.
Too sick to read, watch TV, or do much else, I lay in my hospital bed and did yoga. But my practice looked nothing like my usual Ashtanga primary series. In fact, the only posture I attempted was Savasana (Corpse Pose). I also did breathing practices—particularly counting my breath and extending the exhalation. I silently chanted prayers, visualized healing light, and focused on progressively relaxing different parts of my body. In short, meditation formed the heart of my practice.
Over time I completely recovered, but my yoga practice changed forever. I'’d previously focused primarily on postures. But if yoga is about asana, what happens when the body weakens? My near-death experience taught me something I’'d known intellectually yet never truly understood: Yoga’s true power lies in its ability to harness the mind for healing and spiritual development. While I still enjoy asana, my practice now is less vigorous, and I spend more time in meditation.
Desikachar suggests choosing an object that is both appealing and healing: “The key is transforming the mind in a positive way, so healing happens. Because whatever happens in the mind, happens in the whole system.”
Meditation holds four major benefits, says Desikachar. The first is arta, or a lessening of suffering. “We meditate so pain is reduced,” he says, noting that “pain is not necessarily physical but can be emotional.” Next is jnanam, transcendent knowledge. “You may get a flash, a moment of clarity or wisdom,” he says. “It’s like lightning. For one second everything is bright; then it goes away.” Although this momentary illumination fades, memory of the insight—and its impact—lingers. Meditation can also result in extraordinary powers, called artharta. For example, Krishnamacharya, who died in 1989 at age 100, was apparently able to stop his heartbeat and breath for several minutes with no adverse effects. Meditation’s final benefit is bhakta—realization of the highest truth. Through meditation, Desikachar says, you can discover your true nature.
But not everyone is ready for meditation. It’s especially difficult if your mind is very distracted. Yogic tradition describes five states of mind, beginning with ksipta, an agitated state in which you’re unable to think, listen, or keep quiet. (See Five States of Mind) “This mind is not fit for meditation at all,” Desikachar says. When your mind is very agitated, try asana and breathing practices designed to bring the body and mind into stillness. Not until it enters the fourth state, ekagra, is the mind ready to pay attention. Here, the mind is relaxed but not sleepy—a prerequisite for meditation.
Forget Emptying the Mind + Fill It
Regular practice of asana and Pranayama (breathing techniques) can help you quiet your mind and, if illness or sedentary habits have left you weakened, can also help you become healthy and strong enough to sit still and concentrate. Even if you’re a calm, healthy, fit person, postures and breathing practices can prepare your body and mind for a more willing, joyful embrace of meditation.
In Desikachar’s view, the idea that meditation requires emptying the mind is a common misperception; meditation, he says, actually involves filling the mind with an object of inquiry. “It is never possible for the mind to be empty,” Desikachar notes, “except in a deep state of sleep.” The intent is to “become one with the object of focus.” You can meditate on virtually anything: a natural object, such as the sun or moon, a flower, tree, or mountain—or on a person, sound, deity, even a color. Or focus on the body or the breath. Desikachar suggests choosing an object that is both appealing and healing: “The key is transforming the mind in a positive way, so healing happens. Because whatever happens in the mind, happens in the whole system.” But don’'t confuse this word “mind” with “intellectual mind,” he cautions. It is the center of awareness he’s talking about—the heart.
The Good Life
You don’t have to spend an hour on your cushion for meditation to have a profound effect, says Desikachar, who asks busy people, “How much time do you have?” If someone has just five minutes, he suggests a brief meditation that includes one minute for preparation, two and a half for the meditation itself, and one more for tapering off. “Once you feel the value and see the benefits of meditation, you will make time to do more,” he says. Meditation needn’t be esoteric and difficult: “You must always adapt according to what people like and will do.”
During the workshop, he asked for volunteers and created a 10-minute “Mom” meditation for a man named John, who suffered from addiction problems that he linked to a difficult relationship with his father. After listening to John describe intense anger at his father and great love for his mother, Desikachar drew a circle representing John’s life, then designated a small “slice” as the frowning dad. The rest of the circle was filled with positive aspects, including a smiling mom. “Life is like this,” Desikachar said. “We tend to focus on the bad and ignore the good.” Whenever John began to feel negative thoughts about his father, Desikachar suggested that he substitute positive thoughts of his mother. Then he led John through a meditation that involved reciting the word “Mom,” visualizing his mother, offering her a flower, asking her to nurture him, and he had the group chant, “Let Mom take care of John.”
Modern psychology calls this process of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones “cognitive reframing.” But, says Desikachar, this type of mental reprogramming is an ancient yogic technique, one that is described by the sage Patanjali in Yoga Sutra II.33 as prakti paksha bhavana. Rather than let disturbing thoughts whip your body and mind into tension and despair, you can choose to substitute positive thoughts that will bring peace and calm. John had expected Desikachar to probe his relationship with his father—as John had done repeatedly in traditional therapy. But he found the unexpected focus on all that was good in his life extremely therapeutic.
For me, the practice of prakti paksha bhavana has been profoundly healing. Whenever disturbing thoughts arise, I make a conscious shift to that most positive place in my recent past—my “rebirth day,” when I awoke from a coma with complete faith that I would be fine. Virtually any stress fades in the light of this most precious gift, having my life and health completely restored. Each morning I start fresh, with a meditation on gratitude. Throughout the day, I try to recapture this sense of peace and share it with others. And every night I say a prayer of thanks for the simple miracle of breath.
Carol Krucoff is a yoga teacher and journalist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the coauthor of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise. See www.healingmoves.com.