The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar is the perfect beginner’s introduction to yoga. I have vivid memories of reading this book and highlighting passage after passage while nodding my head with resonance.
When I first read it, I knew very little to nothing about yoga. Desikachar, the son of renowned yogi Sri. T. Krishnamacharya, revives his father’s spirit through interviews, old photographs, and timeless wisdom of yoga and how it applies to the contemporary individual:
“Yoga serves the individual, and does so through inviting transformation rather than giving information. These are two very different things.” (xix)
One of the unique parts of Krishnamacharya’s approach to yoga was how much he emphasized individual practice and refused the “one-size fits all” approach:
“What makes my father’s yoga teachings unique is his insistence on attending to each individual and his or her uniqueness...The way yoga is taught nowadays often gives the impression that there is one solution to everyone’s problems and one treatment for every illness. But yoga affects the mind, primarily, and each person’s mind is different….I have to realize that each of my students is not the same person today as they were yesterday, and not at all the same as when they came last week, perhaps with similar questions. This is the most important message my father passes on, and it is essentially the opposite of what is currently being taught in most places.” (xvii-xix)
He opposed any forms of programs and prescriptions which are abundant in yoga society today. As someone who loves structure and external rules, I have been naturally drawn to preset programs that give me a standard way to practice – often because I have found such prescriptions make it easier for me to stick with it.
But in my one-on-one work with women, I have been returning to the notion of individualized practice. Although more complicated in its design and adherence, individualized practice is most sensitive to people’s changing and developmental needs.
The book goes through the foundations of a yoga practice and the way to design a yoga sequence with appropriate indications and counterposes. One of the most interesting chapters in the book, however, is one labeled “The Things That Darken the Heart.” In this chapter, Desikachar explores the concept of ignorance, which is known as avidya.
The purpose of yoga is to release us from this ignorance which is expressed and experience through four major ways, ego, desire or craving, aversion, and fear. He writes:
“The essential purpose of yoga practice is to reduce avidya so that understanding can gradually come to the surface. But how can we know whether we have seen and understood things clearly? When we see the truth, when we reach a level that is higher than our normal everyday understanding, something deep within us is very quiet and peaceful. Then there is contentment that nothing can take away from us. It is not the kind of satisfaction derived from gazing at a beautiful object. It is much more than this. It is a satisfaction deep within us that is free from feeling and judgment.” (p. 80)
This gem of a book will stay with you forever – at the end of it, there is what Desikachar calls the “heart of yoga:” the classic yoga text of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras translated by the father and son.
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