The magic, the simplicity, the addiction, the system, the method, the people, the knowledge, the behind-the-scenes look at a 70 year old yoga tradition
In 1992, beaten and bruised by a perfectly harmless, and ordinary city life, I arrived at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Nataraja Centre, in East of Kailash in New Delhi. I was led there by the wisdom, the kindness, the enormous vision, and the love of my late father. He was five-foot-something-giant of a human being, a true leader, who, invisible himself, created possibilities for others to thrive. He was someone who participated actively in the creation of a happy family and community through discipline, hard and tireless work, ethics, boundless energy, high morals, self-pride, humility, sharing and giving. My father was my first yoga model, for sure.
As with a lot of newcomers, I was innocent to yoga and the miraculous journey ahead. I arrived in some considerable pain, in my lower back.
There was pain in other parts of my being as well, with a career not going my way, finances which were less than what I told myself I deserved, and a personal life which was far from perfect. I was about to enter the five most traumatic years of my life, in which I would lose my father, would lose two jobs, and have many reasons to lose hope.
And I did not know this then, there was latent anxiety, tension, and a mind stretched taut.
Tense and anxious about what, you may ask. Soon after I started practicing yoga, from the very first class, I realized that what was on the surface of my being was not reflective of inner realities. I just tense about everything. A hidden, underlying tension was always there. There was a general unease, and dissatisfaction.
I was tired of my earthly journey at age 29, wondering where I was going, and what was to become of me.
From the autumn of 1992, to springtime in 1993 I turned a new leaf. I shed my sad, often lonely personality and sprouted a fresh, new look. It was as if, for the first time in my life, I had been properly nourished and fed. My back pain disappeared, and I became well again. I shed years from my face and my being, and found back my sense of humour, and that inherent optimism for life.
My story is not mine alone. People who come to a Sivananda class have a reason why they come. But oftentimes they do not remain and practice the system because of that reason. That initial reason for coming soon becomes insignificant, and the student starts discovering the abundant benefits which yoga offers. Like me, many are hooked for life.
If you are one of the lucky people who have a Sivananda Centre within a reasonable distance from where you live, try out a class. And give yourself three months. Chances are that you will frequent the Centre indefinitely and thereby give yourself a lifelong gift of health, harmony and peace of mind.
In January 1995, once again in an act of innocence, I registered for and did the International Sivananda Teachers’ Training Programme. If I thought that yoga had given me a chance at life once more, I had not imagined what becoming a Sivananda teacher would give me. I fell in love with the whole experience of yoga.
It became possible for me to share what I had got with others, in a deeply satisfying way. Teaching a Sivananda class is a blessing for me, and a gift and my good luck, because it helps me nourish the core of my being. It fulfills what is innate in all of us – a deep, deep desire to be of use, to be able to care, to have a life which is fruitful to others, and to be able to make a difference.
Loving others has made me love myself. Looking after others has made it necessary for me look after myself. Having compassion for others has made me patient and compassionate of myself. Understanding my limitations, and my inherent laziness has made me help others beyond theirs.
It has been a journey from ignorance to innocence, from grimness to laughter, from complexity to simplicity, from illness to wellness, from being alone to being in harmony, from disturbance to steadiness, from sadness to joy, from darkness to light and from untruth to clarity.
In the Sivananda class as designed by Swami Vishnudevananda, you get a chance to experience the benefits of an ancient Indian practice of Hatha yoga. You get good all round exercise, you get to breathe properly and with awareness, and you get, best of all, deep relaxation.
There is magic in the Sivananda class, but the magic is because of many ingredients – there is logic and reason, and common sense, and a lot of heart. So what sets the Sivananda class apart from many other yoga practices?
When you come to a Sivananda Centre or ashram for the first time, you experience the falling away of your daily concerns. You feel peaceful, and the energy unwinds you. The class itself is repetitive, and follows a specific sequence of breathing exercise and relaxation. Modern life is complex, and rapidly changing. Our senses and our abilities are tested 24 hours of the day – mobile phones, the internet, extraordinary hours of driving, working and entertaining. The Sivananda class is a soothing balm of yoga, which does not change. You can depend upon it, and trust it to give you the benefit day after day.
If yoga has to be accessible to large numbers of people, and it has to be adopted as a lifestyle, then it needs to understand and adapt to the people who practice it. Here lies the goodness and the secret of a system created by Swami Vishnudevananda, 50 years ago. Most systems are either too complex (we will do a series of 35 exercises everyday, and they have to be done empty stomach, at the crack of dawn, wearing minimum clothes), or too subtle (meditate on a light purple colour, while imagining a concentric spiral four inches from the base of the spine, and a snake slowly getting up from sleep and bring you’re awareness to only the breath for the next one hour), to become part of our lives, or are not habit forming enough for it to become a good addiction.
One of the highest qualities of the Sivananda system is it acceptance of students of widely differing abilities. You get an infinite amount of space, and time to practice, and to practice to your strength, flexibility and stamina. What I mean is that you are not just a student, but also an observer and your own teacher, even while a teacher teaches you. A Sivananda teacher offers compassion, and guidance, and at all times, encouragement, and sometimes a little, firm push. But beyond that there is the wonderful arena to be yourself, without being judged or criticized, or intimidated. The Sivananda class is not a demonstration of perfection, and you find many ‘imperfect’ souls all practicing the same class together.
I have seen the most timid and low-confidence people transform into wonderfully self-expressed individuals after a few days or few weeks of doing the Sivananda class. At the other end of the rainbow, people with high-self esteem find the Sivananda class very elevating, assuring, and motivating. It often offers a mirror for a person with a flexible body, focused mind, and a giving heart to see for herself how extraordinary she is and can be.
People come to the Sivananda yoga class for various reasons. Some arrive after stopping at various destinations – different types of medical doctors and specialists, many tried and tested procedures, holistic treatments, medications and surgeries, alternative therapies, and home remedies. When nothing works, they finally, as a last resort, come for a Sivananda class.
Others arrive by accident – by some arrangement of planetary positions, they, instead of going to a nearby gym, come through the door into the Sivananda centre, or instead of calling their local club for the swimming schedule, call a Sivananda teacher.
Many just come to a Sivananda centre out of curiosity – they have heard about it from someone, or want to try out yoga, or are looking for a place where they can improve their health and fitness.
The Sivananda class hasn’t changed in 50 years. There is a beginning, middle and an end, and it has stood the test of over half a century of practice. When people ask me about the Sivananda class, they are surprised that we do not teach different things to different people, or that we do not do different things on different days. I address this question in many ways.
It is assumed that if we did the same thing over and over again, we would be soon bored of it. What is not understood is that while the Sivananda class remains exactly the same, the person practicing it, and the person teaching it, are not quite the same as yesterday. Both teacher and student have had one more day of living life. Millions of cells have been abolished, millions of new cells have been born, new chemicals have been created, some stuff has been flushed out, your mood and feelings are different as are the moods and feelings of your teacher, and of course, your mind is on different things altogether today. It is a whole new person lying down on the mat, having the experience of the Sivananda class. Your headstand or the sitting forward bend will feel great today, but surely will feel better or worse tomorrow. That is how yoga practice is – never the same. So you never feel bored, not if you are aware of these subtle changes.
Then, there is the time of the day when you practice. The body is resistant and slow in the mornings, more pliable and cooperative in the evenings. The mind is more alert in the morning, the mind is restless and engaged in the evenings. Both the body and the mind are generally more relaxed and open during the weekends.
The seasons matter too. In winter, pranayama is a pleasure, asanas a little more challenging. In the summer, relaxation and the shoulderstand cycle feel wonderful, as does the calming forward bends.
So when you enter a Sivananda class, it is not the same class that you did recently, even though, reassuringly, everything about the class is the same. (speak about repetitions as a method of teaching in a gurukula; not memory but experience based education)
Many people, like me, have a calibrated benefit which they seek out of the class. Compared to many other forms of high impact, unorganized, and often stressful forms of exercise, the Sivananda class offers a wonderfully focused, systematic, and gentle workout, day after day. For us, the repetitive nature of the Sivananda class is welcome, because there are no major surprises for a body that is unhappy about surprises.
Other people, again like me, welcome the repetitive nature of the class, because it helps them to calibrate their progress from one day to another and from one week and one month to another. For example, the first destination may be the distant toes in Paschimottanasana (Sitting Forward Bend), or just getting to keep the head on the ground correctly in the Sirsasana (Headstand). After weeks of interrupted practice driven by the demands of a daily working and family life, when you reach your toes, or your forehead touches the knee in the same forward bend, or you delicately balance for fleeting milli-moments in the half-headstand, you are thrilled at what awaits you in the same 90 minutes Sivananda class the next time.
Many of us, (again like me!) measure our progress by the stamina, fitness, strength and vitality which we are getting out of the class. We are constantly engaged in getting better at what we have been taught in the class day after day. When someone is a beginner, holding the postures for any length of time is not easy. Holding them steady, and with a constant awareness of the breath takes much longer. Increasing both the physical and mental stamina to hold postures or focus the mind on the practice takes sometimes even weeks and months, possibly years.
There are two breathing practices, the sun salutation with its 12 postures, the twelve asanas of the basic 90 minutes Sivananda class and the final relaxation. As one of my many teachers put it, it will take a lifetime to understand and master one, or any, or all the elements of the class. After more than a decade and a half of practicing the same class over and over again, I agree. I am still surprised, and I still learn new things about the same postures, the breath, and about relaxation, every day.
Sage Patanjali puts it well when he says “Sthira Sukha Asanam’, a posture is a posture, when it is held with ease and comfort and when it is steady. I am getting there I think, but again after today’s class, I feel that maybe I will take forever!
If this kind of variety, made possible by the subtle play of circumstances, physical changes and mental preoccupations wasn’t enough, we have to also acknowledge the magical Sivananda teacher, for adding her bit to the beauty of this system. If you live close to a Sivananda centre, where more than one teacher teaches classes, you are sure to have ample permutations to the basic 90 minutes class.
While the Sivananda class proceeds along the same very track, from teacher to teacher, some subtle variations occur. Depending on the teacher, the scenery changes, and so does the experience. Each teacher has his or her own way of expressing the class. The language and accent might be different, as would be the tone and pitch of the voice. Some teachers speak very little, and some specify a hundred things every minute. Some teachers like the Surya Namaskar, so they spend a few fleeting moments extra on it. Some others like the leg raising exercises, which tone the abdominal muscles, and some like the backward bends. More senior teachers, who have felt the immense physical and mental benefits of pranayama or final relaxation, may dwell on these a little longer. The final effect is a class which is totally unlike any other.
Finally, and again if your practicing the Sivananda class in a group, there is the dynamics of the group itself. Every day you have different people practicing with you, and this itself adds immense variety. There are different colours and shapes beside you and in front of you, different from yesterday and from last week. One day someone will inspire you with his headstand. On another day, someone will be the cause for your envy, when she folds herself completely into a ‘perfect’ sitting forward bend. On other days, you see a beginner, and remember with empathy, how you felt doing the shoulderstand for the first time. On some days, seeing somebody unable to coordinate between the left and the right of the body will cause much amusement. A Sivananda group class is a place where you feel at home in the company of travelers on the same journey, and the proceeding towards the same destination.
My yoga neighbour on the next mat, has been coming to the Sivananda class for 15 months. His neighbour, for 15 days. And I have been at it for 15 years. When we do the Shouldertand, all the three of us are doing the same thing, but each one of us is in three different Shoulderstands. The experience of the asana, and who we are in the asana are very different, My awareness is on the stillness, the calmness and the peace that the asana brings. My neighbour is still trying to look better in the posture, but also focusing on good breathing. His neighbour, the newest entrant, is not sure if she should be in such a pose in the first place!
A good, experienced Sivananda teacher adds to the mood of the class, maybe with his humour, or by teaching a variation in some of the asanas, or by directing my attention to a benefit that I getting in one of the postures.
Yes, surely there is fun and entertainment, learning and inspiration, good exercise and camaraderie, routine and surprises, and the gradual evolution of my spirit.
Because the canvas of the Sivananda class does not change, it becomes possible for me to go inwards, meditate, observe, breathe, experience, and be completely with myself.
I come out of class feeling refreshed, cleansed from inside. All the pettiness is gone, all the meanness has dissolved. It is as if I have taken a shower, not from the outside, but from the inside. There was stress before, now there are problems, and possible solutions. I felt nervous and agitated, on the edge and irritable, but now things feel not so pressing, insurmountable or impossible. Where there was anger, there is reasonableness and a willingness to let go.
The body feels lighter, as if I have lost weight, and maybe on certain days I have. I had a frown, and some worry lines on the forehead before the class, and they have been replaced by a look of relief, a smile and unburdened eyes that look alert and awake once more.
The feeling lasts for many hours after the class. And if I practice the class everyday, the accumulated benefit keeps me in this space of contentment all the time.
People who come to a Sivananda centre, as I mentioned earlier, have some specific motives. Of these, therapy seems to be on top of the list, though many are just curious about yoga. Many of us in the cities are seeking relief from stress, and having heard that yoga is a very good antidote, arrive to see for themselves if it is true.
Many want to lose weight. A lot of people, and now more and more people below 30 come with back problems. There are also the maladies of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and arthritis. Some of the minor ailments like indigestion, insomnia and migraine also bring people to yoga.
While we do not deal with any specific ailment as doctors do, the Sivananda class can be therapeutic for most people. I have found, with the committed practice of the Sivananda class, in the proper environment, many of the lifestyle diseases relent. My own chronic back pain went away in three months, not to return for a decade. When I injured my back in 2003, I went back to the Sivananda class, and got better all over again doing the Sivananda class.
Similarly, students of the Sivananda class routinely lose weight, tone up, become more fit and start to have glowing skins and faces. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels drop, and medication often decreases and in many cases, completely stops.
One other important change occurs, all by itself. The Sivananda class becomes addictive. It provides solace, exercise and a place to belong all at the same time. People who practice this every day start making this the most important, un-miss-able activity of the day. This sometimes calls for lifestyle changes. You get to bed earlier if you want to catch the early morning class. You leave office early if you want to do the evening class. You avoid Friday evening excursions because of the weekend practice. And your desire to feel better in the class the next day, makes you avoid heavy food, the previous day.
Food habits, addictions to caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, all change dramatically after a few months of practice. All this has a profound impact on a person’s health, as well as the chronic diseases that she has.
The Sivananda class however, does not promise to be a replacement for medical therapy. This, in fact, is true of all yoga, not just the Sivananda class. Yoga did not start off being a science of disease therapy. It was, and has always been a science of good health, and maybe a return to your true physical, mental and emotional nature. Yoga is a philosophy first, then a science, a practice, a ritual and an exercise, and finally a therapy.
Having said all this thus far, I would now stick my neck out and suggest something even more in the domain of subjectivity. This is where the analysts leave the arena, and are replaced by those attracted by the mystical. Those driven by logic, statistics and evidence begin to raise their eyebrows, and the romantics, the people who love mystery, and who are just constantly curious and exploring, begin to sit up and rub their hands together. To both categories, I have the same plea - please listen to this with some humour, rather than just the intellect. And give me the long rope.
Over the years that I have been practicing the Sivananda class, some other bits of magic seem to be happening around me. Things of material nature, like petrol and money, seem to last a bit longer than expected. Traffic lights seem less antagonistic, as does the traffic. Mishaps of any nature, on the road, at home or at work, seem never to happen. Some kind of protection, call it general insurance if you will, seems to have been given to me. So when I buy something, like a new car, it seems to be not just the best piece that ever came out of that factory, it seems to be fitted with extra non-breakdown materials as well.
Yes, there is magic, and some clear practical benefits to be had from the Sivananda class.
Do come, and try a class at the Centre.
See you soon!