What is Sivananda Yoga
As a teacher of classical Hatha Yoga, a common question I get asked is: “Exactly what IS Sivananda Yoga?” Most folks are familiar with Ashtanga, Hot Yoga or Kundalini. But Sivananda Yoga is a bit more obscure to many people. I believe that this is because it embodies much of the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Yoga, which a lot of people – especially in the West – do not delve into.
To get a better understanding of what Sivananda Yoga is all about, it helps to know a little about the origins of yoga itself.
In Eastern traditions, Hatha is a term that encompasses the living science of Yoga. It not only consists of physical postures (asanas), but also integrates breathing (pranayama) and relaxation. Essentially, it is an age-old art of right living that aims to achieve spiritual growth and a higher level of consciousness by cultivating a healthy body and mind.
What is Sivananda Yoga
Sivananda Yoga is a systematic and precise approach to classical Hatha Yoga. It is one of the few schools that still aim to incorporate traditional and authentic yogic disciplines. It may very well be one of the remaining handful of schools in Western culture that come close to the ancient system of yoga, preserve its South Asian roots and advocate its spiritual doctrines.
It is based on the interpretations and teachings of Swami Sivananda (1887-1963), a South Indian physician, author and spiritual leader. His legacy continues through the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams, launched in the late 1950’s. Since its origins, this yogic lineage continues to remain intact and pretty much unaltered among the droves of continually evolving yoga styles.
The Philosophy of Sivananda Yoga
The Four Paths
Yoga is the union of the body, mind and spirit. According to the ancient sciences, there are four different paths that lead to this union. Each path takes a different route but ultimately arrives at the same destination.
- Karma Yoga: The yoga of selfless action without egoism or the expectation of being rewarded.
- Bhakti Yoga: The yoga of devotion and unconditional love through prayers, chanting, singing, worship and rituals.
- Raja Yoga: The yoga of the mind that is achieved through the Eight Limbs, which include asanas and pranayama.
- Jnana Yoga: The yoga of knowledge and wisdom through the study of spiritual texts and the use of intellect.
The majority of yoga styles today, especially in the West, focus primarily on the practice of asanas. But this is only a part of one path to Yoga. Sivananda Yoga, on the other hand, is a synthesis of all four paths that is meant to achieve a true understanding of the self and of the universe. One of Swami Sivananda’s most potent spiritual messages, ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize,’ encapsulates this synthesis and serves as a motto for living a healthy yogic life.
“I have only one message and only one common subject, and that is: ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate and Realize. Be good, do good.’ Reflect deeply on these wonderful words, which reveal the secret of harmony, peace, joy, success and Bliss.”
The Five Points of Yoga
The essence of these yogic teachings are summarized into five practical principles known as The Five Points of Yoga. They provide a framework for right living and lead to profound awareness, self transformation and the preservation of life-force.
- Proper Exercise
- Proper Breathing
- Proper Relaxation
- Proper Diet
- Positive Thinking & Meditation
True World Order
A prevalent theme in Sivananda spaces around the world is ‘Unity in Diversity.‘ According to its philosophy, diversity is the very essence of the human spirit. But the inability to perceive how we are all connected to each other is the principal cause of today’s problems. So the True World Order (T.W.O.) was created to promote peace, eradicate ignorance and enunciate the importance of respecting the differences between people.
Part of Sivananda culture, therefore, is recognizing that our natural state is one of complete peace and wellness. By engaging this power within yourself through yoga, the idea is that there will consequently be peace, unity and good health in the whole world.
The Sivananda Yoga Class
A Sivananda yoga class is a 90-minute session consisting of a comprehensive series of pranayamas and asanas that are always performed in a particular sequence. After the usual opening and closing prayers, a standard class starts with breathing exercises (Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma) followed by a few rounds of the Sun Salutation. This leads up to the Twelve Basic Poses and finally concludes with Savasana.There is an anatomical science behind this specific order of postures.
There is an anatomical science behind this specific order of postures that has to do with how each asana counteracts the one before. The poses themselves are designed to bend and rotate the spine, lubricate the joints and lengthen the muscles. And the exact progression of these poses leaves the entire body toned, balanced, supple and properly aligned. Yoga practitioners of all levels can perform this sequence, since each asana has simplified, intermediate and advanced variations.
Many people in western culture have a purely physical “no pain, no gain” mentality when it comes to their health and fitness routines. There is a desire for immediate results, sweat and breathlessness in order to justify a good practice. If that is the only thing you’re looking for, then a Sivananda class may not be for you.
Compared to other styles of yoga, this style allows you to experience an easygoing pace, minimal or no props, longer holds, frequent intervals of relaxation and an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of yogic practice. Even though it may move through physically demanding postures and intense breathing exercises, the session feels good, joyous and delightful. It works deep beneath the surface and its principal benefits emerge in the long term.
Furthermore, Sivananda teachers have been molded to create a revolution in consciousness in this world, so many of their methods assimilate a great degree of mindfulness, balance and connection to the higher self.
The Sivananda Yoga Community
An ashram is a step in the journey of life; and those who are trained in Sivananda Yoga are no strangers to ashram life! Remember that yoga poses and breathing exercises are a significant part – but only a part – of yoga. Staying in an ashram provides the experience of being completely immersed into the other aspects of yogic living, such as kriyas (cleansing rituals), sadhana (personal commitments), yamas/niyamas (behaviours and ethics), meditation, karmic service and the study of ancient texts. Ayurveda, the sister science of Yoga, is also taught and practiced here.
Joyous chanting, temple bells, flowers, pujas and satsangs are commonplace within Sivananda communities.There are currently 10 Sivananda ashrams in India, Canada, the United States, the Bahamas, Austria and France. In addition, approximately 30 different Sivananda centres are peppered all over the world. Within these spaces, it is common to see yoga enthusiasts, in their iconic yellow t-shirts and white trousers, going above and beyond the practice of asanas on a daily basis. The communities here are all about joyous chanting, temple bells, flowers, pujas (devotional rituals) and satsangs (spiritual gatherings).
Abuse and Misconduct
For the past few years, several instances of sexual misconduct by certain male swamis and teachers within the Sivananda Yoga Organization have been exposed. This includes a senior teacher named Prahlada, Swami Mahadevananda and the late Swami Vishnudevananda, who was, in fact, one of the earlier founders of Sivananda ashrams around the world. A community initiative entitled Project Satya has been operating to conduct investigations and seek justice for the victims.
Yoga teachers and practitioners who have found a spiritual home in this lineage and have fond memories of their time there will understandably feel betrayed and angered by these revelations. So it may be helpful to make a clear distinction between gurus and the actual practice of Yoga. No matter the style or school, it is Yoga itself that transcends the classroom walls, inspires a oneness of mind, body and spirit and lifts you into an authentic lifestyle of good health and absolute wellness.
Cover Photo courtesy yogaiya.in