“Crave for a thing, you will get it.
Renounce the craving, the object will follow you by itself.”
~ Swami Sivananda
Sivananda Yoga is a well-known offering of yoga taught at Sivananda yoga centres, ashrams and retreats all over the world. But what exactly is Sivananda Yoga all about? This article introduces Swami Sivananda and also explains Sivananda Yoga.
Swami Sivananda (1887 – 1963) taught the Yoga of Synthesis i.e. practising the yogas of karma (selfless action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (wisdom) and Raja yoga (including Hatha Yoga and meditation) together.
The Sivananda ashrams over the world incorporate the different paths of yoga in daily life. During my month at the Kerala ashram, daily practices included four hours of Hatha Yoga, an hour of karma yoga (seva) and satsangs every morning and evening which included meditation and kirtan (devotional singing).
Swami Sivananda outlined the “5 points of yoga” that bring together different methods based on the science of yoga, into a lifestyle that may be easily followed even by people living in society, dedicated to family-life and professions. This practicality is perhaps one of the hallmarks of Sivananda Yoga and the reason for its popularity – one can be a yogi without renouncing ‘worldly’ life but instead by incorporating certain simple sadhana (or spiritual practices) into one’s everyday life.
5 points of Yoga
Sivananda Yoga is based on the 5 points of yoga which are:
1. Proper Exercise (asanas)
As opposed to other forms of exercise, asanas emphasise stretching a muscle and then relaxing it. Gym exercises and aerobics on the other hand involve forceful muscle contractions which have the effect of building up lactic acid in the body which in turn leads to muscle fatigue and soreness (don’t we all know the feeling of stiffness the day after a gym work-out?).
Further, asanas focus on the strength and flexibility of the spine which is regarded as the most important part of the body in yoga. The health of the spine ensures the health of all other bodily functions. At a subtle level, the spine houses the seven main chakras or energy centres which are the main centres of consciousness in the body. Since the effort of yoga is to raise the level of consciousness, the spine is the main focus in asana and pranayama practice.
2. Proper Breathing (pranayama)
Most of us don’t breathe properly. Our breath is often shallow because we don’t properly employ the diaphragm or abdominal muscles while breathing. Yogic breathing emphasises taking full, deep breaths. On an inhale, the chest lifts up, diaphragm moves down and the abdomen extends outwards. On an exhale, the chest relaxes, diaphragm moves up, massaging the heart muscles, and the abdomen comes in.
Only by breathing properly can we ensure that the body is well supplied with oxygen and fresh prana (life energy or vital force). The different pranayama techniques help to improve physical health but more importantly, they help us to control the prana which in turn helps control the fluctuations of our mind.
The science of pranayama is based on the understanding that the breath and mind are both manifestations of prana and are connected through the flow of prana. Therefore, what is happening in our mind affects the way we breathe, and also, the way we breathe can affect the state of our mind. To consider an example, when the mind is calm, we can see it reflected in our breathing which will also be smooth and slow. The connection also works the other way round i.e. if we slow down and deepen our breath, the mind becomes calmer. (See also: 3 Stress-Busting Pranayamas)
3. Proper Relaxation (shavasana)
Modern lifestyles afford little time for relaxation. Most of us only rest when we go to bed at night or when we are physically unable to do any work either because of illness or injury. It is important however, to relax consciously and deliberately so that the body and mind are always in their optimal state.
Relaxation must be practiced on three levels – physical, mental and spiritual. On the physical level, Hatha yoga recommends the practice of shavasana (corpse pose) for total relaxation. On the mental level, relaxation means letting go of all thoughts so that the mind becomes calm. On the spiritual level, it means dropping the identification with both body and mind.
4. Proper Diet (sattvik diet)
A lacto-vegetarian diet is considered most conducive for physical and mental health as well as for sadhana (spiritual practices). Yoga philosophy recognises the three gunas (qualities) that define physicality: tamas (inertia, inactivity), rajas (passion, activity) and sattva (purity, lightness). Moving our body and mind towards sattva is the first effort of a spiritual process. Only when the mind has been rendered sufficiently pure or sattvik, can it understand and assimilate higher knowledge. A sattvik diet has always been advised by yogis and sages because it helps keep the mind light and balanced aside from being best suited to the human body from a physical health standpoint.
A sattvik diet consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and milk and milk products. Food should be fresh, lightly cooked and lightly spiced because such food contains maximum prana and is therefore most nourishing for both the body and mind. A sattvik diet also implies not indulging the senses or eating compulsively but eating only according to the body’s requirements.
5. Positive Thinking and Meditation (dhyana and Vedanta)
The study of Vedanta and the practice of dhyana (meditation) are considered important for personal and spiritual growth. A calm and joyful mind is the result of such study and meditation. Vedanta teaches that contentment is the natural state of a mind that has become quiet. Thus steadying the mind and concentrating it on the higher Self (Atman), immediately bring us to the experience of our natural joy.
Meditation can be practised with the use of a mantra or by focusing on a particular point – usually the solar plexus or on the point between the eyebrows (Ajna chakra). The practice of meditation should be done at a regular time and place everyday. One should adopt a comfortable yogic sitting posture with an erect spine and face either towards the North or the East.
The Sivananda Yoga centres also perform daily chanting and aarti (worship) which purifies the mind and heart and creates positivity. See below for a very old recording of Swami Sivananda singing a version of the daily Jaya Ganesha chant that are sung in the ashrams even today.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati
Swami Sivananda was born Kuppuswamy on 8 September 1887 in Pattamadai (Thiruneveli district) in Tamil Nadu, India. He was a bright and energetic child who displayed a highly compassionate nature even in his childhood. He excelled academically and was fond of the arts and music. He went on to become a medical doctor and spent many years working in Malaysia. Alongside his professional work, he would also set up free medical camps to treat the poor.
In 1923 he gave up his career to travel to Rishikesh to walk the spiritual path. There he met his guru Swami Vishvananda who initiated him into sanyas (renunciation or ‘monk-hood’), into the Saraswati order of Adi Shankaracharya‘s lineage. The Saraswati order is one of 10 orders (dasanami sampradaya) set up by Adi Shankaracharya (~8th century CE) to organise and unite the various spiritual traditions in India. Kuppuswamy was given the name Swami Sivananda Saraswati by his guru.
From that point, Swami Sivananda practiced rigorous austerities for Self-realisation. A group of devotees gathered around him and a small ashram was formed. Swami Sivananda established the Divine Life Society in 1936 in Rishikesh for carrying out spiritual activities including initiating people who wanted to take sanyas (renunciation). The Divine Life Society printed numerous books on spirituality authored by Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda also himself travelled extensively across India spreading the spiritual message. His motto was: Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realise.
Swami Sivananda’s teachings were furthered by his disciples including Swami Vishnudevananda who was a master of Hatha Yoga. Swami Vishnudevanda traveled extensively in the West to spread Swami Sivananda’s teachings and established the international Sivananda Yoga-Vedanta centres. He was well-known over the world for his work to spread the message of peace and love. He established the True World Order in 1969 with the purpose of training world leaders to spread the message of “unity in diversity”. The True World Order also initiated the Yoga Teachers Training courses which are recognised as one of the most authentic yoga courses globally, transmitted through a guru-shishya (guru-disciple) parampara (lineage).
Even today, the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centres across the world are very popular centres of learning yoga and Ayurveda, attracting thousands of spiritual aspirants.
Read more about Sivananda Yoga here.
An old recording of Swami Sivananda chanting the Jaya Ganesha chant
~ The author has completed the Yoga Teachers Training programme from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, Kerala.
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