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What is Sivananda Yoga?

Sivananda Yoga teaches a traditional form of asana practice, deeply meditative. Pranayama and meditation are emphasized right from the beginning. This aspect of Sivananda Yoga (which was the first formal system of yoga I practised) has shaped both my practice and teaching. Never have I thought of asana as separate from its spiritual context. It was indeed a privilege (but also a challenge!) to live for a time in a Sivananda ashram, immersed in the yogic lifestyle--where chanting, philosophy, sattvic diet, pujas, meditation, pranayama, asana and selfless service belonged to every day.

In the Sivananda asana practice, postures are entered slowly and held for long periods of time. Stillness in the pose and deep, slow breathing awaken the awareness to the subtle vibrations of energy in the body. Sivananda practice works on all systems of the body, creating suppleness in the joints and flexibility in the spine. Over time, it removes energy blocks in the subtle body so that prana can flow freely in the nadis.

Poses follow a prescribed order, but endless variations are possible too. The practice begins with Salutations to the Sun, the traditional twelve- point variation. Twelve postures or posture groups then follow. Since each of the twelve postures represents a “family” of related poses, numerous variations of each can be added. All postures, from the most basic to the extremely advanced, are practised in the Sivananda tradition—eventually.

Though it can take years of devoted practice to be able to perform advanced yoga postures, one can feel the benefits of practice with the simplest poses of a beginners’ class. It is all a matter of concentration and awareness. Sivananda yoga emphasizes relaxing into poses, softening the breath, and concentrating on the meditative experience. Savasana, the yoga posture of deep relaxation, is practised for a short time between different posture groups to maintain the body in a state of calm and stillness throughout the practice. Traditionally, Sivananda classes begin and end with a Sanskirt chant and include pranayama, a short meditation and a long final Savasana.

Sivananda Yoga developed out of the teachings of Swami Sivananda, a great Indian saint who was born in 1887. After renouncing worldly life, Swami Sivananda dedicated himself to the spiritual path, studying and teaching Vedanta (one of the ancient philosophical traditions of India), writing over 300 books and pamphlets, and serving humanity through the training of many disciples in the principles of truth and non-violence. His advice for the spiritual aspirant can be distilled to the following commandments: “Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realise."

Swami Vishnu-Devananda was one of his greatest disciples and the one who was chosen by Swami Sivananda to take the teachings of yoga to the West in the late 1950’s. A master of Hatha Yoga, Swamiji practised the same life of spiritual devotion that he learned from his guru, spreading the highest teachings of yoga and non-violence throughout Europe and North America. Across the world, he founded many yoga centres and ashrams, calling them Sivananda Yoga-Vedanta Centres. A dynamic and inspiring leader, Swami Vishnu-Devananda worked directly for the cause of peace in many of the world’s trouble spots during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Sivananda Yoga-Vedanta emphasizes the need for yoga to be practised in all its dimensions. It includes a strong bhakti element, with devotional practices, chanting, festivals and pujas infusing life. Aarati (fire ritual), Prasad (sacred sweets), temple bells, incense, flowers . . .  all this belongs to the Sivananda tradition. It stresses right living, according to the ethical precepts of the yamas and niyamas. It teaches the benefits of a pure vegetarian (sattvic) diet for both the individual and the planet. None of this is required, however, or taught directly in a hatha yoga class. But serious practitioners usually make changes to their life style as they commit to regular practice and encounter the full spectrum of the yoga tradition.

Om Shanti

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