By Elliott Goldberg
In his book, The Path of Modern Yoga, Elliott Goldberg shows how Yoga was transformed from a sacred practice into a health and fitness regime for middle-class Indians in the early 20th century and then gradually transformed over the course of the 20th century into an embodied spiritual practice—a Yoga for our times. In this excerpt from his book, Goldberg illuminates the contributions specific of Sri Swami Sivananda, the Guru of Integral Yoga founder Sri Swami Satchidananda.
To accommodate his growing number of disciples, in 1936 [Swami] Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society, headquartered in an ashram in Rishikesh, picturesquely nestled in a Himalayan hill on the banks of the Ganges. The society also served as his base for spreading his brand of yoga. His missionary ambitions were far reaching. “It is wrong to suppose that Yoga-Asanas are purely meant for the Indians and that they are ideally suited to Indian conditions,” he emphatically stated in1938. In fact, the “remarkable efficacy of Yoga-Asanas as the means of building up a radiant and healthy body” in Westerners has already been proven by his smattering of devoted followers in Europe and America. “Yoga-Asanas can be practiced and are intended not only for India and the Indians but for the whole world and the humanity at large.” From the late 1930s to the late 1960s Sivananda yoga became the prominent hatha yoga export around the world. Its importance in the spread of hatha yoga to the West, in particular, is inestimable.
Branches of the Divine Life Society opened in the West in four stages. In the first stage (late 1930s to late 1940s) Western disciples (including Harry Dikman in Riga, Latvia; Louis Brink Fort and Edith Enna in Copenhagen, Denmark; Boris Sakharov in Berlin, Germany; David Ledberg in Stockholm, Sweden; and Ernest Hackel in Los Angeles, California), who learned Sivananda’s style of yoga by reading his books and corresponding with him, founded yoga centers.
In the second stage (late 1940s to early 1960s) Westerners (such as the German-born Canadian Sylvia Hellman, who received the Divine Light invocation, a standing meditation in which one accepts that one is a channel of Divine Light, and was given the name Swami Sivananda Radha in 1956) journeyed to the Sivananda’s burgeoning complex, where, after being systematically trained (in a course including meditation and lecture courses as well as asana practice), they received certification in Sivananda’s method and returned home to teach.
In the third stage (mid-1950s to late 1960s) Sivananda sent Indian disciples throughout India and to other countries to disseminate his method of yoga. His two best-known missionaries were Swami Vishnu-devananda and Swami Satchidananda. Vishnu-devananda was dispatched to the West by his master in 1957 with a ten-rupee note (less than a dollar) and the words: “Go, people are waiting. Many souls from the East are reincarnating now in the West. Go and reawaken the consciousness hidden in their memories and bring them back to the path of Yoga.” He founded a Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Montreal in 1959 and in Quebec in 1962 and established a retreat in the Bahamas in 1967. Satchidananda founded Integral Yoga (the trademark name given by him to Sivananda’s yoga) in New York in 1966. In Yoga Journal’s Yoga Basics, yoga teacher Mara Carrico and the editors of Yoga Journal credit these men’s efforts, especially the “brilliant and innovative promotional skills” of Vishnu-devananda, for the “Sivananda organization blossom[ing] into an international entity.”
In the fourth stage (1960s and 1970s) students of Sivananda’s first generation of Indian disciples opened their own Sivananda centers. For example, in the United States Marcia Moore and her husband opened the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1962, and Sita Frenkel and her husband founded a branch of the Divine Life Society in Harriman, New York, in 1964. In Great Britain Barbara Gordon and Judy Stalabrass opened the Sivananda Yoga Centre in London in 1968.
By the early 1960s almost all Sivananda teachers taught the same basic yoga class, which followed Sivananda’s selection and sequence of postures. Sivananda had further distilled the yoga regime of twenty postures that Van Lysebeth had learned into the famous Rishikesh series of nine postures, which unfold in a perfect rhythm of pose and counterpose. The main concern, as cultural anthropologist Sarah Strauss points out, was that “everyone know what the trademark sequence of postures is, so that they will be able to join classes at any one of the centers worldwide, without feeling that they are outsiders.”
In 1936 [Swami] Sivananda formed the Divine Life Society (DLS). In reframing his community at the ashram in Rishikesh, on the edge of the sacred Ganges, as an official spiritual organization, he did more than solidify his growing following; he created the means for disseminating his yoga system. The critical evolution of the DLS took place after World War II, mainly due to the establishment in 1948 of the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, a formal yoga training center, located within the ashram grounds. It attracted not only disciples (residents) but also lay members (visitors). “And, to crown it all,” writes Van Lysebeth in “The Yogic Dynamo,” his tribute to his guru, “[Sivananda] accepted people from the west, and even females!” A magnanimous and magnetic spiritual teacher, he encouraged these students not only to practice yoga but also to teach yoga by forming small groups when they returned home.
Sivananda published books and pamphlets through the DLS press, the Sivananda Publication League. (He would eventually author over two hundred books.) Through the English-language publications, his teaching reached many foreigners. One of them was [André] Van Lysebeth, who began receiving instruction from Sivananda by correspondence in 1949. (He was awarded a diploma from the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy in 1963, when he met Sivananda for the first time, shortly before the guru died.) Van Lysebeth’s epistolary relationship with Sivananda wasn’t unusual; the first Sivananda centers in Europe were founded by men and women who’d read Sivananda’s books and corresponded with him but hadn’t studied with him.
During his more than 7,500-mile All-India Tour (his only major tour of India) in 1950, Sivananda established local and regional branches of the DLS throughout India. Then, in the 1950s and early 1960s, he sent his disciples, including the swamis Vishnu-devananda, Satchidananda, Satyananda, Venkatesananda, and Omkarananda, around India and/or the rest of the world to form branches of the DLS (or DLS-inspired but unaffiliated organizations). Their students, in turn, opened Sivananda yoga centers.
Sivananda was nicknamed “Swami Propagandananda” by his detractors for his dissemination of yoga far and wide. Van Lysebeth notes that “they disapproved of both his modern methods of diffusion, and his propagation of yoga on such a grand scale to the general public. . . . He encouraged a yoga practice which was possible for everyone: some asanas, a little pranayama, a little meditation and bhakti; well, a little of everything.” The critics predicted that in the materialistic West, yoga would “degenerate into a minor branch of hygienic gymnastics, nothing more. This was considered as a complete betrayal of yoga and the great rishis.”
In actuality, although he always promoted yoga as health prevention and cure, Sivananda primarily advanced yoga as relief from the stress brought about by the conditions of modernity. “Life has become very complex in these days,” he wrote in1939. “The struggle for existence is very acute and keen. . . . A great deal of continuous mental and physical strain is imposed on modern humanity by its deadening daily work and unhealthy mode of life.” To provide a more immersive physical and mental relaxation experience than could be found in sessions at local Sivananda centers, he developed what social historian Sarah Strauss calls a yoga “oasis regime”: a “‘yoga vacation’ . . . that essentially reproduces the European spa experience—another classic ‘oasis regime’—with, quite literally, a new twist.” In Rishikesh (and later at DLS ashrams around the world), his followers partook in yoga retreats that enabled them to “engage in an ascetic lifestyle for a short while, in order to improve not only their own hectic lives but also the world around them, when they go back home.” In taking a break from their worldly social life, they became (at least temporarily) jivanmukhtas.
A jivanmukhta is one who is liberated while still embodied. “‘Liberated in life,’” explains historian of religion Mircea Eliade, “the jivan-mukta no longer possesses a personal consciousness—that is, a consciousness nourished on his own history—but a witnessing consciousness, which is pure lucidity and spontaneity.” Traditionally, a jivanmukhta is distinguished from one who is liberated while separated from the body—that is, when dead. Sivananda was influential in redefining jivanmukhta in the 20th century by changing the meaning to one who attains absolute freedom not only while alive but while still involved in the activities of everyday life, distinguished from one who withdraws from society to achieve enlightenment. This new formulation, observes Strauss, “reflects the fact that this ideal was well suited to the lives and goals of the emergent middle classes in India and the West. It did not require them to give up the basic structures and activities of everyday life, but only to reformulate their attitudes and concepts of self and others through the addition of yogic practices.” In fact, being this new type of jivanmukhta didn’t even require students to sacrifice their personality (which is made up of the memories of one’s own history); they needed simply to rejuvenate their spirit.
Some, even today, may consider Sivananda’s teachings as a key symptom of yoga’s modern decline. But there’s no disagreeing with Van Lysebeth, who argues that thanks to Sivananda—his teachings, disciples, and books—“thousands of westerners now practise yoga. Yoga has given meaning to their lives, given them back their health [Van Lysebeth himself was cured of constipation], and helped them to survive in a difficult world.” Sivananda’s gentle style of yoga with its standard format helps people in India and the West keep their bodies healthy and their minds quiet and calm.
Nevertheless, even Van Lysebeth concedes that the traditionalists weren’t entirely wrong in saying that Sivananda’s simple messages awakened people’s interest in yoga but “completely cut [yoga] off from its deep roots, which lead us back to the origins of our own being and all of the cosmos.” Yet Sivananda himself intimated a way to experience exactly this depth of yoga practice within his system. In his 1939 yoga manual, he proposed a guided imagery relaxation exercise—which more accurately should be called a meditation—for Savasana, Corpse Pose: “Imagine that . . . your body [is] floating in this vast ocean of spirit. . . . Feel that Lord Hiranyagarbha, the ocean of life, is gently rocking you on His vast bosom. Feel that you are in touch with the Supreme Being.”
Any asana session (whether practiced in isolation in a room in the basement of a house, in a class at a yoga center down the block, or as part of a four-day retreat that includes pranayama, study, presentations, and seated meditation at an ashram in the Bahamas) can be used to practice this or similar meditations. That is, any single asana session may be considered as a kind of oasis regime: a period of temporary withdrawal from the concerns of everyday life with its demands set by clocks and calendars, a period of contemplation in which we can live in the eternal present, outside of time, using our body as a vehicle to becoming open to Being.
Elliott Goldberg is one of the few scholars in the emerging field of modern Yoga studies. He has presented papers at the Modern Yoga Workshop at Cambridge University and at the American Academy of Religion (AAR). He lives in New York City. His new book, from Inner Traditions, is available from Integral Yoga Distribution, Amazon, and most other retailers.