An Interview with Nischala Devi
For over 35 years, Nischala Devi has been highly respected internationally for her innovative way of expressing Yoga and its subtle uses for spiritual growth and complete healing. In this interview, she reflects upon her Yoga journey and how she is adapting the language of her teaching to a new generation of Yoga seekers.
Integral Yoga Magazine: Where did your Yoga journey begin?
Nischala Devi: I began practicing Yoga while I was living in Colorado in the early 1970s. I was working in the medical field and decided to quit because I was very disillusioned by the lack of heart and caring. I was also trying to figure out who I was at the time. I decided to move to California, and I got a job at a women’s health clinic in San Francisco. Someone told me about the Integral Yoga Institute (IYI), and I decided to check it out. At the front door was a picture of this amazing being. I said to myself: “I don’t know what he has but whatever it is I want it!” After class the teacher said, “Come on, I’ll make you some herbal tea.” That was beginning of my love affair with the IYI. I began going regularly.
IYM: When did you actually come face to face with the person in the picture at the IYI?
ND: There was a program “Meeting of the Ways.” It was “pick your guru”—many of the prominent teachers at the time were all there talking about their way of seeing the path. The grace and dignity I saw from Swami Satchidananda, and the joy he had, really inspired me. Since the path of joy and love had always been my path, I knew he was my Guru. The other masters were eloquent and very powerful. I felt so blessed to be with them and to make my decision in that gathering.
Some time later, I heard that Swami Satchidananda (Gurudev) was coming to the IYI and that he would be giving mantra initiation. I decided to take it. I had an amazing experience when he passed the energy. That experience inspired me to go Oregon where I sat by a river and spent time daily contemplating and meditating on what I really wanted to do with my life. There was a new IYI in Denver, so I went there, got involved and then took pre-sannyas (pre-monastic vows). When the person in charge of the IYI left, six months later, I was placed in charge. I called Gurudev twice a week for his guidance. One time, he told me to teach Raja Yoga, but I was just beginning to study it myself, and told him so. He replied, “Don’t worry, just stay two pages ahead of the class.” [Laughs] So that’s what I did. In 1977 I took sannyas.
IYM: What is your view on those coming to Yoga today?
ND: Many coming don’t have the training or exposure to the great masters that we had in our generation. What they know as Yoga, mostly the physical part, is all that is offered. If Yoga is taken only at face value or only as something that helps us with stress management, then it’s fine to have all these different “flavors” of Yoga as an entry way. It’s like a funnel—the top of a funnel is wide and the bottom is narrow. So, a lot comes into the funnel, but how many actually get to the bottom of the funnel? We have seen the fads that come and go. Sometimes I smile when I hear about flying Yoga, jazz Yoga and this and that kind of Yoga. One part of me questions, “Why do they even call it Yoga?” There obviously is something that is drawing those people to want Yoga but they don’t know what it is. Not everyone is ready to sit in a 10-day silent meditation retreat. This isn’t the generation for sitting on a bare floor [laughs].
We used to get up between 4:00 am and 4:30 am. We’d leap out of bed because we were sure it was the day—the day we’d get enlightened! I couldn’t wait to get down to the meditation room. People are different now. Back then, we came to Yoga because of a spiritual thirst, a fire in the heart, but today, most don’t want to follow a guru and have a rigorous training. I walked into a workshop today and noticed all the shoes in disarray. I remember always placing my shoes carefully because we were taught everything is Yoga. I’m not sure the students today want that kind of teaching or can accept it.
It’s not that people now aren’t spiritual, it’s just different. There’s a lot of interest today in teacher training and in Yoga therapy. Students will ask me, “How do you know what an individual in your class needs?” I say that you have to know yourself first. You have to sit for meditation yourself before you can work with others. I think Yoga is serving the population of people who are coming now and, when they want to go deeper, Yoga will get deeper again. There are still places like IYI, Yogaville, Sivananda centers and others that are holding the level high, but not everyone wants that high level or the complete Yoga. Most are happy with a few asanas and stretching. My prayer is that the direct disciples of the masters will pass all the teachings on, not just parts of the teachings. Otherwise the traditions will get lost. To this day I can’t put a toilet roll on without thinking about the direction Gurudev taught us the paper should go (facing out so it gives to us rather than us trying to pry it from the roll)—that’s also Yoga.
IYM: What do you think about Yoga’s continued adaptation in the West?
ND: Swami Sivananda never left India. He trained his students, and they carried his teachings to Europe, America, Australia and so on. His students had to become more westernized, even though they were Indian. Gurudev couldn’t treat us like Indian disciples; it wouldn’t have worked. If we don’t keep adapting it—not the teachings—but the way they are presented—to the next generation, the teachings will get lost. Those of us who’ve been direct disciples have to reinterpret according to our experience as westerners and women. We have to then realize the ones coming now are different too. Those coming to me are mostly women. So I’m teaching them in the language women can understand, not in the language that was spoken or written by men for men. You have to take your advice from the theater: Know your audience. Some of the stories have to be put in a different context, so women can understand the teaching illustrated in the stories—otherwise they will reject it. I think we are carrying on the tradition beautifully. Even though its not presented the same as it was in India, we are making it our own and, I think, the masters are smiling.
IYM: Could you give us some examples of how you have adapted your approach?
ND: The concept of avidya is a foundational teaching in the Yoga Sutras, and it is usually translated as ignorance. Ignorance means to ignore something. I changed the definition to “innocence of our divine nature.” It takes away the blame. I’m not ignoring my true nature; I just don’t know it’s there. When I talked about this to women, they got teary-eyed because they had felt blamed. Once we remember our true nature is there, the avidya goes. The adaptation I am making is to change the language to a more feminine, gentle and open-hearted one. This is Yoga: relating to each person as a divine being. Another example is the word, vairagya. Typically it’s translated as “non-attachment.” But if you really look at the word, it means “colorless.” That says to me: don’t pull away from the world, don’t be afraid of it. Instead, if you know who you are and you remember the Self, then nothing else is important or can affect you. Vairagya is really about remembering the Self in all conditions. Most Yoga students now aren’t going to renounce the world to live in an ashram, but people need to know how they can live their lives with Yoga. That’s why vairagya is so important.
IYM: What do you see for the next 40 years of Yoga?
ND: I think people will learn that, no matter what they do with their physical bodies—taking care of the body, spending time with it, doing asanas—they are going to change and get old. If students focus on the more subtle aspects of Yoga such as love and service—the parts that never get old or die—they can do those up until very end of life. That will be the fulfillment of Yoga and that’s the wave I’m seeing and hoping to see even more. I hope to see a time when we start caring more about others than about the body beautiful; that we are loving, instead of perfect in our body alignment; that we care less about making our bodies beautiful and more about making the whole world a beautiful place. This to me is the essence of Yoga. We’ve gotten caught in the physical. As the population of those practicing Yoga ages, they won’t be so interested in the body and the physical part of it. I really hope people will know what real Yoga is, what union is: the union of body, mind and spirit and union with the heart of the person seated next to you. If the world is going to survive, it needs Yoga in its highest form.
Nischala Devi is a master teacher and healer. She was a monastic disciple of Swami Satchidananda and spent over 25 years receiving his direct guidance and teachings. She served as director of stress management for the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. She also co-founded the award-winning Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She created Yoga of the Heart®, a training and certification program for Yoga teachers and health professionals designed to adapt Yoga practices to the special needs of people living with heart disease, cancer and other life-challenging diseases. She is the author of The Healing Path of Yoga and The Secret Power of Yoga, which was named by Yoga Journal as one of the top 10 Yoga books. For more information: www.AbundantWellBeing.com.
~From Integral Yoga Magazine, Winter 2010