Question: What was the North American view of Yoga when you first arrived here?
Sri Gurudev: I still remember the American hippie youth smoking cigarettes as they sat in chairs with their feet up on the table, sticking their feet in my face. After inhaling on a cigarette, someone asked me the question, “Swami, tell us about Yoga.” It was quite an experience! The hippies and the youth of the day, who were searching, were very sincere and spiritually hungry. They saw their parents telling them one thing and doing another. With a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the parents would say to the child, “John, Mary, I never want to catch you smoking or drinking!” It was the ‘60s, a period of time when these kids were disillusioned and searching. And I was invited to America just at that time by filmmaker Conrad Rooks (Chappaqua; Siddhartha) and I was hosted by artist Peter Max. I found these kids to be very sincere, very genuine, and interested in all aspects of Yoga—not just the physical aspect. They were interested in vegetarian diet, in meditation, and in the Yoga philosophy as well. But, mainstream America didn’t know what it was all about. They would label Yoga as a cult, or brainwashing, or fortune telling—even they would get it confused with “yogurt!” They had no idea what it was all about and, for many years, Yoga was seen as standing on your head, or a set of physical exercises. That is why, when I spoke at Carnegie Hall in the late 1960s, I told them, “Yoga is not just about standing on your head, but standing on your feet well.” There were many misconceptions and misunderstandings, and it took many years for people to understand what Yoga has to offer.
Question: Did you think then that Yoga would be as popular as it has become in the past few years?
Sri Gurudev: Yes, I knew that eventually Yoga would be understood by more and more people because, in the West, people had everything: money, name, fame, fortune and eventually when you tire of running after all external or material things in search of happiness, you have to look within. That is the essence of Yoga and of all religions and faiths. The very meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” It’s getting back to your original nature. And Yoga means “union;” it is that reunion with the original, or Pure Self. But, you don’t drop a hot pot until it really burns. I watched as more and more Westerners got “burned out”—as they themselves began to call it. They were all stressed out and searching for ways to release the tensions and relax, go within, and find more meaning in their lives. Then also, we have made many advances in Western medicine but still we see only the symptoms being treated, not the cause.
Yoga and Ayurveda address the very root cause of the dis-ease. And Americans were hungry for that as well because they would undergo bypass surgery only to find that had literally by-passed the problem. So, again, blockages would come and they would be back into surgery. Lifestyle changes became a part of the equation, and Dr. Dean Ornish is really responsible for that, in large part. He came to me in the early 1970s and began studying Yoga while he was starting his medical studies. Then, he wanted to apply the Yoga principles to medicine, particularly heart disease. Now, he has proven that lifestyle changes, meditation, vegetarian diet, and Yoga can actually reverse heart disease. Through all the scientific studies he was able to show this reversal and then the mainstream and medical community became more interested. Also, there has been a great interest in spiritual pursuits on the part of celebrities and the entertainment community. And because they are such visible and influential people in the public eye, they have brought a lot of recognition to and interest in Yoga over the past several years.
Question: Is there a danger in the watering down of yogic teachings into such things as Power Yoga?
Sri Gurudev: When I first came to this country, Hatha Yoga was what the most number of people were interested in and wanted to practice because there is so much body consciousness in this country. And that is okay because, as with anything, you have to start somewhere—so we start with the body. It is through the gross level that we slowly move toward the more subtle levels. By beginning at the level of the body, you begin to teach a person to be more conscious of the body, then the breath, then the senses, then, the thoughts in the mind. You see it is a gradual progression from the gross level to the subtle. You begin with where you are, and that is what I have seen in the more than 30 years I have been in America: Students come to our Integral Yoga classes and they learn the asanas, breathing, some meditation and gradually they find they are becoming more aware, more conscious, more present and they want to go deeper. Negative habits or unhealthy lifestyles start to fall away by themselves. Gradually people begin to feel they want to embrace more non-violent, more compassionate, healthier, more selfless lifestyles. That will all happen, no matter what type of Yoga you practice. But that is the litmus test: If you see you are gradually becoming more peaceful, more easeful, more content, happier, more balanced in your life, then you are on the right path. If not, then you should question if you are really practicing Yoga, the genuine Yoga.
I know that there are many approaches in which people are calling it “Yoga” but there is no understanding of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga and the need for a strong ethical and moral foundation, along with the Yoga postures and practices. If only the physical postures are taught and taught almost as a gymnastics without understanding the spiritual aspects, that will not bring the student much spiritual benefit over time.
Question: What role have the teachings of Sivananda played in the shaping of Yoga in North America?. . .
Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2015 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.