Interview with Will Noffkee

Paramahamsa Niranjanananda (California, USA, 1982)

Our guest today is Swami Niranjan who is a representative of the Satyananda Ashram in the United States. He was initiated into the sannyas order by his Guru, Swami Satyananda, at the tender age of site. How did this happen Swamiji? My parents were swamis and when they came to live at the ashram at our headquarters in Bihar, India, I came with them and I studied Yoga there with all its branches and different philosophies, and when I was able to make my mind up as to what I wanted to be, I decided to become a swami.

You were actually given a choice?

Yes, everybody is. In spiritual life one tries to be free from bondage, so how can there be force or submission in a spiritual tradition?

Could you tell us a little bit about the basic philosophy of your particular path?

The basic philosophy is common sense. Swami Satyananda teaches the Yoga of synthesis and we call it Satyananda Yoga. It deals mainly with the development of man as a whole. The human personality has four different characteristics - the dynamic aspect, the emotional aspect, the intellectual aspect and the mystical aspect. We all utilise these four facets of our personality from day to day, and it is the growth of all these areas through the practices of Yoga that forms the Satyananda Yoga system.

So you are talking about developing a fully integrated being?

That is right.

What is the procedure?

It is easier for people in general to begin with some physical practices of asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques), and gradually integrate the practices of relaxation, concentration, guided meditation, Raja Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Laya Yoga, Nada Yoga and every other aspect of Yoga.

So, we are to understand you move from this body basically?

Yes, to the mind and then to the spirit.

Is this a gradual procedure over some years?

It depends on how quickly the students can assimilate the practices they have learned.

Are there people who would be better starting with the more intense Raja Yoga?

When it comes to dealing with different individual characteristics then we use different methods. For example, for a very emotional person we may use something to channel his emotions and focus his attention at one point; for an intellectual person we may utilise some of the practices of Gyana Yoga, where he can develop his intuitive perception and bring about a balance in his intellectual understanding; and for a person with a mystical temperament we may utilise certain practices of Raja Yoga. The whole process of mental discovery - what our thoughts are; what our emotions are; what our desires and ambitions are, our conscious, unconscious, subconscious - we go through the whole process and develop our inherent qualities that way.

Your organisation has settled all over the world?

Yes.

You concentrate on the United States primarily?

Yes. Swami Satyananda did not really want to come to the United States because his approach to teaching had been introducing Yoga to people who had never been exposed to it before. He saw the needs of other countries more. In this country we already have many teachers, but now he believes that the time has come to help systematise the teachings of Yoga which have been taught in many different ways.

In Colombia it was dealing with people who are in government and business?

Our ashram in Colombia has been concentrating on teaching Yoga to nuns, catholic priests and Jesuit monks in different convents and monasteries, mainly for the reason that it gives them a greater insight into their own philosophies and religious practices.

But did you not also extend into the general community?

Yes.

As I recall (this is going back ten years I believe) there was an intense outreach into the power structure of the country, of working with those people who had never come in contact with Yoga, on quite a different level than an ashram setting.

I was in Colombia from the very beginning and I was the director there for quite some time. We had regular classes at the ashram; and apart from teaching the general public and the monks and the priests, that was our main activity.

How do you see Yoga being integrated into society at this point in history. Ten years ago there was a great influx from the East of very profound teachings which took the West by storm. They really felt it was supplying a need which could not be supplied by any western teaching. There were a lot of people who went into ashrams and really withdrew from the world as they knew it. We have gone through a radical change in the past ten years. There seems to be a greater integration of the spiritual into everyday life, and it appears necessary to do so. Has there been a change in the way Yoga has been taught or in the sort of people who come to you? What have you noticed over this period?

There was definitely a time when people were very much influenced by Eastern philosophy and we have to remember the many facets of this philosophy. Here we are specifically talking about Yoga and its practices, and the practices of Yoga are very vast. There are many principles and many techniques - hundreds - and it is very hard for us to know which is the right path of Yoga for our own particular development. That is where the difficulty comes, because people who are involved in Yoga have only one idea in their minds, whether they think of Yoga as a physical, mental or spiritual practice.

Very few people have been able to effectively combine the three aspects. When we are able to combine the practices of Yoga effectively we will find ourselves becoming very responsible and efficient members of society with quality awareness, more mental clarity and creative energy. This is better than going into seclusion and withdrawing from the world. Man's movements change from time to time. A few years back there was a reversal of the outgoing energy and people were searching for something more substantial inside. So, we had the withdrawal syndrome, but it is not happening now. Now we are all trying to combine the inner and outer worlds. We are trying to combine the external experiences with the internal experiences; and for accelerating this process Yoga is very beneficial.

Yogis throughout the ages, (not one particular matter, but yogis in general), have been talking about a system of Yoga which can bring about a balanced growth in the internal and external life of man. Nowadays people are coming to Yoga with that idea in mind.

Do the people who study with you come on a once-a-week basis or is it necessary to become part of the ashram? How do you teach in general?

One of the major activities is giving seminars and courses on specific aspects of Yoga, like Kriya Yoga, chakra workshops, Kundalini Yoga, Raja Yoga, etc. These generally happen on the weekends when people can devote at least half a day to a full day, and learn the details of the practices, rather than a superficial knowledge and awareness. People who want to continue with Yoga and become involved in ashram activities, usually come twice a week to an ongoing class, which contains very basic practices suitable for everyone.

Basically starting with Hatha Yoga?

Yes, and apart from that we also have teacher training programmes where we train people into this comprehensive system of Yoga. We train teachers how to recognise the needs of every individual and to fulfil those needs, whether physical, mental or spiritual.

You have mentioned kriyas and kundalini and a number of other practices which I have not heard about from other disciples of Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda. I am not quite sure why that is the case. Swami Vishnudevananda concentrated heavily on Hatha Yoga, as does Swami Satchidananda, but they each have their own focus - all beautiful beings focussing on different things! I was wondering if there was something particularly unique about Swami Satyananda?

Every disciple of Swami Sivananda has his own uniqueness, and it is very hard for me to say why they are unique in their own way. The uniqueness of Paramahamsa Satyananda is that he combines the traditional wisdom of Yoga with modern scientific data. I will give you a few examples of our work.

In our ashrams in India we have concentrated a lot on the therapeutic aspects of Yoga; to see how Yoga practices can help with asthma, diabetes, hypertension, polio and even cancer, dealing mainly with medical problems, but not excluding the mental and spiritual. In Australia we have concentrated on Yoga and psychiatry; teaching Yoga in prisons; imparting the yogic way of life by utilising the normal daily activity to learn something more about personality. In Europe we have used Yoga in education by integrating the practices in schools, colleges and universities to develop the efficiency, memory and creativity of the students. In South America, the emphasis has been on the integration of Yoga with religion. There are many ways of utilising a Yoga practice - in health, education, science, medicine, psychology, religion, etc., and this has been our approach.

Did Swami Satyananda travel the world and guide each particular centre through the people involved there?

Paramahamsa Satyananda usually travelled about nine months of the year outside India. During that time he visited different centres in different countries. Usually he formulated a plan which they could follow during the coming year. In Europe we have the European Union of the National Federation of Yoga and there are seven thousand Yoga teachers affiliated with it. Every year they meet and decide on a plan for the coming year. One year the emphasis will be on Raja Yoga or relaxation, Hatha Yoga, Samkhya, "The Yoga Sutras" of Patanjali, or anything. There is a definite system of teaching and Paramahamsaji helped provide that to people who are affiliated and to those in his own centres.

When did you come to the United States?

I came here in 1980.

Who is approaching you at this point?

Actually, a combination of many people from different walks of life come to me : students in their twenties, people in their eighties, and businessmen. Everybody comes! I think that is the American way.

You have guided many different types of people into the practices of Yoga. Could you tell us about the diverse backgrounds of these people?

Students who come to Yoga are mainly interested in learning something in-depth about the techniques. The average person is usually sceptical and comes to do something physical, but after a few classes their whole point of view changes, and they are really very impressed by Yoga. They then pursue it with greater resolve and are greatly helped by it.

There are many reasons why people come to practise Yoga. Some people want to release tension from the body and mind; some come to learn how to meditate; there are people who come to learn a preventative method for various ailments they may be facing, or simply for the development of general health. So, every person who comes has a very specific idea in mind. Of course, every branch of Yoga complements other branches, and they are more effective when combined, just as the notes in a musical scale can create a very balanced harmony.