Re-defining Yogic Education

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Address at inauguration of the Sydney Yoga Therapy Research and Education Centre, Bondi, NSW, Australia in April 1995

We have had to re-think and re-define the goals of people involved in and trying to propagate yoga. In the time of our guru, Paramahamsa Satyananda, the propagation of yoga took the form of introducing yoga to a broad range of people in different countries and cultures. He started off a trend which took us beyond the superficial dimension into a deeper understanding of what yoga has to offer and how it could be applied in our lives. In 1983 I was put in a tight spot; I went from being a free, independent swami to looking after the entire organization. It took me eleven years to know how to carry on the work of yoga.

When certain ideas became clear, we started a new approach to yogic education with the formation of a Yoga University, the first one of its kind in the world. The seed of this undertaking was planted in November 1993 during the World Yoga Convention, which was organized in Munger to commemorate the fifty years of renunciation and service to humanity of Paramahamsa Satyananda. The university will provide ample scope for studying, understanding and applying the subtle aspects of yoga.

The concept of yoga has changed with the times. In Britain, during the early sixties, there was a yoga teacher by the name of Richard Hittleman who taught yoga on TV for beautifying the body. At that time, in Australia, Roma Blair was teaching yoga for physical fitness and reduction of the waistline. Swami Saraswati, who is not related to us, also came up with her brand of yoga in Australia. That period of yogic propagation was confined to the aspect of asana for the physical body, because the whole concept was new. Nobody taught pranayama or even knew what it was. Pranayama was considered to be a type of breathing exercise that is very difficult and dangerous to do. Nobody had ever heard of mudra, bandha or shatkarma, of kriya yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga or karma yoga for that matter.

Later on the concept and the thrust of yoga changed. It became a way to attain mental relaxation, to reduce stress and anxiety, to find some form of mental peace, with the emergence of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Then many different groups and individuals adopted the yogic structure and created their own brand of yoga. In the present day, a new approach to yoga is emerging. Yoga has not changed. The practices, theories and concepts are the same, but our acceptance, understanding and application are changing. In the modern context, the need to look deeper into yoga has become more evident. As we find ourselves thrown into conflict in relation to our society, family and work, we lose our balance, inner peace and harmony. Despite these influences, which are both external and internal, we are looking into a method whereby we can integrate our personality. This integration is the main thrust of yoga teaching.

Law of karma

Today society is at a crossroads and such institutions as the Yoga University are necessary so that we can learn to deal with life in a more positive, systematic and balanced way. Until now, due to lack of understanding and awareness, we have been misusing the potential and the faculties of our life. In order to overcome the feeling of guilt, we say that life is all a play of karma, that it is our karma to be like this or like that. However, the law of karma is totally different to our limited concept, no matter what people may say about it.

Karma represents the continuity of action which is performed by an individual on the physical, mental and emotional levels. Our thoughts are karmas; they are actions of the mind. Feelings are karmas of the heart. Ambitions are karmas of the ego. Wherever there is some form of manifestation, an idea taking a form even if it is within our mind, it is a karma. The Bhagavad Gita has stated that each individual performs karmas not only through the body and the senses, but also through the mind, emotions, interactions and beliefs. However, there also has to be a process of elimination and we do not know this technique.

How can we eliminate the negative karmas? Let me give you an example. We eat, we digest the food and afterwards, what do we do? Bring it out the other way. There is a process of natural elimination; it is a law. Whatever you eat and drink has to come out, you cannot hold it inside. If you try, you will become badly constipated. This law also applies to our mental body. We are constantly feeding ourselves through our emotions, through a search for fulfilment, pleasure, satisfaction and contentment. However, we are not able to eliminate what has already been digested, and what is not eliminated is accumulated inside. This accumulation of mental toxins has to be eliminated and the elimination is known as purification of inner karma.

Trend of modern therapies

We contain both positive and negative qualities. Negative qualities are the tamasic, restrictive, detrimental qualities, which inhibit the growth and flowering of life. The positive qualities are rajasic and aid the process of growth in life. In the absence of such recognition, our inner body which is comprised of mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), memory (chitta) and ego (ahamkara), is in a state of imbalance. This state of imbalance creates physical, emotional and mental disturbance which later manifests in the form of disease and illness.

Modern therapies are trying desperately to find a way to promote health, but their concept of health promotion is very superficial. They look at the body, at the disease which has already taken hold and try to rectify that. I remember a story about a great statesman. He was eleven and lived with his mother on a farm. There were many plants, trees and shrubs which were cared for by his mother. Once she had to leave the farm for several days and so she asked her son to look after the plants while she was away. The son said, 'Fine, it is a very simple job. I can do it.'

When the mother returned she saw that all her plants were wilted; the flowers had fallen off and the leaves were drooping. Seeing their condition, she called her son and asked him, 'How did you look after the plants?' He replied, 'Everyday I went around with a cloth and cleaned each plant very carefully, every leaf, every flower petal, the trunk or stem. I made sure there was not a single speck of dust and if I found any insects, I killed them. Every morning I polished the fruit on the tree.' The mother asked one question, 'Did you ever water the plants?' The son said, 'No, I forgot!'

This is also the story of our lives. When we get a pimple or a mosquito bite, we apply a spray. We look after the tree externally, but we are not able to provide water for the roots which are unseen. This has been the trend of modern therapies. They look at that portion of the tree which is above the ground. If the tree is sick, if bugs are eating the leaves, they spray it and kill all the bugs. That is the most crude form of treatment. Many people are now going back to an organic lifestyle, but still our vision has not changed. Maybe the methods of treating our problems have changed, but the approach has not.


Yoga says, 'Don't observe only the trunk, branches, leaves and fruits'. Of course, they are there and we have to look after them, but they are not the main point of focus. We also have to care for the roots which are underground. If we cannot provide the roots with water, sooner or later the tree is going to die. This is what happens in the course of life. We live life, but we are dead people. We are not alive, vibrant, expressing our creativity and joy. We are caught up in the negative emotions which have accumulated in our heads and which have full control over our actions, behaviour and thinking. These negative emotions or karmas, actions which have left their imprint in the mind-field, have to be eliminated.

In order to go through this process of elimination, we have to educate ourselves in yoga. The trend in society today is towards job-oriented education. When we go to school, we have to make a projection about what we wish to become in the future. Then we have to learn those skills which will be useful for the future. This is a form of externalized education, but we are missing something vital. Our education has taught us how to look after the trunk, branches, leaves and fruit, but it has not taught us about imbibing samskara.

The word samskara has been defined as mental programming or conditioning, according to which we act and live, but that is not the actual meaning. Samskara is derived from two roots: akara means a form, a complete image; and sam means balanced. So the literal meaning of samskara is a balanced, harmonious, integrated image which we need to develop about ourselves. This image is imbibed through yoga.

Cause of suffering

When we are unable to eliminate the negative mind stuff, then we suffer and this suffering can take any form. It can take the form of physical disease, mental imbalance, emotional crisis or spiritual crisis due to suppression and misunderstandings in life. Yogis knew that suffering would increase in the future. Yogis are thinkers who are able to apply certain aspects of yoga in order to improve the conditions of normal life. In fact, in the literature of tantra or yoga such as Gherand Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is clear that there is a dialogue between two people, one asking a question and the other giving the answer. The question is: how to overcome suffering?

Suffering has been divided into three categories: (i) adidevic, (ii) adibhautic and (iii) adhyatmic. The first is adidevic which means suffering due to natural causes such as earthquake, flood, famine, fire and other catastrophes over which there is no human control. The second is adibhautic which means suffering which is generated due to wrong lifestyle, to lack of understanding of how to live in the right way, and to changing situations in the world which we are not able to adjust or cope with. Adibhautic suffering includes most of the diseases and illnesses which we encounter today. The third category is adhyatmic suffering which is due to spiritual causes.

How to overcome suffering

The three kinds of suffering which have been defined in yogic literature are natural, personal and spiritual. The way given to overcome this suffering is through a process of working with the different areas of our personality. In yoga this process is called sadhana. Whatever form of meditation we do, whether it is self-observation, antar mouna, ajapa japa, dharana or yoga nidra, these different yogic sadhanas deal with the human mind. They relate to and harmonize the aspect of chitta.

Karma yoga relates with the actions that we perform in life. When karma yoga becomes natural, spontaneous and effortless, we will develop immunity to action. Karma yoga is not the yoga of action, rather it is a way to develop immunity to the effects and influences of action. If I say something bad, you will not like it. If I say something good, you will like it. That means you are not immune to what I am saying. What I am saying is an action being performed by me, and how you are receiving it is your reaction to my action.

If we are able to develop immunity to the negative influences, the tamasic tendencies of life, then karma becomes karma yoga. Otherwise, it is only a head trip, an intellectual concept that we are doing karma yoga, that karma yoga means hard work or a change of attitude. Karma yoga is not a change of attitude, hard work or selfless service. It is a method by which we can develop immunity in life, and this immunity relates to the aspect of manas which is responsible for interaction, for our external behaviour. We constantly analyze our behaviour, how we are going to perform so that other people will accept us as nice people. That behaviour is related to manas.

Other yogic sadhanas, such as the meditative practices of pratyahara and dharana, influence the aspect of chitta. Jnana yoga is not study, rather it is applying what we know in life. This application influences the aspect of buddhi, and it is not easy. Many times we know that whatever we wish to do is not possible at present. We feel certain conflicts; we wish to lead our life in a certain way but we cannot. We have the knowledge but we are not able to apply it. When we begin to live that understanding, that knowledge, then jnana yoga influences the aspect of buddhi, and buddhi is harmonized. The harmony of manas, buddhi and chitta helps to organize the structure of ahamkara or ego.

Yogic education

We have to re-define our understanding of yoga and yogic education because we work at many subtle levels. Our roots are what actually support us. If the roots die, the tree is not going to survive. Awareness and harmonization of these roots leads to the elimination of mental toxins. At present we do not have the ability to release what we feel or what we have accumulated mentally because we are not aware of ourselves. I know that I am not aware and if I, who continuously think about yoga and how to present it, am not aware, then how can another person who just comes in contact with yoga for an hour every day be aware?

An adjustment has to take place. It is the acceptance, conditioning and expression of life, and the accommodation of human karmas in life which is the aim of yoga. People talk about very nice concepts and theories of transcendence, no doubt, but we have to begin by providing ourselves with an education which makes us aware of our inner personality. In the first sutra of Patanjali, “Atha yogaanushasanam”, it states that 'the aim of yoga is to govern the subtle structure of human personality'.

If we can understand this much and expand it in our own way, what will happen? When our subtle, inner personality is harmonized, how will we function? How will we think? How will we behave? How will we act? What will we express? It will be totally different to what we are experiencing right now. It is that self-education where we become aware of ourselves, not a job-oriented education, that yoga propagates. This awareness is incredible. The mind has infinite possibilities and because we are an expression, an extension of that mind in the external world, we have infinite possibilities.

Yogic psychotherapy

These infinite possibilities are the result of attaining higher consciousness, progressively increasing our state of awareness. It is the increasing states of awareness which change the quality of life. The yogic theories about kundalini yoga represent the changing, evolving quality of life. In its description of the chakras, kundalini yoga has come forward as the most effective psychotherapy ever to exist on this planet. At first we deal with the mooladhara level of consciousness where we take up the aspects of security and insecurity. The idea of security in life is very strong. We do not want to become insecure; we want to maintain our stability. However, in order to maintain stability, we have to latch on to something in the absence of which we again become insecure.

So, the whole aspect of mind and consciousness in relation to security and insecurity becomes a very vicious circle. Again the effect of karma comes in. While travelling from one country to the next, especially in Europe, often I would get funny feelings in my heart because I did not change gear. If people like what I say, they like it; if they do not like it, they do not. I think that if I were to adjust my thinking according to the mentalities of everyone, my life would be a living hell. So I do not adjust with anyone's mentality; I live as I am. But because of this I would often get such thoughts as, 'Will I be admitted into this country or not?'

Once I went to Greece which is a very orthodox country. They do not like any threat to their security and they held me at the airport for six hours because they wanted to deport me. I think the customs officer had got out of the wrong side of the bed because I had given him my most special smile and it had not worked. For the first few moments I realized what anxiety was. The fear of deportation, of not being allowed into the country was very strong although I had done nothing, somebody just did not like my face or dress.

I said to myself, 'What is this? Why am I reacting this way?' and I started doing my mantra. There was another lady in a similar situation. She was in her fifties and I was eighteen. While we were waiting for the decision, I sat down very comfortably on the sofa with my mala and started to do japa, passing the time. The lady was pacing up and down, up and down, up and down. I watched her for some time until I had to close my eyes as they had become like a pendulum. She was smoking continuously and after every packet she would ask me, 'Aren't you nervous?'

I said, 'I was nervous but not anymore. Walking around the room is not going to help me enter the country. Smoking five packets of cigarettes in one hour is not going to help me enter the country. If I have to enter, I will enter; if I don't, I won't. I will still get to sit on the plane and enjoy a good flight.' I think it was a test of God who finally said, 'This fellow has passed the test of mooladhara, insecurity, so let him through.' Then God changed the programming of the customs officer and I was in.

From that day I started to think about the experiences that people have when they encounter insecurities, fears, traumas and distractions in life. Because we encounter many different experiences, we are not able to get a grip on our nature. The yogic concept of kundalini yoga in relation to the chakras deals with this specific subject. Kundalini is not a serpent which rises from mooladhara and goes up to sahasrara. It is a symbol of passing through different states of consciousness, from first into second, into third, into fourth. This process continues all the way through. As we pass each layer of our consciousness, we come to realize how we have been responding to a certain situation and how we can harmonize that.

Mooladhara represents insecurity in the negative aspect and security in the positive aspect. Swadhisthana represents fear in the negative aspect and absence of fear in the positive aspect. Manipura represents the dissipated nature in the negative aspect – too much happening, too much dynamism, uncontrolled activity of the brain and mind, of the emotions and feelings. In the positive aspect manipura represents a state of observation where everything is being performed in the right way. You are in tune with yourself, with your personality, with the environment, with nature and with the divine will.

Anahata in the negative aspect represents distorted or adulterated feelings, in the sense that too many things have left their mark and we are not able to experience the real nature of feeling. In the positive sense anahata represents clear feeling.

Adjustment in life

In this way we work through each level of consciousness, eliminating the accumulated toxins. Every moment of the day becomes the practice of yoga, not only the hour which we spend in the classroom. If we can observe ourselves and through this process of observation harmonize ourselves, that is the real yoga – observation and harmonization. Then yoga becomes a practice which we perform every moment of the day. It is not something we do at a given time and then forget. That is the real essence of yoga and the theory behind yogic education. Yogic education, which is self-education, has to be combined with the lifestyle. We do not have to alter anything externally. It is only a question of a positive adjustment in life.

Paramahamsa Satyananda once said, 'We say we suffer, we say we have pain, and we try to find a solution. If we look around we will not find any solution to that suffering or pain. However, the solution comes naturally when we are able to adjust to the suffering and pain. If we can adjust to suffering then it ceases to be suffering. If we can adjust to pain then it ceases to be pain. There is no such thing as pain or pleasure; it is only a symptom of adjustment.' If we think critically about this statement of Paramahamsaji's, we will find it to be a very precise, definite and true statement which we can apply in our own life situations. It is this process of adjustment that we learn through yoga.

Two approaches of yoga

So, we have to think about how to incorporate yoga into our lifestyle. We can start off with our immediate needs. Do we need yoga because we suffer from a physical or a mental problem, because we lack something in our life? Whatever the reason, that should become a stepping stone for us to actually experience yoga in our lives. We can use yoga in the case of illness. However, we should remember that the doctor gives medicine while the patient is ill and the medicine has to be taken until the patient reaches good health. After taking the medicine and becoming well, there is no need to continue with it. The same principle applies in yoga. We do not have to practise the complete system of yoga everyday. We do not have to practise asana and pranayama; they are practised in order to rectify certain imbalances. We can forget about these practices unless we require them and just live yoga from moment to moment.

These are the two approaches of yoga. One incorporates physical involvement, every morning practising asana, pranayama, relaxation, meditation and mantra. Then the rest of the day one can practise the yoga of awareness in order to eliminate the accumulated mental toxins. This is how yoga has to be done. So, we have two commitments to ourselves. The first is to become physically well, for which SYTREC and different ashrams are available. The second aspect is to become internally well. This education which teaches us about becoming internally well can be acquired in an ashram environment where one is exposed to a yogic lifestyle. We have to expose ourselves to a yogic lifestyle and see how this applies in our present condition. Only then can yoga become a part of us. This is what we hope to achieve in a more professional and determined way with the establishment of the Yoga University.