The Growth of Satyananda Yoga or Bihar Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

In order to understand the growth and development of the Satyananda Yoga tradition, also known as the Bihar Yoga tradition, we need to know what the components are, and what makes it a specialized school in the entire tradition of yoga.

Fifty years ago, the philosophical side of yoga was known to a few people, but nobody knew the practical side. It was believed that yoga was meant for renunciates, sadhus and sannyasins who had renounced everything and had left the pursuits of the world for a life of contemplation, meditation, reflection, introversion and isolation; that it was a way to salvation which an ordinary person in society could not adopt without renouncing some major attachments, desires, ambitions and efforts in life. Yoga was known as a philosophy only, as a form of discipline which could be utilized to strengthen one's spirit, mind, body and life. The theoretical knowledge was brought to the public by Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi, Swami Kuvalayananda, Baba Ram Das, Swami Sivananda, Yogi Ramacharaka and others in this past century.

All these people followed an already established tradition or school of yoga. There were only two established schools of yoga: the Southern school and the Northern school. Yoga as taught and practised by the rishis, munis and tapasvis in the Gangetic belt, the Narmada belt and the Himalayan belt was known as the Northern school. The Southern school was the yoga practised and envisioned by the southern group of sadhus and saints, renunciates and recluses, mystics and siddhas. Today the main propagator of the Southern school of yoga is T. Krishnamacharya, the teacher of Deshikachar and Iyengar. The Southern school believes that ultimate perfection can be achieved by attaining total physical perfection. Hatha yogis also believe in this principle.

The Northern school is a more meditative yoga, having as its basis the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Yoga Sutras, the emphasis is on mind management, thought management, and hatha yoga finds very little mention. Patanjali's yoga is recognized as the Northern school of yoga.

In the Northern school of yoga there are different paramaparas, traditions and cultures. There is even a tradition of hatha yogis. There is a tradition of kriya yogis, a tradition of kundalini yogis, there are not only raja yogis but also jnana yogis and bhakti yogis. All these yogis had one thing in common: yoga, a practice and discipline through which it becomes possible to strengthen one's nature, to realize the human spirit, and to awaken the inherent potential to become a balanced, perfect human being. Human beings can attain perfection in one thing, twenty things, in all the expressions of life. To attain this end many branches developed in the Northern school of yoga.

Yoga has two origins, one from the tantras and one from the Vedas. The tantras developed a philosophy and a set of practices which in the tantric tradition are known as yogachara, conduct for people who practise tantra through yoga. The vedic tradition describes yoga in the form of the Upanishads. Each Upanishad represents a line of learning, a tradition, a parampara. Yoga became the process encompassing the body and the mind, leading to the experience of spirit. This is how the vedic and tantric traditions viewed yoga.

It was only in the last fifty years that visionary sadhus felt that yoga was going to be the need of society in the future. In the Northern school of yoga the person who set the ball rolling was our paramguru, Swami Sivananda. He gave yoga a dynamic twist, bringing it out from philosophy and into practice. Although the Dashnami sannyasa parampara to which we belong follows a Vedantic tradition, not a yogic one, in the early 1940's Swami Sivananda started training his sannyasin disciples in the practicalities of yoga. He taught them hatha yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, kriya yoga, kundalini yoga, mantra yoga, every kind of yoga as found in the scriptures. Swami Sivananda gave an understanding of yoga to everyone as a way to further develop their own lives, either as sannyasins, as yogis or as householders.

His teaching was so inspiring that many of his sannyasin disciples emerged from the ashram with mandates to propagate yoga. Each disciple emphasized a particular theme. Swami Satchidananda, who founded the Integral Yoga Movement in the USA, emphasized components of hatha yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga. Swami Vishnudevananda, whose main centre is in Canada, established many Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centres teaching hatha yoga. Swami Venkateshananda taught raja yoga in Mauritius. Our guru, Swami Satyananda, who was also given a mandate to teach yoga as part of his sadhana in life, emphasized integral yoga, components of all the yogas, with more emphasis on tantric yoga.

This system of tantric yoga involves the practice of kundalini yoga, kriya yoga, mantra yoga, laya yoga, the advanced stages of pratyahara and dharana, and the advanced stages of dhyana and samadhi. From the vedic side, Sri Swamiji took the components of bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, and the concept of the chakras, and developed a system of meditation. He took the system of meditation from the Tantras and the Vedas and these meditations were later published in 1974 in the book Meditations from the Tantras. The initial teachings were published in 1965 in the book Mechanics of Meditation: Practices for Peace. Sri Swamiji was the first person to bring the yogic side of tantra to the forefront. As far back as 1971 a book named Tantra Yoga Panorama was published in which Sri Swamiji explained the concepts of tantra as applicable to the needs of today's society.

Swami Satyananda inspired people to come to terms with themselves through right and discriminative behaviour, action and speech, thus bringing about a transformation of human personality. When Sri Swamiji first founded the Bihar School of Yoga, it was as the culmination of a wish of Swami Sivananda's to develop an integrated path of yoga. As Sri Swamiji was pioneering the bringing of yoga to the public at large and the breaking down of old myths, outside India this Bihar Yoga system is known as the Satyananda Yoga tradition.

Sri Swamiji's Method of Teaching

When Sri Swamiji left Rishikesh in 1956 with the mandate and blessings of his guru Swami Sivananda, he travelled throughout India with the purpose of understanding the needs of society. He travelled from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, from Pakistan to Burma, trying to assess what society needed. Sri Swamiji felt that the Vedantic tradition, as a philosophy, would not be able to help society, rather it needed practical foundations. The practical foundations of this tradition were provided by the tantras through yoga. Sri Swamiji was able to assess that yoga would become the need of people at large, not as a means of salvation but as a means of bringing immediate relief to whatever psychosomatic imbalances were being experienced, affecting their physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual health.

Sri Swamiji devised two approaches for attaining health in a positive way, for developing an integrated, open and balanced character, and for encouraging people to face life. The first approach involved understanding human nature, the mind, psyche and spirit through the practices and processes of raja yoga; overcoming the most immediate obstacles such as frustration and ego, and developing homogeneous and harmonious actions through karma yoga; channelling of the emotions through bhakti yoga; being able to look within and without with peace of mind through jnana yoga; and the ability to go deeper into sadhana through kriya yoga, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, swara yoga, mantra yoga and many other yogas. This became one approach that was propagated by Sri Swamiji.

The other approach became lifestyle, the ability to look at life differently, to see pain and suffering as indicators of human effort and involvement with one's karmas. The teaching and training in lifestyle also took different forms. Many people take up yoga to relieve a stressful condition, but Sri Swamiji encouraged the incorporation of yoga into the lifestyle. He provided an alternative lifestyle by reviving the tradition of sannyasa, emphasizing the spiritual right of everyone to become a sannyasin once in their lifetime. Through sannyasa, Sri Swamiji helped many people by inspiring them to adopt yoga as part of their lifestyle. He helped many people by teaching yoga as therapy. He helped many people by teaching yoga as a way to attain inner peace. He helped people according to their needs. For Sri Swamiji, yoga was applicable to everyone.

In 1964, in his first public conference in Munger, Sri Swamiji said: “Munger will become the centre of yoga for the whole world and it will find a place on the world map.” Many people wondered whether he was saying the right thing, but today those words of Sri Swamiji's are coming true.

Sri Swamiji had a specific method of teaching people of different countries, races and beliefs. He was the first yoga teacher from India who went to the West and taught yoga in a very specific manner. In 1968 Sri Swamiji undertook his first world tour. For six months he was away from Munger and during this time he planted the seeds of yoga outside India. He not only spoke about the theory of yoga in very practical and scientific terms, making it accessible to human understanding, he also gave a set of yoga practices to people so that they could personally experience the yogic process. In subsequent tours, he taught another set of practices and principles so that further understanding was given about yoga in relation to the human body, mind, psychology, personality, beliefs and the betterment of human qualities.

In this way, Sri Swamiji always planned what he would teach on a particular trip. His plan had many components: asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, shatkarma, pratyahara techniques, kriya techniques, kundalini yoga techniques, chakra techniques, and to shatter the misconceptions about yoga that people had, to give them encouragement and hope. Prior to this time, nobody taught pranayama; it was always a taboo subject. This was the belief, even in Europe, and definitely in India. From Europe yoga spread all around the world, and Sri Swamiji played a vital role in this development.

Sri Swamiji's way of teaching gave us a great deal without our feeling that it was a lot; however, on reflection, one would realize that one had been given enough for a lifetime. This was the natural ability of Sri Swamiji. In all our centres around the world, whether in the United Kingdom, Europe, South America or Australia, he would give a different package on each visit, thus increasing the knowledge and understanding of yoga. The depth of the yoga practices became known and I attribute the majority of this change to Sri Swamiji's efforts.

Sri Swamiji's style of explaining yoga was unique. He would talk about every dimension of yoga, physiological, psychological and spiritual. Sri Swamiji saw a person not as a body, but as composed of the qualities of head, heart and hands – intellect, emotion and action, and he would try to access all three dimensions. Those people who have received this yoga training from Sri Swamiji are indeed very fortunate. Today we recognize that out of all the different traditions in the world, the Satyananda/Bihar system of yoga is the one which attempts to integrate the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of yoga into each practice.

Experimentation and Research

Experimentation and research is the central theme of Satyananda/Bihar Yoga. When Sri Swamiji was in Rishikesh and saw Swami Sivananda teaching yoga to his disciples, he not only learnt what was being taught but also studied the various systems and schools of thought and the scriptures. He developed his own practical and deep understanding of the practices of yoga. Sri Swamiji always said: “Experiment with it first, adopt it later.”

From the very beginning he started the process of experimentation. He experimented with knowledge from the scriptures and gave it a practical shape in the form of asanas. The pawanmuktasana series, the shakti bandhas and the grouping of the various asanas according to position were all created by Sri Swamiji in the early days. He also created the system of pranayama that today is widely taught around the world.

Sri Swamiji discovered various meditations from the tantras which he taught in classes in the form of antar mouna, ajapa japa, trataka, chidakasha dharana, prana vidya and yoga nidra. He experimented on some of the swamis with these practices. I was one person who had the honour of being experimented upon by Sri Swamiji in yoga nidra. In this way, he experimented with the individual practices of yoga, observed their effects and wrote them down.

The entire contents of the books that have come out from Bihar School of Yoga are the results of the experiments conducted by Sri Swamiji in the early days. In the book Yoga Nidra, the different stages of yoga nidra, according to the tantric system of nyasa, were revealed. The series of pratyahara meditations, the different stages of antar mouna, ajapa japa and prana vidya, and the different practices of kriya yoga and kundalini yoga are all contained in the Bihar School of Yoga texts.

Sri Swamiji was the first person to write a magnum opus on the subject of kriya yoga, which until then had been a taboo subject taught in secret to a select few. He not only broke this taboo, but he made the whole process of kriya yoga into a three year postal course, distilling the essence of the practices and giving them a definite form and sequence in which to be practised.

Sri Swamiji was the first person to explain the role of mudras and bandhas scientifically. Until then mudras and bandhas were literally just concepts. Never before had anyone explained them in a practical and scientific way. Bihar School of Yoga publications such as Moola Bandha: The Master Key, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yogic Management of Asthma and Diabetes and Yogic Management of Common Diseases are examples of the depth of knowledge that Sri Swamiji conveyed to his sannyasin disciples. All these books convey the thoughts behind his yogic mission.

When Sri Swamiji established the Bihar School of Yoga in 1963 at the old Sivananda ashram in Munger, he conducted a series of training courses: a nine month teacher training course, then a six month teacher training course, then a three month teacher training course, and ultimately the one month teacher training course. It was Sri Swamiji's wish that people should have a deep, thorough and experiential understanding of yoga, along with an in-depth knowledge of yoga in relation to their lifestyle, thoughts and environment. People came from every part of the world: Australia, Japan, Europe, UK, North and South America, as well as India, to attend these training courses.

In these courses Sri Swamiji inspired the concept of scientific investigation into the practices of yoga. The first fundamental yogic research on asanas was conducted in Poland in 1968 by T. Pasek and Dr W. Romanowski from the Department of Physiology, Academy of Physical Education, Warsaw. A thorough study was carried out using physiological, biological and psychological methods into the effects of sirshasana (headstand) and other major asanas on the human anatomy, the brain, cardiac, circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems.

At the same time Sri Swamiji inspired yogic research in Bihar. In 1968, with Dr Sreenivas, Director of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases in Patna, the first research into the effects of yoga on reversing heart disease was conducted for six months, and the results published in The Effects of Yoga on Hypertension.

In 1978 research into the effects of yoga on respiratory disorders was conducted by Raipur Medical College, assisted by Satya Darshan Yogashram, under the guidance of Sri Swamiji. Research into the effects of yoga on skin diseases was conducted by an Ayurvedic college in Raipur under the guidance of Sri Swamiji. In 1978 the Burla Medical College in Sambalpur, Orissa, conducted research into the yogic management of diabetes, involving hundreds of patients in Orissa, Bihar and Bengal. The conclusion was reached that non insulin dependent diabetes was no longer incurable and could be easily managed through the practices of yoga.

Prior to this time, yoga had been taught mainly for physical fitness and body building. However, when some of the research results began to emerge, this idea changed. Other independent organizations also started to conduct yogic research. A significant contribution was made by Swami Rama of the Himalayan Institute, in the United States, who was voluntarily able to stop his heart beat for an extended period of time. Another contribution to yogic research was made in the United States by Swami Nadabrahmananda, who was able to perform total kumbhaka (breath retention) for forty-five minutes in an airtight chamber while playing the tabla. In the same way, many swamis in India also subjected themselves to scientific study and very encouraging and significant developments in yogic understanding have come about as a result of their contributions.

In the early seventies Sri Swamiji tried to introduce yoga into the education system in India, but it did not happen at that time. However, he was able to bring glimpses of yoga to Europe through the agency of RYE (Research on Yoga in Education), established in 1977 by Micheline Flak (Swami Yogabhakti) in Paris, with centres today in many countries of the world; and through YES (Yoga Education at School), established in Canada by Swami Arundhati. These organizations teach yoga so that students can be educated in a classroom environment, as well as at home. When the positive effects of teaching yoga to children in overseas countries was seen, in 1996 the government of India decided to include yoga in its national syllabus so that students could receive training from school age. The decision has been made, but the resources are not yet available.

In the same way, after seeing the results of the research into respiratory, cardiac, digestive, skeletal, muscular and nervous disorders, and the role that yogic practices played in speeding up healing, many medical colleges in India decided to adopt yoga. In 1993 the government of Bihar accepted the inclusion of yoga into the MBBS syllabus. Bihar School of Yoga was asked to conduct yoga therapy training in eight government-managed medical colleges in Bihar. For two years, doctors and swamis from Bihar School of Yoga gave training in yoga therapy to the medical students in these different medical colleges. As a result, the Bihar branch of the Indian Medical Association recommended to the central body, the Indian Medical Council in New Delhi, that yoga be made a part of the MBBS syllabus. This recommendation is under consideration at present. The government of Bihar has also officially resolved to train medical practitioners from Bihar in the principles and practices of yoga therapy at Bihar School of Yoga.

In addition, the Health Department of the government of Bihar identified a series of ailments that could be managed through the simple practices of asana, pranayama and shatkarma. A comprehensive list of thirty-seven ailments was elaborated, which find mention in the book Yogic Management of Common Diseases.

Sri Swamiji used to encourage each yoga teacher to adopt one area in which to specialize. In this way he created many people who were well-versed in one particular branch of yoga. The intensity of the scientific research increased in the course of time. In Australia, Dr Swami Shankardevananda investigated the role of pawanmuktasana, specifically the muscular movement that takes place while performing the asana. In Canada Swami Arundhati is doing research into blood pressure levels during the performance of the shatkarmas.

Even after Sri Swamiji left the ashram in 1988, he encouraged us to continue taking yoga to different sectors of society. In 1994, swamis from Bihar School of Yoga conducted a study involving the army. It took them to Siachen glacier base camp, where they experienced the conditions that army personnel underwent and devised a program of yoga to manage these conditions. They went to Bikaner, in Rajasthan, experienced desert conditions and formulated a yogic management program, teaching and training the army personnel. As a result the army has now decided to train a unit using yoga practices and to evaluate the differences between those receiving yoga training and those receiving regular training. This project is at present pending before the army and Bihar Yoga Bharati and will begin in the near future.

In 1994 I was invited to an International Education Conference in Paris organized by RYE. The deliberations were on how yoga can help in the classroom environment. As a result of the Paris declaration, representatives from seventeen countries decided to introduce yoga as part of their educational system. In March this year there is another conference in Paris which I will be attending to discuss the role of yoga in education.

Another project is the prison program begun in 1994, conducted by the swamis of Bihar School of Yoga. Twenty-four prisons in Bihar are under the hold of yoga. Every year, on a regular basis, a month long training program takes place in these prisons. Over a period of two years we have trained over 450 'lifers' as yoga teachers, all receiving official certification. They are also teaching yoga to their fellow prisoners wherever requested. Moreover, the Government of Bihar has also decided to reduce the prisoners' sentences according to their interest in yoga.

Yoga has also been taken to sporting bodies. In 1999 training programs have been conducted for the Sports Authority of India in Calcutta and New Delhi.

In this way, the research work that Sri Swamiji started with the foundation of Bihar School of Yoga still continues today in different forms and ways. Bihar Yoga Bharati and the Satyananda Yoga Academy in Australia hope to do joint fundamental research into asanas, pranayama, mudras and bandhas. There are many other projects being conceived all the time.

One project in which all of the swamis involve themselves is Sita Kalyanam, which is now held every year in Rikhia, the tapobhoomi (sadhana place) of Swami Satyananda. Sivananda Math, a charitable institution created in 1984 by Sri Swamiji, has adopted one whole panchayat (district) in Rikhia with many villages and approximately ten thousand families. Every year each family is provided with all the basic necessities, from clothing, kitchenware, personal, communal and social items, to housing, employment, education and healthcare. Different activities take place in which the swamis are involved from time to time as part of their sadhana and discipline.

This discussion reflects the energy that Sri Swamiji infused into the system of Satyananda/Bihar Yoga. Satyananda yoga is different to ordinary yogas. One reason is that Satyananda yoga is an evolving yoga; it is a school where a concept is developed. When yoga becomes a part of the human environment, the human need and eventually a part of human life and culture, then it becomes universal and dynamic, progressive and inspiring. Satyananda Yoga, also known as Bihar Yoga, fits into this category. It is an evolving yoga. The ancient traditions are continually being looked into and the knowledge brought out into the open, not on any one specific subject, but on the total development of human nature and personality in yoga.