Symposium on Improving the Quality of Life

In December 2003 a symposium was held at Ganga Darshan on ‘The Role of Yoga in Improving the Quality of Life’. Speakers were: Prof Sannyasi Yogasindhu, Prof H. S. Singh, Swami Vashishthananda Saraswati, Dr Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati, Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, Swami Arundhati Saraswati, Swami Sivamurti Saraswati and Swami Shankarananda Saraswati.

The Extrinsic Quality of Life

Prof Sannyasi Yogasindhu, BYB Yoga Psychology

Quality of life refers to health. Long ago it was conceived in the classical literature that health had a holistic meaning. It included physical health, mental health and spiritual health, which are interrelated and interdependent. For example, if we neglect the spiritual aspect of life, it adversely influences the psychological aspect, the physical aspect, the biological aspect and bodily functions. The yogic practices relate to all three aspects: the body, the mind and spiritual awakening, which is why this holistic approach is most beneficial for many people.

We understand and take care of the body. To some extent we understand the mind, but sometimes we become confused about the spiritual aspect. What is this ‘spirit’? Sometimes it is described as an abstract idea, but it is very subtle, not abstract. It is experiential and has a direct link with our quality of life. Of the three aspects: body, mind and spirit, the mind occupies the central place. The mind controls the bodily functions and at the same time it is through the mind that we practise spiritual awakening. So psychological and psychic functions are very important and help in the promotion of self, but the spiritual aspect controls the improving of aspects of our personality.

All sadhanas are performed at different levels. Yogic practices and spiritual awakening are directly linked. Spiritual awakening can be understood in two ways: (i) practices related to self-purification, e.g. asana, pranayama, meditation, as they result in physical purification, mental purification and overall improved health, (ii) practices related to expansion of self, transcendence, the feeling of love. This transcendence has a social dimension. All the seers and saints have practised seva, service, and they are truly our models.

The yogis have always spoken about both aspects. Doing sadhana is the effort for self-purification, and expanding oneself in philosophical terms is called atmabhava. Atmabhava means that the spirit within you and the spirit within me is the same, so I should be able to feel your suffering and pain. This has a social dimension. When we expand into atmabhava, then compassion develops, the feeling of service and love develops. So to love, serve and give is important. The ashtanga yoga or eightfold path of Swami Sivananda is an elaboration of that, and we see it also in the activities of Sivananda Math. Through the social aspect of caring for others, expanding our feeling of compassion and concern, we improve ourselves and thus increase the quality of life. From giving, we purify ourselves. This becomes enjoyment for us and it takes us to a higher plane.

It is a peculiar paradox that we want to be happy and we suffer from miseries. What is wrong? Maybe we selected the wrong path and instead of being happy we have become unhappy. If we talk in extrinsic terms, communication has improved, transportation has improved, education has improved; science and technology have brought many amenities and facilities to mankind. It is a tragedy that while technological progress has made very significant improvements, the 20th century is called the age of stress. As human beings our emotional life could not progress along with the socio-economic material developments. Rather, a negative correlation has been reported. The more we progress on the socio-economic ladder, the more we suffer psychologically from stress related problems. This actually forces us to focus our attention on how the intrinsic quality of life can be improved, and what its dimensions are.

There are certain negative criteria by which we can judge the quality of our life, such as how much worry, anxiety and tension we share. When we suffer from negative attitudes, thinking and feeling, the more our lifestyle suffers. When the quality of life is poor, it manifests as psychological disorders, maladjustments, interpersonal problems, lack of family harmony, lack of adjustment, and also in psychosomatic disorders. Problems like diabetes, hypertension and heart-related disorders have become so common these days. So how to control and minimize these problems and how to promote a blissful life, a happy life, an internally quiet life is a common concern.

One cannot remove all miseries, but yoga gives the strength to accept them as a part of the life experience. In regard to making positive changes there is the science of selecting appropriate yogic practices like asana, pranayama and meditation according to the real need and requirement of the person to whom you are giving that practice. Yogic practices help to prepare the ground for facing life.

The Intrinsic Quality of Life

Prof H. S. Singh, BYB Yoga Philosophy

Quality of life in this context means the life of a human being. In Indian wisdom human beings have been dealt with as spiritual beings, so the quality of human life means the quality of a spiritual being. In psychological terms, we all want to be happy. What is this happiness? In the different yogic systems some take the ultimate quality of life as the negation of suffering, while others say it is not only the negation of suffering but a positive state of bliss.

In Indian thought the intrinsic quality of human life means the dharmas, which are twofold. The intrinsic quality of the ideal person, of the sages and seers, of those who are liberated even while having this body, is called shreya. The intrinsic quality of ordinary people, like us, is different.

In the Bhagavad Gita the intrinsic quality of the sages is called sthitaprajna. In Jainism and in Buddhism it is called arahat. In Mahayana Buddhism it is called boddhisattva. Boddhisattva is the highest among these ideals where it is said ‘Kali kalusha kritaani loke te mayi patantu, vimuchyataam hi lokah’, which means “Let all the suffering of all human beings fall upon me. Let the whole world be liberated, let all creatures be liberated.” So maha Maitreya, friendship and compassion for all, is the chief intrinsic quality of a boddhisattva. Seers prefer liberation, but want to take birth again and again so that all creatures can be liberated from suffering. That is shreya, the highest quality of a sage. But it is not easily attainable by us, so there are other intrinsic qualities for ordinary people called dharmas.

These dharmas are also twofold. The universal duties are called samanya dharmas and the particular duties are vishesh dharmas. The samanya dharmas are what Kant calls ‘the categorical imperatives’, which are generally translated as the universal duties, although ‘duty’ is not really the proper word for ‘dharma’. The yamas and the niyamas of Patanjali come in this category. Every one of us should imbibe these qualities in our personalities because the human spirit, when it is associated with the gunas, needs sattwa. This is because sattwa is the only guna which governs the value principles. The quality of life means a value-oriented life, so imbibing sattwa is what is meant by increasing the intrinsic quality of a human being. Non-violence, truth, non-possessiveness, etc. are the nature of sattwa and therefore also the nature of the spirit, of the pure consciousness.

As human beings we are an amalgamation of consciousness mixed with the three gunas. So improving the quality of life means consciousness associating with sattwa guna, imbibing sattwic qualities of truthfulness, kindness and working for the benefit of others. It is said, ‘Aatmanah pratikoolaani pareshaam na samaacharet’, which means, “Don’t act in a way you don’t want others to act towards you.” Vyasa says that the whole of the Puranas can be summarized in the words: do good to others. ‘Ashtaadasaa puraaneshu Vyaasasya vachanam dvayam. Paropakaarah punyaaya paapaya paripeedanam’ – “To do good to others is the best virtue and to give misery to others is the worst sin.” Doing good to others is the highest intrinsic quality, being kind and helping others even by taking their sorrow and suffering upon yourself. Although we can’t do that generally, it has been the ideal.

To do all these things we have to be free from narrow-mindedness. We have to be free from ‘mine and thine’. We have to think of others as our own being, and for that there are a great many necessary qualities. First, therefore, we should be free from the impact of tamas and then from the effect of rajas. We must follow sattwa guna with the ideal of realizing the highest consciousness.

Five Causes of Suffering

Swami Vashishthananda Saraswati, Canada

In a yoga university you should be able to relate everything you learn to your own sadhana, to your own behaviour towards others, and the influence you have upon others. My experience over many years of teaching both yoga and science has been that very few people retain very much of what they learn. The only thing they retain is that which they can relate to their own lives, to their own practice. So these concepts should not be abstract because very few people can dwell in abstract domains. The most important thing is to relate everything you learn to your own experience, and then you will never forget it.

My topic is the problem of the mind in causing misery, so let’s be classical and begin with the Yoga Sutras. Sloka two is ‘Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah’ – yoga is the inhibition of the modifications, vrittis, the ways of being of the thinking principle, chitta, of the mind. Classically there are five vrittis. When the chitta vrittis are nirodha, not disturbed, then the seer sees himself in his true nature. As long as the chitta vrittis are active the seer cannot see his true nature and there is identification and conformity with the laws of the chitta vritti.

Think of a movie. You’re going to the cinema. A murderer is going to kill someone. If you identify with the victim, you’ll be afraid – your heart will beat faster , your breath will speed up. If you identify with a happy person, you’ll be happy. But as soon as you say, “Oh! I’m watching a movie. It’s just shadow pictures on a screen,” you’re neither scared nor happy, you just see it. So identification with the modifications of the mind affects our experience and because of this identification, five fetters or kleshas become associated with us. What are these kleshas?

  1. Avidya: What does it mean? Ignorance? Does it mean I don’t know about computers? No. Does it mean I don’t know what time of day it is? No. It means forgetting about your essential nature, which is consciousness, which is Shiva, which is Brahman, which is Paramatma. That’s what you have forgotten. And as soon as you forget your essential nature, what happens?
  2. Asmita: You identify with the finite existence, with the small ‘i’. You become the doer, the thinker, the small self. As soon as asmita becomes active and you become identified with the small self, two more vrittis, raga and dwesha, become powerful.
  3. Raga is attraction. You want to grow by consuming, by consuming other people’s love, having land, money, power. You want to feed the little ego with these, or the ego feels threatened.
  4. Dwesha is repulsion, and arises because the ego feels threatened.
  5. Abhinevesha is fear of death.

These five cause the identification, and the suffering due to the identification, attraction and the repulsion.

When Swami Satyananda did panchagni sadhana, I thought about what it was. In the Upanishads, panchagni is described. It has to do with how the selves incarnate from the heaven-world until they again wind up in the womb of the Mother through five steps. That’s what it means to ordinary householders, like most of us. To a yogi it is a ladder back out of this incarnation, so the steps are done backwards. This is the classical meaning of what is being done in panchagni. Each of the five fires represents one of these steps.

However, in my own interpretation the five fires are the kleshas. There are four fires, which are abhinivesha, raga, dwesha and asmita. The fifth is avidya, the sun, which we worship in Gayatri. When we do Gayatri mantra, we say “Sun, let your light enlighten my mind and my emotions,” and we are invoking that fifth fire to overcome that avidya. here I am relating what I know about the kleshas and about panchagni to each other from my own experience and even if it’s not in the classical texts, it’s a perfectly legitimate interpretation. So you must relate with these things in this way, through your own experience – they shouldn’t be abstract concepts.

Holistic Approach of Yoga

Dr Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati

Students must remember that there are two different types of practices: performed practices, such as asana, pranayama and meditation, and lifestyle practices, such as karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga.

Performed practices: All the performed practices have an effect on all the koshas – annamaya, the physical body, pranamaya, the energy body, manomaya, the mental body, vijnanamaya, the wisdom body, and anandamaya, the bliss body – the full range of dimensions of the individual. For example, practising asana affects the physical body. As we perform these postures, we realize that asanas also help our vitality and emotional state. How many people go into a yoga class very disturbed, do a few asanas and manage to settle down? Both our mental state and concentration are improved. If we are doing an asana correctly, we are concentrating on what we are doing, and not worrying about what we did last week or what we might be doing next week.

If we are performing pranayama, we affect pranamaya kosha. By controlling the pranas, we balance energies in the body, but we also activate the mental processes. Some of the pranayama practices will stimulate the tranquillizing substances within the body and produce a natural physical relaxation. Once again, if we practise mudras and bandhas, which appear to be just physical, we are also affecting our other dimensions.

Mantras are subtle vibrations. If we strike a chord on a harmonium, that is harmony; and if we strike a dis-chord it becomes dis-harmony. In the same way, mantras are harmonious combinations of sound that affect the vibrational level of the body and mind, affecting us all the way up through the different aspects of the individual.

Pratyahara is the way we can get away from all that and manage to get back inside and start to find out “Who am I?” Not who I am in relation to ‘out there’, but who I am in relation to my roles and to other people. Pratyahara is the doorway into the discovery of who we are. Dharana brings us into a level of concentration that we very rarely experience. We can go beyond that as well, so we must perform these practices.

Lifestyle practices: First of the lifestyle practices is simplicity. This is very important in yoga. Generally people who practise yoga start to live a much simpler life than they had before. Their lives are not cluttered up with a lot of things, they are not people who have negative thoughts, or compulsions and demands that are not necessary. So we start to simplify our lives. Then we start to look at our physical intakes. What are the physical intakes of a yogi? What type of food does that person eat? What does that person drink? What other things do they ingest? Then there are the things that we absorb mentally. So many of us are taking in negative samskaras that we don’t need. We have enough already, we are full of garbage inside, and we really don’t need to take in any more negativity. So it is not only physical things we ingest, but also mental things. Instead of listening to the bad news every evening, go to your local ashram and ingest some wholesome satsang.

Now let us look at ethics. Patanjali who gave us the Yoga Sutras was not a moralist, nor a purist. He was not telling us to be good and that God will take care of us. He was a very practical individual, and his idea of ethics involves asking questions such as: Have you ever taken anything or held on to something when somebody really needed it? Have you let your emotions go wild and exploited a person? Patanjali’s definition of ethics wasn’t about producing harmony in the community, although that is important, but about maintaining peace of mind. So all of these factors promote the quality of life.

In addition, we can consider three great branches of yoga: karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. These are lifestyle activities. Karma yoga is a working meditation. You do your meditation in the morning and you feel the effects the whole day. On bhakti yoga, Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, “Keep me in your mind, keep me in your heart.” It is very difficult but this is the power of bhakti. Jnana yoga talks about the universe, it talks about Samkhya yoga. However, I believe that jnana yoga starts with the SWAN principle. I also believe that we start jnana yoga the first time we ask, ‘Why?’ about the fundamental realities of life.

So here we have a big picture of a complete philosophy, a complete lifestyle and a complete group of integrated practices, which we call yoga. It also gives us a great opportunity to produce beauty in our own life and also in the lives of other people.

Selecting Yogic Practices for Promoting Quality of Life

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati

Life is a complex process, comprising both heaven and hell, joy and suffering, loss and gain, etc., so to think about which techniques we can implement to change the quality of life is a big undertaking. To create this transformation, we need to develop awareness. In addition, we must also hold our life in our own hands and take responsibility for it.

What is the difference between a yogi and someone who is not a yogi? By yogi, I don’t mean someone who is only practising yoga, but anyone following a certain path of self-awareness and self-development. What is the difference? Is there less suffering? No, maybe there is more suffering. Is there more joy? Maybe. However, the difference is that yogis take their life into their own hands and strive to make some degree of change, some adjustments in the direction of growth and expansion. This is very important because sometimes when we think of increasing the quality of life, we think of removing all suffering and becoming pain free.

If you go with the attitude that you should be pain free, what techniques can you bring into your life to remove suffering? You can attend as many workshops and seminars, and do as many practices as you like, but if your aim is to avoid suffering and you are being suppressive, then you are delaying the problem. The process of changing the quality of life requires that you face life as it is. Through experience you will gain greater strength, greater awareness and greater skill.

When you apply any yoga technique or yoga process, simplicity comes first. Secondly, in order to remove suffering, you need to face as much suffering as you can. If you cannot face certain situations, then accept that, but at the same time develop positive qualities. Developing positive qualities will give you an awareness that life is a mix of both positive and negative. The tensions you face in life and its seemingly negative situations are where you learn the most. If you think back on your life, the joy and pleasure is wonderful, but what we really learn from are the ‘negative’ experiences, which we do not choose for ourselves – life chooses them for us.

Yoga teaches us to develop a capacity to come into a relationship with life that uses awareness, acceptance and simplicity. Asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, mantra, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, jnana yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga can all be practised in a formal setting, so that when you go back into your life you carry with you the memory of the awareness and balance gained from the practices. But when you face difficulties you will need to remember what to do at that time. Quite often we lose our connections and forget what to do. The first thing I have to do for myself each day is to try to bring out that flame of yoga in my own heart and mind, to become a model of yoga as best as I can, within my limits and capacity. We have to be regular with yoga sadhana, stay grounded and stay focused. So we have to practise our own yoga. Before supporting other beings, we have to find in our heart our own yoga model that can be authentic.

Simplicity in choosing a technique comes back to experience and training and being able to find out which method will work, what process is going to be most effective and most appropriate for that person at this time. Rather than coming up with an idea of what a person should practise, the best thing for me to do is to listen to that person first. I should stay in my own yoga process and listen. What is really happening here? What is this person saying? What is going on in their lives? What do they feel? Often the person will tell me what they are and what they need, and then eventually we try to make an adjustment over time.

This is a learning process for the teacher as much as for the student. At this time you can develop techniques for people, empower people in the direction of well-being. This is the relationship that should exist between the teacher and student, doctor and patient. But technique alone is dead without the relationship with your student. I have had many patients who wouldn’t practise, and I would ask them why they didn’t try this one technique? Certain people were just into satsang, but still the connection was there, the sense of learning, the sense of growth. The technique is very important, but the student understands and grows with the technique over time within a certain environment.

The next principle to understand is that the technique itself practised in the morning becomes your scales in life. Like practising scales in music, what we are doing by practising each day is remembering what to do when we go into our life. We are reminded, we’re charged up, we’ve reinforced a positive and healthy pattern. This allows us to face the negative patterns of life with a greater sense of awareness, a control and a capacity to manage, to transform, to move out of the negative into a much more positive sense of accomplishment. There are many techniques we can choose from. In my experience yoga nidra is the most popular. People just love it. You can’t practise it well in the beginning because you fall asleep, but it changes your life.

Having made many mistakes myself, I know that another important principle or technique is to remind people that it is okay to make mistakes. This is termed the yoga of making mistakes. Another word for this yoga is learning. When I was very young, it took me some months to learn to walk as I made many mistakes the first time. I can’t remember exactly how many times it happened, but I would stand and fall over and luckily I was very short so I didn’t fall very far. After some time, I took two or three steps and received a lot of encouragement, but it still took me many months. Now walking is no problem. In the same way with yoga we start with baby steps. Making mistakes lends to the process of growth and learning.

Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual Quality of Life

Swami Arundhati Saraswati, Canada

When we talk about IQ, we are actually talking about the cognitive. Our cognition includes our perceptions, the development of memory and our attention span when in concentration, which are all subjects that are a part of yoga. Memory has to do with our ability for recollection and recognition. Memory can be a problem for us because it keeps our mind negative. We all tend to live within memories or in expectations of the future. It is often our memories that cause us to suffer physical illnesses, psychological illnesses and a depletion of our spiritual nature. In order to overcome our habit of focusing on our memories or on our negative anticipations, we need to practise right remembrance. We should also learn to use techniques to become more aware of our own minds and to develop spontaneous awareness. Through spontaneous awareness we start to realize, “Here I go again. Instead of feeling happy, I am arguing with somebody.” We want to try to develop the quality of positive thinking and the ability to live in the present. When we live in the present, we are able to be most spontaneous and appropriate in our behaviour.

What about emotional intelligence (EQ), and its effectiveness? A lot of the negativity and poor quality of our life is due again to our attitude towards other people. Our emotions can make us ill or they can make us well again. Just singing a little bit of kirtan can take the mind from a negative to a positive mode of experience. The qualities we want to develop should be the emotions of compassion, suffering with the suffering, and feeling joyous with the joyous, rather than feeling angry or greedy, because those types of emotions bring us down and make us ill.

There is also a spiritual quotient. According to Christianity, God is love. Love is not an emotion. Love is not something that comes as a result of something outside. It is there and it manifests. Love is not the opposite of hate; passion is the opposite of hate. Love is a natural unfoldment of God’s nature within oneself. Another quality necessary for spiritual unfoldment is caring for humanity. Serving humanity is sometimes a very difficult concept, but it is absolutely essential for the development of our spiritual nature.

The major quality necessary for a successful yoga teacher is intuition. If you have no intuition, then you may be able to teach your students some asanas, some pranayamas, some meditation techniques, but it is through your intuition that you can discern the need of that person who has come to you for help.

How do you develop your intuition? It is your own sadhana that will help you to develop your own talents. Your students will come to you with every sort of problem you can think of regarding the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual levels, and quite often they will not even express their real need. But as teachers, you must listen carefully to what they are saying, and you must also hear what they are not saying to you, as quite often this is the real cause of their problem.

So to be a successful yoga teacher, your students should actually progress on all levels of themselves. Through your intuition, you discover what your student requires. More often than not, it is what the student is not saying which represents their real need, and as a yoga teacher we have to be able to help them to express themselves clearly.

People say that you can measure your IQ and your EQ, but you can’t always measure your spiritual quotient. When you see a person such as Mother Teresa, you see God manifesting there. When you see a person who is humble, you observe the spiritual quotient there. Swamiji has explained to us, “You can tell the level of spirituality in a person by their ability to see God in others.”

Nothing is Negative

Swami Sivamurti Saraswati, Greece

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was a stoic, who lived around 55 AD. He was born in Kalamata, a town on the outskirts of the eastern Roman Empire in the southern part of Greece. He had two great passions: how to teach his students to live a happy and fulfilling life, a life of quality, and how to live a virtuous life. He linked these together because he said that if you cannot live a virtuous life, then you cannot be happy and your life has no quality.

He taught three main themes which we can connect with the philosophy of yoga. The first was mastery over the desires, adherence to and performance of duty, and fulfilling our obligations in life. Secondly, whilst practising that, we should also learn to think clearly. Concentration should be developed to a point where we can relate well with ourselves, with others, with the environment and the community we live in. Thirdly, he taught that quality living should be for all people, not just for the rich or the poor. So he encouraged students from a wide gamut of society to live in accordance with their highest principles, and let their conscience be their guide, and for this they needed a discipline. His theory is parallel to the yogic teachings in that we are also taught to live in accordance with our conscience, to follow our principles, and to do that we also need a discipline. The discipline of yoga enables us to have the strength to live our philosophy, to live our principles and to eventually achieve our aim.

Swami Satyananda once said, “Everything that happens in your life will happen for your good. There will be nothing negative.” He was giving a very sound philosophy and way of thinking. Everything is a teaching and learning experience that can take us into the next stage of our evolution. We can’t control circumstances, events or what people say to us, but we can control our attitude. We can respond to what people say, and accept that as paving our way to the next stage of our evolution. If we confront everything coming our way with our best, then situations can take us further in our evolution.

Also, we cannot blame other people for the circumstances we find ourselves in. We should take full responsibility for what is happening to us. There are three types of minds. The small type of mind immediately blames others, the average type of mind blames themselves and the wise mind has grown to understand that events happen as they are meant to happen. We can find santosha, or contentment, when we truly understand that things happen to us for our good, to take us further into our evolution, to teach us something more and to also overcome certain karma.


Swami Shankarananda Saraswati, BYB Vice-Chancellor

If we enter a dark room at night and we want to remove the darkness, we can take a bucket, fill it with darkness and throw it out again and again all night long, but we will still not be able to remove the darkness. The only thing that we can do is light one little candle. If we light one little candle, the darkness will go away by itself. So we should not worry about our negative qualities. Start with imbibing one good thing, and at the same time accept life. Once we learn to accept, life can be happy and graceful.

Once Buddha was teaching his disciples at the foot of a hill. His brother was very annoyed with him, and went to the top of the mountain and dislodged a big rock. As the rock came thundering down the mountain, all the students ran away from the area. But Buddha didn’t move. The stone came towards Buddha, scraped his side, went on and finally stopped. The students reappeared and asked Buddha why he hadn’t moved away. Buddha said that if he had moved, he would have had to take one more birth because this suffering was due to his earning.

So it is good to accept what is coming. If we accept suffering, happiness will eventually come. We can’t stop our suffering, it is our earning from a previous life, but when it comes and we learn to accept it, the bite of the pain goes away. If we don’t accept this necessary pain, the bite becomes more pinching. By accepting life, we can improve the quality of life.