Yoga in the 21st Century

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Traditionally, yoga has always been a means of internalising the awareness and discovering the inner self. In the past, over thousands of years, the yoga practitioners developed a series of practices by which people could attain physical health, mental harmony and spiritual upliftment. In the course of time, due to changes in the social and global environment, the ancient tradition of yoga was lost in many countries, but it continued to be preserved in India by the sannyasins. Sannyasa is not a religion; it is an order of people who have renounced the material world to experience the spiritual world. Yoga should not be confused with religious concepts. It should be understood that yoga is a science that deals with the management and development of human personality – harmony of body and mind, and experience of spirit.

Swami Satyananda has said, “The important part of a tree is not the external part that can we see, but the roots which are underground and invisible. The roots sustain the tree and as long as they are nourished, the tree can face any situation, but if the roots are neglected and forgotten, the tree will become weak and fall down in a storm.” Our life is like that too, because we identify with the body, the senses and the mind, which are the external manifestations of our personality. We ignore the realisation of the greater possibility or potential that exists within us, which is recognised as the spirit.

Spirit is not something abstract and vague, but part of the evolution of consciousness. Life is a process of constant evolution at different levels. Evolution is the outcome of a focused and illuminated mind. We all come with the same possibilities. God has been very generous to us. We have within us the same qualities as Christ and Buddha. The only difference is that they were experimenting with those qualities and we have ignored that aspect of our life. They were continually refining themselves while we have stagnated at one point. This is the barrier we all face as human beings, the limitation that we cannot overcome in our life.

Aim of yoga

So, when yoga appeared, it was to discover that inner potential, which is spiritual, not material. At the same time, those who developed yoga realised that growth had to take place in all dimensions of existence. The body needs to be harmonised so that it can manage illness and disease. In order to manage physical imbalances, the asanas or physical postures were developed. Physical harmony alters the activity of the brain. Cerebral and physical harmony influence the mental behaviour. In the process of harmonising the personality, the mind also comes in tune with its inner strengths. This is the beginning of yoga.

The classical literature says that yoga begins with mind management. This is the aim of yoga, not self-realization. Although a blind man may want to see the sun, that is only a desire. His need is sight so that he can then see not only the sun, but the entire creation in its full glory. If your need is to obtain vision, then your aim becomes to prepare yourself, to transform yourself, and to change your nature and the restricting components of your life. This is the main theme of yoga – how we can realise and manage our mind, body and emotions. The rest is only the outcome of this harmony.

In the past, this concept was not made clear by yoga teachers, and therefore yoga was seen as a mystical, abstract subject. Fifty years ago yoga was not well known, even in India. In the 1960s it began to be propagated by those who realised that yoga was the need of people everywhere, then and in the future. Awareness of yoga became more widespread. At the same time, there were many taboos associated with yoga because nobody really knew what yoga was. To play safe, people only practised the physical aspect of yoga because the body felt good, light, vibrant and energetic. That is how hatha yoga first became popular, and today most people only know the physical aspect of yoga. Yoga was practised in this way until approximately the end of the twentieth century.

Integral yoga

Swami Sivananda was a doctor and philosopher. He said that yoga had to be established in scientific terms, that people should understand the practical as well as the philosophical aspects. Swami Satyananda then developed and carried forward his guru’s idea. He was one of the first exponents of yoga to discover and teach the effects and benefits of yoga for the management of physical, psychological and spiritual imbalances. This application of yoga is called integral yoga or Satyananda Yoga.

The main theme of Satyananda Yoga is awakening of the faculties of head, heart and hands. The head represents intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, awareness and observation. The heart represents feelings, emotions and sentiments. The hands represent the ability to act, perform and to create. The ability to manage these three components of our life is the need of the 21st century, because this balance will make a person whole and complete.

Saying that Satyananda Yoga is head, heart and hands, doesn’t mean that we don’t practise hatha yoga or physical yoga. It is a part of the process. The entire system of yoga is divided into four main parts. The first component is training and disciplining our mental behaviour, attitudes and involvement in the material world by practising the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (disciplines). These two are responsible for transforming the mental conditioning. Just changing a small habit requires a huge quantity of willpower. You can reduce its intensity, but you cannot eradicate or eliminate it. For this reason, yoga speaks of restraint and inner discipline to reduce the intensity and grip of these conditionings which hamper the expression of our natural creativity. According to the classical texts, this is the beginning of yoga.

In the second part, we begin to work with our body to provide the physical organs with health and well-being. Research has shown that many psychosomatic illnesses and disorders can be managed through yogic principles and practices. In many countries yoga is in the front-line of therapies along with allopathic treatments. Yoga is used in the management of respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma and emphysema, circulatory system and heart disorders, digestive problems of the stomach, pancreas, kidney and liver, and for optimum functioning of the organs. Currently, the role of yogic practices in the management of cancer and AIDS is under clinical investigation.

The postures and breathing techniques help to remove the imbalances which cause illness and disease. But yoga is not a therapy, and should not be considered as such. Yoga is a process of managing oneself, not the symptoms of the disease. For example, a person with hypertension takes medicine to lower the high blood pressure. As long as the medicine continues to be effective, the pressure stays down, but when the effect goes away the pressure again shoots up. If we have diabetes, we take insulin. These are not therapies that cure but which manage the symptoms manifesting in the body. Yoga does not manage the symptoms. Yoga manages you. If you are able to lead a balanced life, these problems will leave you naturally. So yoga manages the person, not the disease. Therefore, yoga is not a therapy but a lifestyle. If you are willing to change and adopt that disciplined lifestyle, then you become a yogi.

The third component of yoga is mind management, which is the main theme of yoga. Only ten percent of the brain is active; ninety percent is still inactive. We live according to the dictates of this limited mind. When we are unable to meet our expectations and desires, insecurity, tension, stress, fear and conflict arise. We enter a state of high anxiety when dealing with the demands of the ego. To be happy, we think we need to have something and when we are unable to get it, frustration and aggression arise. Mentally, we are driven by a quest for happiness that satisfies our own needs without any consideration for others. This represents a mind that is totally centred on itself, its needs, ambitions and desires. Possessiveness and selfishness manifest. Clarity of mind becomes clouded, and confusion and conflict take hold of the human personality.

In the mental aspect of yoga, we become aware of the four components of the mind – strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs. We have the strength in us, but we are not aware of it. We identify with our weaknesses and shortcomings, and they become the reality. We have needs, but we identify with ambitions, and we pursue them and ignore our needs. We are more aware of our ambitions and weaknesses, and less of the strengths and needs.

How do we come out of this state? The yogic practices of relaxation and concentration increase awareness, observation and perception of the mental behaviour, regulating the mind and its expressions. One trick to manage the mind is to understand the nature of the mind, which is like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion, agitated and suffering from unfulfilled expectations and desires.

Mental yoga begins with a very simple relaxation practice, known as yoga nidra. With relaxation comes concentration, the focusing of the mental faculties and awareness to achieve what we need and aspire for in life. When the mind is illuminated, awareness spreads in all directions. If the light is focused to a point, it becomes a laser beam strong enough to cut steel or soft enough to perform laser surgery on the eye. The same effect can be had by focusing the energies and the dissipated awareness of the mind at one point, in one direction, to fulfil one’s objective. That is known as concentration. So relaxation and concentration are the means to transform the nature and behaviour of the mind.

The fourth aspect of yoga is spiritual understanding, which is the outcome of wisdom – applied knowledge. The knowledge is there, but it is never applied. You know what is right and wrong for you, but do you do the right thing? Smoking is one example. There are thousands of others where we know what is right and wrong, but cannot resolve the issue and be satisfied. Therefore, spiritual evolution begins with understanding and applied knowledge, which is the meditative process leading to an altered state of consciousness.

Meditation gives a broader perspective. The higher you go, the greater your vision and perception. That is spiritual realisation, not the handshake and encounter with God. What is necessary is to lift yourself from this level of perception and experience a higher dimension where you become a witness of yourself. You can keep going up as far as you want to go. God is infinity. Through the process of meditation you keep on growing in an infinite dimension.

Give evolution a chance

What is the relevance of yoga today? The moment we manage the intellect, emotions and actions, we give evolution a chance in our lives. If you want a fruit tree, you plant the seed in the ground, leave it and don’t dig it up every day to see if it is sprouting or not. For the seed to sprout, you have to give growth a chance. In the same manner, instead of digging fifty holes one foot deep to search for water, dig one hole fifty feet deep. The key is to follow one chain of thought, experience and understanding, and allow it to evolve, to take over and guide your actions. If you want to excel in professional life, you pick one subject and master it. The same rule has to apply internally. Pursuing one direction gives evolution a chance to guide your life.

Therefore, integration of head, heart and hands is the theme of yoga in the 21st century, along with awareness of our spiritual nature, which has to be nourished like the roots of a tree. If you want to experience the depth of yoga, then immerse yourself in this idea: live, love and laugh. Have one thought in mind: “No matter how many times I fall, I will always get up smiling and keep on walking.” So, smile and walk.

—Bogota, Colombia, May 2005