Discovering Yoga – A Personal Journey

Swami Poornaseva Saraswati (Australia)

The words came thick and fast. I nodded as if I understood, but in reality the words washed over me, their impact like a powerful wave, knocking me off balance and turning me upside down. As kindly as he was able, the doctor explained that I had Parkinson’s Disease, an incurable neurological disorder, usually reserved for the elderly, but in case I thought I was special, I wasn’t his youngest patient at 35. I had first noticed a small tremor in the fingers of my right hand two years previously, which had been diagnosed as a benign essential tremor. Since then, the disease seemed to have taken hold, slowly but surely extending its sphere of influence into the rest of my body.

The search

I had first visited India in my early twenties, spending a year living and working in a community of people with learning difficulties in Bangalore. It had been a wonderful, if not easy experience, and now I can see how similar it was to ashram life, with a daily structure and routine, morning and evening chanting and time spent in selfless service. I had come across yoga and on my return to the UK, I would occasionally go to a class, but it was just something to do and whilst I liked it, it was not significant for me.

But now I had a movement disorder. I read and read and horrified myself with the gloomy accounts of how life might turn out. I did movement therapies. I went to the gym. I did all I could to keep moving, but something was missing. I felt that yoga would be helpful with its non-competitive stretches and began attending classes regularly. My sense of the importance of yoga was growing. It made me feel good. Whilst my knowledge of yoga was largely limited to the physical postures, an almost imperceptible, indescribable alchemy was beginning to take place.

Feeling sorry for myself, I decided to take leave of absence from work to travel around the world. India was the first stop, where I arranged to spend time with a yoga teacher and see what it would do for my body. I also trekked and travelled, but wondered how long I would be able to manage to take care of myself. My universe was slowly closing in around me. At the same time, I began to read many books and met people who opened my eyes, and slowly my contracting universe began to expand with fresh ideas and new possibilities. One thing was clear however – I wasn’t interested in spiritual stuff. I had been a committed Christian until early adulthood, but had become disillusioned with God and the Church, and my faith had turned to stone.

In India I worked with a couple of wonderful yoga teachers who gave me a daily practice which I attempted to keep up during my travels, though the need for props as well as peace and quiet were not easy to find. By the time I arrived in Australia, I was desperate to find a place where I could practise the yoga postures. I came across Satyananda Yoga quite by chance. While looking for yoga classes in Manly, a Sydney beach suburb, I saw a small sign saying ‘Ashram’ outside a beautiful old house. What was an ashram doing in suburban Australia? I went to a casual class. I think it was the sankalpa that did it for me. I felt like I had come home, found what I had been looking for, even though I did not know I was looking. The swami-in-charge of the centre pointed me in the direction of Mangrove Mountain Ashram and from there, the direction of my life changed.

The journey begins

This was nearly seven years ago and since then my journey has continued to unfold, sometimes like a chrysalis in slow motion, at other times as if on fast forward. I embraced yoga with open arms, wanting to see what ‘IT’ could do for ‘ME’. The learning curve has been steep, the concepts many: drashta, seva, bhakti, abhyasa, viveka, vairagya, kirtan, mantra, sadhana, karma yoga, surrender, dharma, karma, sannyasa, the eightfold path of Sivananda, the Bhagavad Gita, tantra, Samkhya, Vedanta – the list is almost endless! If people ask whether yoga has helped me, I reply ‘yes’ without hesitation. However, it has helped me in ways that I did not expect and its influence has extended into corners of my mind and heart that I had not bargained for.

The Bhagavad Gita opens with the ‘Yoga of Despondency’ in which Arjuna, surveying the battlefield and realising the task before him, sinks back into himself, not wanting to face the enormity of the challenge ahead and the dilemmas inherent within that challenge. As I opened myself to the world of yoga, I resonated with Arjuna’s despondency. The task seemed enormous. I was given a sadhana designed to help my health. I had the desire. I had the motivation. Slowly, as the cogs began to turn, it dawned on me that yoga was more than the physical. Sadhana was more than improving my health. It was a commitment, a discipline, and a journey that required continuity, strength, perseverance and faith that it would bear fruit.

It becomes firmly grounded by being continued for a long time, with reverence, without interruption.

(Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1:14)

I struggled with understanding what that fruit might be and with letting go whatever held me back from maintaining regularity in sadhana. Physically I needed the asanas and pranayamas, being challenged by the stiffness and rigidity of the disease, which continued to creep slowly into muscles and joints. I learnt about the concept of tamas, but tamas and I were already old friends. Sattwa and I might be described as acquaintances and the discipline of daily sadhana cultivated that relationship.

The challenges

By this time, I had come to live at Mangrove Mountain ashram, which meant that the structure of daily life supported the regularity of sadhana. It also meant being exposed to all the elements that make up Satyananda Yoga. Sadhana required faith; faith that it would bear fruit. Having had a faith and lost it, this posed a challenge as the reality of yoga as a spiritual path began to unfold. Many other practices also seemed to require faith. During my time in India, I had sung kirtan and chanted bhajans daily, and loved it. But I’d left all that behind and now I found myself singing to the Divine Mother! I hadn’t signed up for this when I came to yoga! It was all moving a bit too quickly for me. Swami Niranjan talks about us having ‘head trips’ and I’ve had plenty during my journey with yoga. Change is not easy. It’s easier to hold onto what we know, but yoga slowly but surely begins to hone the awareness, increase sensitivity and open us up to the possibility of transformation.

I have leant that yoga can be lived outside of the yoga studio. The journey begins with the development of awareness and self-observation and with the cultivation of the most important tool for living – the witness. Witnessing is one of the key tools for living that I have learnt. Through witnessing, I began to have a sense that I am more than this body, more than these thoughts, more than these feelings, more than this disease. The Bhagavad Gita expresses this concept beautifully, opening up the reality that the ‘real’ Self is not limited to flesh and blood, which by design will decay and die.

Weapons cut it not, fire burns it not, water wets it not, wind dries it not. The Self cannot be cut, burnt, wetted nor dried up. It is eternal, all-pervading, stable, immovable and ancient. (Bhagavad Gita, 2.23–24)

I have begun to be able to see the play of the mind and emotions for what they are and to stand firm sometimes, glimpsing for a moment what it might be like to be free from the play of the vrittis and gunas.

Then the seer is established (abides) in his own essential nature. (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1:3)

Of course there are many times when I forget; when I am overwhelmed with doubt, fear, and insecurity, I forget that I am more than this.

In developing the witnessing attitude, I have been led to the concept of surrender, of letting go – to guru, to God, to the universe – to flow with life. Through surrender, the path of seva and sannyasa has opened up more clearly. I received my spiritual name immediately prior to going to live at Mangrove Mountain in June 2000. I felt compelled to leave my home, employment, family, friends and country to go to the other side of the world. The force of the spiritual name, destroying the old identity and moving towards a new one, struck me powerfully.

Many of us come to yoga to fill a need. The practices offer relief from suffering for many and, if embraced as a lifestyle, yoga offers a whole new way of living. The path of seva, as exemplified by Swami Sivananda, Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjan, provides a way out of living only for oneself. It offers a way of giving something back. Yoga can help on an individual physical or mental level. Yet I have discovered the obvious: yoga as a therapy is a by-product. Yoga is of course about expanding our consciousness, and as that awareness expands, it seems that the path of seva and sannyasa then opens up to us. If “Yoga is skill in action” (Bhagavad Gita 2:50), then skilful living is something worth aspiring for or building a lifestyle around.

The journey continues

I still have Parkinson’s Disease. I wouldn’t turn down a cure, but I am learning to live skilfully, to flow with life, to learn discrimination and to adapt, adjust and accommodate. As my journey continues, I see more clearly the fruits of surrender and faith. Thankfully, each day represents a new opportunity to begin again with renewed optimism and hope. It would be dishonest to say that I am grateful for this disease; I would prefer to have a healthy body that functions normally. Yet, I am acutely aware that, because of the disease, I have changed the direction of my life to look inwards, and, in the process, have found a path which extends outwards. That path has given meaning to my life when life seemed to be over, as well as a new understanding about the inner reality unfolding day by day.