For a few years destiny delivered me to the feet of Swami Satyananda as his photographer and recorder – an unusual role for one who has a profession in science and engineering.
A cameraman has the role of impartial witness to events and situations, and in that role I was called to see and record much of what he had to say for a span of several years. So it was my great privilege to see some of the key moments in his public life through the close-up view of the camera. Here I would like to give some personal impressions of how I saw him and what he had to say for all of us, but particularly for the Australians.
I was able to record a large body of Swami Satyananda's teachings as satang, especially those that he conducted on a grand tour of Australia in 1983 and 1984. What I saw was a man who had experienced, studied and understood an amazing depth of the nature of reality and the human condition. Most importantly he presented, as a practical man who understood through personal experience, the application of those techniques and technologies through which the key inner mental states of man can be managed and improved.
Science is defined as a way of pursuing knowledge. Science is also fundamentally experimental – all theory must be tested in reality. In the case of Swami Satyananda, his area of knowledge is the nature of man and the relationship of consciousness and energy – a form of knowledge of the spirit. He was an experimental scientist of the first order, but not just an intellectual. He looked to his own experience in each aspect of his life to gain knowledge. He used his knowledge of the inner aspect of man to help those around him constantly. His inner connection allowed him always to present and teach only the most appropriate aspects of this knowledge to the people of a given time and place. Thus each talk he gave would be tailored perfectly to the needs and degree of understanding of the audience. He never pushed a favourite theme or theory – it was always what was needed and understandable for the people here and now, to inspire them to think and act for themselves to improve their individual situations.
In Australia he found some audiences who were ready to hear a little about the nature of the mind, and how it limits and controls our situation and experience. He spoke to many of the Australian audiences in scientific terms (even sometimes when speaking about the nature of devotion). He brought together the concepts of consciousness and energy as the fundamentals of being. Energy, given form by consciousness, becomes the material world. He spoke of the state of mind determining the states of perception and expression, and ultimately the situation we experience in life. This was all expressed in western scientific idiom, while describing the specific practical methods of raja yoga, hatha yoga, bhakti, kriya and karma yoga, etc., that we need for our therapy. His presence gave people direct experience of the reality of his words – to be at any one of his satsangs was an experience few would forget as he embodied a kind of man we would all like to be. He exemplified what is possible in man. Yet he never embellished his own image: once, in response to a question about his enlightened state of mind, he answered, "Look, I can think and think clearly – that's all."
Many Australians were intellectually receptive, others more devotional, but many who came to hear him made some sort of connection that has lasted and remained steady for their whole lifetime. The aspect of the Australians that connected them to him in an emotional sense was (and is) their love of kirtan – devotion expressed in dynamic music and song. So, he once said (paraphrased), "As Columbus once discovered America, I have discovered Australia – the spiritual Australia." He must have found something special, as he really did spend an extraordinary amount of time in Australia considering its small number of people.
It seems to me that he loved the humour and openness of the Aussies along with the dynamic attitude of the Australian yoga movement – especially the Satyananda Ashrams that were flourishing in every state at the time. These later became the Satyananda Yoga Ashram and Academy.
He became established in the hearts of thousands in Australia through almost yearly visits from 1976 to 1984 (lasting up to six months each). His vision of taking yoga mainstream to benefit the whole society ("to become the culture of tomorrow") soon became the objective of nearly two hundred full-time ashram residents across the country. In that period many were initiated into poorna sannyasa and karma sannyasa and worked hard at various ashram duties, creating a suitable place for yoga to be taught – mostly following their own intuition in each role required.
When teaching in Australia, Swami Satyananda was enthusiastic about the scientific approach to yoga, especially in relation to dealing with the mind. This mind he considered both our greatest friend and worst enemy. He did not give much emphasis to the undoubted direct physical benefits of yoga, but was focused on dealing with our more fundamental and causal problems, which lie in the mind. He was particularly keen to get people to understand that the deeper impressions, plus the conflicts and blockages that exist in each of us, determine our present and our future. So he encouraged us to take on yoga to resolve these issues so that the state of our minds can be improved. This is the way to heaven on earth as an immediate personal experience (rather than a future hypothetical).
His first instruction is to unlock the conditioned, rigid-thinking aspect of the mind. His second instruction is to purify or clean-up the multitude of conflicts and complexes that each of us collects in our minds.
To achieve this clean-up process a systematic approach is required, which determines the various aspects of yoga that need to be practised in a balanced way to effectively remove the blockages: starting with the phobias, working through the fears, dealing with the obsessions, managing distractions and developing concentration. Through his teachings he gave a lot of this in detail, as examples, but he always pointed out that each person must move from his own doorstep and condition. So each has their own path – there is not a ‘one size for all' prescription, hence the need always to make our own choices and each find our own appropriate teacher.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Swami Satyananda Saraswati should love science – since the goddess Saraswati represents the beauty of art, music and learning. To learn about the nature of the mind and the nature of being is surely the greatest and most beautiful science. It is a science based on an ongoing experiment that we call the life of each individual.
My impression is that he wished each of us to become a scientist in his style, discovering our own nature through the ‘technology' and disciplines of yoga.