Universality of the Satyananda Yoga System

Swami Pragyamurti, Founder and Acharya, Satyananda Yoga Centre, London, UK

Hari Om Swamiji and Swami Satsangiji, and sisters and brothers in this beautiful family.

We have heard a lot in the last few days of the universal application of Satyananda Yoga around the world, and we have heard about the very interesting research being done on the benefits of yoga to the body, mind and spirit.

I would like to discuss a little bit about some of the journeys on which Sri Swamiji has taken me. Some of these places that I have been privileged enough to teach are in areas that have been much neglected. Often in the West, we think of yoga as being a pastime for fairly wealthy, skinny people; however, the wonder of Satyananda Yoga is that it gives us a variety of simple practices to make changes now, moment by moment, for no better reason than because you, me, we, deserve it.

Efficacy of yoga in London Prison

I find this particularly true in my work in prisons. For more than twenty years, I have been working in a big men's prison in London where my students are murderers, thieves, sex offenders, alcoholics, drug addicts and the occasional terrorist. The people in prison by and large are undereducated, 'dragged up' rather than 'brought up', and of course they are in prison. Where else could they possibly be? Through the damage that has been done to them from their most tender years of childhood, they are disconnected from the better parts of themselves. Connections between body and mind, never mind heart, are non-existent.

What can you do for them? You cannot possibly sit and teach them pawanmuktasana part 1. Wonderful though it is, it is far too subtle. What Sri Swamiji has guided me in is to be appropriate, to give people the techniques that work for them in their circumstances now.

Prison is not a good place to be; however, there are wonderful practices that can help deal with the tension. Tension builds and builds and builds in life, and particularly, in prison. Therefore, it is important that we are able to give our students practices that help to deal with the build-up of tension, something as simple as naukasana. It works wonders.

Another exceptional practice, and we all know this, is yoga nidra. I have discovered in my work in the prisons that many people have a very limited connection between the body and the mind. Sometimes I can say, "Breathe in and raise your right leg," and for half the students, the left leg comes up. Through the practice of yoga nidra, people are able to rebuild a connection between their bodies and their mind, and what they are doing with their body and with their mind. This is hugely valuable in this population that is so desperately underprivileged. There are numerous such people amongst us. We cannot forget them, we cannot possibly neglect them, not just for their own selves but also for our own selves, because otherwise we will be taken over.

Universality of Satyananda Yoga

Just last week in my class, we were having a sitting meditation, sitting on chairs and I thought instead of yoga nidra, this week we will have a simple practice of hridayakasha dharana. These are beginners so they have not had the background and all the years of preparation that I would ideally give my students; however, yoga works. We know it does. With these guys, I asked them to place their hands in chinmaya mudra. They sat. They placed their hands in chinmaya mudra. Chinmaya mudra touches the breath. It brings the breath in to the chest area; thoracic breathing. The breath connects us to something deeper. It brings us into contact with our emotions, with our feelings, one breath at a time, moment by moment. For me, sitting there in the circle guiding the practice, giving people time, breath by breath, moment by moment, watching the body language change, watching hard faces soften, and at the end of the practice inviting my guys to chant Om three times and listening to the beauty and the depth of that sound, there were tears in my eyes.

This to me indicates the magic, the depth and the absolute universality of Satyananda Yoga. Simple practices that have such depth, that demand no intellectual understanding, no periods of study, yet which enable all of us to make changes now, because we deserve it.

One of my students in that group had told me the week before that he was going to the funeral of his daughter who had been killed. Prisoners, when they are allowed out to a funeral, have to go in handcuffs and shackles. This student friend of mine was taken out to go to the funeral of his daughter and he was agitated, inevitably, and rude to the prison guards who were taking him to the funeral. They dragged him back to his cell, so he could not go. I was informed of this and I asked him, "How are you today?" and he said, "I'm okay, Swami, I've been practising your yoga stuff." How he was okay God alone knows.

So this work with the prison is hugely valuable, not just for them, but I have to say, for me. It is always a two-way traffic.

My guys in South African prisons

I have also spent a lot of time in prisons in South Africa. For the last six years or so I have been going to Cape Town, where I go not only to teach, but also to go on a pilgrimage to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. I say it's a pilgrimage because that great yogi, President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Pollsmoor for some time. It is probably one of the most ghastly jails in the world. It has huge gang cultures and those people, incidentally, are masters of hasta mudras; I am going to study that the next time I go.

In going to Pollsmoor jail and working with prisoners there, again, the relevance of yoga became clearly evident. I do a lot of work with abdominal breathing there. Abdominal breathing, as we know, connects us with manipura chakra. Manipura chakra is not necessarily to do with the negative connotations of criminals, power, abuse and aggression; it is to do with your sense of self-esteem, your sense of yourself as a human being.

Very few people come out of prison a better person. Abuse and brutality do not make a better human being. I feel very privileged to be able to pass on some of the beautiful techniques from our tradition to my guys in prison. I call them 'my guys' because I really love them and we have a good connection.

Ancient yoga culture in Africa

Apart from prisons, I would like to talk a little bit about the relevance of yoga in South Africa as a whole. What I have discovered is that there is a huge connection. Yoga and the ancient symbols of yoga are alive and well in Africa. Africa has not been mentioned in this conference and it is not mentioned in many yoga conferences worldwide. Despite that, I have been very privileged to meet with a number of sangomas, the traditional healers in Southern Africa, and I have been lucky enough to meet with people from the San and taken to various caves in Southern Africa where there are yantras and mandalas. In their depictions, there is the symbol of the kundalini serpent, exactly the same as ours in yoga, which takes us from the depths to the highest heights through the chakras. In Africa, the chakras are also symbolized by animals, the same animals that we use in the Indian system: antelope, elephant, crocodile, deer. They are all there in Africa. We are connected and this goes back thousands and thousands of years.

Through my discussions with the sangomas, we have discovered all of this that we have in common. They use breathing practices, they use hand mudras and they use amaroli, urine therapy, as a basic system of healthcare. As the sangomas and I can discuss such things together, they can say to their people in the villages and the townships, "This old white woman is all right, she's talking sense." Thanks to Sri Swamiji.

I do spend a lot of time in the townships. One of my best classes is held in a car park in the middle of Nyanga where goats are being slaughtered and cooked. My students there are people who are living with HIV and TB. When I first went there, they hobbled in on their sticks and we sat down in a huge circle. By the end of the first class these guys were standing up, they were doing shoulder rotations while standing. We also practised a little yoga nidra while sitting. Each year I go back to those guys and they say, "See, we're still here." They are improving their health and they are improving their spirit. Southern Africa has been used and abused for centuries by colonization and apartheid. You cannot cure that in a generation; it is an ongoing process.

There is a colleague of mine in South Africa, a woman who runs an organization called the Brave Foundation. She works with quadriplegics and paraplegics through yoga nidra. Some of the research she has done there is absolutely astounding. The help that is being given to people, who have been told they will never walk again or that they will never stand again, through yoga nidra is remarkable. They are learning to breathe on command. They are learning slowly, slowly to get movement back in their toes, in their fingers. I see it. Each time I go back I see how they are improving.

Be generous with your love

I am hugely grateful to Swamiji for guiding me into these areas, which benefits me greatly and benefits the people in very simple, easy-to-understand ways. Satyananda Yoga is hugely practical, and simple practices are often the most profound and the deepest.

I would request all of you, when you are chanting your mantras – Gayatri mantra, Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Shanti Path – please be generous. Extend your heart to touch my students, all of our students, all of our fellow human beings in the most desperate conditions, striving, trying, and hoping where there is so little hope. Please, please be generous with your love.

—Address, 26 October 2013, Polo Ground, Munger