Conversation on Yoga

Swami Shivadhyanam Saraswati

Swamiji, nowadays people think of yoga either as physical exercise or spiritual sadhana or sometimes even as a form of gymnastics. However, what is yoga in reality? We would like to know something about this from you.

This is a very relevant question for today because undoubtedly people have many different ideas, thoughts and concepts about yoga which are far from what it really is. Our paramguru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, always saw yoga as an integral science which relates to the entire personality of a human being.

We are this body, of course, we are this mind, these emotions and there are many subtle planes of existence as well. Certainly yoga has a definite physical component which is essential for a healthy body. Physical health is a core necessity and it is even more so in present times. While this is an important aspect of yoga, unfortunately it is only this physical aspect which is highlighted in society today. In reality, the physical component of yoga is not more than five or ten percent of the entire body of yoga. As a matter of fact, the basic and most important aspect of yoga relates to the mind.

Our happiness, peace and contentment depends entirely on the state of our mind. While physical health is our primary requirement, our happiness is equally important and it relates to the realm of the mind. Yoga can make a considerable contribution towards a healthy mind in managing its behaviour and expressions and also in managing emotional behaviour.

Apart from our identity as individuals, there is another aspect of our lives which is important. Though we are concerned with our own health and happiness, we do not exist in isolation. We belong to a family and society as well. What are our interpersonal relationships like? Is there understanding and cooperation between us? Harmony is an essential element for smooth social interactions and yoga can address this need and give us tools to develop this quality. We can confidently say that yoga is a body of knowledge and science which addresses the entire personality and helps to create a complete and beautiful life at all levels. It will benefit us greatly if yoga is not seen only as something that we ‘practise’, rather it is something that we can also understand and assimilate. Apart from practices, yoga is a lifestyle which we can live from moment to moment, and that is when we can truly experience the benefits of yoga in our lives.

You have spoken of yoga as a lifestyle. The present Covid pandemic has affected the entire world and caused a lot of distress. Some people have started to do yoga and have become aware of and are attracted to yogic practices. However, the overload of pranayama, asanas and other practices on social media has also caused some confusion as to which practices one can or cannot practise. Swamiji, can you please shed some light on this area?

There are many different methods and styles of teaching and it is not our place to comment on them. However, we can express our point of view. We firmly believe in the importance of learning yogic practices under the guidance of a teacher and if this is possible in person, all the better. A one-on-one class session allows the teacher to observe whether the practices have been correctly understood and are being performed in the right manner. The other point is that when we perform higher and more complicated practices, there are some safety aspects and contra-indications which have to be watched out for. If the student is practising in the presence of the teacher, then individual limitations can be taken into account and the practices can be modified accordingly. This is not something that is possible in classes that are conducted on social media or over a television program. This deals with one aspect of your question.

As you also mentioned, we are experiencing the effects of the Covid pandemic in all spheres of life and movement is restricted, so being able to attend classes is not an option or is very difficult. In such a situation, there are many simple yogic practices which can be understood and applied using common sense so that they can be easily incorporated into one’s daily routine. Here the stress is on the appropriate application of a few simple practices as it is not necessary to learn many practices. These few practices, when practised with regularity, can yield many lasting benefits.

Swamiji, do you have a special message for our viewers on the occasion of International Day of Yoga?

In present times our special needs are of health, happiness, peace and understanding – Health, Happiness and Harmony. Yoga is eminently capable of bestowing all three upon us. We should not limit our understanding of yoga to an hour or so when we participate in a class, as something that we can only perform when we are on our yoga mat or blanket and forget about for the rest of the time. No.

Yoga relates to every element of our lives, every interaction, reaction and response. After all, what is our life? Whatever we think, what we feel, what we experience and express, our priorities, our relationships, our career or profession – everything is a part of our life and if we use yoga and yogic teachings in the appropriate way, our whole life will be enriched.

This is our message to all your viewers that they may view yoga through an integrated perspective, try and incorporate its many aspects in every area of their lives. In so doing they will not only find health, happiness and harmony in their own lives, they can also inspire and encourage people around them to adopt yoga in their lives as well.

The popular belief is that yogic life is one of strict discipline and that one has to forgo all of life’s joys. Today work schedules often run into late evening or late night shifts. In such cases, how do we start our yoga practice, and what is a solution according to you?

As far as discipline is concerned, we should not be afraid of it. In a sense, discipline is a synonym of yoga. It is even said in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, athah yoganushasanam – yoga starts with yogic discipline. People are afraid of discipline because they think that they will have to give up bhoga or enjoyment. Yoga does not contradict bhoga, in fact, yoga can enhance your experience of enjoyment through balance and moderation. With discipline you can have a complete or full experience of enjoyment.

Let us take the example of a kite. A kite will fly while it is attached to the string. You may say that the string is actually restricting its flight, not letting it go higher. So let’s cut the string and see what happens! The kite will flutter and fly for a while and then come down. It is wrong to think that the string was stopping it, it is because of the string that the kite was able to soar high.

This metaphoric string of balance and discipline enters our life through yoga. We have to fly the kite of our personal life in the sky, so to speak. It will fly only if there is some balance and discipline in our lives. This is the lifestyle aspect of yoga.

Even if we bring a little balance into our waking and sleeping routine, it will definitely positively influence our life and health. Similarly, we can fix regular mealtimes by exercising a little control over our irregular eating habits. We are not saying, ‘stop eating or change your diet’. Just exercise a little restraint during mealtimes, in your waking and sleeping routine, and in your other activities and behaviours.

People overuse digital media. Our Guru, Swami Niranjanananda, tells us to practise digital fasting in the same way that we periodically abstain from food while fasting. Once a week, or at least for one hour during the weekend, restrain yourself from using your digital devices, or at least during mealtimes. If the family is sitting together for a meal, why is it necessary to check your mobile phone? At least switch it off during mealtimes with your family. You will immediately perceive a direct influence on your behaviour and in your relationships. This is all a matter of common sense. We should start incorporating these small changes in our lifestyle, one at a time.

20 June 2021, extracts from an interview conducted by the national television channel on the occasion of the International Day of Yoga