In these times of restlessness and confusion generated by the growing adulteration of yoga, talking to Swami Satyananda Saraswati is like going to the living source of this tradition in search of answers. And, he has shared them with us clearly and bluntly, emphasizing the responsibility that instructors have. This is a YogaenRed interview.
Barcelona born in 1955, he lived half his life in India and was a disciple of Swami Muktananda. He continues to be very active, dedicated to imparting these teachings of yoga and Hinduism with coherence and depth. (See links to previous interviews below and on the Advaitavidya website).
To keep Swami Satyananda’s statements clear, we have divided them into key sections:
1st: Yoga today, an alarming situation
Q: You are a first-line witness to the evolution of yoga in Spain. We would like to know your assessment; considering what yoga now offers, what is being lost?
A: In the civilization in which we live, everything is commercialized, and the same thing has happened in yoga. The most alarming thing is that it is losing its roots. Obviously, there are very valid teachings, but others are completely disassociated from the mother, which is Hinduism. Yoga is a dharsan, a philosophical school, a traditional view of Hinduism, and its goal is not the perfect posture; it is samadhi, absorption.
Of course, the teacher can help the student who has back pain or who is nervous, but should be a guide to assist further. Yoga takes us to another state of consciousness, and sometimes this is ignored, it does not appear at all, yet it remains within very beautiful exercises. In all the classic yoga texts, it is said that the postures themselves are not so important, what is important is the inner state, the inner silence that the asanas generate, which purify the body and balance prana. This makes the mind more sattvic, more luminous, and from here you can access states of plenitude.
If we ignore all this, we have a very little real yoga, and it is a shame because we could obtain much more. But here comes the responsibility of the instructors. There are many instructors and teachers, but are they yogic enough, do they have enough knowledge, have they immersed themselves in it? Because it’s not what you know; it’s how you live.
This is not an assessment but an observation, as I see it.
On the one hand, I am glad that yoga has spread, but on the other hand, it is still a little sad to see the extent to which it loses its roots and power when often presented as an exercise. Today we find many gyms that list yoga as if it were just another gym class. There is all this mixture, some people with good faith and others, I do not know if they get something out of all this …
2nd: The responsibility of the instructors (and what it costs to sustain a centre)
Q: What can be done to improve this situation?
A: I think that those who teach have a great responsibility here, what happens is that in this civilization everyone is in a hurry; someone does an intensive course for six months and is already a teacher. Not only that, but he sets up a centre and it doesn’t work because it doesn’t have enough classes, the rent is expensive, you have to pay taxes… What is he going to do to support it? To invent a course for teachers, which gives an income. So then we already have a person with relatively little experience explaining what he has heard, that is, as my master said, the soup of the soup of the soup.
I think you have an important function in this: to try through your medium, which reaches many people, to seek this excellence from all of us whom are teaching.
Teaching is a great responsibility, not a selfish act but something you offer, but not everyone lives it that way. If you teach something just to make a living… well, it must be something more, and that is the great responsibility of teaching what you know, what you have already digested, to teach with power, with strength.
Q: Should schools be more insistent on offering these values?
A: Yes I think so. They should insist much more on yamas and niyamas, and for the teacher to be the expression of yoga… Because if you don’t practice intensely, what are you going to share; only the surface, the most external part.
3rd: Meditation can lead to self-deception… if you do not follow a path
Q: Even meditation seems to have become “trendy”. Is any form of meditation, any act that is supposed to be meditative, valid?
A: If one does not follow a path, meditation can perhaps be a small moment of silence, but it is not part of something much larger. In traditional Hinduism, one follows a path, a teaching, a lineage. Here there is a blessing, a power that you absorb, digest and transform.
Sometimes the Westerner doesn’t mind to have art teachers, driving teachers… but to have a spiritual master, it costs more; it is a contradiction, because it is a very subtle world where self-deception, ego, can hide repeatedly and you think you are very high when you haven’t even begun the path.
We have to realize that if we want to use meditation properly it has to be part of something, it is not a wholesale. There are different meditations, Zen, Mahayana Buddhism, Tantra, Raja yoga… and each one has a shakti, a transforming power, and this power comes from the masters who share it, from the lineage that accompanies it.
Sometimes I ask people who are in yoga what path they follow, and they tell me; spirituality in general. But spirituality in general does not exist; there are paths that lead to certain places, not always to the same one.
And then when we see meditation being marketed just to understand yourself a little more or to be more productive… this is when we really move away from what it should be. We meditate to self-inquire on the plenitude of our essence, not to work better or be less stressed. Those are just by-products which should not be given so much importance.
4th: Meditation, much more than an anti-stress method
Q: You recently gave a seminar on meditation from yogic and tantric perspectives. Can you learn to meditate properly in a few hours or on a weekend?
A: No, but if someone feels a connection within to this process, it is the beginning. We all have to start at some point. Whether it’s an hour or ten days, that would also be insufficient. Sometimes we want to learn… but meditation only teaches you itself over the years… and over the thousands of hours you have meditated.
Despite you feeling a little better for having sat down, it does not change anything; you still have a very heavy character. Meditation wants to take you beyond this character.
Q: Tell us about this purification process…
A: It is part of the meditative process, to purify, to cleanse the psychic content of the person, but also, as one is purified, one is left with the observation of what one is. And what one is, has nothing to do with our body or our mind; it is plenitude. The achievement of meditation is impressive… and yet we use it for very small things like to feel better.
It’s a bit like yoga; we should put the words yoga and meditation back in their proper place.
5th: Masters that irritate us and Hindu coherence
Q: But sometimes we are advised to simply sit in silence. Does a mind hanging in the void lead to anything?
A: It can make you feel better. A few moments of being in yourself always helps; even watching your thoughts and knowing what you like and don’t like about yourself is always positive. But this is not a path by itself. In the Shiva-sutras there is a phrase that says, “The Guru is the medium.’’ The master will teach you your infinity and also what prevents you from knowing your infinity; your own mind will never show it. In the East it is normal for a master to teach you and by your free choice… Here we think of a master as someone who takes possession of our life, and it is the opposite.
Q: It is said that yoga is not a religious path, and yet you approach it from Hinduism.
A: But Hinduism is not a religion, its name is Sanata dharma, the eternal dharma. It does not come from any holy book, from any messiah or prophet, from any belief or from having faith; it is the observation of the cosmic order, rita, and this leads us to observe also what we are.
Hindu meditation forms an integral part of Hinduism, it is its daughter, just as Buddhist meditation is the daughter of Buddhism. But it’s like these isms irritate us… Yes, meditation is a Hindu spiritual practice, why not? And why can’t I practice it, understand it and go deeper into it, if I feel it’s valid? Just as a Christian deepens the methods of Christian outreach. It is to feel part of something… To do it simply in my own way is often a self-deception; the ego feels very satisfied but what fruit will that practice bear?
Q: That’s why you recommend sticking to the practices that traditionally derive from Hinduism…
A: If one feels this connection… Do you want to do real yoga? Then stick to the Hindu yoga masters and the texts, because this is where all the wisdom comes from, you don’t need to think about it much more.
6th: Neither agnostic yoga nor everything new is better
Q: So, agnostic yoga does not exist…
A: Yes, but you don’t have to call it yoga. Yoga is a Hindu word; you take the word of this tradition and then create something new. Do that, but don’t usurp a word that has a very clear tradition and context. Yoga is a dharsan, an orthodox view that accepts that of the Vedic rishis as true, as a possibility of being experienced; so say the Upanishads: yoga, through its asceticism, wants to reach this state. If we take yoga out of that context, it loses strength.
But it is true that we live in a Spain where the word religion irritates us; the word spirituality almost the same, and tradition too… We are very irritable… but we have to start being a little more serious if we want to follow a path of truth. There are very old paths of transformation and wisdom, why not let these pure waters wash over us and help us? Why this pathological individuality that we are developing, as if the new were better?
Even Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita tells Arjuna that he does not teach him anything new. The masters of the Upanishads, thousands of years ago recognize that they only transmit what the old ones already said… My masters never taught me anything that was new. I never expect anything new…
Q: These innovations have mostly been in physical yoga, starting with the best known Hindu masters…
A: This emphasis on the physical subject is not born in the West, but from a whole generation of Hindu masters; some travel here and begin to untie the deepest and most meditative part of Hatha yoga by putting all the focus on the posture and on a yoga that is harder, stronger and more physical in some way.
Forty years ago, when I began to do yoga, the classes were different, we did the asanas one by one and stayed in them; there were almost no sequences, you relaxed a little and returned to the opposite asana to level out… This other concept came because of those teachers who were changing it and because the West asked for a little more movement, as if it were gymnastics… And between one and the other, here we are.
7th: Yoga to revive life and transform the world
Q: How do you recommend bringing yoga into today’s life, to everyday life?
A: This society has become so extroverted, so outward, that yoga well used would be like re-sacralizing our life, our food, our dreams, the way we treat others, animals, the environment, nature. If we lived with ahimsa, satya, asteya… the foundations of yoga, society could be very transformed; first would come the transformation of oneself, but then it would have a very strong impact on everything else. That is the greatness of traditional yoga.
This conversation can be a deep, respectful sharing of hearts and seeing the divinity in the other, or it can be a vulgar talk. What does it depend on? On our yogic state. If I become one with yoga, if I elevate myself with yoga, if I become more luminous, this light moves with me, I am transforming myself and what surrounds me. Yoga can bring an opportunity to resacralize this world of which we currently only look at the stains on the ground.
Q: Finally, what would you like to achieve with your teachings?
A: I don’t expect any achievement, but rather that we enjoy ourselves and that there may be people who can recognize and value this profound teaching and enliven it within them. In my life I have felt a great fullness with this teaching, and if someone can recognize this, it is the best thing that can happen to them. Simply this.