By Clare Hudson
Clare has been practising yoga for almost 10 years and meditation for three. After receiving her degree in Fine Art, she spent five years travelling all over the world, working for Greenpeace in Australia, hitchhiking across Scandinavia and studying yoga and meditation in India. Earlier this year, she launched ThoughtBrick.com, a site dedicated to meditation, mindfulness and self-improvement.
“Before you can change the world, you have to change yourself.” – Swami Vishnudevananda
This is the inspirational story of Sivananda yoga as we know it today.
Swami Sivanada (1887-1963) was a yogi, influential spiritual teacher, founder of the Divine Life Society and head of the first Sivananda ashram in Rishikish, India.
Introducing Swami Vishnudevananda
In 1947 Swami Vishnudevananda was rustling in a waste paper bin for a lost document. I have no idea if he found what he was looking for, but what he did find was a booklet with the words ‘Sadhana Tattwa’ written on the front followed by information about Swami Sivananda’s yogic teachings and ashram in Rishikesh. Intrigued, young and somewhat arrogant he made the trip to the ashram.
Traditionally, people were supposed to bow to holy people; however, Swami Vishnnudevananda, young and proud, chose not to bow when he passed Swami Sivananda on the stairs. The action, or lack of action, did not go unnoticed. Swami Sivananda asked who Swami Vishnudevananda was, where he came from, then bowed down to him and touched his feet.
“Swami Sivananda touched my heart not with miracles or shows of holiness, but with his perfect egoless nature. He didn’t consider that I was just a stupid boy standing there, although I was just that.” – Swami Vishnudevananda
After 10 years of living and learning under the direct guidance of Swami Sivananda, the teacher said to his disciple, “Go to the West; people are waiting.” He gave Swami Vishnudevananda 10 rupees and said: “Everything you need is in these rupees.” So armed with a tiny bit of cash and a big vision of bringing peace and yoga to the West, Swami Vishnudevananda began his lifelong mission.
After leaving India, Swami Vishnudevananda arrived in America where he spent a year travelling the west coast of the US. It struck him that Westerners had no idea how to properly relax, live healthy lives and be ‘present’. With this in mind, he went about creating places where people could immerse themselves fully in the yogic lifestyle and completely relax their minds and bodies.
Just two years after leaving Rishikesh, the first Sivananda ashram offering yoga vacations opened in a cottage with no running water just outside of Montreal, Canada. Paying close attention to the needs of Westerners, Swami Vishnudevananda divided yoga into five main points: physical exercise, proper breathing, relaxation, a vegetarian diet and positive thinking and meditation. These are the principles in which all Sivananda ashrams are based around.
During the sixties Swami Vihnudevananda was said to have had a disturbing vision of people running, fire destroying the world, and utter chaos and turmoil.
From this moment onwards, Swami Vishnudevananda not only continued to spread the word of peace: he believed that patriotism and nationalism shouldn’t exist and advocated the idea of ‘one unity’ and the collective consciousness.
Flying over the Berlin Wall
From the seventies through to the eighties, Swami Vishnudevananda started to gain worldwide publicity after flying his plane across war-torn parts of the world, the most controversial being the Berlin Wall action in 1983.
When I first watched the video in the ashram in Tamil Nadu, I had my hand over my mouth in shock as I watched Smami Vishnudevananda fly a microlight plane across the Berlin Wall from the West side to the East and then positively ‘bomb’ the area with flowers and leaflets spreading the word of peace. No one had flown a private plane from the east side of the wall to the West since the wall had been put up.
“East Germans and West Germans, what is the difference? There was only one Germany. The moment that you put labels, then you think a person is not a human being…So when I went, I went with the label removed. The Berlin Wall crossing was symbolic. The purpose was to break the man-made barriers that exist in the mind. That’s the real barrier.” – Swami Vishnudevananda
Sivananda yoga today
Swami Vishnudevananda dedicated his life to peace and yoga. He explained and taught yoga in a clear, practical way to the West and transformed many lives along the way. In November 9, 1993, Swami Vishnudevananda peacefully passed away leaving behind a message that will be passed on from generation to generation.
Today, there are seven Sivananda ashrams, 20 centres and many affiliated centres providing yoga vacations, inspirational workshops, classes and / or yoga teacher training courses all over the world.
“The only way to change society is like changing a cotton cloth to a silk one — by changing each thread one by one.” – Swami Vishnudevananda
Photographs by Coni Hörler. Clare’s portrait by Hannah Chapman.