When I began practising yoga, books on the subject were rare in the west. We had to write to Bombay, Calcutta or Benares to obtain catalogues that we received months later. Once the books were ordered, again we had to wait months for them to come by sea mail. It was in one of those catalogues that I was struck by the title, 'Yogic Home Exercises for Modern Men and Women' by a Swami named Sivananda. My life had become sedentary, and I was feeling the need for some exercise, but like many people, I was not motivated to take up the sports I had once played.
So, on a beautiful day in 1948, I received this book among others. It was a paperback book, the first that I opened. When I saw Swami Sivananda's face on the cover, I felt a secret sympathy. It was only a small book, but if I were to draw up the balance-sheet of all the books which have been important to me, it would have to be the small ones which had the most influence, even to the extent of changing the course of my life.
This book covered every aspect of yoga, including all the postures, with photographs and commentaries on their beneficial effects. Up to this time, I had only practised meditation and studied philosophy; I had never done any asanas. Receiving that book had such an immediate effect on me that the following morning I spread a carpet for my first session of asanas.
An initial trial period of three months produced unexpected benefits of the simplest kind. Frequently throughout the book Swami Sivananda would comment, 'This is a good posture for relieving constipation,' This had been one of my problems since childhood. I had tried everything, but nothing had worked. And then, after twenty years of pertinacious constipation, with a few days of asana practice the problem was solved. I could not believe it, and even today, the results that can be obtained from yogic practices fill me with wonder. This gave me faith in the rest of Swami Sivananda's assertions, even if sometimes they seemed too good to be true. And sure enough, yoga improved my health. I worked better and faster, was less tired, and also, mainly, my meditation practice improved.
This little book of Swami Sivananda's had conquered me and his personality fascinated me. I found a list of his other books, along with his address: 'Ananda Kutir, Rishikesh, Himalayas'. To a European like myself, this seemed like an outpost of paradise itself. One day, obeying an irresistible impulse, I wrote to Swami Sivananda ordering all the books he had ever written. It took so long to receive parcels from that fabulous land, India, that I preferred to run the risk of purchasing a few books which might be less interesting rather than miss out on any gems.
Then, I waited. Some weeks later, a letter arrived from the ashram saying, 'The eleven parcels of books you have ordered are being despatched from here at the rate of one parcel a day. Please find the bill enclosed.' It was a library - the bill filled five pages! I was rather bewildered. Only Swami Sivananda would have sent eleven parcels of books all the way from India to a complete stranger in Europe, solely on the basis of a letter!
Finally the books arrived, and they contained treasures. They were not well printed, and the paper and pictures were of inferior quality, but they carried the eternal message of India, and the most precious advice. Then, for years, I lived with the thought of Swami Sivananda, and through him, with the great rishis of India. When I think of the thousands of people he helped in this way, I can only feel admiration and affection. He lived to make all of mankind stronger and happier, forgetting completely about himself.
However, in spite of his magnanimous nature, Swami Sivananda still had his detractors. He was given the nickname 'Swami Propagandananda' by the orthodoxy. They disapproved of both his modern methods of diffusion, and his propagation of yoga on such a grand scale to the general public. In their mind, it was jumble-sale yoga. His books were not meticulous treatises, like those of the learned pandits, written for other scholars. They were regarded as gross vulgarizations. He encouraged a yoga practice which was possible for everyone: some asanas, a little pranayama, a little meditation and bhakti; well, a little of everything.
One of his famous English kirtans which did not improve his prestige with the orthodoxy was, 'Eat a little, meditate a little.' Could this be yoga? Yoga for everyone, what a downfall! Contrary to the traditionalists who had always put their disciples through a severe selection process before initiating them, requiring them sometimes to wait for years before introducing them slowly to the sacred science of yoga, Swami Sivananda welcomed everyone to his ashram and taught them all yoga. His critics argued that this procedure would inevitably lower the standard of teaching and lead to the adulteration of the authentic traditions. Indifferent to adverse opinions, Swami Sivananda just went on teaching, writing and publishing.
Little by little, the ashram enlarged not only in surface area, but in renown. People came from far and near to meet the Master in Rishikesh. And, to crown it all, 'Swami Propagandananda' accepted people from the west, and even females! It was predicted that in the materialistic cultures of the west, yoga would degenerate into a minor branch of hygienic gymnastics, nothing more. This was considered as a complete betrayal of yoga and the great rishis.
How could these westerners possibly understand Vedanta, everyone wondered. Were they really ready for yoga? 'Yes, yes, they are,' insisted Swami Sivananda in a press conference held in Benares during his 'All-India Tour' in 1950. 'Not only are they ready, but they have already begun to appreciate our message. In fact, today, there are more yogis and gyanis in the west than in India! They appreciate the message of India more than we do ourselves, and are more eager to know about yoga and Vedanta. In Russia, Denmark, Great Britain, and many other places, there are now experts in yoga. Some of them have developed such an interest in yoga and Vedanta that they have become sannyasins and established themselves in India. Truly, they are a source of inspiration for us.'
Untirable, Swami Sivananda always worked. During thirty years he authored more than three hundred books on every possible subject relating to yoga, philosophy and natural medicine. The ashram in Rishikesh even had its own printing press. He encouraged everyone not only to practise yoga, but to teach it and to form small groups for this purpose all over the world. Soon groups spread everywhere to learn and transmit the message of Swami Sivananda, who became the dynamo of yoga for the modern age. Without him the materialistic western world would never have become such fertile ground for the growth of yoga.
Thanks to Swami Sivananda, his books and his teachings, and to such disciples as Swami Satyananda, Swami Chidananda, Swami Krishnananda, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Vishnudevananda, Swami Venkatesananda and Swami Omkarananda, to mention some of the most well known, thousands of westerners now practise yoga. Yoga has given meaning to their lives, given them back their health, and helped them to survive in a difficult world. Therefore, we can say that Swami Sivananda was the Prometheus of yoga. Everywhere he set ablaze yogic fires which are still burning brightly.
However, the traditionalists were not entirely wrong; yoga as it is generally portrayed in the west is far from complete. Hatha yoga for health and physical fitness is only a caricature of yoga in its totality. Often yoga is completely cut off from its deep roots, which lead us back to the origins of our own being and of the cosmos. Then it becomes merely another therapy.
It is true that Swami Sivananda's books were simplifications. Not that he was unable to write books on a higher level; his commentaries on the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras compare favourably with the best, and reveal a profound knowledge of Indian thought, But it is the simple books which are able to awaken the interest of those people who are new to yoga. Then these same people go on to study more elaborate books which they would never have discovered without the help of Swami Sivananda. Those simple books have thus stimulated the demand for more information, and have obliged the orthodox yogis to reveal to a wider audience the more advanced techniques which otherwise they would have kept for a very restricted circle, as they have done for thousands of years.
The uncompromising people who live yoga in its entirety, and who practise a very strict physical and mental discipline, are necessary; they are the guardians of the tradition, of the fabulous inheritance which has been passed down to us by the great rishis.
But, without Swami Sivananda, this inheritance would have, purely and simply, run the risk of disappearing altogether. Certainly, among the thousands of yoga followers in the west, most will only practise a few asanas, some relaxation or concentration, and will be happy to cure their constipation, insomnia and backaches. This may not be traditional yoga, but neither is it wrong. Would it be better to let people suffer? If any technique may be of some use to someone, whoever and wherever he is, who could refuse him help in the name of orthodoxy? Besides, those hundreds of thousands of beginning practitioners form the nursery from which will emerge the full-fledged yogic aspirants of the future.
It is necessary to spread yoga under all its forms, and each of us must share the responsibility for creating and maintaining the right yogic spirit. Surely, the practice of yoga in the west will differ from that of ancient India, because there is not 'one yoga for everybody', but rather 'a yoga for each one'. The west will never be India. However, it should be possible to maintain the final goal of yoga, the goal that Swami Sivananda never lost sight of, whatever the appearances. When we show by our sincerity and humility that we are worthy to receive yoga, the traditional guardians of its secrets will share what they know in a respectful collaboration, The west and east together will breathe new life into this ancient science, whose full grandeur and scope still remain beyond our comprehension.
Whatever may happen, however many books are published on the subject, the favourite saying of Swami Sivananda will forever hold true: 'One ounce of practice is better than tons of theory.' Therefore let us all practise diligently, and remember to thank Swami Sivananda, the yogic dynamo.