The crown jewel of yoga
Pradeep Krishnan traces the journey of Swami Yogaratna Saraswati from her childhood in Paris to her initiation as a Sannyasi in Bihar, subsequent to which she spread the knowledge of yoga to the world at large
As soon as my wife Sreelakshmi and I entered the verandah of Shankar Prasad Foundation, an ashram situated in the temple town of Gokarna, Karnataka, an elderly woman (clad in saffron churidar-pyjama) with a childlike face greeted us with a warm smile and heartfelt hugs. Soon, the septuagenarian, Swami Yogaratna Saraswati, like a grandmother, put us at ease enquiring about our journey and whether we had taken any food and then led us to a modest cottage to take rest. At once, we felt as if we are in our ancestral home after so many years.
Born in 1952 in Paris to Australian parents and raised in India, Swami Yogaratna is a direct disciple of Swami Satyananda of the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) and has dedicated her life to the research and practice of different aspects of spirituality and yoga. After joining the Bengaluru branch of BSY in 1984, the following year, on Maha Shivaratri day, she embraced sannyasa (renunciation). Considered an expert in Yoga Nidra, Swamiji (as she is reverentially addressed), after serving the Bengaluru branch for over two decades, with her guru’s blessings to “be free as a sannyasi (renunciate),” established the Shankar Prasad Foundation in 2004 in a century-old heritage house located on two acres of coconut grove, a few kilometres away from the holy Gokarna temple and beach.
Since then, for the past three decades, she has been actively engaged in disseminating the knowledge of yoga all over India and overseas, and has done extensive research on fusing yogic knowledge with naturopathy and ayurveda. Thus, she has devised several higher techniques of sadhana (spiritual practice) such as Chakra Sadhana, Nada Yoga, Attitudinal Yoga and Kriya Yoga as powerful systems of healing. She had helped to set up the ‘spiritual’ component in Fireflies Ashram, Bengaluru, an earth-spirituality social activism NGO helping farmers implement organic agriculture, and women and slum people to improve their lives.
Swamiji, a spiritual counsellor, yoga advisor, and therapist, has also been active in several social and environmental spheres: empowerment of women, planting of trees, organic farming, waste management and giving shelter to abandoned dogs.
Sitting in the spacious yoga hall of the ashram, in an exclusive interview with Pradeep Krishnan, Swamiji said, “My aim is to help people relieve their suffering and connect to their Higher Self through awareness and the science of Yoga & Meditation.”
Swamiji, you were born in Paris to Australian parents. What were the reasons for coming to India and becoming a seeker on the spiritual path?
In 1956, when I was four years old, my parents brought me to India. My father worked as an art director with Lintas advertising agency in Mumbai. After graduating from the Bombay International School, as my parents were from Australia, I went there for higher education in 1968 and after completing my studies, worked there for about 13 years. At that time, though not consciously interested in spiritual matters, when I came to a state of dissatisfaction and confusion, I attended some personality development courses and later received initiation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
What was the turning point in your life?
In 1984, I returned to India in a very bad state—physically and mentally. Hearing from my friends that ashrams are peaceful places, I booked for a two-week course in the Bengaluru Branch of BSY. Soon, I fell in love with Yoga Nidra and their lifestyle. I decided to live, working on myself and helping others. Ultimately, I stayed there continuously for 20 years!
Meanwhile, in 1985, on a visit to the main ashram in Munger, after meeting Swami Satyananda, I had uplifting spiritual experiences. That was the turning point. I was so struck with him that at once, I wanted to serve him, be with him, and help him in his mission to spread yoga from door to door and shore to shore. Within two weeks of joining the ashram, he gave me mantra initiation and a spiritual name. Soon, I considered taking sannyasa-diksha, especially since a Vedic astrologer had earlier predicted that I would do well in the spiritual life and become a teacher and a healer. In the ashram, I was very comfortable leading a simple life of service, improving myself, and helping others. Rapidly, my life became successful and happy. Contrary to the views of many that taking sannyasa is running away from life, leaving family and giving up all the comforts, by joining the ashram, I was embracing something very real, deep and interesting and was experiencing the richness of inner life.
How did you find your guru?
I was not looking for a guru; it just happened. The scriptures say that when one is ready and ripe, the guru appears. At that time, my physical and mental health was in desperate condition. While in Australia, though not interested in gurus or yoga, I used to attend a gathering of people every evening listening to or reading Osho tapes and books. At that point, my thinking was that one cannot revere another human being who is the same as me. As soon as I saw Swami Satyananda, it was love at first sight. I realised it was not romantic or sexual love; rather, it was spiritual love and I decided to dedicate my life to my guru. He told me, “Stay as long as you can and work hard.” Following his instructions has helped me a lot to come up in spiritual life.
Years later, when Swami Kriyananda, a very elderly, conservative, pious Indian sadhu (ascetic), who could hardly speak English was sent to the Bengaluru ashram, I considered him my second guru and served him with bhakti (devotion) and dedication for 12 years. Later, when Swami Satyananda named Swami Niranjanananda as successor, I considered him also as my guru.
What did you learn from your gurus?
Swami Satyananda had taught me Hatha Yoga and how to overcome my own passions and emotions. Swami Kriyananda, who introduced me to ayurveda and naturopathy, had also taught me how to remain cool and calm during adversities. After meeting and interacting with Swami Niranjanananda, I was convinced that the Guru Shakti, the energy and the spirit of the Guru Parampara (lineage) flows through all. My gurus are very much alive in my heart and I am nothing without my gurus. They were my moral support and I consider my relationship with them very strong and precious.
Do you think one can grow spiritually without a guru?
Yes, but it will be a circuitous route as no one will be there to help and guide you. On the other hand, one can always rely upon a guru to steer you ahead. Once in tune with that channel, even in the physical absence of the guru, the flow of energy helps one in blossoming and reaching one’s full potential. That is why when people ask for initiation, I tell them to go to Swami Niranjananandaji as he is the Guru of our tradition. Anyone serious about the spiritual path should take mantra initiation to get support, guidance and protection on the path.
What prompted you to take up sannyasa?
There were three reasons: Firstly, though it was not obligatory, I wanted to serve my guru. Secondly, an astrologer had predicted that I would do well in the spiritual life. And thirdly, I wanted to develop myself and work for others. In fact, I feel that I was destined for the life of a sannyasi as I was neither close to my parents nor was part of any group or clique. Moreover, when young, I spent a lot of time on my own, gazing at the ocean, the moon, and being in the company of nature.
How does yoga help one maintain equilibrium?
The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being’ and not merely as ‘absence of disease or injury.’ Yoga means union, oneness and harmony of the body, mind and spirit of a person or of a group. There are different types of yoga: for the physical body, asanas (yogic postures); for the energy body, pranayama (yogic breathing); for the mind, meditation; for the emotions, Bhakti Yoga (devotion); for one’s actions, Karma Yoga (action without sense of doership); for the intellect, Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge); and for the senses, Nada Yoga (yoga using sound). Practising yoga helps one to improve all aspects of one’s life, including health.
Anyone can start practising yoga from his/her own level. Asanas, pranayama, and meditation help to balance the energies and make one calm, focussed and composed and elevate consciousness.
What ought to be the aim and purpose of human life?
It is important to have a purpose in your life. One should aim to connect with one’s true nature or Higher Self and realise that we all are one. The purpose of life is to express, to experience, and to blossom as fully as one can.
Could you please share your experiences in curing illness through yoga?
I have had many positive experiences helping people with their ailments through yoga. While in Bengaluru, with the guidance of Swami Kriyananda—who was well versed in the theory and practice of Hatha Yoga, ayurveda, naturopathy and other ancient Indian systems of healing—I had cured several patients having back pain, obesity, diabetes, digestive disorders, migraine, depression, anxiety, rheumatism, arthritis, asthma, sinusitis, etc. Thereby, I gained vast knowledge and experience of practical yoga therapy. I also studied other therapies and it was satisfying to help suffering people and make them connect with the higher consciousness.
You are considered an expert in the practice of Yoga Nidra. What actually happens during Yoga Nidra and how does it work?
Yoga Nidra, which helps one to access the inner world, paved the way for my spiritual life, ashram life and yoga. My first experience of Yoga Nidra accessing the inner space opened up a whole new world.
One is able to see because what is projected on the retina is transmitted through nerves to the brain that interprets it. Likewise, the fluctuations of the mind are projected to chidakasha, the inner retina, the screen on which everything manifests. Its the reflection or manifestation of the energy creating experiences on one’s inner screen.
Yoga Nidra can also be termed as ‘psychic sleep meditation’ or ‘yogic dreaming’ or ‘dreaming consciously.’ During Yoga Nidra, one is taken through different levels of the mind, step by step, to access the deep subconscious or the higher mind, the part responsible for dreams, creative ideas and intuition. While awake, one is led to the dream state to make them experience what is happening at the deep subconscious level. It automatically brings out all the suppressed stresses and strains like bubbles emerging to the surface of water. When this process is repeated, one can experience and explore the higher consciousness or the super consciousness or the Higher Self. Ultimately, like a rock inside the turbulent sea, one becomes quiet, cool and calm under all circumstances.
What are the other benefits of Yoga Nidra?
By mastering the mind, Yoga Nidra helps one to develop concentration, memory, positive thinking, etc. It is very helpful for students and for those doing a lot of mental work. It relieves one from phobias, fears and traumas. By sending messages to the auto-immune system through the deep subconscious mind, it helps to enhance one’s natural healing powers. If practised regularly, Yoga Nidra, by connecting to the higher consciousness, helps one to achieve their goal in life. While one hour of meditation gives the benefit of four hours of deep sleep, half an hour of Yoga Nidra will give the benefit of two hours of deep sleep. Whenever one is feeling tired or fatigued, one can practise it even for a short period of time. Yoga Nidra can also cure many physical ailments.
How do we bring happiness in day-to-day life?
Yoga, meditation, and chanting of mantras, create positive energy vibrations, helping one deal with life in any situation. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude, and practising Karma Yoga helps in bringing happiness in day-to-day life.
What according to you is the essence of spiritual life?
To become aware of the Spirit behind everything, realise the consciousness, the energy behind everything and to see the Divine in every life. To tune into that life, be aware of it, to communicate with it, to have gratitude for it, to surrender, and to offer your life to that higher Spirit. That’s what I regard as living a spiritual life.
Message to the readers?
I invite all the readers to the ashram to experience living in a spiritual community based on yoga and seva (selfless service), the quickest way to God-realisation. My experience has been that it is really enjoyable to work together in a community as it helps to forget one’s problems, facilitates experiencing the Divine energy and awakens spiritual energy.
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