Let's imagine for a moment that everyone who practices yoga regularly can be located at some point on a spectrum that I will call the Bhakti Scale. Bhakti is the Sanskrit word for joyous worship: offering up your heart to a higher power. At the bottom end of the Bhakti Scale we find yoga classes dedicated to pure physical fitness or pure fun. They have names like Ultimate Yoga Bootcamp (yoga meets Army basic training), Boxing Yoga (yoga meets boxing), Yogalates (yoga meets Pilates), Doga (yoga with your dog) and – the latest yoga microtrend – Voga (yoga meets Vogue dance moves from the gay clubs of Harlem, to a soundtrack of Eighties pop).
Further along the scale, you find yoga classes which are primarily physical exercise, but with a light dusting of spirituality: Mind/Body Balance, Mindful Flow, and so on. Most gym-based, drop-in yoga classes cluster around this part of the spectrum. Further up still, you start to hear Sanskrit names for postures, and words like prana and chakra. You'll learn some breath control exercise, and maybe chant the odd Om. And when you finally approach the apex of the Bhakti Scale, you find Sivananda yoga.
Sivananda is a school of hatha yoga that takes inspiration from the teachings of Swami Sivananda (1887-1963), brought to the West by his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda in the 1950s. Sivananda was a medical doctor before he became a Hindu monk, and both strands are evident in the style of yoga he founded. Sivananda yoga today places a strong emphasis on physical health and well-being, but it is also probably the international yoga 'brand' that most faithfully preserves and promotes the Hindu roots of yoga – in this case, in Advaita Vedanta, a non-dualist philosophy that sees yoga as a vehicle for the soul's union with the divine.
What happens in class?
Yoga Sivananda-style is a five-point programme that includes exercise, breathing, relaxation, a vegetarian diet, and 'positive thinking and meditation'. For as full an experience as you can get outside of Rishikesh, visit the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Putney for a class or take a retreat at a Sivananda ashram.
The traditional Sivananda 90-minute open class consists of 12 basic asanas, practiced in sequence but punctuated by periods of complete relaxation in savasana (corpse pose). There are also warm-up exercises and breathing practices. The sequence is intended to be slow and joyful, and mainly emphasizes back-bending and forward-bending of the spine. Compared to Ashtanga or Iyengar, both of which cultivate strength as much as flexibility, Sivananda yoga is much more about bendiness than muscle power, although the fairly long holds in each asana do increase stamina.
The level to which Sivananda-trained teachers in the UK incorporate religious aspects into their classes varies a lot, but you are quite likely to hear some chanting of Sanskrit mantras or prayers – join in, if you like.
Sivananda is an open-hearted movement that aims to make yoga accessible to all. The rest period between each pose makes this a friendly class for the less energetic.
My Bhakti Scale partly measures people's emotional response to yoga: I think Sivananda is designed for people who feel the pull of yoga on their heartstrings, rather than their intellect or their fitness and beauty regime. If you like the sound of a practice that aims to get you out of your self and closer to whatever you think of as god, then Sivananda might be just the blissful ticket.
Who should avoid it?
If you have existing lower back problems, I wouldn't recommend this approach. It's great for strengthening and mobilising healthy backs, but the teacher will not necessarily be geared up to modify postures for you if you have issues already. There isn't the same emphasis on anatomy, physiology and postural alignment in the Sivananda training that you would find in an Iyengar or viniyoga-style syllabus. There isn't time, for one thing: the basic Sivananda teacher training is a 30-day, ashram-based intensive, as compared to the minimum 2-year, 500 tutor-contact hours of an Iyengar or BWY diploma course.
If orange robes bring you out in a rash, or Sanskrit chanting makes you feel like a fraud, or you think the chakra system is 'woo-woo', this is probably not the yoga style for you.
What will it do for me?
As a purely physical practice, it will give you a very flexible spine and good breathing habits, as well as cultivating your ability to truly and deeply relax. But Sivananda is not designed to be a purely physical discipline – if you follow the Swami's intentions the asanas are at best 20% of the practice, and the ultimate benefits are spiritual.
Sivananda people are often very smiley and happy. They do also have a reputation in the yoga world for being a bit 'away with the fairies', a bit inclined to wear rose-tinted-spectacles and talk about heart chakras a lot. But we bitter old glass-half-empty ashram-phobics are probably just jealous. There are undoubtedly great rewards to be gained from giving your heart to a practice and a community that brings you closer to god – that's the path that Sivananda offers to those who feel called.
Finding a teacher
To date, the Sivananda organisation has trained over 30,000 teachers worldwide. There is currently no database of UK teachers, so if you can't get to the centre in Putney you may have to rely on Professor Google to find Sivananda style teachers near you.
If you like the sound of Sivananda but don't feel the full-on bhakti approach is for you, it's worth noting that many people with a basic Sivananda teaching certificate go on to complete further training with another hatha yoga school – so there are lots of interesting teachers out there who are Sivananda-ish, but with added structure and alignment. Look out for them - it can make for an inspiring combination.
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