Portugal Takes the Lead
World Yoga Day in Lisbon has depth and breadth
YOGA IS BURGEONING ACROSS THE GLOBE, a wildfire that is part fad, part the offspring of the new health consciousness and part genuine awakening of mankind’s spiritual aspirations. Tens of thousands meet for yoga in New York City’s Times Square. Worldwide, major yoga festivals are blooming like wildflowers in spring. All of this brings yoga spas, yoga copyrights, yoga lawsuits, naked yoga, yoga championships, yoga raves, chocolate yoga (it’s true)—yoga everything.
In Europe, yoga is a common portal into Hinduism. As elsewhere, people are attracted to hatha yoga, to the well-advertised classes and social events. There they are exposed to new ideas, to deeper perceptions of their identity, to mystical possibilities or perhaps to a charismatic teacher. They engage in simple worship and bhajans. Wanting to learn more, they soon find themselves at the well from which all yogis drink—Hinduism.
As a counterweight to the sometimes eccentric ways in which yoga is taught today, Portugal gives us World Yoga Day, the inspiration of Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda, a native of Portugal trained and initiated in India and now head of the Yoga Portuguese Confederation. World Yoga Day has become a popular annual gathering, combining hatha yoga with the deeper levels of practice and research. Held on the summer solstice, in 2013 it was celebrated on June 22-23.
The first full day of the event was held in the Forum Lisboa theater from 8am to 11:30pm. Experts from all over the world gathered to give dozens of 15-minute talks ranging from medical research to philosophy, educational initiatives and “how yoga changed my life” stories from the trenches. There were entertaining skits, dramas and world-class hatha yoga demonstrations.
From these talks a single voice emerged: that yoga is spiritual, yoga is Hindu, yoga has to be understood beyond asana, yoga should be a part of every nation’s health care.
Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda gathered the crème-de-la-crème of yoga experts and researchers for this event. His shishyas did an amazing work, and their care of all who came was touching, filled with the spirit of service and guru bhakti. This team is dedicated, talented and deeply immersed in traditional sadhanas—a rare group in the world and one which will clearly make a difference in yoga’s future in Europe.
Celebrating Yoga’s Renaissance
ALL PHOTOS: HINDUISM TODAY
Yogis and organizers from many nations rejoice together in the full sun of the summer solstice.
HINDUISM TODAY interviewed Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda at his rural ashram:
HT: You have placed great emphasis in developing the shishyas and instilling in them the values of sadhana, of serious, transformational work. You seem to have done that better than most. How have you achieved that?
AS: We practice yoga every day. We have a practice of four hours that is called “maha sadhana,” with all the fourteen technical disciplines. It starts with puja, kirtan and so on, and in the end dhyana, samadhi and then manasika (visualization). Through visualization we can build a better humanity.
We don’t believe in types of yoga. For us, there’s only yoga. In the beginning yoga was called samkhya. So, we follow a path of correct action, giving us twenty hours of practice in addition to those four of sadhana. Shishyas, the disciples, must perfect themselves constantly. We stress excellence in training and excellence in action.
HT: What are the requirements to study with you?
AS: My training lasts for six years, about 6,500 hours, followed by four more years of teacher training. Yoga masters take their first steps after another four years, so fourteen in all. I ask disciples to be a light, but a light that makes no shade and no shadow. That’s the disciple’s model, an initiatic model based on diksha, initiation. They must do all that without stress.
HT: You mentioned Siva puja earlier. How is that expressed in the life of the shishya?
AS: Everything I do, I do for Lord Siva. In all our ashramas we have Siva Nataraja, and sometimes Siva Shankara. We offer incense, flowers, fire and sometimes kirtan, keeping Siva in our sight. We are here to do exactly what has never been done.
Over 1,000 Europeans gather on June 23 to celebrate yoga, watch demonstrations, listen to swamis from all over the world and take a “mega yoga class” on the grass
HT: Some Hindus have a distaste for the word Hinduism. You seem to embrace it fully.
AS: Everything I know I learned in Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. My gurujis were Krishnananda and Chidanandaji of the Divine Life Society. Chidanandaji asked me not to invent, not to make up anything new, to follow strictly the shastras, to study and practice them profoundly. And never forget that Bharat is the motherland of yoga. I have followed that.
HT: What are the principal service goals? What do you hope to achieve?
AS: Our main goal is to show the world that we are one planet and one race. We must all live here. It would be good if we could live healthy, peaceful lives and with a sense of enlightenment. We strive to show man that the planet Earth is not disconnected from all that is around. It has water, green from the trees which give life, the millions of animals. We live in a place that’s full of life. Let us protect life and do no harm to the cosmos. All human beings are allies because no one likes war. Everyone likes the love and peace they feel in their hearts. In all my travels not even one person has stood for war, defended war. No one ever said, “I am in favor of war.”
He addressed the World Yoga Day attendees at his ashram outside of Lisbon; Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda during his interview.
We know that yoga is an extraordinary philosophy. Anyone who comes and practices yoga from any religion, even those who have no religion, if they start practicing, in just a little time they will change. Even those who don’t believe will start feeling God.
Of course, yoga should always start on a foundation of yama and niyama, not otherwise. Another goal is that all the world practices yoga, and therefore we have created World Yoga Day and are working to get it recognized by the United Nations.
As in America and India, yoga teachers and students in Europe are mostly women. We asked one Portuguese yoga teacher why this is so. “Yes, there are more women than men in Portugal’s yoga community. I would say 60 percent women and 40 percent men. I really don’t know why. Maybe more women want their lives to change. Maybe women are more connected to the spiritual side of their lives. I do know that as the classes get more advanced, it is the men who drop out. Some Portuguese men think of it as not manly.”
HINDUISM TODAY sat with a leadership group of nine shishyas of the ashram (SH) to ask about their life:
HT: What sacrifices do you make to follow your guru’s path?
SH: Everyone can join him, each according to how fully you want to give up your life and just follow the guru. Some choose to keep their jobs in the world. You can also do that.
HT: If you choose to be 108 percent with the master, then you quit your job?
SH: You do. Those of us who are deeply committed do everything in the ashram. The ashram takes care of us, the ashram feeds us, the ashram puts clothes on our back. It’s a wonderful life.
HT: Share one principle you all live by.
SH: In our school we have a principle—don’t judge others, judge only yourself, and to others be compassionate. See the best in others and only the best. That’s the only way. The other way is war, and war is mad. Guruji often says that all wars are civil wars because we are all brothers.
Precious little is known about yoga demographics in Europe and no serious studies or polls have been published. While yoga schools and classes in institutions provide a portal into Hinduism for thousands of Europeans, those who have been immersed in it for decades tend to find or create small satsangs that support their practice. Typically, these smaller groups are more advanced and far more serious about their spiritual work. They are loosely knit and may have followers of several gurus among them.
One such group can be found in and around Barcelona, Spain. They follow the teachings of Baba Muktananda and his initiated renunciate Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a Spanish sannyasin who spent three decades of intense solitary spiritual sadhana and study in India, mostly at Tiruvannamalai. The group, called Advaitavidya, has several hundred members from different parts of Spain who come for teachings and seminars on Hindu dharma, studying traditional texts under Swamiji’s guidance. A thirty-strong core group follows deeper sadhanas and provides needed seva for seminars and retreats in the countryside. These are small, not like the massive Yoga Vidya center in Bad Meinberg, Germany.
In Switzerland, one Hindu elder noted, “Yoga is accepted by everyone and it is upcoming, but the Swiss don’t connect it with Hinduism. Yoga here is very important, almost an industry. If you take a newspaper, you can find 20 or 30 advertisements for practicing yoga. Before, it was solely about relaxing after a day of professional stress. Now, yoga students really want to translate it into their day-to-day life. So, yoga takes over more of their day. There is also the argument, (expressed well in Letters, here), that Hinduism is the religion most similar to the ancient pagan faiths on the Continent.
Besides yoga, events and music in Europe provide windows into Hinduism. Thousands attend musical concerts showcasing bhajans and sacred music, some of which, to the Hindu’s chagrin, are Bollywood style productions. Others are more traditional and inward. Some of the best kirtan groups in the world tour the Continent, drawing large crowds. A few, like Deva Premal’s, have a spiritual increment, including traditional mantras such as the Gayatri, and others are purely entertainment. In Spain, concert goers believe that the spirit of bhakti aroused by bhajans can make their meditations easier.
Recently, Holi revelries are spreading their colorful, fun, free-for-all festivities among the young, who not infrequently become enamoured of India as a result. India’s many cultural tonalities resonate with Europe’s new generation, who find these well-honed cultural fetes charming, different and socially engaging. Yoga’s future in Europe seems decidedly in the ascendent.
Belgium to Hold Europe’s Largest India Expo
FROM OCTOBER, 2013 TO JANUARY, 2014, Brussels is presenting a lavish, multi-dimensional exhibition called europalia.india. It is Europe’s largest expo of its kind—600 events held in over 300 locations. India’s Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and 1,000 VIPs came to Brussels for the launch, which was inaugurated by none other than Belgium’s new King Philippe. The expo covers India’s take on a wide swath of subjects: death and birth, the nature of the cosmos, asceticism and ecstasy, water, theater, literature, sculpture, photography, fashion, architecture, music and movement (dance) and cinema (ok, Bollywood). Those interested in attending some of the events can begin their search here: bit.ly/BodyOfIndia.