March 7, 2014:

Understanding the Essence of a Yoga tradition


     In the last week of February we had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with the Bhavanani family. They are the descendants of the lineage of Swami Gitananda Giri of Pondicherry, often known as the lion of Pondicherry for his lion like mane of hair and his outspoken manner. The Bhavananis direct two important Yoga organizations under the overall banner of the The International Center for Yoga Education and Research. 


     ICYER is under the direction of Ammaji Bhavanani and Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani. The vision of ICYER is to continue the traditional teaching of Yogic and Vedic culture as it has been passed on in India for millennia. This vision has two complementary facets. The first is the Ananda Ashram, a traditional Gurukulam for yogic studies. The second is Yoganjali Natyalayam, an educational center for children and adolescents in the traditional arts of Yoga, Bharata Natyam, traditional South Indian Dance, and Carnatic vocal music.

     The history of ICYER goes back more than 150 years to Sri Kambali Swami, a great saint of Tamil Nadu. His lineage has been continued by seven successive generations of gurus. The lineage is now continued by his wife Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani and son Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani.

      The tradition carried on by the Bhavanani family is called Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga or simply Gitananda Yoga. This tradition represents a living link to Hatha Yoga's history in that it is over 150 years old. Most Hatha Yoga traditions in India today are reflections of the Yoga Renaissance that began in the early 1920's. The Rishiculture tradition represents a direct link with the original texts of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga and the Tantric tradition of Hatha Yoga. 

     Swami Gitananda Giri is one of India's best-known and also most unique spiritual teachers. His father was an Indian lawyer and his mother was an Irish who converted to Hinduism. He went to England to study medicine at the age of sixteen and later worked as a physician both in Canada and in the US. In each locality, he spread the wisdom of Yoga and was therefore one of the first pioneers to bring Yoga to the West in the early 1950's.

     Swamiji returned to India in 1967 and began teaching Yoga full time. He founded the Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry in 1968, and from that time until his Samadhi on the 29th of December in 1993, Swamiji offered a six-month intensive Yoga Teacher Training course in Pondicherry, sharing hundreds of asanas, kriyas, mudras, pranayamas and Raja Yoga practices. As the Maharishi used to tell his students, "I will give you enough material to last several life times!"

        Swamiji also published more than 25 books on Yoga. He was a great example of the wisdom of the ancient rishis. With a majestic manner and a powerful voice, he would sometimes tell his students, "I am not here to make money or gain your votes, my joy is to help you grow, and to do that you must shed all the false conditioning that holds you back!" Swamiji combined his inspiring manner of communicating Yoga with a solid foundation in anatomy and physiology based on his medical training. This combination of in-depth understanding of the Yoga and Tantra traditions as well as Western physiology makes Gitananda Yoga one of the earliest examples of Yoga Therapy, and one of the most unique and comprehensive yogic systems that India has produced. 

Since his Mahasamadhi, the Rishiculture lineage has been continued by Ammaji, Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, whose life story is fascinating. She grew up in Minnesota in the US, and was pursuing a Ph.D., when she reached a point in her life at which theory no longer gave her life meaning! She began traveling, first to Crete, where she picked up a small pocket book on Yoga and began to practice the postures and study the philosophy. From that first encounter with Yoga, she knew intuitively that her destiny was linked to Yoga. She traveled to India where she immediately felt at home; everything seemed familiar to her as if she had lived there before! After living in several different areas of India, she found her way to Pondicherry where she met her Guru, Swami Gitananda, who later became her husband. 

Swamiji and Ammaji in the 1970's


     Along with teaching in the six-month training programs, Ammaji's passion has been teaching dance and yoga to children, planting seeds of greater awareness for future generations. Ammaji has also written 12 books, including The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times. Ammaji describes the goal of all the training programs at Ananda Ashram and with the children as the creation of whole human beings, each of whom can recognize and manifest their full human and spiritual potential.

     The integration of traditional Yoga practices within a scientific understanding of their benefits that was such an important part of Swami Gitananda's work is carried on by his son, Yogacharya Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani. Dr. Ananda was raised in the Gurukulam atmosphere where he received yogic training formally and informally, 24 hours a day. He took a special interest in Carnatic vocal music and Bharata Natyam dance and excelled in both, along with the more traditional pursuits of Indian youth such as Cricket. 

Ananda Balayogi practicing dance as a young man

     Through his medical studies, and later through Yoga research, Dr. Ananda has made a major contribution to the understanding of Yoga and health, and is considered to be one India's leading Yoga therapists. He currently practices Yoga Therapy in his capacity as deputy director at CYTER, Center for Yoga Therapy Education and Research at Mahatma Gandhi Medical College in the Sri Balaji University in Pondicherry. 

CYTER is distinguished both by having the first post-graduate program in Yoga Therapy in any Indian medical school. CYTER is also the first Yoga Therapy center within a medical school in India.

      For Dr. Ananda, the breath is key to understanding how Yoga influences health, "Every cell of the body is breathing, and when those cells are breathing efficiently, then the health of the entire body is supported optimally ". This focus on the breath can be seen in the variety of pranayama techniques used at Ananda Ashram. There are over a hundred in all, and include exercises using both awareness and postures to bring the breath into every quadrant of the lungs- lower, middle and upper, at both the front, sides and back of the body, through the use of Vibhaga Pranayama (conscious breathing into the 9 sections of lung) and Postures of the Hathena group having fifteen techniques. Dr. Ananda's most recent book "Yoga Chikitsa" is one of the most complete Yoga Therapy texts currently available.

     This broad and deep variety of methodologies and techniques with a strong physiological basis is one of the foundations of the six-month residential Yoga Teacher Training Program. This training is offered in a traditional Gurukulam environment at the Ananda Ashram, on the beach, near Auroville, 10 km outside of Pondicherry. The ashram receives refreshing sea breezes, especially in the winter months, from October to March when the training is held.

Ananda Ashram

     The Gurukulam atmosphere means that students and teachers live together in the same ashram, sharing meals and all spiritual practices and daily activities. This can be seen in the way that Dr. Ananda's children have meals together with the students and how the international yoga students become "aunts" and "uncles" for the teacher's children. At the same time, the constant presence of the teacher's family keeps the students connected to the lineage of all the Gurus in the Gitananda tradition. 

     Because Gurukulam life requires a certain level of preparation and maturity, students who participate in this program are asked to first complete a one-year online study course, so that they understand all the fundamentals of Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga before they begin the six-month program in India. 

     Within the six month training program, each day begins with Arati. Arati is followed by an extensive Hatha Yoga class of approximately 2.5 hours including postures and breathing with a short break in the middle. These practices introduce a wide range of Gitananda yogic techniques, which include over 400 hundred asanas. Many of these practices are found only in this tradition and are based on the physiological understanding of both Swami Gitananda and Dr. Ananda as well as the direct connection to the eight Gurus of the Tantric living tradition. This class is held on a rooftop, looking out over the ocean in order to absorb the maximum amount of prana and to allow the students to connect with the five elements.


     After breakfast, the students engage in various karma yoga duties around the ashram. Apart from the in-depth yogic practices and spiritual teachings, an essential part of Gurukulam life is learning to live together, study together and perform karma Yoga together. Traditional Gurukulam life requires a letting go of the ego and an awakening to a larger Self, so that the limitations and confinements at the level of the personality can be released, in the spirit and intention of Swami Gitananda.

     At 11:00, there is a one-hour long pranayama class that goes well beyond the conventional pranayama techniques. These practices allow the students to understand in detail how the breath is channeled into every main area of the body. This segment also introduces the various ways that the breath is used therapeutically. 

     Following the pranayama segment, there is a class on deep relaxation techniques combined with breath and slow motion movements. This portion of the training uses Kaya Kriya, a slow motion movement as well as  Marmanasthanam Kriya, part-by-part relaxation used to unblock the energy flow throughout the whole body. This segment also focuses on the therapeutic benefits of Gitananda Yoga, including the 3 aspects of AUM applied to the three main areas of the body: lower, middle and upper. These practices are based in part on Dr. Ananda's extensive exploration and research on the physiology of stress and relaxation.

After lunch, students have free time until 4:30pm. Dr. Ananda explains that this time is important for absorbing and assimilating all of the morning practices as well as time to study the extensive course material which totals over 400 pages. In their spare time, students can explore the fifty plus books written by Swami Gitananda, Ammaji and Dr. Ananda. The beach, which is located near to Auroville's healing center, the Quiet, is one of the most pleasant on the East coast of India. Some students also opt to receive Bharata Natyam dance classes from Dr. Ananda's wife, Devasena, during this afternoon rest period.

     From 4:30 to 6:00, students meet in an octagonal structure open to the sea breeze to receive Yoga philosophy from Dr. Ananda. He begins the six-month process of transformation by providing a solid foundation in the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs, including learning to chant the entire Yoga Sutras, with a special focus on the Yamas and Niyamas. He later details aspects of the Tantric tradition, including the use of mantra and yantra. The Gitananda tradition is unique in presenting detailed information on yantra, the use of numerology, the understanding of name, number and form within Tantra. The final portion of the six-month training focuses on the chakras as a model for the entire spiritual journey. They also learn a series of Vedic chants to embody the different attributes of the Divine, in the form of spiritual qualities.

     After dinner, students experience a variety of classes, including Carnatic singing and Sanskrit led by Ananda's wife, Devasena. There are also inspiring satsangs with Ammaji. The students prepare to receive for these satsangs by chanting bhajans. Each student takes a turn, choosing a bhajan from their songbook, and leading the group so that all the participants begin the process of becoming teachers as well as students. The bhajans support the creation of harmony among the group. 

     Ammaji's presence in itself cultivates deep calm and centering, and each word of wisdom she imparts reverberates throughout our entire being. In one evening class she reminded us "No matter how turbulent life may seem, you can always find a place of peace and solace in just 8 words, these are the Eight Limbs of Yoga".  In one discourse on Dharana, Ammaji reminds us that Dharana and Dharma begin with the same Sanskrit root, dhar, which means to hold. In the case of Dharana, we hold our attention on one single point, and in the case of Dharma, we hold to the values that make us complete human beings. Ammaji reminds us that the ultimate purpose of Yoga is to overcome all obstacles in order to become that unique spiritual being, which is our destiny.


     Today this work is carried on by the Yoganjali Natyalayam, meaning the "temple of dance that salutes Yoga." This institution located in the heart of Pondicherry serves over 600 children each week, making it one of the world's largest centers for teaching Yoga and Vedic culture to children. The minimal course fees make these classes available to all levels of the society. For families who are in need, complete scholarships are regularly offered. 

     Equally important within the work of this institution is instruction in Bharata Natyam, traditional South Indian dance. Beginning in early childhood, boys and girls develop grace and balance, allowing them to reach adolescence with a greater sense of confidence, discipline and self-esteem. They also develop the ability to perform complex dance movements in synchrony with the group, giving them a much greater ability to live and work with ease in the family and in the community.

      When the students become more advanced, they present dance performances accompanied by music and Carnatic singing. As we watch these performances, we sense a vitality and energy that goes far beyond the movements of the dance. These young women have learned to embody the very heart and essence of their culture. The myths and legends of Shiva and Krishna, the connection to the earth and the ancestors, the abundance of the harvest, and most importantly, a sense of the spiritual essence within all things comes alive through their dance and is communicated to the audience. Through the dance, they feel and express in a "language beyond words" the essence of Indian culture.


     One of the very special programs supported by Yoganjali Natyalyam is teaching Yoga to special children. This work has been going on since 2000, guided by the inspiration and patience of Yoga Therapist Meena Ramanathan. Her work is a tribute to the unique integration of ancient wisdom and modern therapeutic understanding, which the Gitananda tradition embodies. Not only has she brought these children to a level of Yoga practice far beyond what anyone might have believed possible, she has instilled in them a sense of self-esteem and an ability to integrate into their family and community more fully. When we watch these children practicing, we understand immediately the power of Yoga, not only to unfold their potential, but to awaken and transform all of us.

     This sense of a spiritual essence as the heart and soul of Indian culture is clearly seen on Sundays when the entire Bhavanani family, the students in the six-month residential program, and the community meet at the Matam, the Samadhi site where the eight gurus in the lineage are buried. 

     The Puja is blessed by the presence of Ammaji and performed by Dr. Ananda. Each of the Gurus is honored in turn and all present move in circles around each burial site, receiving the blessing of each of the Gurus in the lineage in the form of light. At the end of the ceremony, the entire family, led at times by Dr. Ananda's children Dhivya Priya and Anandraj, sing Sanskrit Hymns to their lineage, thereby reconnecting with the very essence of the Gitananda tradition. This weekly ceremony reminds all of us that, within this lineage, Yoga is not an abstract concept; it flows through our souls and connects us to our own spiritual essence and to the power and mystery of the universe, which we awaken through the practice of Yoga.

      On our last two days at Ananda Ashram, the entire community participated in the Shivaratri celebrations. After an extensive Puja at the temple of the Bhavanani's ancestors, the students and other members of the community, many of them barefoot, walk for nine kilometers in the early morning hours, finally reaching the beach just before sunrise where the lingam, the symbol of Shiva, is bathed in the ocean. What became clear to us throughout this week that we spent with the Bhavananis is that the power of Shiva, the patron of Yoga, is held not only in the lingam but in the lineage and we had the rare opportunity to participate in a genuine lineage of Hatha Yoga. 


~ Joseph Le Page


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