Home / Articles / #6 August 2013 / Interview with Swami Ashokananda. "Way of Hindu monk in the modern America"

Interview with Swami Ashokananda. "Way of Hindu monk in the modern America"

Swami Asokananda, a monk of Saraswati order since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, intelligence and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, since the age of nineteen. While he enjoys sharing the practical wisdom of the yogic philosophy (especially the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), he also loves his practice of Hatha Yoga and is one of our primary instructors for Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Training. In the past, he has served as the President of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville® and Integral Yoga® International and he is currently the President of the New York Integral Yoga Institute.

"Way of Hindu monk in the modern America"

Interview with Swami Ashokananda

The first question is about traditional and contemporary schools of hatha yoga. We know that most of the schools known today like Iyengar school, Sivananda school, Brahmacharya school appeared in the 20th century. What do you think was before it and how we came to these contemporary types of hatha yoga? And speaking about your school, Sivananda yoga, how do you think it appeared and is it different from the other schools we know today?

So the first part is how did hatha yoga evolve from traditional ancient times to current times.


If you see the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the earlier scriptures, which I think is about 600 years ago, even that’s not ancient - not 1000 years ago, only 600 years ago. The description of the asanas is very little there, they didn’t give all this alignment details, and also you might notice in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that two-thirds of the book gives the pranayama, and one-third  - asana.  So, two things seem to have happened: information of how to get into a pose became much more detailed, and the shift to the asanas over the pranayama seems to have taken place over time.  And I would say, that it comes from a more physical orientation towards yoga, in which you could lose some of the essence by too much physical focus. I guess, the detailed aspect of it we could probably attribute a lot to Mr. Iyengar, who was the disciple of Krishnamacharya. But he was a young man and even a young boy. I think even Krishnamacharya might said: “You could cut back on your asanas at some point and go more into the deeper levels of yoga.” But I think, Iyengar said: “No, my asanas lead me to a very beautiful place”, - he didn’t want to give up the asana practice. So this detailed alignment we could attribute to him, which had many good things in it. However, to my point of view, may be too much focus on details and physical orientation.

If you take other schools like Sivananda or Kriyananda tradition, asana was an aspect, but not a huge aspect of these traditions. It’s good to keep the body healthy, it’s good to keep it subtle so you could pick up the higher frequencies, but not to make that such a predominant part of your spiritual life, the asana practice. It should have some place, like in Ashtanga yoga - one limb, so that one-eighth of your practice could be asana. So, I think this is the first part of the question, the second part was something about Sivananda yoga.

 Yes, how does it differ from the other schools, and can you say it’s a traditional school of yoga?

I’m not sure, how to define traditional, but the way I understand tradition is that there is some lineage, some teachers learned from their teacher and it goes back and each person will probably have some new ones, but they never lose the essence of what they received. And that’s what I would call tradition - not losing some essence. And in yoga the essence is that it’s a tie to the evolution of the soul. It’s not just about perfecting the physical organism, because no matter how much you are going to perfect it, it’s going to die, it’s going to deteriorate and die. I mean, there are great people like Babaji, but we can’t count on that. So, you don’t want to spend so much energy on the physical level. I think the main thing about traditional yoga is that it’s a part of an integrated system of spiritual development and it’s not end of itself to do all these complicated asanas.

Do you think that contemporary teachers of Sivananda school are still improving and making this school and style better or it’s already mature and complete school?

That’s a very good question and may be a difficult one also. I don’t know, if I’d say a teacher makes it better than their teacher, but there are different cultural situations, they are teaching different people. A great teacher will know, how to teach people in front of him. The main thing about being a teacher - you have to be able to understand the nature of the people, who are trying to learn from you, and lead them forward. It’s not the matter of improving what you’ve learnt from your teacher, it’s the matter of finding the way to channel it in a way that is useful to the people you are teaching. In that sense, talking about my teacher, Swami Satchitananda, I can feel the essence of Swami Sivananda coming through him so much. But he had his own teacher, who was teaching American kids, hippies, how to understand, what spiritual life is. So he won’t sound exactly or even that much like Swami Sivananda. But all Swami Satchitananda’s disciples are devoted to Swami Sivananda - we love his books. But the way Swami Satchitananda says that it’s the old wine in a new bottle. We took that same old spirit and we put it in a bottle appropriate for this culture for this time. And I think good teachers do that. I think I’m doing that with my student teachers, I see, who is in front of me. I try not just to teach, what my teacher told me. I’m trying to feel from my own experience, what I’ve learnt, I’m looking, who is in front of me and I’m trying to share that in a way that they can understand. I’m not trying to improve, what Swami Satchitananda gave me, but I will customize it to be more effective as a teacher.

Do you think that hatha yoga techniques, which are obviously quite physical, can be practiced separately from the spiritual context, based on the spiritual techniques and practices? Because often hatha yoga techniques are used in fitness, as yoga therapy to cure some diseases, and a meditation can also be used as a therapy for the mind without any particular or deep spiritual context. What do you think?

I think you can separate them. The main thing is, according to the consciousness of the person in front of me, how do I serve that person. That person has a backache and has no interest in the spirituality? I can probably help that person with yoga for the backache. If I try to push ashtanga yoga onto that person, he won’t get the backache solved. But if I say, ok, here are some practices that you can do: some asanas, some gentle pranayama, and some meditation to relieve the stress. So, I don’t have a problem with meeting people at their level. If someone wants to know more, the full picture of yoga, - that’s exciting to me, because then I can teach them the real thing. But if they are not ready for that, like my mom, I’m not going to push. My mother is a wonderful lady, pure hearted lady, but she is not that interested in that stuff, but I just teach her, what she can absorb, and I would feel so aggressive to push more on her. Sharing yoga should be unaggressive thing for the person, who is receiving it in a way they should be hungry and asking for more. Ideally it’s a part of an all-encompassing system, but I’m not fixed on that, I’m not dogmatic about that. I will meet you at your level and try to serve you. 

Do you think it’s useful and worth to be a sannyasi for some time in your life? Does it help or there are chances that you will get into trouble after becoming a sannyasi? How did you decide to be a sannyasi? What’s your sadhana?

Well… The reason that I have some hesitancy in answering your question is that when I took sannyas in a way it’s understood in my tradition, it’s not a temporary thing. You take it and say: “This is my life commitment and I will never revoke it.”

I know there are traditions, like in Thailand, where every young boy has a period of monkhood, so they get a sense of what it’s like. In the Hindu ashramas, the stages of life, there is a brahmacharya stage, student stage, householder stage. It’s true that it is helpful for everyone to go through that student stage, they don’t rush into sexual life, have some period to absorb experiences and knowledge. You are a student basically and during that time focus on your studies and don’t get caught up in too many hormonal things. I do think it’s helpful in this age, I don’t know how practical it is and I haven’t raised children. Like my friend Igor, who has a daughter, she from a young age 10-11 was already thinking about boyfriends. But I think it’s a different culture.

When you start talking about sannyas, that commitment, then you are basically skipping over, like I did, from brahmacharya to sannyas, skipping over two middle stages - householder and secluded stage. And that I think is rare, I think people should normally go through all these stages, get all the experiences of being a householder, raising the family, going through the difficulties of that life, lessons you learn from trying to open your heart and not be so self-centered and then move on to renounced life.

But you know, we believe in yoga that this is not our first birth. So in a case like mine where I took brahmacharya diksha when I was 23 and full sannyas when I was 25, I believe that may be I had the experience in past life of being married, raising the family. Because I always felt that I had no calling to that. If you look at the molecules, some have just one electron going around in it, some link up, so it’s natural to have some that are more comfortable on their own. And I think those people do better with sannyas. But it should never be something that you are doing not natural to your nature, otherwise it won’t work for you.

So it was better for your nature, rather than for practicing yoga?

If you are trying to be a sannaysin and it’s not in your nature, you won’t grow as mush spiritually as if you became a householder. It’s better to follow your nature, your dharma, and you grow spiritually. That’s the whole Bhagavat Gita - follow your dharma and you grow spiritually. He didn’t want to fight that war, but no, you stay in the battle of life, don’t run away to become a monk, don’t think that’s more spiritual. No, staying in this battle is more spiritual for you. That’s Bhagavad Gita.

A couple words about your personal sadhana.

I do have a formal practice, which I love: meditation 3 times a day, asana in the morning and a little bit at night. Pranayama I love, I used to have asthma, so I’m drawing towards breathing fully. I love my pranayama practice and really helpful meditation practice. But I think all these formal practices allow me to be more alert as I get off of my mat and go into my life and face my life more consciously, try to be a kinder person. I think I’m just more alert to how to use life itself as my main spiritual practice. My formal practices allow me to use life as my main practice. I’m vegetarian and all these things. Actually I eat one meal a day - that’s my discipline. I eat a lot, as much as most people do in 3 meals, so it’s not such a great accomplishment. And I fast once a week, so it’s 6 meals a week I eat.

Do you fast completely?

What do I have? I have tea and lemon with honey. Those disciplines feel good for my body and they are not disciplines for me, that’s what I enjoy. I like to eat once and then forget about food. And fast one day and completely forget about food. And vegetarian diet I think works well for people going into this more subtle life, it makes the mind a little bit quieter and refine. And I live in an ashram in New York City, in a middle of a busy city, but we have a small ashram, my residence is there, we practice together, we eat together. I just came back after 30 years from Virjiny ashram, which I love. It is in countryside like this, very rural place and it’s nice to be out in nature. And now I’m back in the city - I accept it as my dharma, I don’t resist it at all. Just learning to serve and stay connected to my gurus - it is my main service, my main sadhana.

And, as you’ve mentioned, the ashram here is our last but not the least question about contemporary Hinduism in US. Do you think it’s different or separated? I don’t mean you, but US Hinduism as a whole is it a separate branch? We observe a lot of teachers and swamis in US, who are not deeply involved in their root, in their paramparas and sampradayas, which are still here in India and they live and practice in US.

There is always that possibility of losing touch with the foundation. A student will become a teacher and still it is their duty to make sure they are staying in touch with the core values of the tradition. And I’m sure it happens, when they go off and start to lose touch with that, and they ego gets in a way, than they start creating their own thing. It’s natural, and it does happen.

At the same time Hinduism is very broad, originally it was called Sanatana Dharma. And the beautiful thing you can almost not even call it a religion: you could believe in God or you could not believe in God, atheist are welcome in Sanatana Dharma. You could believe that God had form or you could believe that God had no form. If you believe that God had form - it takes any form. There were not many Gods, there is one God, but you find your dual way, your portal to the One. No other religion is like that - Hinduism is so all embracing. Some like Buddha comes along the way – yes, he is one of the Avatars. So, I'm not too worried about Hinduism getting spoiled, it’s very broad. And hopefully what’s happening is that teachers like Swami Sivananda, Swami Satchitananda and your teachers are going back to the essence. The superficial part is wonderful but you don’t have to make it that important. But the essence of Sanatana Dharma is that you don’t want to lose touch with that. The teachers that have come to the West out of the Hindu tradition are able to hold on to that core, and then present it according to what the cultural needs are. And one thing I'd be careful with - there is not only one way. Some fundamentalist Christians would say or even Hare-Krishna’s would say “there is only one way.” That’s the one thing that Sanatana Dharma, I think, did not believe in. How many minds there are, that’s how many ways there are - everyone gets to find his or her own way. And there is nothing broader and more accepting than Hinduist Sanatana Dharma is.

So, am I answering your question?

Yes, thank you!