Introduction to Sivananda at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center

Originally published on LiveJournal, 8.10.08

(This article is part of a series of reviews I call Taste of Chicago Yoga

After a break yesterday, today I went to an open class at Chicago’s Sivananda center.

It was an experience quite different from the ones I had during this week. Unlike other yoga studios in Chicago, which cater towards slightly different flavors of the middle class, and provide at most an easy-to-swallow “religion lite” experience, Sivananda yoga is fully a cult. You walk in to rows and rows of pamphlets and books by Mr. Sivananda, introducing his yogic interpretations of the vedas, upanishads and other “Hindu” classics. Sivananda was a contemporary of Krishnamacharya, but was more emphatically grounded in his devoutly religious background, and saw yoga as a direct continuation of it. While Krishnamacharya was looking for new tools for life in a modern, colonized world, Sivananda sought ways to keep his world intact throughout the changes. This more defensive South Asian perspective was probably what made Sivananda less influential on the development of yoga practice.

As far as cults go, I wish more were like this one. Sivananda preaches the good stuff: love, peace, joy and harmlessness. His organization is not-for-profit and is run 100% by volunteers, some of whom take vows of poverty. “Yoga karma,” he calls it: smile, help others, eat vegetables, practice yoga, and the world will be a better place, you know? There’s no missionizing or moralizing from Sivananda: just guidance and advice, if you ask for it.

What this also means is that Sivananda is by far the cheapest yoga you can get in Chicago. The first class is free and otherwise it’s just a $10 suggested donation for a drop-in student/senior. Memberships and workshops are also very cheap compared to any other dedicated yoga studio in the city. Sivananda also has yoga studios and ashrams around the world, to which you can travel for cheap yoga vacations. The Bahamas ashram is very popular, and is where many get their teacher training and certification.

The studio is as humble as it gets: a simple, carpeted room in a converted two-story apartment in north Chicago. It does the job. What else do you expect from a deliberately poor volunteer organization?

The style decently represents many emphases of contemporary yoga practice. We started with some prayers in an unspecified language (I did recognize Sivananda’s name uttered again and again), moved on to breathing exercises, did some sun salutations (as in vinyasa/ashtanga styles, coordinate with breath), and then worked carefully on specific poses. (That’s one quirk: in Sivananda, the sun salutations are not considered to be poses/asana.) We finished with a very deliberate relaxation sequence — relaxation is Sivananda’s specialty — and finally, again, prayer. Sivananda, like ashtanga style, has a set sequence of practice, though seems to offer more opportunity for variation in each section. This “open” class was very easy for me, but they also teach an “advanced” class, which might be better for intermediate/advanced students. Still, the teacher was very attentive and sweet, and offered me plenty of excellent tips.

What’s refreshing about Sivananda is the utter lack of any ego tripping. The exception, of course, is the cult of Mr. Sivananda himself, who smiles at you from every corner. As with any cult of personality, the idea is that by elevating one personality to mythic proportions all other personalities appear insignificant. The class schedule does not mention any teacher names: you come for yoga, not for any specific person teaching it. This couldn’t be more different from the rest of Chicago’s yoga scene, which can get very personally competitive at the top.

There’s a lot in Sivananda with which I sympathize. Remove the whole god stuff and the praying, and I’m pleased with what they are preaching and doing. At the same time, I recognize the limitations and dangers of such a program. Smiling all the time, harming nothing, helping others, purposefully relaxing — these all appear to be panaceas against capitalism and its dysfunctional social and personal pressures, but they are also extremely deliberate, total methods of avoidance. There’s a lot in this cesspool we call “the world” that doesn’t make me smile at all, and I will not let any amount of sun salutation repetitions dull that sense of wrongness and my will to fundamentally fix it. Yoga gives me and others many benefits, but I see it as a tool for social change only in a very indirect sense.

(Special bonus tip: the Center also sells many books published by the institute, about Sivananda’s teaching and yoga in general, one of which is Yoga Mind and Body, a lavishly photographed book with excellent explanations of yoga poses, including several variations to each, good anatomical references, and finally even yummy-looking recipes for vegetarian cooking! There’s practically no preaching in it, and hardly a mention of Sivananda. At $15 new, or much less used online, I think it’s one of the best deals on an all-purpose yoga book you can get.)