As part of the monastic tradition, yogic knowledge has been passed down in secret from guru to devotee for hundreds and hundreds of years. Swami Sivananda (1887- 1963) is credited with breaking this tradition by opening up the knowledge of yoga to the West, and actively encouraging his disciples to spread the word, "from shore to shore and from door to door". One of these devotees was Paramhansa Satyananda, who established a yoga school in Bihar after receiving instructions from his guru. This became the Bihar school of yoga and the terms Bihar yoga and Satyananda yoga have become synonymous.
ince Satyananda’s retirement in 1983 the organisation has been run by his successor Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Through experimentation and research, and after spending time with tantric masters, Satyananda developed his own deep understanding of yoga. Tantric meditation as a way of ‘coming to silence’ plays an integral part, and yogis are encouraged to practice this with self-acceptance. Other practices that are incorporated include yogic cleansing (neti), kirtan (vibrational singing) and mantra. Satyananda yoga draws on karma, bhakti, jnana yoga and raja yoga, and allows the yogi to work on achieving deeper sadhana through techniques of kriya yoga, kundalini yoga, nada yoga and others. What distinguishes the practice of this thread of yoga? According to Swami ragyamurti, who started teaching yoga in England in 1971 and runs the Satyananda Yoga centre in London, it is the broad spectrum of practices.
“We don’t just teach asanas,” she says. “From the beginning we teach breath awareness, yoga nidra, and broad based meditation practices.” “We tend to attract people who want to look a little deeper, also people who want to work with their bodies in a slightly softer slower way,” says Swami Pragyamurti. Satyananda described yoga as ‘a practical science’ and it is taught to improve the quality of life for people in many walks of life. He has written numerous books, ranging from using yoga to treat hypertension, to commentaries on ancient texts like the Bhagvad Gita. The Bihar school is associated around the world with projects in prisons, and with medical research. Swami Pragyamurti teaches people with HIV and special needs as well as prisoners and the elderly. Within the organisation ‘yoga therapists’ exist, but they must already have a medical qualification. The Bihar school of yoga itself is based in Munger in India, and is the site of Bihar Yoga Bharati, the world’s first University of Yoga which was opened in 1994 by Swami Nirajanananda. Satyananda himself has retired to Deoghar, a village some miles away, where he performs sadhana and works with the charitable organisation Sivananda Math to help the underprivileged sections of Indian society.
A typical class starts with asanas, then pranayama followed by a meditation, “We teach slowly and systematically and build up,” explains Swami Pragyamurti. “You’ve got a nice balance of discipline and freedom to evolve towards your spiritual unfoldment, not towards a spiritual ideal.”
She describes yogis as “spiritual seekers, not necessarily religious practitioners,” but part of the strength of this tradition lies in it’s monastic heritage. “We have access to this huge body of knowledge that was previously only open to Brahmin men.” Thanks to the work of Sivananda and his disciples, like Swami Vishnu-Devananda who founded the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga tradition, and Swami Satyananda, yoga has been opened to the Western world in many different ways, and it’s secrets are available to us all.