I conducted a field study in a lineage I was not familiar with at all. READ MY FINDINGS!
In this field study I visited the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Center in Marina Del Rey, California on two separate occasions. Once to attend The Durga Puja or Navaratri in October and then on November 28th, 2017, I attended a 90 minute āsana class taught by our good friend Joseph Cadiff. The ceremony and the āsana class were wonderful experiences but outside my normal yogic wheelhouse, especially the puja ceremony.
To say the puja ceremony was outside my comfort zone would be an understatement. Please don’t assess my reaction in terms of your own background, but from the perspective of my own. Given that I spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard as a self described Knuckle Dragger, it’s a miracle that I’ve ever stepped foot in a yoga room more than once. To consider my evolution from Knuckle Dragger, to yoga student, to a studio work-trader, to evolving into a rootin-tootin bonafide yoga teacher, and now graduate student in said discipline without losing my essence is amazing. Just as I was resting on my laurels comfortable in my power yoga world, full of sweat and loads of eye candy, I’ve come to learn there is another colorful yoga world in Sivananda Yoga, and apparently that color is yellow.
This was the first thing that hit me when I came through the door at the Sivananda Vedānta Yoga Center. I said to myself “man is it yellow in here. Was I supposed to wear yellow? I don’t think I own anything yellow.” Feeling as out of place as Johnny Cash would, I did the rookie move, I arranged myself in the back bleachers. Once settled in I started to feel a calm as I looked around and saw some of “my people” present. I don’t recall at this late date as to whether I purposely didn’t do any research into what I was getting myself into or not, but I do love to attend a movie without knowing squat about the plotline. This is my way of avoiding picking up incorrect notions or judgements about the situation at hand. And here is the situation.
A puja ceremony is a traditional worshipping ceremony in tune with Bhakti Yoga or the yoga of devotion. I grew up in the Catholic church which is heavy on ceremony, with specific actions taking place each Mass, including my own father hurdling threats of punishment if I didn’t sit still. One of my first recollections was connecting the puja ceremony to my experiences in organized religion. We sing in the Catholic Church and we sang in the puja ceremony. We had a leader in the church, the priest, and we had a leader at the puja ceremony. Funny for me to note that I was amused in the most loving way that our “priest” dressed in yellow was chanting yogic scripture in a heavy asian accent. This is totally in sync with the Vedānta notion of diversity leading to unity. I loved it!
Quoting from Sri Swami Sivananda, this festival “lasts for nine days in honour of the nine manifestations of Durga. During Navaratri (the word literally means "nine nights") devotees of Durga observe a fast. Brahmins are fed and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property.” As I learned more about the ceremony’s intention I was warmed to learn that we are worshipping the Divine Mother. Durga represents Mother. The relationship one has with one’s mother is so special. Think Forrest Gump and what his “Momma” did for him. This type of relationship is absolutely worthy of formal expression. This is not the emphasis in the Catholic tradition, nor is dousing the baby Jesus in warm milk might I add.
Hinduism believes God is present within each and everything that exists. This is very powerful and the reason being the use of deities, imagery and certain types of clothing. One of the aspects of the puja ceremony I was not prepared for was pouring milk over Shiva and then rinsing with water. This process is used for “receiving god as our guest.” All participants got in line and while the room vibrated with chanting all poured and rinsed their heart out. When it was my turn I recall feeling a little nervous as you’re supposed to pour with your right hand and support with the left hand. Considering that I’m left handed and theoretically I was receiving god I didn’t want to be the one to spur God away with my shaky hand. When it was my turn, my vision collapsed to the task at hand and I remember a huge smile pasted across my face. I felt the love, I really did.
Settling on the Tuesday 10:30am āsana at the Sivananda Vedānta Yoga Center for my second visit I had no idea (once again) about what to expect. I turn to our colleague Joe C, who is in the know, asking for clarification and he says “I’m teaching that class.” What are the chances. Of course I was a little more comfortable this second visit as it was a smaller gathering and of course I know Joe. The room was lit up yellow in the beaming morning Los Angeles sunshine as I arrived. I was greeted by a woman named Om Kari who gave me a little background on the organization, especially about “The Farm” in Grass Valley. In strides another delightful person who introduces himself as Vishnu Prem which means “Cosmic Love.” I don’t skip a beat which tells me two things, that I’m now a true Californian and I’m less of a Knuckle Dragger now.
Joe did take a few moments ahead of time to give me a brief on what to expect as he understands my world of power yoga and that his class would be in the Sivananda tradition. Joe explained that the class is intended to not spike heart rate, but all activities are centered on calming and tapping into the subtle body even though we plan to move. We began with a few minutes of relaxation followed by 3 Oms. Then Joe’s sweet baritone sang out leading us through a prayer to invoke the Gurus’ and teachers’ blessing. This helps to set the mood and mindset for the remainder of the class. Next we did two basic prānāyāma breathing exercises, Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma followed by Sun Salutations. Between each sequence we spent time in savasana preparing for the next phase of the practice. Our next task for 12 basic postures followed by a 10 minute savasana and final prayer.
The beauty of this practice is its simplicity and straightforward nature. In the world of yoga I’m used to there seems to be an emphasis on having a good time and the layering on of complexity within a sequence or a pose. I am certainly guilty of this. I think from the teacher's standpoint, If I were to teach the class Joe taught over and over again it would become stagnant and boring to me. However, from the student perspective this course of instruction is as healthy as I could imagine. Someone who does this practice daily will be picking themselves up off the floor at 90. If someone took my class daily they would likely be in a wheelchair by 70 (Just kidding of course).
This leads me to placing this Sivananda Yoga within the context of the flow of yoga today as I understand it. Unfortunately within the yoga world that I have been baptised, this practice would still be considered fringy. It’s entirely possible that the culture of Los Angeles is such that a practice such as Sivananda Vedānta Yoga can thrive. I acknowledge that the point is not to necessarily pack a studio room constantly, but there is the reality that us teachers must make a living, this means pulling clients in and retaining said clients. It clearly is in the best interests of studios to differentiate, this is healthy for the industry. After my visits to the Sivananda Vedānta Yoga center I’m of the opinion that this style’s compelling virtue is that it is literally “old school.” Like vinyl and flip phones making a come back, maybe Sivānanda yoga will become all the rage.