Youth through yoga
By REVATHI MURUGAPPAN
For years, yogis have practised their art to remain youthful and healthy. Meet Swami Yogananda.
Clad in a saffron robe and squatting, Swami Yogananda pulls out a thick thread and inserts it into his right nostril. A second later, the thread emerges from his mouth and he proceeds to tug alternately at each end.
No, this is not a magic trick but a yoga cleansing process to purify the breathing path from nostril to throat, called sutraneti.
Most yogis are trained to do this but what is amazing about Swami Yogananda is that he claims to be 99, has all 32 adult teeth intact, has perfect vision, can hear the softest of murmurs and has never taken medication in his life.
Clean and healthy: Swami Yogananda begins his day with unusual cleansing rituals, using water and a cord to purify the breathing passage and clean out the nostrils.
Not only is he as fit as a fiddle, his flexibility, agility and memory can put any youngster to shame.
“I want to live till 150! There is so much more I’d like to share with people,” says the bubbly man through translator G. Shivajyoti. Despite him speaking only Hindi, the yogi’s enthusiasm is infectious.
“If you’re around him, there’ll never be a dull moment. He doesn’t like people to be unhappy so he makes sure he does, or says something, to uplift your mood. You eventually end up with a smile on your face,” adds Shivajyoti.
Swami Yogananda is out to prove that age is no barrier to practising yoga. He was in town earlier this month to conduct a Sukshma Vyayama yoga workshop. This brand of yoga is an ancient and obscure regime combining subtle yogic warm-ups with gentle stretching, breathing and relaxation. The exercises are simple enough for even a 10-year-old child to follow.
Stepping out of India for the first time, Swami Yogananda was flown here courtesy of a non-profit organisation called The Art of Living (AOL), founded by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
The establishment aims to teach individuals stress-relieving techniques, as the founder believes that breathing is the link between body and mind, and therefore a tool to relax the mind.
A lot of the poses Swami Yogananda practises defies logic and scientific explanation.
The master justifies, “A lot of the things I do in yoga cannot be explained because in those days, when you learn from the sages, there was no scientific explanation. But the breathing and physical exercises have benefited me so there must be some truth in it.”
Shivajyoti says, “We were in Penang last week and both of us got stung by jellyfish. I had to take antihistamines for a week while he simply rubbed honey and lemon on himself, and was all right within two days! His body has a remarkable ability to heal itself.”
Swami Yogananda may weigh only 40kg, but while doing a seated forward bend, he is able to support a person double or triple his weight as he aptly demonstrates during the workshop.
Because he doesn’t have a birth certificate and never went to school, people tend to question Swami Yogananda’s age. For instance, when he applied for his passport 10 years ago, the immigration authorities refused to believe he was born in 1909 so they randomly put 1927 as his year of birth.
“But, I have visited his village in Madhya Pradesh state and saw that his oldest grandchild is already 67 so it’s impossible that Swamiji was born in 1927,” says Shivajyoti, 34.
Swami Yogananda was the “black sheep” in his family. At 17, he read a spiritual book, became fascinated, left home and headed for the Himalayas to seek the meaning of life. For two years, he studied with sages and other yogis before his family found him and forced him to return home.
He says, “Since I was the eldest of five siblings, they got me married off. I wasn’t happy because that is not what I wanted. To obey my parents, I stayed for a while until my first child was born.”
However, his vagabond urges were too strong, so he ran away again. Every time his parents found him, he would meekly come home like a filial son and produce another child! After 10 children, he decided to go far away and wasn’t “captured” again.
“This time, I completely abandoned my family, joined the Indian Freedom Movement, fought against the British and have three bullet wounds to show for it,” he says, showing me his marks of bravery.
“Then, our leader was detained, so I returned to New Delhi and stayed in a small ashram.”
Swami Yogananda diligently practised his art daily. Alas, no one was interested in learning, so instead he prescribed herbs to people who came in search of natural remedies for ailments, aches and pains.
Eager to pass on his knowledge, he went back to his village and tried teaching his kids yoga. Having been away for so long, the family was not receptive. Today, he says, all his children have passed away because “they did not practise yoga”, but he has many grandkids.
He reflects, “Even though I was practising yoga and felt good about myself, there was still something missing. So I went to Rishikesh, a small town (known as the capital of yoga) in the Himalayas in the 90s, and bumped into Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. When he reached out to touch me, I felt an electric current flow through me. It was a nice, soothing feeling and I was in a state of bliss. Suddenly, I had this intense desire to teach at his ashram.”
The wanderer’s flame, though subdued, flickered once more. Swami Yogananda relocated to the AOL Ashram in Bangalore, analysed his yogic knowledge and structured a sequence for teaching. In his first yoga workshop, 2,600 people enrolled.
“I was overwhelmed with the turnout and have not stopped teaching since. I’ve collected material from different sages and found the easiest possible way to practise yoga,” he says, challenging me to join him in a pretzel-like pose where both legs are wrapped behind the head. He could do this even without warming up!
Come do the pretzel with me.
The yogi’s day starts at 2.30am. He gargles his mouth with water, brushes his teeth with a neem branch (from a medicinal tree), then drinks a glass of boiling hot water with the juice of half a lemon. He eats vegetarian food, but only once a day – breakfast or lunch. He’ll eat for two to three days, then fast for a week.
He explains, “I can go without food for a month. When you have food in your stomach, the body concentrates on digesting it and that saps your energy. When you fast, you actually have more energy. Having said that, fasting is not for everyone.”
If not for the lack of nutrition when he was younger, Swami Yogananda says he would have had a full head of hair today.
“Look, look,” he winks and points at his beard. “Can’t you see, the white is beginning to turn black again?”
I eye him sceptically, “You mean the last strands of black are turning grey?”
“No,” his eyes widen. “The grey has started to turn black again and it’s because of yoga! If you really respect your body and spend some time, it’s easy to keep yourself healthy and reverse the ageing process.”
Besides teaching, Swami Yogananda reads, is learning English and hopes to write a book on yoga.
“Generally, he lives in his own world although he has a curious nature and a wonderful sense of humour. All he does is teach and practise yoga – what else is there for Swamiji to do? So he should live till 200!” chuckles Shivajyoti.
http://thestar. com.my/lifestyle /story.asp? file=/2008/ 2/23/lifeliving/ 20367306&sec=lifeliving