Swami Vishnudevananda (1927 - 1993)
Roadmap to peace
October 1957: Indian Swami Vishnudevananda reaches the coast of California, carrying with him ten rupees, a few English phrases and a great mission: He was sent by his teacher Swami Sivananda (1887–1963) to the West to spread yoga, the spiritual ‘roadmap’ to inner peace. In the climate of the Cold War and unbridled capitalism, Swami Vishnudevananda realised just how much his work was needed. His goal was to set into motion a holistic evolution towards peace, carrying on in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Yoga’s global reach
Today, millions of people practise the exercises that Swami Vishnudevananda began teaching in the West fifty years ago. Gyms, fitness centres and wellness hotels offer yoga classes, and yoga is finding new practitioners everyday. The founding of more than 70 Sivananda centres and ashrams around the world is proof of the enormous achievement of the dynamic yoga master. To name a few of the locations: New York, Montreal, the headquarters in Val Morin (Quebec), San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Nassau (Bahamas), London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Reith near Kitzbühel, Geneva, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Delhi, Chennai, Neyyardam (Kerala), Uttarkashi (Himalayas), Buenos Aires, Montevideo.
“An ounce of practice is better than tons of theory.”
The five basic pillars of the yoga practice according to Swami Vishnudevananda are asanas (physical postures), breathing exercises, deep relaxation, a vegetarian diet and positive thinking. All yoga techniques culminate in meditation, the experience of unity with one’s self. In 1969, Swami Vishnudevananda laid the cornerstone for the systematic spread of yoga by conducting the first Yoga Teachers’ Training Course (TTC) in the West. What began as a vision has brought forth 35,000 teachers – with another thousand added each year. They spread the teachings of classical yoga in health clubs, schools, doctor’s offices, universities, hospitals and prisons.
The Beatles weren’t the only ones topsy-turvy
Once, as Swami Vishnudevananda was explaining the headstand to the Beatles at the Los Angeles Airport, Ringo Starr quipped: “I can’t even stand on my feet, how shall I get onto my head?” Later, when he got the Beatles onto their (mop-top) heads, they realised what many of his students already knew: what had appeared to be a purely physical exercise was really a change of perspective for both body and mind.
Free as a bird
For Swami Vishnudevananda there were no barriers, neither internal nor external. He believed that barriers were only mental constructs that had to be overcome. That’s why he began symbolic flights across national borders in trouble spots around the world.
In 1971, he flew with actor Peter Sellers in a two-engine Piper Apache ‘Peace Plane’ to Belfast in Northern Ireland, the first in a series of peace flights over the world’s trouble spots, throwing flowers and peace flyers. A month later he flew to the Middle East. On a peace flight over the Suez Canal during the Sinai War, Israeli military jets tried to force Swami Vishnudevananda to land, but he continued his mission unwaveringly. His message: “Man is free as a bird, overcome borders with flowers and love, not with guns and bombs.”
Accordingly, he glided over the Berlin Wall from West to East in 1983 in an ultralight aircraft, “armed” with two bouquets of marigolds. He landed on a farm in Weissensee in East Berlin. After being interrogated by East German authorities for four hours, he was put on the metro with a cheese sandwich and sent back to West Berlin.
A year later, in 1984, he spent three months touring India in a double-decker bus under the motto ‘Yoga for Peace’. He wanted the people in the country of yoga’s birth to become acquainted with the modern approach to yoga practices and yoga philosophy. Swami Vishnudevananda passed away in 1993 during a pilgrimage for world peace and mutual understanding in Mangalore, South India.
The energy of ten rupees
Swami Vishnudevananda used to say that he went to the West, founded the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams and trained thousands of yoga teachers, all on the energy of ten rupees.
“These 10 rupees have taken me around the world countless times. It was only the energy of my master, Swami Sivananda, and his blessings that enabled me to do everything I have done. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done in the name of my master.”