Swami Sivananda | Biography & Teachings

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Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) was an allopathic doctor, healer, and spiritual leader.  His focus on yoga as a tool for health and well-being characterized his teaching and his legacy leaves behind a globally recognized and practiced style of yoga.

“Swami Sivananda’s life was a radiant example of service to humanity, both during his years as a doctor and later as a world­-renowned sage and jivanmukta. To serve all, to love all, to mix with all and to see God in all beings were the ideals he taught and lived by.”sivananda.org.in

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • The life of Swami Sivananda
  • The teachings of Swami Sivananda
  • The tradition he leaves behind
a portrait of Swami Sivananda

Swami Sivananda‘s Youth

Born Kuppuswami to a brahmin family he was the youngest of three children.  As a boy, he was considered “intelligent and mischievous” with a kind and generous heart.

Kuppuswami studied medicine in Tanjore before working in British Malaya as a doctor and was renowned for providing free medical care to the poor. The academic flare he showed as a child continued into his career, and he even created a free medical journal called “The Ambrosia”. 

swami Sivananda Took A Spiritual Path

In 1923 he left medicine to heed his spiritual calling. In 1924 he became a renunciate monk and was initiated into the Sannyasa order by his Guru Vishvananda – Swami Sivananda Saraswati was born! 

Sivananda spent years as a wandering monk engrossed in the austerities of the haṭha yoga practice but despite being deeply committed to his spiritual practice he continued to provide medical care to those in need.

“With all his intense Tapas, Swamiji did not neglect service of the sick. He visited the huts of the Sadhus with medicines, served them, and shampooed their legs.”sivanandaonline.org

Swami Sivananda Saraswati lived a humble existence who “dressed to clothe himself, ate to live, and lived to serve humanity.”  He lived most of his life near Rishikesh where he lived out a life of service to humanity promoting not just yoga but well-being.   

In 1932 he established the Sivananda Ashram on the banks of the river Ganges.  The ashram was open to all devotees, not just renunciates, and later became the headquarters for The Divine Life society. 

In 1950 Sivananda embarked on a tour of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to disseminate his teachings.  His commitment to providing health care was dominant throughout his life.

Sivananda spent his final days at the Sivananda Ashram before entering māhasamādhi at his death in 1963.

Swami Sivananda sitting on a chair

Establishing a place to practice and heal

“A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.” -Swami Sivananda

Undoubtedly Sivananda’s commitment to serving humanity is far-reaching and he was the founder of many spiritual establishments and communities all of which were founded to spread the teachings of Vedanta and yoga. 

Swami Sivananda Established

  • Divine Life Society in 1936 (branches throughout world were subsequently set up)
  • All-world Religions Federation in 1945
  • The Sivananda Ayurvedic Pharmacy in 1945
  • All-world Sadhus Federation in 1947
  • The Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy in 1948
  • The Sivananda Eye Hospital in 1957 (which later became a general hospital)
  • The Sivananda Literature Research Institute in 1958.
Swami Sivananda sitting by a lake

The philosophy behind the practice

Sivananda was influenced by the unifying philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (one of the six main systems within Indian philosophy) which presents the non-dualistic belief rooted in unchanging consciousness.

Sivananda’s approach to yoga practice was rooted in Vedanta philosophy but also included haṭha yoga principles, the classical yoga of Patanjali, and the devotional teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.  

Sivananda’s “a little bit of everything” approach to practice included all facets of yoga in order to be a good person. This included:

  • Karma yoga – The yoga of action.  This is the yoga that can be practiced anywhere and is rooted in community and finding Oneness with all beings.  The selfless service of karma yoga has no expectation of reward. 
  • Bhakti yoga – The yoga of devotion is rooted in surrender to God practiced via Japa, praying, chanting, mantra, and rituals.  (This one is slightly less favored in the Sivananda lineage as his goal was inner realization rather than deity workshop).
  • Rāga yoga – The yoga of wisdom is the control of the mind and meditation which Daniel Simpson refers to as “a state without mental activity” It is considered the king of the various approaches to yoga and is often synonymous with samadhi.
  • Jñāna yoga – The yoga of knowledge or intellect and many consider it the most direct path to enlightenment.  It involves the study of sacred scriptures such as the Vedas as well as a heavy dose of self-inquiry.           

Influenced by classical yoga and referred to as a “complete healing system” Sivananda’s emphasis was on living a life of vitality but ultimately the goal was not about the mind or the body, it was of self-realization and pure consciousness. 

“Individual Peace paves the way for world peace. The attainment of inner calm is the greatest work you can do for humanity.” –Swami Sivananda

Swami Sivananda’s influence

Sivananda’s teachings were extensive, but it was through his disciples that his teachings took hold in the West.

Vishnudevananda (1927-1963) began disseminating the teachings of Sivananda in 1957 when he arrived in San Fransisco.  He created the first Sivananda teacher training and opened the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre which has trained more than 45,000 teachers globally. He was responsible for “packaging” Sivananda’s teachings into the accessible five principles as well as consolidating the asana sequence that we associate with Sivananda Yoga today.

Also of note is Satyananda (1923-2009) who wrote over 80 books on yoga. Satyananda was also committed to spreading and adapting the teachings of Sivananda and he founded The Bihar School in 1964 which was a center for yoga study and training. 

Like Vishnudevananda and Satyananda, Satchidananda (1914-2002) was a missionary for the teachings laid out by Sivananda and he established Integral Yoga.  It should not be overlooked that all three of Sivananda’s devotees have been linked to cases of abuse by students.

a hindu statue with a Swami Sivananda picture in the background

The principles of Sivananda yoga

Author of “Selling Yoga” Andrea Jain says that Sivananda “taught a rendition of postural yoga that aimed toward enhancing the mind and body according to modern biomedical conceptions of health.  Yoga was an easy and universally accessible practice, according to Sivananda, that did not require one to forfeit any ethnic, philosophical, or religious commitments.  Yoga according to Sivananda, was meant for anybody interested in enhancing the body and mind through physical exercise.”

For Sivananda yoga was a healing tool, sacred spiritual practice, and journey to self-realization. To understand his approach let’s take a look at the underlying principles within the Sivananda method.

The Sivananda Principles

The physical practice of Sivananda Yoga

“An ounce of practice is worth tons of theory.” – Swami Sivananda

The precise and systematic approach to postural yoga practice (āsana) remains the same in most Sivananda Yoga classes regardless of the teacher. A typical class will include breathing exercises (prānāyāma) as well as sun salutations (sūryanamaskāra) to warm the body followed by the twelve basic postures which are always practiced in order. 

The Sivananda sequence is influenced by Kuvalayananda and was compiled by Vishnudevananda.  As the student becomes more accomplished the teacher will provide variations for them to progress. The postures and their order are:

Headstand – śīrṣāsana

Shoulder Stand – sarvangāsana

Plow – halāsana

Fish- matseyāsana

Seated Forward Bend – paschimottanāsana

Cobra -bhujaṅgāsana

Locust – salabāsana

Bow – dhanurāsana

Seated Spinal Twist –ardha matseyendrāsana

Crow -bakāsana

Standing forward bend – pādahastāsana

Triangle – trikonāsana

Classes are generally 90 minutes long with an easy pace focused on well-being rather than exercise. You’ll find mantras and chants as well as awareness on chakras and the subtle pranic layers of the practice. Sāvāsana is the bookend to the practice emphasizing the importance of conscious relaxation

a statue of Swami Sivananda

The Writing of Sivananda

He wrote over 200 books on yoga covering a wide range of topics from Rāga yoga to prāṇāyāma.  If you’re looking to dive deeper into Some of his notable texts are:

The Science of Pranayama” – Sri Swami Sivananda

Bliss Divine” – Sri Swami Sivananda

Sadhana” – Sri Swami Sivananda

Thought Power: Power of Happy Thoughts

The Sivananda Companion to Yoga” – Sivananda Yoga Centre

“This world is your best teacher. There is a lesson in everything. There is a lesson in each experience. Learn it and become wise. Every failure is a stepping stone to success. Every difficulty or disappointment is a trial of your faith. Every unpleasant incident or temptation is a test of your inner strength. Therefore nil desperandum. March forward hero!”

Key Take Aways

The essence of Sivananda’s life and teachings can be applied to daily life by anyone.  The Divine Life Society summarizes his work in to just 6 words “Serve. Love. Give. Purify. Meditate. Realize.”

To learn more about Inspirational yogis, check this out:

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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