By Tasha Friedman
Happy Birthday, Swami Sivananda!
“Love, serve, give, purify, meditate, realize.” –Swami Sivananda
On this day in 1887, one of the greatest masters of modern times was born in Pattamadai, a town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Swami Sivananda (birth name Kuppuswamy) showed talent and high intelligence from an early age. His natural sense of a higher calling in life led him to become a medical doctor, and he spent ten years providing free medical service to impoverished workers in Malaysia. Eventually, he felt that this external healing was not enough. The people around him were experiencing intense suffering, and not only in their bodies.
He started to seek more profound remedies for the pain of human existence, and, returning to India, he met his teacher, received initiation as a sannyasin (renunciate), and settled in Rishikesh to practice yoga.
From then on, Self-realization was the center of his life, and it became his life’s work to support other beings in their journey back to their divine essence.
Much like Hridaya Hatha Yoga, Sivananda Yoga includes the practice of classical asanas (with an emphasis on the movement of prana), pranayama, relaxation, and meditation, as well as theoretical understanding. Although he always emphasized direct experience, the core principles of Advaita Vedanta form the foundation for all his practical teachings.
Sivananda’s goal was to present a systematic form of yoga that supports a balanced lifestyle and health of body and mind, an essential foundation for Western students, without compromising its spiritual direction.
Through his many years of intense yogic practice and tapas, he continued to serve as a doctor for the poor. His life offers a shining example of spirituality in action, grounded both in the highest aspiration for the Divine and in an equally burning drive to support other beings in whatever way is needed.
Karma Yoga was central to his vision. To love all, to serve all, and to do so without any ego involvement: “The world is nothing but a manifestation of God. Service of humanity and the country is, in fact, nothing short of service of God. Service is worship.”
He viewed Karma Yoga as inseparable from Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. He considered that all paths have their culmination in selfless service—even that all other practices “are of no avail unless one combines burning love for [God] in all beings and a fiery spirit of service in serving Him in all beings.”
This clearly was a path that he followed deeply, judging by his tireless work to help others and improve the world around him. During his lifetime, he founded the Divine Life Society to spread spiritual knowledge, built several charitable hospitals which are still in operation today, opened ashrams, and wrote nearly 300 books.
Suddhananda Bharati, a disciple who knew him from childhood, described Swami Sivananda as “all heart from heart to feet.”
Sivananda profoundly influenced the spread of yoga into the West, especially through his disciples Vishnudevananda and Satchitananda, both of whom were closely involved in the American counter-cultural movement of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as Satyananda, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga.
Today, several dozen ashrams and yoga centers worldwide continue to share Sivananda’s teachings, his message of love.