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Exploring the Essence of Ananda Yoga®
By Gyandev McCord
In recent years, many yogis have committed themselves to an eclectic approach to Hatha yoga, lumping together techniques and approaches from many different traditions. In Hatha yoga, eclecticism is fine if all one seeks is a physical workout. True yoga, however, is not just a collection of techniques. A genuine yoga tradition holds to a specific ray of divine grace because that ray is the source of its power. Things are done in a certain way because that’s how one can best tune in to that ray.
The Central Goal
How does this apply to Ananda Yoga®? Last year, referring to the origins of Ananda Yoga in the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda told me: “Yoga’s purpose is spiritual, and since Hatha yoga is the physical branch of Raja Yoga, Hatha yoga must have a spiritual purpose. It can’t be just to give you a good body… [The goal of the postures is to] advance the purpose of the foundation of Hatha yoga, which is Raja Yoga: to awaken the energy, loosen the spine so the energy can reach the brain more easily, bring it up the spine to the brain, and give you the experience of centeredness and upliftedness.”
That’s the key. Ananda Yoga practice is not just about getting “a good buzz,” as one person put it. It’s about generating and increasing an inward and upward flow of energy in a safe, balanced, conscious way. Therefore, every part of Ananda Yoga — including and especially one’s attitude — should contribute to this goal.
From Vine to Branches
Let’s examine how some familiar aspects of Ananda Yoga help us accomplish this:
Mastering Energization takes our practice to an entirely new level. It’s the technique par excellence for increasing energy and our awareness of it. Only with awareness can we draw energy inward and upward — without awareness, all the energy in the world won’t do us much good. Energization also prepares our nervous system to handle more and more energy. It’s a prime contributor to the overall goal.
Ananda Yoga routines are sequenced to bring energy inward and upward. Standing asanas come first, to center the awareness in the spine and begin to tune into energy. Then we move to a variety of floor poses, designed to stretch and open the spine, and focus energy there. Inverted poses follow, to draw the awakened energy to the brain with the aid of “subtle gravity.” Deep relaxation in Savasana then helps us internalize this energy in the brain. Finally, meditation brings energy to the spiritual eye.
We move slowly, smoothly and consciously into and out of the asanas, so as not to diminish or interrupt our awareness of energy flows generated through the asanas. By moving in this way our awareness will increase throughout the routine — and as awareness increases, so does the energy. Similarly, we never strain with the asanas, because that would diminish both the energy flow and our awareness of it.
Why do we pause in a “neutral” pose between “active” poses (e.g., in Tadasana between two standing poses)? It certainly runs counter to most of the Hatha yoga we see today, in which asanas (postures) are not held very long, and the pauses between asanas are brief or nonexistent!
Kriyananda was quite blunt when I mentioned this trend of not holding poses: “It’s not good yoga,” he said. “If you hold a position, that’s when you can get into the consciousness behind that position. Constant motion isn’t the answer. It just becomes calisthenics.” He later expanded on this: “Ours is a path of constantly coming back to the center, to the spine. That’s the core of it, and you can’t do that if you’re always moving from one asana to the next. The time between poses is very important.”
So the pause is not just to rest. It’s to move toward the goal by working with energy and consciousness to assimilate the benefits of the preceding pose.
What About Affirmations?
If there’s one thing that’s unique about Ananda Yoga, it’s asana affirmations. It’s tempting to say, “Ah, here’s the essence: without affirmations, it’s not Ananda Yoga.” When I asked Swami Kriyananda about this, he took a different stance: “Obviously, the center of Ananda Yoga is not the fact of having affirmations. The center of Ananda Yoga is the way in which it helps our meditation, our stillness. Sometimes those affirmations can seem a bit childish, and I can see how people might resist doing them and still feel they were working with the energy and so on. Nonetheless, they’re a good thing, and they do help your consciousness. Beyond that I don’t know what to say; you’ll have to use your own intuition on the matter.”
Thus, it’s not a question of whether we can do Ananda Yoga without affirmations. We can. The real question is — what leads us most quickly to our goal? Affirmations are not the goal; raising consciousness is the goal. But as Swami put it, affirmations “do help your consciousness,” i.e., they are a means to the goal.
My own approach is like this: Over a long period (weeks, months), the affirmation helps guide me to a more intuitive, more “feeling” understanding of the asana. As my understanding grows, I’ll repeat the affirmation less — eventually just once or twice, to give direction to my attunement efforts. It’s not the affirmation that takes me into that essence; it’s my feeling capacity, guided by the affirmation.
The Ultimate Criterion
Above all, the essence of Ananda Yoga is the vibration of Paramhansa Yogananda. Earlier I said that each yoga tradition is a “specific ray of divine grace.” In Ananda’s case, that ray comes through Yogananda. Kriyananda drew upon that ray in order to develop Ananda Yoga. It doesn’t matter whether you are a disciple or not. Great Masters will aid anyone who calls upon them. If you really want to feel the essence of Ananda Yoga, call upon Paramhansa Yogananda. Ask for his guidance, and try to tune in to his consciousness.
Gyandev Rich McCord is an Ananda minister and resides at Ananda Village. He is the Director of Ananda Yoga worldwide and teaches at The Expanding Light retreat, and serves as a board member of the Yoga Alliance.