Article courtesy Anahata Yoga Retreat
Swami Samnyasananda is a consultant neurophysiologist whose research explores the effects of pranayama, meditation and relaxation on the heart, brain and autonomic nervous systems.
He is a Certified Yoga Teacher, Life Member and Fellow of the World Society for Clinical Yoga (Lucknow, India), and has over 30 years of experience in classes, personal tuition & clinical counselling in yoga, meditation, relaxation and stress management (M.B.T.I. Accredited).
He is currently teaching and tutoring at Monash Medical School’s Department of General Practice, while sharing his knowledge of health and wellbeing through seminars and retreats around the world.
Swami Samnyasananda will be in New Zealand from May 24 until June 4 on his North Island tour; “Where Yoga meets Science”, presenting workshops in Wellington, Rotorua, Hamilton and Auckland as well as a 2 day retreat “Breathing and the Brain – The Science of Spirituality” in Aio Wira, Auckland over the Queen’s Birthday weekend.
1. You are a neurophysiologist, research scientist, yoga practitioner as well as a Swami in the Satyananda Yoga tradition. How do you manage to find a balance between such diverse paths?
That really is a challenge. For a start I have two names, a swami name and a western legal name. So people already get confused there and some assume I’m a holy man touting some eastern religion, which I am not. Otherwise my western research is entirely into how yoga works from a neurophysiological perspective, looking at evidence behind the benefits.
My background is sleep research, where I looked at how certain meditation techniques assist in getting better sleep and can even produce more melatonin, a brain hormone that helps the immune system to function and fights cancer.
I do my best to live a yogic life amongst the demands of modern life, bridging the best from East and West.
2. Are there any correlations between your research in Western medicine and Yoga? Where does Yoga meet science?
The meeting place is the methodology. Good science can be on any topic. My interest is in the physiological mechanisms behind how the body is affected by the techniques being practiced. I’m more interested in real-time changes in the heart, brain and nervous system rather than bones and muscles from an exercise perspective.
Correlations exist because Yoga uses the same human-body systems as other medical research, but in yoga we tend more to focus on wellness, rather than sickness and use yogic interventions rather than drugs or surgery.
3. You will be in New Zealand this May-June presenting numerous workshops, one of them being “Breathing and the Brain”. Can you go into a bit more detail about what to expect on such a workshop?
The Breathing and the Brain workshop will explore the correlations and research between certain breathing practices and how they affect the human brain and autonomic nervous system.
For example, some yoga styles teach a thoracic preference of breathing and some favour an abdominal focus. Both have their place in yoga, but it is important to know how each breathing style can have different effects.
I travelled the length and breadth of India interviewing people such as Patabi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Kashtub Desikachar, Pilot Baba, Swami Niranjanananda, Dr Bhole and others, and can share some of my findings on their input as well as findings from the medical literature.
The weekend retreat will also include asana, Satyananda Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation), havan (ancient fire ceremony) and kirtan (mantra chanting).
4. Please expand more on the importance of breathing and various breathing techniques in yoga?
We all breathe, it’s just that most people do most of their breathing without any awareness or control.
There are many breathing patterns we can use and then there are various pranayama or breath control techniques that can also be used. If you are going to practice the powerful breathing techniques in yoga, it would make sense to find out how they work, how they affect the body and brain as well and why you would choose one technique over another – depending on your desired outcome.
Overuse of certain styles or types of breathing can have unwanted effects and many people who have learned to breathe through the mouth rather than the nose, for example, find that they have more upper respiratory tract infections, sinus problems as well as higher incidence of allergic asthma. There are some breathing practices that can help calm down anxiety and other breathing practices that can make it worse.
5. What kind of benefits and/or ailments can this yogic breathing assist with?
Different breathing techniques can be used for: stress, anxiety, some types of asthma, depression, high blood pressure, birthing, pre and post natal health, women’s health, pain management, epilepsy, nausea, this list is huge really. Various meditation techniques use breath awareness or breath control as an integral component as well.
6. I have heard Yoga Nidra being referred to as ‘psychic sleep’. Give us some insight on this amazingly beneficial practice.
This is a huge area and I will cover it in more detail in the seminars. You can get a free copy of my 10-minute Yoga Nidra here. Yoga Nidra is that relaxation simply and effectively enables you to take time out to relax and disconnect from the enormous amount of inputs we have each day.
It works by rotation of awareness around the body in a specific sequence, which becomes subconsciously ingrained over time with regular practice. Breath awareness and cognition of bodily sensations and mental images in a constructed pattern lead to a very deep state of detachment and relaxation.
Yoga Nidra is based on an ancient tantric technique called Nyasa Meditation from the teachings of Swami Satyananda. Yoga Nidra leads to “Pratyahara” or sensory withdrawal, which allows a very deep state of peace and stillness within, where powerful healing can occur.
7. What practices can you recommend to someone who is highly stressed?
Yoga Nidra is one of the best, see above answer, as well as learning about getting a good night sleep. Many stress problems come from poor sleep or not enough sleep or sleep in the wrong part of the day/night cycle.
Generally living a more yogic lifestyle will help overall, but there are five main types of stress and each needs to be dealt with differently for the best effects. Try not to overdo things, we live in a very busy society with endless demands. We have to learn to slow down, let go and relax. (Easier said than done sometime though, I know.) If people really need extra help, I can be available for some private consults while I’m in NZ if they want.
8. How has Yoga transformed your life?
I’m sane, happy and healthy and I get to meet amazing people. What more would you want?
9. How have you integrated Yoga and spirituality into your daily life?
Yoga is the vehicle for me to express my spirituality, my everyday practice of mindful awareness in whatever I do helps to keep me grounded. I practice Seva (selfless service) karma yoga (yoga of action) meditation, breathing as well as a few asana now and then. Mostly I try to live each day as yogic as I can and let the spirituality part unfold naturally.
10. How do you explain what Yoga is to someone? Is it a religion, a science, a lifestyle…?
The word “Yoga” comes from “Yug” meaning “to join”, “to balance”, “to bring together”. It’s a verb, a doing word, it doesn’t mean “exercise” or “religion”.
Yoga comes from the same root as the word “yoke” – that wooden thing that originally joins two oxen or buffalo together by the neck to pull a cart or a plough.
If you can imagine two animals pulling on a central wooden beam connected to the cart or plough by a yoke, then take your mind to a medical symbol, the caduceus, you should see the similarity. The two animals represent Ida and Pingala (Parasympathetic and Sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system). The yoke is there to balance the energies of the two animals so the cart doesn’t go in circles. That balancing is a dynamic process, not an end in itself and so is yoga, it’s a process of balancing.
Yoga is something we practice, it’s not a goal to achieve. In the modern world we don’t use animal carts very often but the word “yoga” still means to bring together and balance various streams of energies within the human body.
There is Ha and Tha (Sun and Moon) where we get “hatha” yoga from, a system designed to balance physical and mental energies. We also have pranayamas (breath control) to balance the cerebral hemispheres. There are techniques to balance head and heart as well as techniques to balance male and female energies – within the one body as well as between two bodies.
There are many techniques in the science of yoga, but without a meditative or mindful component, what many people think of as yoga is just exercise. While asana and other physical poses are good for you, what you do is not as important as how you do it. It is the mindful awareness that makes it Yoga, it is what is going on while you are practicing asana, pranayama and other techniques.
Yoga is not a religion, though all religions use techniques known to yoga in their systems. Yoga is a science because outcomes can be predicted and we are the experiment when we practice yoga, we get to feel the effects and benefits. After a while, yoga classes become yoga practice, which can lead to yoga sadhana (more personal spiritual practice) and/or lead to a more yogic lifestyle. Enjoy . . .
You can find Swami Samnyasananda at his Auckland workshop, or North Island Tour. See Anahata Retreat’s website for more details.