Serve Love Purify Meditate Realize
The official motto of Swami Sivananda, the guru for which my current yoga teacher training program is named. This broad approach to a life of yoga was one of the reasons I decided to come to this school and pursue my advanced teacher training here as well. The kind of people attracted to this motto, I reasoned, would make for a lovely little community in the intensive four weeks of study, practice and preparation.
I was right ;o)
We’re 32 yoga-lovin’ sweethearts, hailing from all over the world, ready to get deeper into the practice so we can share it with others. The openness and understanding of the group is such a luxury – I know I’m not alone when I say I’m truly grateful for our crew (although I may be the mushiest in my sentimentality)!
More Than a Teacher
It came as a bit of a surprise when I learned the program I enrolled in wasn’t actually created with the sole intention of training yoga teachers.
At satsang one night, when we usually chant and sing and the swami tells inspirational stories shedding light where seekers may stumble, we were treated to a documentary video. The life of Swami Vishnudevanandaya (who was Swami Sivananda’s closest disciple) flashed before our eyes in pictures, interviews, and Super8 video footage taken from around the world.
Swami V reasoned humans must first find peace within before we could experience a peaceful society together. Yoga being one way to that place of peace, he created the teacher training program in 1969.
Swami’s goal was that we’d leave the ashram not just as yoga teachers, but as leaders in a global movement for peace.
Swami V’s vision was formed in the sixties when the Vietnam war and subsequent conscription woke many Westerners up to the horrendous injustice and violence in humanity. He garnered media attention around his peace movement by flying a Peace Plane from country to country, dropping flowers over war-torn areas, like the Suez Canal and the Berlin Wall in 1984.
That’s one cool leader.
Suddenly, the scope of my responsibility to represent this yoga school has gained even greater depth and meaning –for me, that’s a big motivator.
Yoga philosophy, seva projects, language, physical exercises and literature have already become such a huge part of how I live. And yet the horizons broaden . . .
Madurai TTC December 2011: The Hug Initiative
In between all the lectures, satsangs, singing, chanting, reading, highlighting, meditating, walking, joking, tea drinking, cookie sharing, eating with your hands and scrubbing the floors, a handful of us have started a little movement called The Hug Initiative.
The title pretty much speaks for itself.
Ashram Social Life and Ponderings on Neurobiology
Social interaction’s been a hug theme with our class – something Swami Yaneshwara pointed out in the first few weeks – and I can’t help but think of a chapter from Buddha’s Brain on the evolution of the brain whenever I see the hugs and impromptu massages pop up at the ashram . . .
According to the book, “during the past 150 million year journey of animal evolution, the advantages of social abilities were arguably the most influential factor during the development of the brain. There were three major advances, and you benefit from them everyday . . .”
I’ll go ahead and break those advancements down for your reading pleasure here:
1. Vertebrates: For some mammals and birds to decipher good mates from bad mates and to communicate, cooperate, and negotiate especially when raising young, they had to develop more complex skills. These “computational requirements” required increased neural processing in mammals and birds alike (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). This is in contrast to reptiles and fish who don’t take care of their young and may not have a life partner.
2. Primates: About 80 million years ago, primates’ defining characteristic was great sociability. According to Dunbar and Shultz (2007) and Sapolsky (2006), the more sociable a primate species is, the bigger its cortex is compared to the rest of the brain.
Interestingly, only great apes have spindle cells like humans do – a kind of neuron that supports advanced social capabilities. The areas where these spindle cells are found (the singulate cortex and insula) have experienced serious evolutionary pressure over the last several million years (Allman et al. 2001; Nimchinsky et al. 1999).
Changes in these regions responsible for empathy and self-awareness indicate the benefits of relationships helped drive the recent evolution of the primate brain.
3. Humans: 2.6 million years ago, we first began making tools. Over the 100,000 generations since then, genes that foster relationship abilities and cooperative tendencies (to use the tools as a team, and eventually to live in closer quarters) pushed their way forward in the human gene pool.
We see the results today in the neural underpinnings of many essential (and some totally unique) features of human nature including:
- Altruism (Bowles 2006; Judson 2007)
- Generosity (Harbaugh, Mayr, Burghart 2007; Moll et al. 2006; Rilling et al. 2002)
- Concern about reputation (Bateson, Nettle, Robert 2006)
- Fairness (de Quervain et al. 2004; Singer et al. 2006)
- Language (Cheney and Seyfarth 2008)
- Forgiveness (Nowak 2006)
- Morality and religion (Norenzayan and Shariff 2008)
Interestingly, all these recently evolved human attributes play huge roles in the movement toward peace.
As leaders and yoga instructors, after we all leave the ashram, the next question is: how will we integrate what we’ve learned to bring personal peace to our respective communities?
There are probably an infinite number of answers to that question . . . I can’t wait to hear how it all rolls out!
All joy in this world comes from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in this world comes from wanting only oneself to be happy. ~Shantideva