A Message from Chétana:
“My spiritual path has been influenced by several inspirational teaching traditions. My meditation practice began with Donna, a wonderful teacher with ISUL, a tradition of what I call energy-work meditation. Four years later, when I was truly searching to bring yoga into all aspects of my life, I was initiated into Tantric meditations and was taught by several devoted sannyasis about yoga philosophy, lifestyle, diet, mantra and wisdom I am extremely grateful to have shared. Other organizations that have informed my approach to yoga and teaching are the Sivananda Vedanta Society, and Kripalu Center in Massachusetts (USA). I feel I have received so much from the Kripalu tradition, in particular regarding facilitation, asana as inquiry, and the interface between Western and Eastern psychology. Recently I read an article in Ascent Magazine on authentic leadership. It mentioned the idea that if Buddha returned it would be as a group of people, rather than as one person. This very much speaks to me when I think of all the amazing people: teachers, fellow sadhaks, gurubhai, whose encounter, crystallized by such organizations, has shaped and coloured my yogic journey.
Through Akhanda Yoga®, we present holistic, non-sectarian yoga teachings. I feel this is possible as we are able to draw from the wisdom of many areas in the broader yoga tradition, and have not learned or lived only in one spiritual lineage. Many of our teachers, not necessarily having had one lineage, also presented holistic or integral yoga. Vishva ji and I both feel quite connected to the teachings of Swami Yogeshwarananda and his energy field, which is still very palpable around Yoga Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, where we have lived and taught. His message was very much one of subtle body inquiry through the practice of meditation and samadhi. Visiting his remaining master-students, with their stories of the history of Rishikesh yogis, and their continuations in the tradition of ecstatic artwork, never fails to inspire me and ground me in his footsteps”.
A Story of Vishva-ji and his Yogic Heritage:
Yoga, since Indian Independence, has been in a process of cultural revival, in which yogis and academics have been literally and figuratively excavating yogic history, philosophy and techniques. There has also been a need to translate the meaning of yogic lore and practices for the modern Indian and international population. What does yoga mean for a practitioner living in the society of today, and in family life? Yogi Vishvketu (or Vishva, as his Western students call him) is one of a coming generation of yogis that take up this mission from the loving hands of previous generations of master teachers including: Swami Sivananda, Swami Yogeshwarananda, Swami Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda, Ananda Mayi Ma and others.
It is in this spirit that Yogi Vishvketu began teaching what he calls Akhanda Yoga®, offering holistic yoga teachings that provide students with insights into the diverse aspects of the yoga legacy, and not simply asana. In the West, after the fitness boom, through jammed knees, and herniated discs, many started to turn to yoga asanas for fitness. Now that the baby boomers (those children born just after the Second World War 1945-60) are aging, people are searching for holistic health, contemplative traditions, meditation systems, a meaningful life, information on conscious aging and dying et cetera. They are discovering that yoga has much more to offer than just fitness, and are discovering what has been brought to the West in a series of waves since the Bhagavad Gita was first translated into English, or when Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1897. To help students on their journey to becoming whole beings, physically and emotionally healthy, and tapping into the grace in their lives, Vishva ji’s Akhanda Yoga classes encourage participants to explore all aspects of the diverse tradition of yoga: satkarma, asana, pranayama, Vedic mantra, kiirtan, and meditation, as well as to contemplate various traditions in yoga philosophy, such as Yoga Darshan (the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). And yet his classes are not too heady – often his laughter peels out through the hall, and he launches students on a round of laughter yoga.
His message is balance: yoga is discipline and surrender, effort and fun! In order to spread these holistic, non-sectarian yoga teachings that draw on many voices in the history of yoga right back to the Vedas themselves, Vishva-ji and Chétana Panwar began Yoga Teacher Training courses in 2003 with the mission of training teachers to bring these holistic classes to their own communities around the globe. The teacher training programs are registered by the Yoga Alliance at the 200- and 500-hour levels. Since then, graduates of the program are teaching yoga in schools, universities, hospitals, government ministries, community and yoga centers around the world in Canada, America, Brazil, Mexico, Porto Rico, UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan and India.
But what was it like for a yogi from India, to begin his teachings in Canada? And what led him there, to the international stage, and then back again to Rishikesh? In telling this story we hope to share a bit about his yoga heritage, and to honour the master teachers who have so influenced him.
The story begins in a small village in Muzaffarnagar, Uttarpradesh, named Ailum. There Yogi-ji (Manoj Panwar) grew up in a simple farmhouse in the sugar cane fields – a quiet and contemplative child from the beginning. At six, his mother tells us, he ran away 15 kilometers to a Shiva temple where one of his distant uncles, Mahavir Swami, was performing austere Tapasya. His parents were announcing via radio that their small son had wandered off, and they didn’t know where he had gone. Insouciant of this, when he arrived at the temple, Vishva told Swamiji that he wanted to wear orange clothes. “You’re too young yet,” he was told – also partially because the place was not suitable for a child. So, one of the brahmacharyas brought him back home on the bus and gave him one rupee and some sweets. After that experience, Mahavir Swami, seeing Vishva’s yogic nature, taught him to do likt japa (repeated writing of mantras) ‘Ram Ram’. But to his mother’s dismay, one day she found a mountain of notebooks all filled only with the mantra ‘Ram’. It seemed destiny at that point when Vishva-ji came to know that his maternal uncle, Yogiraj Vishwapal Jayant ji, was running a gurukul in Kanvashram in the jungle where Shakuntala and other sages had lived in yoga so many years ago. Naturally, Vishva-ji began to pester his parents that he wanted to go to the gurukul. At the age of 8, his mother, Sureshso, made him a challenge, “If you can keep your clothes clean and neat in a box, and wash and fold them yourself for one month, I will send you to the gurukul”. And so after keeping up his side of this bargain, his formal yoga journey began with the long days at Gurukul Mahavidyale Kanvashram learning Vedic fire puja, Sanskrit, yoga, sports and other school subjects as well. Although his elder brother left the gurukul after only a few months preferring to be near the family, Vishva-ji was in his element. As Yogiraj was a propounder of the Vedic revival movement as expressed by Swami Dayanand Saraswati in “Light of Truth”, Sanskrit and Vedic wisdom was the strong focus of the gurukul studies. Yogiraj, also an Ayurvedic doctor, brought a wealth of knowledge about Ayurvedic living and remedies, provided a truly holistic traditional education. He had the students help out in the Ayurvedic pharmacy, go on jungle walks to learn to pick herbs, and of course, play volley ball and practice wrestling. With its historic temple and Ayurvedic clinic, Kanvashram attracts many yogic saints and Ayurvedic masters to this day, such as Baba Hari Nam and Swami Yogananda, and was an ideal place to absorb these ancient healing and consciousness-raising traditions.
By the age of 17, Vishva-ji was adept at Indian wrestling, yoga, agni hotra, and began teaching yoga to students from Delhi at the gurukul’s summer camps, until he went off to Hariyana Agricultural University’s Sports College to study yoga and sports. It was there he met Baba Prem Nath, the young ascetic from Rajasthan who used to dry his six foot dreadlocks by dangling them from the second story of an ashram near the university, a testament to the already many years of his yoga journey. “While at Sports College, Baba Prem Nath anchored me in the knowledge that my inquiry into yoga was not only of the physical body.” In the traditional guru style, Vishva-ji knew Baba Prem Nath only for a few years before he disappeared. During that time he initiated Yogiji with the name Vishvketu meaning ‘world bridge or world flag’. His final prophecy for his disciple nearing graduation from his university was, “you will not get a job from anyone; you will create jobs for others”. “At 22, this made only the vaguest sense to me in spite of my years at the gurukul. Now that my main work is training yoga teachers, I look back often at the teacher who in our two years of interaction, knew me so well and guided me so subtly”.
Vishva went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in Yoga Philosophy at Gurukul Kangri, the University of Haridwar. He then moved to the reknown Yoga Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, seeking advanced teachings in pranayama and Hatha Yoga advanced kriyas from Yogi Nath, while teaching and inspiring students from around the world to live the yogic life with joy and dedication. He moved to Canada in 2001, and began to teach, bringing a passion for yoga and his fun-loving nature to the classes.
A core group of students from his Yoga Niketan days were there to support him and his vision including Chétana, and other initiates such as Robin (Prem Sagar) from Canada, Piero (Pranav) from Italy and later Erin (Divya) from Hong Kong, Etsuko (Eesha) from Japan and Celeste (Radhika) from Canada. Vishva’s maternal uncle, Yogiraj Vishwapal Jayant, had been spending summer months in Canada for many years, and Vishva-ji went to Canada to teach at a temple Yogiraj had helped to found years earlier.
At this time, Vishva-ji already had in his mind one concept that came from his years living in sadhana and intensive Gayatri mantra anustana in Rishikesh – Vasudhev Kutumbhakkam – the whole world is one family. As a new immigrant in Canada, slowly Vishva-ji got opportunities to teach classes in government offices in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Soon there were yoga classes taught by the “yogi who laughs” in Transport Canada, the Public Service Commission, Immigration Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and the National Research Council. Finally, he and Chétana named the organization through which they were to give the yoga classes, World Conscious Yoga Family.
In October 2003, he released an instructional DVD entitled Moving into Bliss with Yoga, presenting a balanced sequence of asana and pranayama techniques in a harmonious and meditative flow set to classical Indian music. In November 2003 and 2004, and April 2006 and 2007 and 2008, he was proud to be able to offer a North Indian yoga perspective through his teaching and demonstrating Vastra Dhauti, nauli and other lesser- known kriyas at the Yoga Show and Conference in Toronto.
After training teachers for five years, Vishva-ji and Chétana co-founded Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Tapovan, Rishikesh on Deepavali, 2007. Tapovan is an ideal location for this sadhana, as it is named for its heritage as a site for spiritual disciplines. Tap, represents tapas, the practice of spiritual disciplines. Van means forest. So, Tapovan is the forest of the yogis. Anand Prakash is on a headland above the banks of the Ganges, one of the first open spaces down river from the source of the Ganges. The wind and all the prana carried from the Himalayas whistles down the river valley and blow out over this headland invigorating the ashram area. The vision for the ashram was a comfortable, non-sectarian sanctuary for spiritual seekers from around the world where they would have clean food and water, and some guidance for their yogic journey. “Our yoga programs do not teach the wisdom of only one lineage, but draw on multiple sources and from multiple voices in this broad tradition. The organization has graduated students of all faiths, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu, and the ashram will also seek to make the Sanatana Dharma (the perennial philosophy as expressed through the yogic spiritual legacy) accessible, and to show how the paths of yoga are compatible with all faiths. It is a non-dogmatic seed wisdom which we explore and which makes itself relevant in each practitioner’s life”.
Swami Yogeshwarananda, Yoga Niketan Ashram (1887 – 1985)
A peer of Swami Sivananda, and founder of Yoga Niketan ashram, neighbouring the Sivananda Forest Academy, Swami Yogeshwarananda was a Raj Yogi, very much involved in the inquiry into the subtle body and cosmology through meditation and Samadhi. His chakra and other drawings are hung in the halls of Yoga Niketan ashram to this day. As a young man he took initiation from a wandering teacher in the Himalayas, Avadhuta Swami Atmananda, and began his deep meditations. His teachings have been compiled in several books, most notably perhaps Science of the Soul.
Vishva: “I remember as a boy seeing Baba Hari Nam at my gurukul sitting in meditation since 3 am, his spine stalk straight even at 80. In my 20s, I realized the wealth of knowledge he had about Nad Yog, Ayurveda and its remedies. Shortly before his death at 105, we were searching to see him again, and found him staying at the home of a fabric merchant in a small village reached through dusty roads filled with potholes and lumbering sugar-cane filled bullock carts. He had been brought there at 105 to heal the merchant’s son. We spoke together and mediated together. It was the only time I remember him looking even slightly world-weary. And yet, still in service and simplicity at 105! By his example, Baba Hari Nam taught incredible humility, discipline, and commitment to the Yogic and Ayurvedic arts of healing, community and self-realization.”
Vishva: “After meeting 12 years ago at the Kumba Mela in Haridwar, I have seen Swami Yogananda regularly, and his 2 hour dynamic joint series and asana-pranayama classes are still full of unbelievable vitality. In his 90s, Swamiji would hop on a bus and come to Rishikesh from Delhi for a day to teach class, and then head back to his students in Delhi. A year or so ago, he was hit by a motor cycle in Delhi, and rather than have surgery, he left the hospital saying he would heal his broken arm with naturopathic methods – and he did. I honour Swami Yogananda for his fellowship in this yogic life.”