The island of Koh Phangan in southern Thailand is notorious for the Full Moon Party and for being a hedonistic destination for young backpackers! However, there's so much more to the island than meets the eye. In recent years, it has become a hub for yoga and spirituality and draws thousands of 'soul-searching' travellers looking for more than just buckets and beaches.
After the New Year's Eve celebrations died down this year, we made our way to Agama Yoga on the beautiful West coast of the island to meet one of the most interesting characters we've come across - the legendary Swami Vivekananda Saraswati. In a mind-blowing encounter, we discuss yin and yang, the laws of karma, tantric sex, God and reincarnation!
Having taken the Swami order oaths at Kumbh Mela on the shores of the Holy Ganges in 1998, Romanian-born Swami Vivekananda Saraswati opened his first Agama Yoga School in Rishikesh, India. Due to its sheer popularity, he moved the school to Koh Phangan, Thailand in 2003, which offered a beautiful learning environment and greater freedom of study. Based on the tradition of Indian and Tibetan Tantra, Agama’s training combines a multitude of practices from East and West - including Taoism, Gnostic Christianity and Sufism - and the school now draws in students from all over the world! Curious to discover why Agama is so popular, we decided to ask Swami a few questions…
What exactly is Agama Yoga?
People think that yoga is just about fitness, but the teaching you get from Agama is something you can’t get from the gym. You can take Agama as training for daily life. As well as focusing on your physical body, Agama also connects you with your inner world – your emotional, mental and spiritual realms, even your dreams. It’s not just about bending your body (although a gentle, yet energetic form of hatha yoga is an essential part of our practice); we also help you discover a system you can use in every aspect of your life. Agama can be used for healing, improving concentration, controlling emotions, relaxing, and even becoming more compassionate. We also teach about energy, diet, meditation, the esoteric and elevated aspects of yoga. Yoga is a spiritual science which can help you really know yourself, and therefore, know others. In most cases, people find that their reach is extraordinary.
Can you talk us through a typical day?
The first four weeks is the First Level Intensive Course: two hours of yoga in the morning, two in the afternoon, and an evening lecture from 6pm – 8pm. You can then follow that up until Level 24. Each course Level lasts four weeks and may be attended as flexibly as students like. Some people do the first one and come back four months later to do the second.
What types of lectures are covered?
In our beginner course, we touch on important subjects that form the foundation for a comprehensive understanding of yoga. Topics include: the chakras, resonance, the sublimation of energy, the eight stages of yoga, music meditation, the five bodies of man, the morals and ethics of yoga, and the most important of all – the polarity of energy. We humans not only have energy but have both yin (‘feminine’) and yang (‘masculine’) forms. The whole principle of yoga is to balance yin and yang. Nobody is born balanced due to a myriad of factors – astrological chart, diet, DNA, karma we received from previous lives, also our behaviour - everything creates the person we are today. The good news is that if we don’t like what we’ve become, we can change it.
Can you explain yin and yang in a little more depth?
Let’s take diet as an example. Cereal (rice in particular) is yang, which is ‘masculine’. So if you eat an exclusively rice diet (i.e. – nothing processed!) with no spices, etc. it will give a shock readjustment to your body in readdressing the ‘yang’. The reason we should try and become more yang is that 90% of people are actually too yin. There is too much ‘feminine’ energy, which has come about from both diet and lifestyle. We have become ‘soft’. When we were children, we resisted very well to extremes of temperature, for example, but now we mess around with the air conditioner, the heater… All this makes us far less adaptable, less yang.
If we are all too ‘yin’, or ‘feminine’, why are there so many wars in the world today? Isn’t that due to too much ‘masculine’ energy?
The majority of people are too ‘yin’, which is not exactly the same as ‘feminine’. It can be understood better perhaps in terms of passivity or a susceptibility to the mentality of the herd, with little ability to control one’s emotions or destiny. Wars have more to do with aggression, hunger for power and disharmonious expression at certain levels of the being that are much more pronounced than true masculine energy. While wars may be instigated by more yang people (leaders), they require many more yin people taking orders to actually be carried out…
Let’s talk about karma. It’s said that the ultimate aim in yoga is samadhi – enlightenment – that frees us from the chains of karmic suffering. What is it to attain this?
Nirvana is a vague philosophical concept that most people aren’t interested in. Instead, people say, ‘I want to suck the marrow out of life; I want to feel good when I swim/go out in the sunshine/have multiple orgasms – I want a great body which gives me great sensations! Very few people want to go beyond this. Most people travel hoping to find something, but eventually, after 10 years, go back to suburbia, get a house and kids, and fall into the bourgeoisie – and then all that madness of youth they experienced becomes nostalgia. But, not all people lose the fire. Some want to open their third eye, and have ambitions that go into the realm of the paranormal; towards self-realization. These people want to know what this piece of flesh they’re being transported in is, and what we’re supposed to do with it? Many don’t know what they are looking for, or the meaning of their life. Then they stand up in our yoga hall, and say they’ve always been looking for this, just that they never knew it existed!
Very integral in the practice of Agama is Tantra. What exactly is the Tantric tradition?
Tantra originated historically in India, then moved to Tibet. Over thousands of years, aspects evolved into many traditions – Buddhist, Hermetic, Kabbalah, Taoist practices. Some people who want to follow a spiritual existence think you have to live like an austere lifestyle like a monk: four hours’ sleep, little food, being Zen… I’m not denying that being in a Zen monastery will have spiritual results, but some people run away from it because the discipline is too much. So we ask ourselves: Is this the only way to reach God? Is there not a way to reach God through aesthetical sense, through beauty, music, dance, art, sex? Why are those things put off the list? This is where the Tantra comes in, with a different and rare understanding of the relationship between matter and spirit. Unlike most traditions, Tantra reflects true cosmic oneness in action. The transcendent path is the union of world and spirit, not the escape. Some people think Tantra could not be spiritual, because it is ‘too fun.’ Which path you choose – well, this would depend on your temperament – whether you think suffering is necessary, or whether you are the opposite. In spirituality, there are many paths.
Why is sex so integral to Tantra?
In the Tantric tradition, we use energy from the body. As we know from Freud and Jung, the most determinate foundation of energy is sex. It is the foundation, the energy of the individual. Women and men are attracted to each other exactly as electrons are attracted by protons. It’s enough to look at history to see what it does to people. We find polarity in yin and yang, as well as in all the gods from all ancient myths and religions, who are all described as either masculine, feminine, or having attributes of both. When applied to sexuality, Tantra is a precious technology of sorts that helps us use energy to reach union with God – the very definition of yoga.
In ancient times, science and spirituality were treated as the same, before branching out to become different (and in many cases, opposing!) fields of study. Now the situation appears to be reversing, and science is beginning to prove many spiritual concepts. Is spirituality beginning to stand up and be counted by people who would once have labelled it all ‘nonsense’?
Yoga is a science. It is not a religion. Yoga says that if you stand on your head every day for 20 minutes, then after six months you will get the expected results. In this way, it is science. Spirituality should therefore be practiced with rationality, intelligence, and a scientific spirit. Take Alexis Carrel, for example, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine who wrote a whole research paper on the powerful, scientific effects that prayer can have on the body.
Why is prayer so powerful?
If you don’t use certain parts of your body and exert those muscles, they don’t get a workout. Ideally, every part of your being should be functional. For a skeptical person, it looks like a praying person might be talking to the wall. But this ‘talking to yourself’ has a very powerful reaction in the brain; opening primitive parts of the hippocampus.
Fundamentally, everything is energy. Quantum mechanics shows that everything solid is made up solely of energy. People come to Agama to learn the consequences of that; how to apply this to their lives.
And what does the idea of ‘God’ mean to you? Is God energy?
God is not just energy. Energy is one of the two facets of God (the other being 'consciousness'). Energy is one of the interfaces through which God interacts in the world. Everyone can feel it.
What’s your take on reincarnation?
Every soul evolves. The souls in plants move into animals, souls who are human become superhuman. You evolve, bang your head against the wall, you learn. It is not an easy process, but even the most thick-skinned soul learns in the end. Nature is infinitely patient. Some people evolve and evolve and reach the graduation day: they become a Buddha. As you mentioned before, that’s what the yogis call samadhi. Buddha tried to describe it, but it is always a bit fuzzy, since it’s a process of the consciousness, so it’s hard to speak of in relative terms. We speak about a leap in consciousness, but it cannot be described satisfactorily because what we’re talking about here is the notion of the ‘Absolute’ – moving from finite to the infinite. According to Oriental metaphysics, one life is not enough for one human being. When Buddha became enlightened, he described 10,000 lifetimes…
And once we’ve gained enlightenment – what then? Do we move on to someplace else?
99% choose to keep existing in this world but in a more subtle plane. There is meaning to be here in this world; the world won’t have lost its meaning just because now you have attained samadhi. You will have a new perspective, yes – but that will not destroy the whole game. The game, you see, is eternal. It doesn’t end.
Interview by Karen Farini.This article contains sponsored links.