As you know, The Minded Institute is committed to being on the cutting edge of yoga research. This new series will bring you more insight into some of the people behind the research. We hope you enjoy reading it.
Swami Sannyasananda / Philip Stevens is a Consultant Neurophysiologist with science degrees in Psychology and Physiology; an Honours degree in Neurophysiology completed at the Centre For Sleep Research in South Australia; as well as Post-Graduate clinical training in Mind-Body Medicine from Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA.
He has explored the effects of certain yoga practices on the heart, brain and autonomic nervous system and runs clinical yoga sessions, courses and seminars around Australia and overseas on various aspects of science and yoga.
He is an accredited yoga teacher, an Academic Advisor at Monash University Medical School and Research Director at the Swan Research Institute, exploring the neurophysiological effects of various pranayama and meditation techniques.
We are beginning this series with him because he is running a 4 day professional training workshop for us on Yoga Therapy and Neurodegenerative Disorders next month. Based in Melbourne, Australia, this is a unique opportunity to learn from him while he’ll be in London.
I began our interview by asking whether he preferred to be called Swami Sannyasananda or Philip Stevens and he said, “It depends on how I look. Swami San will do now, I’m in my Swami gear. When I’m teaching at Monash Medical School, I use my legal name. I bridge East and West. I also bridge the left and right hemispheres of the brain and I bridge heart and mind so it’s normal for me to have two names.”
His professional research is pretty impressive but he actually began his own research as a teenager. “I’d been practicing yoga for a long time. I’d started as a young child but didn’t know it until I was a teenager and started going to yoga classes.”
This early yoga practice was his own discovery. “It was pre-primary school so I’d have been 5 or 6. No one was teaching me but I was doing spontaneous meditations, sitting in a tree. I later learned that this was ‘antar mouna’ which means inner witness.
“I was practising listening to body sensations and auditory input. At night, I was watching thoughts going past, trying to trace my thoughts to the origin of thought, trying to to find out where thoughts came from. I teach mindfulness meditation at medical schools but I was practicing it spontaneously as a child every day and most nights.”
As a teenager, Swami San started attending yoga classes. After being taught different breathing techniques by different yoga teachers, he began asking about them. “I got so many answers, I decided to do my own research,” he remembers. “Years later, when I went back to university, I specifically wanted to study psychology and physiology degrees because I wanted to know how it worked from a scientific perspective.”
Stevens studied at Harvard. “I just wanted to research yoga. I didn’t want to do animal vivisection. It’s difficult to talk a rat into sitting in a yoga meditation.”
Although he’s had many career highlights, Swami San says the ultimate highlight is, “Doing what I’m doing at the moment, teaching meditation at Monash Medical School. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing students who are in for 6 years intense training. I was invited to teach there because of my qualifications and my students are loving it.
“The biggest challenge is trying to describe to people what yoga is. People assume yoga is the bending and the twisting, the posture (asana). In the East, you don’t do yoga, you practice asana to be able to sit. In the West, the dominant paradigm equates yoga with the asanas. Without the meditation, what they’re calling yoga is just exercise.
“I’m taking it to the next level, I’m working with evidence based practices. But medical schools hear ‘yoga’ and think of skinny girls on yoga mats so the biggest challenges are around what people understand yoga to be. People hear yoga and think alternative.”
His work around dementia and traumatic brain injury, which he’ll be sharing in London next month, began organically. “My training is in neurophysiology. I was also teaching yoga at the University of Adelaide. I was invited to teach a unit to 4th year medical students so developed the unit for them.”
Swami San was teaching Satyananda yoga, a form known in India as Bihar yoga but abroad as Satyananda, named for the person who made it well known. “I taught asana, pranayama and meditation as well as explaining how it worked, sharing that at the university with other students. One of the tutors sent all his students to my class. Then they invited me into the medical school. I also had small clinical practice at home.
“By word of mouth, people referred clients to me. My first TBI client had lost his sense of balance after being hit by car on his bicycle. Bilateral brain work helped him gain some balance back. Different people referred people for different things but my primary skills are in sleep and stress. I’ve had stroke clients, a young girl of 6 with brain stem resection due to cancer. A whole section of her brain stem had to be cut. She couldn’t even breathe but we slowly got her off the machine. She is breathing normally now and we are retraining her walking by working on bilateral symmetry.
“I see my work as an educational process rather than as therapeutic. If I’m doing it to you, you won’t remember. If you go to a physiotherapist and they do it to you, it doesn’t work from inside. But if you do the practice, you’re doing the internal visualization as well as the external movement. That’s why yoga works so well. It’s not just someone manipulating and twisting you.”
Swami San and The Minded Institute have similar goals. He wants to, “Bring the evidence base behind clinical applications of yoga and make it more accessible to people. I really admire Heather Mason’s approach. Of all the people I’ve ever met, she would have to singularly be the most professional, both in her approach and in the depth of material she’s providing in her training. I feel quite privileged to be working with her. We have similar aims for the long term: To be able to present the strong evidence base for the efficacy of the many yoga practices that are suitable for clinical practice and to make that available in a form that’s palatable and digestible for medical practitioners.”
When Swami San thinks about words of wisdom he’d like to share with his younger self, he remembers himself in his late teens and early 20s. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about anything, it’s all unfolding. All I have to do is stay in the present and get to know who I really am instead of who I think I am.”
Click here for more information or contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org