The Knowledge of Liberation

In Vedanta, the means to liberation is through knowledge and the removal of ignorance. Judu V. Ilavarasu is an embodiment of this sentiment - he has immersed his studies in spiritual seeking. He started his journey through the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, and proceeded to gain a doctorate in yogic studies. He is an associate professor at VaYU. He has conducted various studies and research on the effects of yoga on stress, the mind and also a study on how Brahmari Pranayama affects Response Inhibition. We’re in conversation with Judu to discuss the science of yoga and his research findings…

Sophia: Tell us about how yoga came into your life and how it changed your life?

Judu: I was introduced to the works of Swami Vivekananda during my college days. Later, I was fortunate enough to join Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA), a yoga university, for my doctoral studies, where I was introduced to different dimensions of yoga.

It was indeed a transforming period in my life. I was fortunate to get the mentorship of a noble acharya, and I learnt in great detail those aspects of Vedanta and Yoga that appealed to my mind. To put it simply, life thereafter was totally changed. I was able to anchor myself deep within, learn to address some of the fundamental questions about life. I also obtained more clarity on the purpose and meaning of this life, as well as the means to pursue the same.

Sophia: You’ve done a lot of research on yoga and its benefits for stress management? Tell us about what you found during your research?

Judu: Stress research is a vast area. The most important lesson that I learnt was that most of the psychosomatic stress responses happen unconsciously, where the awareness of its existence itself does not happen until later it manifests as a physical ailment. So, we need a sharp internal surveillance system to recognise that, which of course can be cultivated through yoga.

The best way to release stress is to recognise and diffuse it the moment stress builds up in our system (physical and mental). This is easier said than done. It requires constant awareness, which can only be built by consciously increasing the sattva within us. If we just work on improving our sattva consciously day by day, a lot of miracles can be witnessed later. This is also the essence of all initial sadhana (spiritual practice) in one single phrase — increase sattva.

Sophia: You did a study on how Brahmari Pranayama affects Response Inhibition. Please share your findings…

Judu: In this study, my colleagues and I found that Bhramari Pranayama was able to increase response inhibition. Response inhibition is an important executive control ability and is found to be weak in those participants who are impulsive and lack control over their emotions. It is also a measure of cognitive flexibility, using which a person gets the inner space to choose their responses in a controlled and desirable manner. Bhramari is an effective practice which helps to ground oneself very effectively and allows the mind to calm down. This has impacted the enhanced executive control expressed through response inhibition.

Sophia: You also did a study on yoga and mindfulness and how this benefits a workplace set-up. Please elaborate on this?

Judu: It was a comparative study of the mindfulness tradition and the yoga tradition. In essence, all the paths lead to the same goal; only the means slightly change. All yoga practices must involve awareness, which is exclusively emphasised in mindfulness practices. In a workplace where stress management and wellbeing are major concerns, mind-body practices can be of great help. In a way, yoga tries to inculcate mindfulness through gradual anchoring through body movements and later helps tame the intangible mind. In a workplace setting, even a short break of a few minutes in such inner-grounding practices like yoga and mindfulness can yield great benefits in terms of overall organisational productivity.

Sophia: You taught a course on ‘science and consciousness.’  How are they connected?

Judu: It was an interesting course where we learned how the tenets of physics, especially quantum physics and the theory of relativity, help us to discover the profound truth of Indian philosophy, expressed through the maha vakyas. That course was based on the book titled, "Meditation, Oneness and Physics: A Journey Through the Laboratories of Physics and Meditation" by Dr. Glen Peter Kezwer. Anybody interested in this perspective will find this book very engaging. Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity were profound paradigms that challenged many of the established concepts of classical physics. The basic concepts of these theories were very similar to the concept of oneness emphasised in Indian traditional texts. Hence, it was easy to appreciate the Vedic truth through the language of modern physics.

Sophia: Why is research important in the field of yoga?

Judu: Today’s world is moving towards evidence-based practices. It is even more emphasised in medical science. At an individual level, research is certainly not for those who have already got shradha (faith) in the system of yoga, but it is mainly for those who have some inclination towards yoga but don’t have the conviction, and are seeking authentic information about the system of yoga before they plan to invest their time and efforts into it. At the societal level, high quality evidence-generating research in yoga is essential for policy makers to implement such cost-effective programmes across the country for achieving sustainable health goals.

Sophia: Who have been your spiritual influences and why?

Judu: There are a few gurus as living embodiments, and all of them have always emphasised the need to be independent and grow with life experiences. Therefore, I believe the perfect formula for our spiritual perfection has to be discovered by each one of us, as we are all different and unique in our own ways. So, my best formula may be 40% from my teachers, 12% from my friends, 17% from my surroundings, and so on. The very fact that we are living on this planet, with a specific configuration of people, situations, and events around us, means that they all have a meaningful role in our spiritual journey. So, imbibing from all sources—people, situations, and events—we must be able to discover our spiritual influences.

Sophia: Do you feel that all yoga teachers should include meditation in their teaching along with asana-practice? Why or why not?

Judu: Whether to include meditation along with asanas or not depends on the receptivity of the student. For some students who are not yet prepared, working more with asanas and cultivating awareness can be much more beneficial than introducing meditation and throwing them into battle with their inner mind. Meditation is more effective when the mind has progressed from muda (predominantly tamas) and kshipta (predominantly rajas) states. But nowadays, in the name of meditation practices, many simple mental relaxation techniques are taught, which I think would also be of some help.

Sophia: What are the conditions under which a person gets the best physiological and psychological benefits of yoga that you found during your research and studies?

Judu: The physiological and psychological benefits of yoga are well documented in the scientific literature. However, it is not always the type of yoga or the nature of the teacher, etc., that ultimately decides how many benefits will be reaped by the student, but also the receptivity of the student. There are certain inner dispositions that enable a learner of yoga to assimilate the yoga practices. Until the receptivity factors are groomed and perfected, substantial progress won’t happen.

Sophia: What are you reading right now and can you list some of your favourite books on yoga and spirituality?

Judu: Reading choices change as we evolve over a period based on our inner seeking. Currently, I’m reading a couple of books for my spiritual inspiration and learning. They are: 1) Jivan Mukti Viveka by Swami Vidyaranya, 2) Happiness and The Art of Being by Michael James and 3) Yoga Vasishtha.