When I was a child, my grandmother used to practice Yoga every morning, and I would always be there with her intrigued by what she was doing. She practiced from books, in particular, Integral Yoga Hatha by Swami Satchidananda, and she would attend 10-day silent Yoga retreats with Swami Satchidananda in Santa Barbara, California, every New Years. The fact that I now live in Santa Barbara seems particularly fitting with this story.
When I was in college I spent a summer in Africa building a school house in a remote village. I picked up a parasite that caused me a lot of digestive trouble. Of course later I realized I didn’t have to go to Africa to do service – but that’s a different story.
When I graduated from college I moved to San Francisco and found a massage therapist/yoga teacher named Kazuko Onodera to help me with my digestive problems. One day I realized that the pictures around her house of an older Indian man were of Swami Satchidananda, and that she was also an Integral Yoga teacher. That's when I knew I had come full circle.
My guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, had resurfaced in my life. He would visit San Francisco every year or two, and I started to visit the Satchidananda Ashram, Yogaville, in Virginia. It took me a while to embrace the idea of having a guru, since I was focused on the ideals of freedom, independence, and human rights. Of course it wasn’t until later that I realized that Yoga and spiritual practice offer real freedom, independence and human rights.
True freedom and independence comes through spiritual enlightenment – knowing that our joy arises from within. Human rights are complex, and while I often feel that there is little I can do to help other people in a worldly way – I do see that the Yoga teachings give us access to the human right to self-knowledge and spiritual liberation.
Another coincidence of finding Swami Satchidananda while I was struggling through the AIDS epidemic, was that his teachings focus so much on healing. Through his guru, Swami Sivananda, he showed people how to use Yoga for healing and self-transformation. In fact, through his disciple Dean Ornish, M.D., who proved that a Yogic lifestyle can reverse heart disease, Swami Satchidananda has helped to create the mind-body medicine movement in the West.
When Swami Satchidananda was a young monk, he gained the power to heal others. Many people sought him out, and he would offer them a tonic, or a poultice, and they would be healed. After a while, he began to notice that these people would continue the same bad habits that created the problem in the first place, such as smoking, drinking, poor diet. He decided that it wasn’t benefiting these people to remove the karma of their illness, and that teaching them Yoga practices would allow them to heal themselves. Swami Satchidananda explains:
By putting out positive thoughts, and correcting your mistakes, you can heal your problems. But don't do something to alleviate the problem without correcting the cause. The suffering came for your benefit. You should not try to take that away. Instead, bring out the nice things, the good qualities in you, the positive side in you and the negative will get cured by itself. Self-healing should be that way. If you have some problem, ask yourself, “How did I get into this? What is the cause?” Then make a resolution: “Yes, in the future I will not encourage such thoughts. I will cultivate the opposite.” The best way to drive away the darkness is to bring light into the room.
Integral Yoga was born from a desire to teach people how to heal themselves. I cherish Swami Satchidananda’s example and his teachings. What an honor it is to teach in his name and to continue a lineage of Yogis dedicated to loving service. My all-time favorite Rumi poem speaks to the beauty and grace that can come from your teacher:
I Have Such a Teacher
Last night my teacher taught me the lesson of Poverty:
Having nothing and wanting nothing.
I am a naked man standing inside a mine of rubies,
clothed in red silk.
I absorb the shining and now I see the ocean,
billions of simultaneous motions
moving in me.
A circle of lovely, quiet people
becomes the ring on my finger.
Then the wind and thunder of rain on the way.
I have such a teacher.
translation by Coleman Barks