The Beginning Days at 500 West End Avenue

By Karuna Kreps

I first learned of Swami Satchidananda when I was 16 and saw his striking photograph on the front page of the Village Voice. The caption read something like, “Flower children meet Swami Satchidananda at JFK Airport as he returns to New York, after completing the world tour that first brought him to the United States.” The address where he taught classes, the Integral Yoga Institute at 500 West End Avenue in New York, was one I’d heard about during the big 1967 Peace March up Fifth Avenue in protest of the Vietnam War, when I had fallen in step with people who were chanting “Hare Krishna” and who had taken those classes.

Within months of my first Hatha class, I started doing Karma Yoga and serving as the afternoon receptionist. I’d help people sign in for the classes and collect their $1 donations. As I listened through the green curtain for each class to go into deep relaxation and meditation, it was my job to get everyone waiting for the next class to talk in a hushed whisper. The elevator man released crowds of newcomers to the fifth floor apartment, zoned residential-commercial on New York’s Upper West Side. A poster with the same picture I’d seen in the newspaper announced, “The Science of Yoga is over 4000 years old, but it may be new to you. It is not a religion, yet it encompasses all religions. At 500 West End Avenue, the door is open to meet Swami Satchidananda. And when you leave, you may find that another door is open.”

Swamiji, as everyone then called him, lived in the back two rooms of the large, five-bedroom apartment. His bedroom overlooked West End Avenue, and his office overlooked West 84th Street. They were linked by a bathroom and a long interior hallway, off of that was the walk-in closet which was his meditation room. The classes were taught by some of the senior students (Hari, Bhaskar, Rama, Sita, Siva, Shankar, Shree, and Vijay) in the combined living room-dining room area, with the six-foot, colorized photo of Swami Sivananda overseeing everything. The rooms were empty except for carpeting, a few wall photos and a candle on the mantle of the non-functional fireplace.

Hari and his wife, Hamsa, a top fashion model, lived in the master bedroom at the other end of the hall. Parameshwari lived in one of the two little rooms originally meant for servants; the other one was used as the women’s dressing room. Men changed behind a curtain in a narrow hallway between the dining room-meditation area and the foyer. Students crowded into the little sitting area, where we proudly displayed a few books about Yoga (which were rare in those days) and booklets that were for sale outside the kitchen door.

In the afternoon, when I arrived from school, I’d be told if Swamiji was still resting, as he did after lunch. I’d wait for his buzzer to come over the telephone and announce that he was open to receiving calls and visitors. I learned how to cook fresh vegetables in the large eat-in kitchen, which later would become the main entrance for the IYI. The traffic in and out of Apartment 5B had become so great the building management asked us to have students use the service elevator in the back of the building.

The first time I saw Sri Gurudev, I was taking a class, and he walked through the room to get to his residence. Long hair and beard were unseen on anyone over age 30 in those days, so I thought he wandered in by mistake. The next time was when I felt someone correct my leg position in the relaxation pose and I opened my eyes to see that it was the same man. He had paused to oversee the class that was being taught by his young student, Hari. I realized at that moment that this man in an orange caftan was actually someone of high status and wisdom from whom I could learn. Everyone around Swamiji knew that he was special and different, but most of us weren’t quite sure with whom we were dealing. We were constantly impressed by his apparent equanimity and detachment and by his uncanny ability to repair things like broken toasters. Slowly we caught on that, out of respect, we should hold doors open for him and carry his packages.

At 500 West End, Swami Satchidananda taught the Intermediate Hatha class until 1968, and I was fortunate to have taken a half dozen of those classes with him. He taught Bhagavad Gita class on Saturday mornings. At first, his public lectures were given in the living room, seated under a photo of his Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda, between the two windows, with their long orange curtains that overlooked West End Avenue. His seat was a blanket and towel placed on top of a Swedish-modern coffee table that did double duty as his office desk. When we could no longer fit everyone into the space, lectures moved to the basement of the Universalist Church and, later, to its main sanctuary.

When the large apartment across the hall became vacant, a group of Yoga students decided to move in, commune style. There was one married couple, Shankar and Uma and their baby girl, Sasi, who would fall asleep on Sri Gurudev’s lap when he gave lectures. Devi had to herself what was meant to be the maid’s room. Two women—Shanti and Brahmi—lived in one bedroom, and three men—Bhaskar, Ravi, and Guru Prem—shared the living room. The dining room was turned into an extra classroom. The kitchen was always filled with people and usually it was a mess. Everyone was, as Sri Gurudev described us, “a little screw-loose,” but it was so much fun to be there. Something very special, very important was going on and we wanted to be part of it.

We gathered at dawn for morning meditation and Hatha Yoga. We had outrageous, jam-packed kirtans with guitars and drums. We celebrated  birthdays with parties for each astrological sign. Over three summers, Sri Gurudev was invited to run things at Ananda Ashram in Harriman, New York. We piled into cars and drove out for weekends at the lake house. If you were really lucky, you’d be invited to ride in the car with Swamiji…

 

Read the rest of this article in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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