In this fascinating and inspiring article, pop artist icon, Peter Max, writes about his first encounters with Swami Satchidananda and Yoga. (photo L-R: Swami Satchidananda, Peter Max, Timothy Leary, late 1980s).
Swamiji had come to the United States and stayed with me for about a week. It all started in early 1966 when one night I was making a collage of the universe and I wanted to know what life was all about. You know, why am I here and why am I breathing, why does all this happen? I finished this collage after a few days of working and I had never meditated before nor had I ever really prayed in any kind of a way and I reached my hands all the way up as though I was going to really scream out for an answer but I couldn’t really make any sounds because people were sleeping so it was a very quiet scream.
And as I did a whole bunch of layers of atmosphere sort of went away and suddenly it was stopped by some magnificent figure, sort of out of the Ali Baba movies. So I saw a figure just like that from very far away who said to me without words, you know, “It’s okay.” And my whole tremendous desire of that evening after all these hours of working on this collage and wanting to know what was what and so forth, I got very, very calmed down and I went to sleep with remembering this image of a holy entity which I’d never seen before and didn’t know what it was.
About two weeks went by and I’m working late at night and it must have been now very early in the morning in Paris and I receive a phone call from someone who says his name is Conrad Rooks and he said, “I’d like you to come to Paris tomorrow.” And I said, “Why?” He says, “I’m making a movie and I’ve got Ravi Shankar there and Alan Ginsberg and Burrows and Man Ray, everybody and Swami,” was in it and I didn’t register with the word “Swami.” I never knew what a Swami was. So I asked him, “What’s a Swami?” He says, “Well, it’s a yogi.”
So we were in Paris, sitting for breakfast, and he picks up the phone right behind him and he says, “Hello, Swami?” “I’ve got the American artist here, would you like to join us for breakfast?” And I’m buttering a roll and having some water and suddenly the doors opened up and there was this 6 foot beautiful figure with black locks and his orange robe looking and I said to him, to Conrad, “What’s that?” And he didn’t say anything and just as the Swami kept on coming to me, he says, “That’s the Swami.”
He leaned over the table and shook my hand, and I was completely relaxed within two minutes and he offered me some hot cocoa that looked just like his beautiful eyes did. Later, I asked the Swami if he could show me some Yoga. Two weeks went by and I’d spent much time with Swamiji and heard all kinds of words of great wisdom that came out and every time he spoke I had to think about it all day long and I really knew that was the reason I was there and I begged the Swami to come to America because I said, “America really needs you.”
Swamiji was kind enough to come and about a month later. He arrived, stayed with us, And then we got on the phone and we called everybody we knew—everybody who I’ve ever had a cosmic conversation with. And we had a big roomful of people show up. Swamiji sat in the middle of the room and he started talking about what Yoga is. Later, we all went into the kitchen and I said, “We’ve got to keep the Swami here.” And suddenly everybody reached into their pockets and everybody put out $2, and $4 and some of the old hippie kids who have had like 13 cents in their pocket they were bouncing all over and everybody, we gathered a few hundred dollars and that’s what was the first beginning or the first fundraising of the IYI.
From there came the odyssey of looking for a center. Nobody really knew what a center was. Nobody even knew, “How do you talk to a Swami? How do you treat him?” Everybody came from their own experience and people were still smoking cigarettes and Swamiji was very gentle. He didn’t tell anybody not to smoke. People came stoned to the meetings. He didn’t tell anybody anything. He was just there being himself. And slowly people took on a little bit of Swamiji’s way and then the first place that we got that was the Oliver Cromwell Hotel. That’s when Swamiji taught us how to do all the asanas. I still remember lying there seeing his legs go by and him saying, “Ommm Ommm” as we were making the exercises. And from there it grew. Then we found 500 West End Avenue and the rest of course is history…
About the Author:
One of the most famous living artist’s, Peter Max is also a pop culture icon. His bold colors, uplifting images and uncommon artistic diversity have touched almost every phase of American culture and has inspired many generations. Peter Max has painted for 6 U.S. Presidents. His art is on display in Presidential Libraries and U.S. Embassies. Max has painted Lady Liberty annually since America’s Bicentennial. A collage of his Liberties adorned 145 million Verizon phone books.Max has been named an official artist of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He has also been Official Artist of 5 Super Bowls, World Cup USA, The World Series, The U.S. Open, The Indy 500, The NYC Marathon and The Kentucky Derby. petermax.com