Like thousands before me, I fell for her on first encounter. Dressed in the orange clothing of an Integral Yoga sannyasin (monk), she was also wrapped in a palpable aura of no-nonsense compassion and something else I would soon identify: humor. She walked to where I was leaning against a wall in a reception area crowded with hungry students, guests, and staff waiting for the gong to sound the beginning of the noon-time meal. She looked me in the eye for a timeless moment and said something so funny I burst into laughter. And it wasn’t what she said but the way she said it.
“Well, whatever happened to you, I hope it was fun when it started!” The night before, I had arrived at the ashram broken in body, mind, and spirit after my exhilarating career in TV news crashed and burned followed by my health. Warned by my physicians in Washington, DC that my sleep deprivation was putting me on course for premature death at age 70, the ashram was my own Hail Mary pass. The Yogaville staffer who met my Amtrak train in Charlottesville that night would tell me years later, “You were in such bad shape I worried you might not survive the one hour drive to the Ashram,” where I had booked a five day stay.
I made it through the night, slept until my body woke me. But even showered and shaved and in fresh clothes, I still looked pathetic. But the truly funny Swami was not put off by my appearance or what must have been a depressing vibration. She beamed into me with a smile you then offered these words: “I’m Swami Hamsananda, whatever it was that brought you here I’m glad you made it to Yogaville. You better come with me into the dining hall and have lunch. We’ll talk.”
About thirty lunches later, the Ashram lifestyle and the unrelenting kindness of its staff had accomplished a minor miracle: resurrecting my inner and outer life. I was enrolled in a month-long intensive called the Living Yoga Training program. My mind had cleared. I was sleeping normally, doing Hatha Yoga, meditating, and started photography again.
Over the previous month, the profoundly deep and insightful, but also funny, Swami had artfully questioned, listened, commented, and guided me. As we walked out of the dining hall side-by-side, she stopped, turned to me, and fixed me with one of her trademark looks and said these words, “You know you’re doing much better now. We’ve been eating lunch together for a month. You’re on your way. And I’ve got to spread it around.” And off she went.
I laughed out loud, followed by tears of gratitude. My healthy, happy life in Yogaville continued to blossom. Today, my photo library offered up its memory of a session with Swami Hamsananda on this date from four years ago. Back then, I had repeatedly requested time for a portrait shoot but she never had any. Then, one day after lunch she called me to her side and said, “How about now?” I had no idea what she was talking about and I must’ve looked at her quizzically. She said, “You know, the photo session? I’ve got about a minute now.” This photo is one of the results. She asked that I make sure to include in the background a photo of her Guru (and now mine), Sri Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Yogaville. It was right there on the wall of the dining hall. Still is.
About the Author:
Award-winning journalist Jeff Kamen is the author of Warrior Pups: True Stories of America’s K9 Heroes and co-author with Robert Kupperman of Final Warning: Averting Disaster in the New Age of Terrorism. His New York Daily News Magazine cover story, “Facing the Terrorists,” provided readers with extraordinary access to the NYPD’s storied Bomb Squad. His news reporting and documentaries on national security, law enforcement, race relations, and politics have been featured on radio TV and in print for more than forty years. Kamen has reported for NPR, NBC News, ABC and CBS Radio, CBC and Mutual News. Jeff’s documentary, “Outside the Wire,” for the Air Force won the top prize for Pentagon-produced films in 2005. Watch Kamen’s 1973 documentary, “Yoga for the City,” featuring Sri Swami Satchidananda here.
(NOTE: Yogaville remains closed to the public because of the pandemic. We are so eager to reopen but won’t do it until it’s safe for everyone. Stay posted on this website for updates on re-opening).