(Photo: Prema Pleva with Swami Asokananda.)

In the 1980s, when the gay community in New York City was under siege, suffering and dying from a vicious plague yet to be named HIV, Prema Pleva was an inspiring force for Integral Yoga in New York as she welcomed and served those suffering most. In 1985, she established what was most likely the first Yoga class for people with HIV and AIDS and taught this class for 30 years before retiring some years ago (Prema is now 91!).

Prema has been an activist in this field as well as a beloved teacher at the New York Integral Yoga Institute (NYIYI), and shining example of selflessness that she provided to the NYIYI community. Prema also happens to be Swami Asokananda’s (NYIYI president and spiritual director) mother!

At a time when no one outside of the gay community in New York was responding to what was then called “the gay man’s disease,” when the colleagues, neighbors, even friends and families of those diagnosed ran in fear, Prema Pleva not only stepped up, she asked the NYIYI to step up with her.

For decades, Prema’s HIV+ Hatha classes were a place of solace, of community, acceptance and hope for those who had been handed a death notice. Because Prema loved and mothered men who had been abandoned by their own families, she was often called “Mother” by the community-at-large. As research revealed the possibility of survival, and the importance of overall health in living with HIV, her classes were no less important.

On June 6, 2021 a special celebration was held, during which Prema received the New York Integral Yoga Institute’s first “Lifetime of Service” award. Prema was honored not only for her life dedicated to service and the embodiment of the Integral Yoga teachings, but because she lifted up the entire NYIYI sangha and inspired them to do the right thing, even when it wasn’t easy.

(Photo: A screenshot captured during a PBS documentary on AIDS activism, Prema is seen wearing chains in a protest during a demonstration in New York City, circa 1980s.)

The program included testimonials about lives changed because of her selfless service and celebrated the shining example she provided to the Integral Yoga as a community. Those gathered virtually, remembered those lost, who, in their last days knew the kindness of a mother’s heart, solely thanks to Prema. Prema is a beautiful example of selflessness, stamina, consistency. As one sangha member remarked, “She inspired us to live the teaching of our teacher and founder, Swami Satchidananda: ‘What’s the use of doing anything that’s too easy? Anybody can do it. The glory comes only when you do something others can’t easily do.’”

Swami Satchidananda defined the goal of Integral Yoga as a path to “An easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.” Part of the reason the NYIYI adopted a business model of Karma Yoga teachers—offering their service without financial gain—is that this not only sets a beautiful energy and vibration in the classroom, but is also an opportunity for those teachers to practice seva, or selfless service.

The Lifetime of Service Award was established to begin a tradition of celebrating those in our community whose service spans their lifetime, makes a difference in the lives of so many others, and serves as an example and inspiration for all.