The Chinese sage, Chuang-Tzu, once had a dream in which he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he didn’t know for sure if before, he had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or if now, he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Likewise, we are all caught in a dream of our own creation. We don’t see things as they truly are. Now, imagine for a moment what would happen if you were in the middle of a dream, and suddenly someone who is fully awake, an enlightened being, entered it?
Once I had a dream in which I was giving a lecture to a roomful of people. As I was talking, Sri Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda, suddenly entered and sat down directly in front of me. It was one of those special types of dreams; it felt as if he had really dropped in to check on me. The quality of his presence was different from everything else in the dream. As he sat there watching me, with perfect, unwavering attention, I became totally unnerved. I forgot what I was saying. All my mental constructs began to evaporate. That gaze of pure awareness, of perfect knowing, produced profound changes in me. He didn’t have to do anything. He just was there, in the dream, watching.
As I stood there stuttering and stammering, one by one, everyone in the audience began to leave, and I thought, I better do something quick. And then the thought came, “Why not talk about Raja Yoga? I’ve done that so often, I could do it in my sleep.” So I proceeded to give an introductory talk on Raja Yoga, which had the effect of pulling me out of the dream to the waking state. When I awoke, I was still giving the talk.
In a similar manner, Sri Gurudev entered into the life we are dreaming. Among all that we saw and experienced in the world, we could sense a definite difference in the quality of his presence. It may have been indefinable, but it was nonetheless undeniable and irresistible. He entered into our dream like the dawning of a great sun, and by his very presence, darkness was dispelled, and we began to stir from our slumber.
It was in 1966 that Sri Gurudev entered the “dream scene” in the West. At a time when many were exploring altered realities, there he stood rooted in the ultimate Reality. He shined like a beacon and offered a lifeline to all who were struggling, sleep-walking through self-created mazes of delusion.
It was a time when many great Yoga masters were being drawn to the western world, attracted by the awakening aspiration of the youth. Their spiritual Light ignited the flickering flame within the hearts of those young seekers, many of whom dedicated the ensuing years to realizing that same Spirit within themselves. That’s when Yoga began to flourish in the West. It was the first big wave.
During that period, several hundred people would typically attend our Yoga retreats. In California, those early retreats were held at Camp Kennolyn in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I remember one such retreat well. One afternoon, around 3 PM, we had a walking meditation. The leader set out with several hundred people in single file behind him. Several hours passed, and the staff gathered in the dining hall for dinner, only to find it totally empty. This was serious; no one missed meals in those days, so we immediately became concerned.
It was dusk; darkness was quickly descending. We began to compare notes about when we had last seen anyone, when before our startled gaze, the retreatants began trickling in, still silent and in single file. They had been lost in the Santa Cruz Mountains for three hours. They marched in peacefully, just as if everything had transpired according to plan. It was beautiful to behold, and in a way, it conveys the spirit that characterized that first big wave of Yoga in the West.
In recent decades, we have witnessed another big wave: Yoga has gone mainstream. Articles abound touting its benefits. Classes are available everywhere: in studios, gyms, schools, resorts, hospitals, prisons, and businesses. With a tap of the finger, we have access to unlimited classes online. Yoga has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise, featuring retreats, vacations, and all sorts of specialties; offering lines of clothing, accessories, and props.
Along with this tremendous expansion of interest, we have seen the physical departure of the Yoga masters who came to lead the way. Since ancient times the Yoga teachings have been passed from master to disciple in an unbroken chain of succession, and now the torch has been passed to us. A question to consider is: In the midst of the popularity and material success, are we retaining the vision, fervor, and intention that our teachers ignited within us?
A well-known Yoga teacher once visited the Ashram and shared a conversation he had with a group of students. They were complaining of injuries they had suffered from attending Yoga classes that were too strenuous for them, and yet said they were still going to the same classes. When he asked them why they would do that, they replied that they liked the clothes.
Beyond the formidable physical and mental benefits, the teachings and techniques of Yoga have the power to totally transform our lives and enable us to experience the unshakable peace that resides within us as our own true nature. We understand and eventually realize the essential divine Spirit that is within us and pervades the entire creation. We recognize our interconnectedness and that we have a shared destiny. That peace and understanding are the need of the hour—for our own health and happiness, for the wellbeing of the global community, and for the healing of our planet.
The challenge before us is to keep that higher purpose in the forefront. In the year before his Mahasamadhi, Sri Gurudev said it was time for the Yoga community worldwide to go beyond the physical level and explore the deeper teachings of Yoga. In a way, that is what we have been seeing in our teacher trainings, residential programs and retreats. On site and online, in light of the common challenges we have all been facing in recent years, there is a renewed interest and dedication to go deeper in practice and experience all the benefits. As Yoga teachers, it is up to us to gently guide our students to that deeper level and the most effective way to do that is to experience it ourselves.
We need to walk our spiritual path with renewed conviction and commitment, with patience and perseverance, with faith and courage. What is the spiritual path? The path is what happens between intention and fulfillment; it is the gap between effort and realization. The bridge that spans that gap is forged by our practice.
The spiritual path has been likened to a razor’s edge—sharp, straight, and narrow. In the Hindu scriptures, it has been compared to a bridge made of a single hair over a river of fire. In either case, one would need to walk quickly, carefully, and lightly to reach the goal.
Life is fleeting. Time is short. Let us commit to doing all that we can to realize that supreme peace and then share it with others. If we do, the great spiritual teachers who went before us will no doubt shower their blessings, and we will continue to carry the torch of Yoga with the integrity, intention ,and love with which it has been passed through the ages.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.