Decorations for Swami Satchidananda’s Birthday at the San Francisco IYI, 1970s.

For thirty-two years, I had the great good fortune to sit at the feet of Sri Swami Satchidananda (Gurudev). There were happy times and sad times, countless comings and goings, many ups and downs, but through it all, he remained the same: peaceful, patient, balanced, loving. He was always ready to forgive and forget; ever there to comfort and guide.

When I think back on those days, I feel that there are no words big enough, deep enough, strong enough or sweet enough to really describe those times. But I will do my best to describe a little of what it was like to be with him, to learn from him, to be trained by him, to and to grow under his guidance. I remember at one point he said: “I gave you the name ‘Karunananda,’ which means bliss of mercy.” And he said: “I’m going to have to watch you now, all the time, every moment, to see if you are merciful.”

Knowing that he was watching helped me to develop my own inner witness, observing my thoughts, feelings, words and deeds as I moved through all sorts of interactions and situations. It opened up an inner space where I could pause and reflect before acting or reacting.

During the 1970s, I was serving as treasurer at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute (IYI) and Swami Hamsananda (Sister Hamsa, at that time) was serving as executive secretary. We shared an office and often chatted as we worked. One day I turned to her and said: “Hamsa, I really need a push now to expand my capacity to serve.” Almost immediately, the phone rang and it was Gurudev, calling from Connecticut. He rarely called us in San Francisco. Hamsa answered the phone and Gurudev said: “I want to make a change. Let Sister Parvati (my name at the time) be the executive director. And Hamsa, I want you to work full-time transcribing my talks.”

It was like he was sitting in the room with us. He heard my sincere aspiration to grow and immediately opened a pathway so that could happen. And the transcriptions that Hamsanandaji proceeded to do for many years became invaluable for our learning, research, and for the production of books.

One year, Gurudev visited us in San Francisco during his birthday. We had a beautiful puja in the morning at the IYI. That evening, we had an unforgettable program at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. We had been searching for venues all over the city. I would always inquire as to the capacity. When I called the Scottish Rite Auditorium, they said that the capacity was 770 people. I immediately replied: “I’ll come right down and sign the contract.” I knew that it was the right place, because the address of the IYI was 770 Dolores Street. It seemed like some sort of divine synchronicity. We went on to use that venue numerous times in the coming years.

Photo: LOTUS Fundraising Dinner at Gaylord’s, mid-1980s.

The evening culminated in a magnificent and inspiring slide show celebrating Gurudev’s life and Integral Yoga. At the end of this slide show, the whole audience jumped to their feet in a standing ovation. It was around 11 pm when we left the auditorium. We had arranged to go for an Indian dinner at Gaylord’s restaurant in San Francisco after the program for a LOTUS fundraising dinner. Many people had signed up and traveled from all over California to attend.

After dinner, the guests came up to greet and visit with Gurudev. This went on until about 2 am. Then, we left the restaurant and entered the elevator to go down to the main level. Gurudev went in and started beckoning specific people to join him. At this point, I noticed a little sign that stated “Twelve people maximum occupancy.”

Soon, there were over two dozen people in the elevator. And then Gurudev invited a few more in, including me. We were shoulder to shoulder when he pushed the button. The door closed, the elevator started moving, and then, with a lurch, it stopped between floors. My first thought was: “Oh, no, there are too many people. It’s 2 am on a Saturday night, who is going to be available to help us?” Those who hadn’t gotten into the elevator started making calls all over the city. Some people stayed on the floor above us, others went to the floor below. They all started praying and chanting, because we didn’t know if, all of a sudden, the elevator might drop and crash down.

It began getting very hot and stuffy in the elevator. My logical conclusion was that we should all be as still as possible to conserve oxygen. As if in response to my thought, Gurudev immediately said: “Let’s all start chanting Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama.” So not only would we be using up a lot of oxygen on the physical level, but on a subtle level, we would also be increasing the heat by chanting a fire mantra.

People started acting out in different ways. Some were just trying to stay cool on all levels; others began to panic. People would jump up every few minutes and try pushing buttons. One person got on someone’s shoulders and tried to crawl out the top of the compartment. I trusted that Gurudev knew what was happening. At the same time, my mind was wondering: What’s going on here and how is this finally going to play out?

After about forty-five minutes, Gurudev leaned forward, pushed a button, and the elevator started. We found ourselves at ground level and everyone dispersed. I happened to be in the car with him as we were returning to the IYI. We asked him to please explain what had occurred. He said, “God wanted to make a test. When all the information was in, there was no need for the test to continue. So, the elevator easily started up again.” It was a good lesson and provided a way to understand challenges that could arise in life.

Photo: Karma Yoga gardening day in Santa Barbara with Gurudev, 1970s.

One time, I had the opportunity to watch Gurudev prune a bougainvillea plant at his residence in Santa Barbara. Bougainvillea plants are very beautiful and colorful. Gurudev took some garden shears and started chopping and pruning away. When he was done, all that was left was a small stump. I wondered what would become of this ugly little stump? It grew back quickly into an even more beautiful bush. This was the occasion of another good lesson. Sometimes losses in life can make room for something more beautiful to manifest. For gold to shine, the dross has to first be removed.

Another time, a Swami who was the head of an ashram in Hawaii, came to visit Gurudev and the Santa Barbara ashram. The main house at the ashram had originally been a pony express stop. We gathered in the small living room to enjoy the darshan of the two Yoga masters. At one point, the Swami looked around the room, tenderly gazing at each one of us. He then turned to Gurudev and said: “Swamiji, I can tell that these people are your disciples. They all have your eyes.” I thought it was the most beautiful compliment a disciple could ever receive.

Another revered Swami once visited the ashram in Virginia. He spent a week, getting to know us and participating in the ashram life. At his final satsang, he shared his experience with us. He said he had visited many ashrams and had never seen what he observed here. What struck him most was the love that united us all — the love of Gurudev for all of us, and of us for him and for one another. He described how special and unique that was.

After Gurudev’s passing, I visited the homes of many students and disciples of his. Everywhere I went, I saw photos of Gurudev at family weddings, graduations, dance recitals, baby blessings, and other meaningful events. He didn’t simply sit on a stage and deliver lectures. He drove a bulldozer, involved himself in every aspect of the building of LOTUS, oversaw the development of a school for the children, created a Fine Arts Society, was the master planner for Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, established an international Yoga organization, trained us how to teach all aspects of Yoga, and so much more. He participated in our lives, in our joys and sorrows. He worked with us and played with us. He celebrated and mourned with us. His very presence uplifted and transformed us.

On this auspicious occasion of his 108th birth anniversary, I offer my profound gratitude for his blessings and grace in my life and in the lives of the many thousands of souls who have experienced comfort, inspiration, guidance and healing from his presence and teachings. Jai Gurudev! Jai Integral Yoga! Peace, peace, peace be unto all.

About the Author:

Photo: Swami Karunananda with Sri Gurudev, Santa Barbara, 1980s.

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.

Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia. Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, “With One Voice.” She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.