An Interview with Rama Jyoti Vernon

If Mataji Indra Devi can be called the first lady of Yoga, Rama Jyoti Vernon can be called the keeper of the flame of Yoga. She was instrumental in hosting some of the first Yoga masters to come to the West, she began the first Yoga teacher training programs and laid the foundation for the first BKS Iyengar Association in the West. She brought Yoga to Russia (then Soviet Union) and Afghanistan; she spearheaded citizen diplomacy projects between various countries and she brought Yoga teachers of every tradition together under the umbrella of “Unity in Yoga,” which became the Yoga Alliance. In this interview, she talks about her incredible Yoga journey and her vision for the next 40 years of Yoga.

Integral Yoga Magazine: How did your Yoga journey begin?

Rama Jyoti Vernon: It began through my mother, who was  a great teacher for me. She was initiated by Kirpal Singh, and my siblings and I received initiation and blessings, too. I feel my mother directed me and set the course for me from the time I was three, when I asked her why I was only able to know me in my body. I asked her why I couldn’t know what it was like to be everyone. She said, “If you knew what it was like to be everyone, then you would know God.” So, I started searching for God very early in life. I wanted to know what it was like to be everyone and everything.

As a teen in the mid-1950s, I had insomnia and my mind was scattered. I lost my inner peace. My mother took me to see a Sikh master, Dr. Bhagad Singh Thind. He gave a class for people recovering from heart attacks, strokes or who were in wheelchairs. It was a class on pranayama, and I loved it and felt more at peace. One day he started to demonstrate alternate nostril breathing. As he brought his hand up to his nose, an intentional movement, his hand passed through the air as if he didn’t disturb a molecule of air. I felt a rush of peace pass through my body. By the time he got his hand to his nostril, I said to myself: “I want that.” I think consciously or unconsciously, all of us are seeking inner peace.

I had meditation as a child, pranayama as a teen and when I was about 22 I discovered asana. For me, that was a missing link. It put together the breathing and meditation and I began to rebuild my body. My nervous system and emotional threshold got stronger. Beyond the physical level, whenever I practiced Hatha Yoga, I felt I was starting to penetrate inter-dimensional depths where I was in communion with God. Knowledge would spring forth. I would hear the mantras associated with different asanas. I didn’t learn any of this but just discovered things spontaneously.

IYM: When did you begin to teach?

RJV: Several years later, my husband received a call from a recreation center asking if I would teach a Yoga class. He told them he was sure I would and, when he told me, I said, “I can’t teach. I’ve only been studying and practicing for 15 years. Teaching Yoga is a calling.” He exclaimed, “Well, they did call…on the telephone!” [Laughs] I was scared to death. I thought, oh dear, I can teach any subject—which I had before—but somehow I felt there was a responsibility in teaching Yoga that was different. My first class was for teens, ages 13 to 17. If you can do that, you can do anything. After that, the recreation center asked for an adult class and 40 people signed up. That’s how it evolved. I remember that back then, few really knew what Yoga was. When people asked what I did, I would say, “I teach Yoga.” And they would comment, “I love Yoga, it’s so good with fruit.” Yes, that is when people thought Yoga was yogurt! We’ve come a long way. I dreamed of the day Yoga would become a household word and would be respected, and we’re living that now.

IYM: You were instrumental in hosting many of the first Yoga Masters. How did that come about?

RJV: If I was going to teach, I felt I should have more formal training so someone mentioned the California Institute for Asian Studies (now the California Institute for Integral Studies—CIIS)  in San Francisco. I went there and began a private study of the Integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, with CIIS founder Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri. I studied Sanskrit and was like a kid in the candy shop. Dr. Chaudhuri asked me to be the MC for their programs and to help host the teachers coming from the East in the 1960s. I helped set up programs for Ma Yoga Shakti, Bikram, Swami Muktananda, Sant Keshavadas (Santji) and others. I went to Santji’s class on the Gita when I didn’t even know what that was. As I listened to him chanting and to the words of Krishna, I went into an altered state. Santji explained that the tears that stream from the outer corners of the eye are of joy and the tears from the inner corners are from sorrow. I had tears streaming from everywhere. I felt like a child cast out of the garden where oneness existed. I shed the tears of a lifetime—it was the longing for God, to know the oneness once more. Through Santji, I experienced true bhakti. Before that, I said I wouldn’t bow before anyone or anything. After that, I was bowing to insects, my children, my husband—my neighbors would complain about this person hugging the trees in their backyard at 2 o’clock in the morning! Santji and his family moved into our home and lived with my family for two years.

I hosted Swami Vishnu-devananda in my home and most of Swami Sivananda’s direct disciples, who came to the West. CIIS was near the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco. I was there when the IYI began. I went to see the programs and saw a photo of Gurudev, and I felt I must meet him—so Santji introduced us. In some ways, it was like  being friends with all the Masters. We’d travel together, go to programs together. I felt, they were the great beings I had always longed for since childhood. They had the great wisdom I wanted to imbibe. My heart was so open. and I opened my home to them all. My home was a neutral ground where the devotees of the different teachers on different paths could meet, and it was okay. About that time, the “Meeting of the Ways” programs were growing and, some years later, I developed Unity in Yoga, which brought teachers together from different methodologies to share, experience and appreciate each other. “Truth is one and many are the ways,” became my motto.

IYM: How did your association with Sri BKS Iyengar begin?…

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.