We all need teachers in life; not everything can be learned from a book. According to Hindu tradition, there are four main teachers: Mata, Pita, Guru, Deva: Mother, Father, Guru and God. The mother is the baby’s first guru; she is everything to the baby: unconditional love, life-sustaining nourishment, and protection, even at the risk of her own life. When the child reaches a certain age, the father sees to the child’s formal education. When the time is right, he brings the child to the spiritual teacher, who shows the way to God. Along the way, we have many other teachers that guide us on life’s journey. To become a mechanic, a doctor, an accountant or farmer—to learn how to do any job—we need instruction from those who are already skilled in that area. This is even more true when it comes to spiritual realization, which is the most subtle attainment of all.
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, God, as the source of all knowledge, was the first teacher, the Guru of even the most ancient gurus. The Bhagavad Gita reassures us that God sends representatives into the world when the Light has grown dim and humanity is in need of guidance and grace. They come to rouse us from our slumber, set us on the path, and awaken us to our true nature, the divine presence within.
The Guru comes to light the way. In a lineage, the tradition is then passed on in an unbroken line of succession, from guru to disciple, from teacher to student. Through faith, spiritual practice, and service, the spark that we receive grows brighter within us and then gets passed on to others—like one candle lighting another in a beautiful progression. Those with more experience guide and support newcomers, and then they in turn, guide those who come after them. In that way, the torch gets passed from generation to generation.
Integral Yoga: The Beginning
Sri Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda, came to the West in 1966. It was a time when the youth were disillusioned and disheartened, questioning societal values and searching for new direction and meaning. Their sincere seeking attracted an influx of Eastern teachers and Yoga masters. East met West and when the two came together, ignition occurred: powerful forces were set in motion and the New Age Spiritual Movement was born.
Swami Satchidananda traveled the globe and found us in all sorts of places: in cities and suburbs, in communes and mansions, in universities and in business settings; and some who were just drifting with no place to go, nowhere to call home. He attracted people from all walks of life, from diverse backgrounds and faiths, with different temperaments, interests and capacities. The unifying factor amidst all the diversity was his unconditional love for everyone. His love for us was reciprocated by our love for him, and this blossomed into love for one another. That is how the Integral Yoga sangha was born.
He placed before us a vision for a new way of living, devoted to spiritual practice and the wellbeing of others. Sadhana and service supplanted old habits and patterns. It was a blend of the contemplative and active life. Life took on new meaning, filled with greater purpose and commitment. With love as the catalyst, a divine alchemy occurred that transformed our hearts and changed our lives forever. He shared his vision and we made it our own.
Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways to live your life: One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle.” With this new vision, so-called miracles became common occurrences. It was as if the veil between the physical and subtle planes became thinner, more permeable, allowing us to feel more our connection with one another and the embrace of divine grace.
From the very beginning, there was a sense of recognition and closeness. At the conclusion of the first big retreat in California, attended by several hundred people, Gurudev told us that in our past birth, we had lived in India. We had heard about the material advances in the West and were eager to experience them. That desire drew us to take birth here. Having spent the first part of our lives enjoying that, and also seeing the limitations and problems, we were now returning to our former knowledge and pursuits.
I first met him on that retreat and it was as if something deep inside my heart rose from its slumber and woke up. His Light kindled the Light within me. When he spoke and I heard the Raja Yoga teachings for the first time, tears began to flow. This continued whenever he spoke for the duration of the retreat. I felt like I was being given another chance, that something deep inside that had been barren for millenia, was finally being watered again. I had studied science and philosophy in college and graduated with more questions than answers. In those five days of the retreat, all my questions were put to rest and for the first time in my life, my mind became still and knew peace.
Gurudev not only imparted the highest teachings, but he awakened, quickened, the Spirit within us. We not only learned about spiritual life, the miracle was that we practiced it. He presented the teachings in a way that made them accessible, graspable, doable. A new way of seeing, thinking, feeling and living opened before us.
He understood us: our condition, capacity, and culture. Accordingly, the Integral Yoga Institutes (IYIs) were established not simply
as schools where we would learn about Yoga, but as spiritual centers, where we could live and practice it every moment. They were places where we could connect with one another and find support, inspiration, friendship and fun, on the journey toward greater wellbeing and spiritual awakening. I feel that was the defining decision that shaped the Integral Yoga organization.
Shortly after that first retreat, I became a resident of the Berkeley IYI. It was amazing—living with a great group of people and doing Yoga together every day. On occasion, when we wanted to get a treat, we would form a line and do a walking meditation to our favorite ice cream parlor, a mile away. Invariably when we arrived, we would find extra people on the back of the line, who had silently joined us for the fun and meditative experience. Some of those original members of the Berkeley IYI went on to become lifelong friends and are living at the Ashram today.
Integral Yoga: The Expansion
Speaking of himself, Gurudev once made the following comparison: “Just like an expert swordsman can pick up a blade of grass and use it to vanquish his foes, God picked me up, an ordinary fellow, and accomplished wonderful things.” In like manner, Sri Gurudev picked us up and founded the worldwide Integral Yoga organization, a Yoga village (Yogaville), and a unique interfaith shrine (Light Of Truth Universal Shrine).
Looking back, one gets a sense of how quickly everything unfolded. He clearly was sent with a mission to fulfill. He arrived in New York in July 1966. Two months later, the first IYI was founded. Within a few years, branches were opening across the country and around the world. In 1972, the first Ashram was established in northern California; the following year, one was established in Connecticut. They were called Yogaville West and Yogaville East respectively.
In 1973, he initiated students into the Sannyas Order, transplanting an ancient monastic tradition from India to Western soil. In 1980, he founded the Integral Yoga Ministry. In 1979, Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville was established in rural Virginia as the international headquarters of the organization.
The following year, Sri Gurudev performed a puja, mounted a bulldozer, drove onto an open field and began digging. That is how the construction of the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) began. There were no funds on hand to support the project, but Gurudev said, “This is God’s work. If God wants it to happen, all that we need will come.” Little by little, drop by drop, it did. From all over the globe, people came forward to offer their prayers, energy, skills and support. In 1986, almost twenty years to the day after he arrived in the United States, LOTUS was dedicated. Then, in 2014, in commemoration of Sri Gurudev’s 100th birth anniversary, LOTUS India was consecrated at the site of his boyhood home in South India.
Everything we see here and throughout the world in the name of Integral Yoga are expressions of his vision, guidance, teachings, and tireless efforts: our Integral Yoga institutes, Centers and Ashrams; all of our books, manuals, and publications; ground-breaking and unique teacher trainings; Yoga’s impact on healthcare and the natural treatment of illness; our very way of life. His mission was peace: peace for the individual through the six branches of Integral Yoga and peace for the world through his pioneering work in the field of interfaith understanding and harmony.
As all of this outer work was being accomplished, he became an integral part of our lives. He prayed with us and played with us; he celebrated and mourned with us. He brought out capacities we didn’t know we had and helped us to realize our potential in so many ways. And whenever anyone needed him, somehow, he was there—to comfort and guide, to heal and uplift.
So many memories come to mind. One of the ashramites had a bad fall on his bike. Within moments, Gurudev was on the ground at his side, calming and comforting him. Another returned from a difficult appointment at the eye doctor. As she pulled into the parking lot, so did he, and went over to bless and reassure her.
In California, he took us to see a premiere of the movie Gandhi. In Virginia, a new Star Wars movie premiered at the time of my birthday one year. I secretly had a wish to see it with him. No sooner had that wish formed in my heart, than an announcement went out that Gurudev would be taking the whole Ashram to see the film as his guest. We rented the theater for a private showing and I was blessed to sit in the seat next to him as we all enjoyed the movie.
Also in California, he took us on a whale watch. The captain cautioned us not to be disappointed, because the whales didn’t always appear, but as soon as we were out in deep water, we were flanked by mamas and babies that accompanied us for the rest of the cruise. In Virginia, every day after work in the summer, we all headed down to the lake for a swim and he would join us in his paddle boat. Under the hot southern sun, we were refreshed, relaxed, and having fun with our beloved Gurudev.
On the evening of 9/11, Gurudev called a meeting of the entire Yogaville community. He entered Sivananda Hall, and his presence was like a cool breeze flowing into the maelstrom of our anger, distress, and shock. With calm assurance, he quoted ancient scripture, saying “Not even an atom moves without the will of God.” Then, he spoke about karma. He provided a context, a container, in which to hold the unimaginable and restored solid ground beneath us. He steadied all of us through that crisis.
With a word, a touch, or a glance, he was able to remove any obstacle, dispel the deepest sorrow, and restore peace to the most troubled heart. All you had to do was to present your plight before him. He would listen patiently, and when you had said all there was to be said, he would sit quietly for a few moments. Then, you would hear his signature “Hmm”—the precious sound of divine comprehension and dispensation. With that single, “Hmm,” you knew that no matter how tangled or convoluted the problem seemed—it was now under the mantle of his knowledge and grace. You would have his backing, and with that, the strength and courage to face it.
The Light Shines On
At one of his final satsangs, Sri Gurudev gazed at us long and lovingly. He paused reflectively and then said, “I have given you everything. I haven’t held anything back. There is nothing more for me to give you. You have everything you need.” And he gave this assurance: “Remember, you will never be without me; never, never, never! The body may go, but I am always with you. Always!”
“When I leave my body, I will continue to guide you from a higher level. Spiritual help need not depend on the physical body. Most of the teachers became well-known and were able to help most of the disciples after their physical death.”
Many years back, he had told a group of early followers that they were like fertilizer for the real crop he was sent for—that was in generations yet to come.
In retrospect, it became clear that he had spent the months preceding his passing contacting and connecting with people for one last time. Guru Poornima was a beautiful celebration at the Ashram that year. On Sunday afternoon, we blessed the upper sanctuary of LOTUS. Before leaving the shrine, Gurudev made a very slow circumambulation of the All Faiths Hall, pausing a long time before each display, as if trying to memorize and imprint on his consciousness every single detail. As he entered his car, buckets of rose petals were suddenly there, and we gently tossed them onto the vehicle as his physical form faded from our view for the last time.
Several days later, he left the Ashram for Europe to see, bless, and spend time with the European sangha. From there, he went to India. His last official function was on August 13, 2002, when he served as the keynote speaker at a Global Peace Conference near Coimbatore. Six days later, on August 19, 2002, in Chennai, India, he passed from this earthly existence. His body was eighty-seven years old. His Indian devotees were able to offer their final devotions. Then his body was flown back to Virginia for his American devotees to view one last time and entomb according to the ancient sacred rites.
He is no longer physically present in our midst, but the Light of his Spirit and the Light of his teachings are with us always.
In the 1960s, when Gurudev first came to the West, Yoga was considered a fad, something exotic that the youth were exploring. By the 1990s, Yoga had gone mainstream. Yoga studios were popping up everywhere, along with articles, books, and magazines touting its benefits. An industry featuring Yoga clothing, props, and paraphernalia began to flourish. Conferences, cruises, vacations, and retreats had Yoga themes. Last year, the global Yoga industry was valued at $106 billion.
Today, it is the deeper message of Yoga that has become essential. Yoga has gone from fad, to mainstream, to essential. So much depends on more and more people understanding, and ultimately experiencing, that the same Spirit dwells within and unites us all. When we experience that Spirit within us, we will be able to see it in others as well. That vision of unity is the ultimate remedy for restoring peace to our polarized communities, countries and world—fraught with social, political, religious, economic, and cultural strife.
What we are seeing in the world today is an expression of our cumulative collective consciousness. Just as individuals have karma, there is national and global karma as well. Even the forces of Nature have been thrown out of balance today. If we want the nations of the world to release all their mistrust, intolerance, and violence, we can begin by cultivating forgiveness and loving-kindness in our own hearts. We are part of the world and each one of us is contributing to what we see unfolding around us. Our very survival and the healing of our planet seem to be hanging in the balance.
I feel that all that has come before in our lives has prepared us for the colossal challenges facing humanity now. As Integral Yogis, as a worldwide sangha, we can make a difference by prioritizing our spiritual practice. We can devote time every day to meditation and prayer, to finding the peace within and praying for the wellbeing of all creation. Personal practice will translate into global benefit.
We are more powerful than we realize. United, we can make a big difference. Sri Gurudev used to say that when crossing a turbulent river, one person might tumble, but tied together, we can all make it safely across. May we remember with gratitude all that we have been given and with love in our hearts, let us recommit, reconnect, and move forward with renewed hope and courage for the good of all. May God bless our humble efforts and may peace prevail on earth.
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.
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.