the beginning

starting an ashram in North America

When I first met my guru, Swami Sivananda, it was as if we had left each other yesterday and were meeting again today. I wasn't nervous or excited. Gurudev said that we had lived and worked together before. We had a wonderful relationship and the ashram was in a high atmosphere when I was there. Everyone asked, "What do you do to Swami Sivananda?"

I wasn't aware of doing anything except taking him seriously. Whatever practices he gave me, I tried out as I was instructed. When I got the results, my confidence grew and I knew there was something to yoga. I only objected once, when he asked me to recite a mantra a thousand times a day. I said "Mechanical repetition – what good can that do?"

And he looked at me, almost shooting a sense of intelligence like arrows from his eyes, and responded, "I didn't say mechanical. Be there every split second."

Sivananda did not make himself easily accessible. If he asked you to do something and you didn't do it, that was it – you would move to the periphery. If you were close to him, you had to produce, you had to work. Once a year, he would send a list asking what you wanted to accomplish that year. Everyone had to answer. I was sent the list even before I went to India. And in his very first letter to me, he told me not to come until I could sit motionless for five hours.

Many of the other swamis resented me because I was a woman. Some never talked to me. Very few accepted me. When I was initiated, an American lawyer asked Sivananda why he had done it because nobody would listen to a woman. Gurudev replied that he knew very few people would listen; therefore the disciples I would attract would be of a different quality. I am sometimes asked, "How many are living at your ashram?" "Twenty."

A few years later, "Now how many do you have?" And they are silent when I say, "Twenty." But I'm not in business, so I have no ambition for quantities of people.

When Gurudev asked me to return to Canada and start an ashram, I didn't feel prepared; I hadn't studied the scriptures thoroughly. He waved away my worries, saying, "It's not important. 'Radha' means Cosmic Love. Be a spiritual mother to all. The mother already has the milk before the baby is born. She can provide for her child's needs." So that was my guiding light.

When I landed in Montreal, there was no one to meet me at the airport, I had only twenty-five cents in my pocket, and Gurudev had asked me to live on faith. The whole time was quite dramatic, but I had a strong inner conviction that I had to follow Gurudev's instructions, no matter how difficult. And as a woman the difficulties were enormous, not just from men rejecting me but from women, too. It was a real eye-opener.

Because I had no experience in starting an ashram, the only thing I could do is what any young mother would do – follow the example of her mother. I had seen Sivananda distributing pullovers and blankets to all his disciples, taking care of them personally. So I tried to provide the means for all who came. We also kept to the schedule of the Indian ashram – up for Hatha and meditation at 4 a.m., and going to bed after satsang at 11 p.m. The difference was that the young men living with me were working full-time on construction jobs. One day, one of them drove into the garage but didn't show up inside. I went out to see what was happening and found him asleep at the steering wheel. I realized, no, I can't do it the same way as Gurudev did. Our whole way of life in North America is different. It took about ten years to really come into my own.

I also realized that not everybody can become a realized person. If North America has 200 music conservatories, all with excellent programs, no school can promise a musical genius. Most students will still only become average musicians. Realizing this, I said I can teach all who want to improve their awareness. I can't teach you to love everybody, but I can teach you to become more considerate and compassionate, to be less critical, and to build character by being straightforward and dependable. Let's start there. If there is anyone I can take a little further, I'd be delighted.

Character building is the foundation for change. I start by asking the question, "What is the purpose of your life?" And I ask each person what he or she means by words like "mind," "consciousness," "love." In the workshops, I ask that you be honest. If you admit that you can be quite ordinary and that you have done things you would never do again, and if you now focus on the Light, you don't need to go through an elaborate procedure.

I've encouraged women by letting them know I have confidence in them, even if they don't have it in themselves. Psychologically, it gives a boost: "If she really thinks I can do it, maybe I can." I went through the same process. When Sivananda said I should give lectures, I said, "No, Gurudev, you don't know me. I can't even talk to three people in my living room, never mind speak to crowds of strangers."

But when you make yourself what I call "Krishna's flute," without any ego coming in, the old fears no longer matter. You cannot demand that the melody will always be to your liking, though. Gurudev had once said to me, "Oh, you want to be Sunny Boy! You want to say only what is nice. You don't want to give the truthful message that will bring change. Not useful! Not useful!"

Once you know you are the messenger, you have to accept the unpleasant, the critical and the "something that corrects mistakes in others," as well as the joyful, pleasant and happy. If you think, "I can't say that because people won't like me," what can the Divine do with someone who wants to be liked? When you complete your surrender, things begin to change.

I found that if I kept the thought uppermost in my mind that I was not working for the people or for the ashram, that I was working as my personal service for the Divine, then grace would come in. And the practices of yoga gradually awakened my own knowledge from the past.
A pioneer in bringing yoga to the West, Swami Sivananda Radha is the author of 10 classic books on yoga, including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language. Her teachings focus on developing awareness and quality in life.

  read more of swami radha's past columns

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