August 9, 2011

Transforming Daily Life into Yoga.

Many people in the yoga world talk about taking yoga off the mat, spiritualizing daily life. Eileen Pearkes writes about an autobiography of someone who’s done just that.

Car­ried by a Promise: A Life Transformed by Yoga, Swami Radhananda’s new spir­i­tual mem­oir, begins with her first expo­sure to the Divine Light Invo­ca­tion in spring, 1977. As she stands in a cir­cle in the dark, dingy church base­ment in Leth­bridge, Alberta, she sees stream­ing droplets of light.…shining bits like heaven’s rain. This first scene in her ambi­tious and far-reaching account of spir­i­tual life demon­strates Radhananda’s nat­ural recep­tiv­ity and visual imag­i­na­tion, both of which guide and instruct her through­out her trans­for­ma­tion from Mary Ann McDougall, mother and edu­ca­tor, to Rad­hananda, pres­i­dent of  Yasod­hara Ashram in Koote­nay Bay, B.C.

Yasod­hara Ashram was founded in 1963, by a pio­neer­ing yogini, Swami Radha. Born in Ger­many as Sylvia Hell­man, Radha had already lived through the effects of two world wars and lost two hus­bands to tragic cir­cum­stances before she immi­grated to Canada. A chance expe­ri­ence and a pow­er­ful dream led her to Rishikesh India, where she worked inten­sively with her guru, Swami Sivananda. His instruc­tion to her after her spir­i­tual ini­ti­a­tion – that she take yoga back to the West – resulted in the estab­lish­ment of Yasod­hara Ashram in the remote moun­tains of south­east­ern British Columbia.

Perched on the shores of an expan­sive lake, cra­dled by peace­ful forests, Yasod­hara Ashram is imbued with a love­li­ness that always delights those who visit, though few rec­og­nize how the center’s beauty and bal­ance reflect the tra­di­tion of divine fem­i­nine wor­ship. Oper­at­ing in the lin­eage of the god­dess Saraswati and founded by a woman, the Ashram cul­ti­vates a safe and nur­tur­ing atmos­phere for peo­ple from all spir­i­tual backgrounds.

Until I read Radhananda’s mem­oir, I took for granted the effort and focus required to cre­ate and main­tain a place like Yasod­hara Ashram in today’s world. I knew it was spe­cial, but I wasn’t sure why. My first visit was for a week­end retreat in 1996, only about a year after Radha had died. I was unaware of the period of insta­bil­ity the Ashram faced as its found­ing guru’s pow­er­ful pres­ence dropped away. Vis­it­ing the Ashram sev­eral times over the next decade, writ­ing for Ascent mag­a­zine and even­tu­ally pub­lish­ing a mem­oir with Time­less Books, I con­tin­ued to be largely obliv­i­ous to the chal­lenges and com­plex tasks that Rad­hananda faced as a female spir­i­tual leader.

Read­ing Car­ried by a Promise fixed all of that. The book has renewed my appre­ci­a­tion for what the Ashram does, and for the adept, often unseen skills of the gra­cious woman who guides it. Woven through­out Radhananda’s evo­lu­tion from mother and wife to spir­i­tual leader is the meta­mor­pho­sis of the very Ashram itself. The author’s com­bin­ing of these two nar­ra­tive strands – one per­sonal, one insti­tu­tional — is a great strength of this book.

But there are many oth­ers. Draw­ing on her diaries, Rad­hananda gen­er­ously shares her intu­itive process of trans­for­ma­tion, describ­ing dream expe­ri­ences and sym­bolic mes­sages from the nat­ural world: but­ter­flies, hum­ming­birds, trees and water, among oth­ers. Once, when she visu­al­izes an open white lotus flower float­ing on a gar­den pond, she approaches it and peers inside, where she dis­cov­ers a dia­mond, shim­mer­ing with Light.

A hum­ble atti­tude and will­ing­ness to ask hon­est self-reflective ques­tions are both a part of Radhananda’s approach­able style. She de-mystifies spir­i­tual expe­ri­ences with­out shat­ter­ing their inex­plic­a­ble won­der. There are many rich exam­ples of her humil­ity and clar­ity in this mem­oir, such as when she real­izes that she is grow­ing lighter and more pos­i­tive in all areas of her life but at the same time acknowl­edges that being brighter also means see­ing what she needs to work on.

As Mary Ann McDougall’s spir­i­tual life grows over the years, her work­place con­duct and rela­tion­ships with co-workers are also enriched by Swami Radha, her guru, a woman who believed that yoga’s prin­ci­ples are uni­ver­sal and prac­ti­cal. On the path toward becom­ing Rad­hananda, McDougall describes start­ing a busi­ness, com­plet­ing a Master’s degree and rais­ing her chil­dren. Through­out, she calls on the power of yoga for inspi­ra­tion, strength and guid­ance. Her account of these accom­plish­ments would serve to inspire any woman who jug­gles many roles.

My expe­ri­ence of the Ashram over the years has been like the pat­tern of breath I fol­low in my yoga prac­tice, an inhala­tion of beauty, peace and har­mony, so that I might exhale a new com­pas­sion and gen­tle cer­tainty into the every­day life to which I return. In my gar­den, home, com­mu­nity and yoga prac­tice, I will now carry a deeper under­stand­ing of how the Ashram works, as well as the courage and clar­ity its female spir­i­tual leader has sum­moned to do her work.

We are all lead­ers of our own lives, and the lessons Rad­hananda has shared inspire me — to trust my intu­ition to guide myself with strength where I need to go.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes is  the author of The Glass Seed (2007),  The Geography of Memory (2002), co-author of The Inner Green (2005), and a major contributor to River of Memory (2006). She lives in southeastern British Columbia, where she writes in an old garden shed converted to a studio, amidst an expansive garden of fruits, vegetables, flowers and ponds.

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