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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