Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prahlad

Mom and I arrived at the church where the lecture on yoga was to be held by a disciple of Swami Yogananda a little early. There were about a dozen others there, mostly women. I was excited to be there. Not really to hear the lecture, but rather to see a real live yogi.

From the time I first read Autobiography of a Yogi, as thrilled as I was by its revelations, its happenings struck me as remote in time and place. Compared to Swami Yogananda, I had already squandered my chance for God realization in this life. At 15, I honestly thought that I was over the hill. Thus, the spiritual life was the stuff of dreams. Sitting at the church that night, however, made me realize the spiritual life could be a reality.

The speaker told us his name was Prahlad. He was long and lean, like a runner, with shoulder length, curly, brown hair. He appeared to be in his mid to late twenties. Prahlad's most prominent features were his eyes. They were warm, liquid brown, which projected a gleam of sincerity that I had only noticed before in Swami Yogananda's picture.

I'm not sure if I realized it right then or only later, but what I saw as Prahlad's spiritual spark -- something I'd characterize as more than simple charisma -- seemed to be irresistible to the women he came in contact with (something akin Kramer's Kavorka).

I don't remember the substance of Prahlad's talk, but his intent was clear: he wanted to start a local hatha yoga and meditation group. At the end of his lecture, he asked those interested if anyone would like to volunteer their home as a meeting place. Mom volunteered.

So, in the fall of 1980 -- shortly after my inexcusable behavior at the Sadie Hawkins dance -- Prahlad began leading a weekly meditation and hatha yoga class at my mom's Saratoga home. I think there were only a half dozen participants other than me and mom, and as I recall I was the only guy. Perhaps for this reason, Prahlad and I bonded from the beginning.

As his physique suggested, Prahlad was a runner and we began meeting in the afternoons before class to jog. During these runs, Prahlad would answer my endless questions about the spiritual life. He told me that he belonged to a spiritual community called Ananda, which at the time was based in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The spiritual leader of Ananda, he said, was Swami Kriyananda, an American-born direct disciple of Swami Yogananda himself. It was Swami Kriyananda who had given Prahlad his Indian name (the significance of which can be found here).

(Though I was oblivious to it at the time, Ananda was an "unauthorized" offshoot of Swami Yogananda's original spiritual organization Self-Realization Fellowship or "SRF." Apparently, there were frictions between the two groups, which eventually erupted into outright litigation.)

During the weeks between classes, I began incorporating elements of a spiritual practice into my daily routine. I pilfered a small coffee table from downstairs at my dad's house and put it into the corner of my bedroom. I covered it with a white pillow case and set up a rudimentary shrine for my daily meditations.

At the time, my meditations consisted of little more than a breathing technique Prahlad had taught our yoga group, followed by ten or 15 minutes of sitting with my eyes shut waiting for something to happen (no visions of the divine for me). I also became a vegetarian, a decision my dad greeted with detached bemusement.

Later that school year -- possibly in the spring of 1981 -- Prahlad invited me to spend the weekend at the Ananda compound in the Sierras. I wanted to go and I don't remember any objection from my parents. I do remember a few things. First, on the long drive up, I asked Prahlad whether Swami Kriyananda -- his teacher -- had realized God. Prahlad answered frankly: "I don't know, but I think he's close." As it turned out, Swami Kriyananda was out of town that weekend and I never met him.

Another lingering memory of mine was the strange -- and to my teen aged taste buds unappetizing -- food. We spent our time going to yoga classes, meditation and chanting sessions, and taking peaceful walks in the woods. Because it was all new to me, I was both bored by and thrilled by the Spartan atmosphere of Ananda.

By the time I returned home, I was convinced for the first time that I hadn't missed my chance to tread the path of Yoga. Perhaps spending that weekend with a bunch of adult seekers gave me the sense of exceptionalism -- of specialness -- that I needed.

Though he'd no doubt reject the idea today, Prahlad was my first guru. In a very special way that perhaps even he didn't understand at the time, Prahlad's friendship -- his ability and willingness to talk to me and treat me as an adult, as a peer -- opened an entirely new vista to me. That new vista simultaneously beckoned me towards the power and beauty represented by Swami Yogananda and the path of Yoga, and away from the sins of my recent past -- away from my emotional dysfunction.

For that, I'm forever grateful to Prahlad.

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