Summer Reading: Five Great Yoga Memoirs
By Kali Om
While many students of yoga have studied the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, their key concepts can be difficult to grasp and even harder to put into practice. These teachings can come to life in the yoga memoir–especially those written by true yogis who admit to having fears and doubts along the way. I’ve found the following memoirs to be incredibly inspiring–and they all emphasize the importance of having a guru who is Self-realized.
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
The first time I tried to read this 1946 classic, I thought it was BS and flung it across the room. I read it again a few years later (for Sri Dharma Mittra’s teacher training) and thought, “Yes, this is possible.” The third time, I thought, “Of course!” This well-written memoir introduced yoga and meditation to millions of Westerners and engagingly chronicles Yogananda’s search for enlightenment in India. It also further describes his encounters with great figures such as Babaji, Sri Anandamayi Ma, Mohandas Gandhi, and Rabindanath Tagore. Yogananda's relationship with his beloved guru, Sri Yukteswar is also explored, as well as his eventual founding of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Southern California. Yogananda freely discusses aspects of the science of yoga and the guru-disciple relationship; concepts that were once kept secret before he began inviting the Western world into such conversations. But what makes this book even more extraordinary is Yogananda's vivid and transparent honesty about the obstacles he faced along the way.
Radha: Story of a Woman’s Search by Swami Sivananda Radha
This hard-to-put-down memoir is as much a portrait of Swami Sivananda and his Rishikesh ashram as it is about a woman’s spiritual search and her experience on the path. It all begins with dancer Sylvia Hellman and her arduous journey of living through two World wars in Germany in which she loses two of her husbands, thereby leading her to immigrate to Canada in 1951. There, she joins a meditation group and immediately has a vision of Swami Sivananda. In 1955, at the age of 44, she gives up most of her possessions and undertakes a rigorous trip to India to meet the great yogi, who embraces her as his spiritual daughter. She then proceeds to spend six months in the intense study of yoga at his ashram. Time and again, she adopts a Westerner’s sense of skepticism, ruminating on questions (such as why her guru does not look or act the way she expects him to), yet her misgivings are always allayed. Despite her moments of hesitation, it is at the end of her stay that Swami Sivananda initiates Radha (this is her new name post initiation) as one of the first female swamis (against the wishes of many in his organization) and sends her home as a renunciate in a simple orange sari. Sivananda sends her back to the West to spread yoga with that part of the world, with the mission of having her start an ashram in Canada.
Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India by Rampuri
“The real revolution is to transform yourself, not society. If you can succeed, then society will follow. The world is f—-d up, corrupted by capitalist elites, but we cannot hope to win any war on the material plane. Finding the Truth is the only way,” writes Rampuri, the first foreigner to become a Nag Baba–India’s order of naked, dreadlocked sadhus (renunciates) who live a nomadic life, follow Lord Shiva, and smear their bodies with ashes to stay warm. Born in Chicago and raised in Beverly Hills, Rampuri traveled to India in the 1960s at the age of 18. There, he met his guru, Hari Puri Baba, who instantly recognized him. Initiation followed, as did lessons in Hindi, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, and mantra–and being an outsider. Rampuri experiences loads of fear, doubt, prejudice, and suffering along the way to full membership in what he calls the “Hell’s Angels of Indian Spirituality,” and eventually goes on to found his own ashram. Highly recommended for aspirants turned off by Westernized forms of yoga. (An earlier version of Rampuri’s memoir is called Baba: Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Yogi).
The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami by Radhanath Swami
This entertaining chronicle of Richard “Monk” Slavin’s transformation from questioning hippie to serious seeker and international spiritual teacher is full of thrilling brush-with-death stories about his penniless overland journey across Europe and the Middle East to India in 1970. After arriving in India at the age of 19, the Chicago native meets a Who’s Who of yogis, saddhus, and other holy people–including the Dalai Lama, Ananda Mayi Ma, S.N. Goenka, Swami Satchidananda, and Mother Teresa–and becomes a wandering monk who spends long periods of time in meditation. In this modern-day version of Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India , he eventually commits to a guru, International Society for Krishna Consciousness founder Swami Prabhupada, and takes on his gurus' path of Bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion).
My Guru and His Disciple by Christopher Isherwood
This sincere, yet often funny book chronicles British writer Isherwood’s 30-year relationship with his spiritual preceptor, Swami Prabhavananda, who opened the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930. Early on in the book, Isherwood–a great practitioner of satya (truthfulness)-asks his future guru if he can lead a spiritual life while having a sexual relationship with a young man. “You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna,” says Prabhavananda. “From that point on, I began to understand that the Swami did not think in terms of sins, as most Christians do,” writes Isherwood, who became deeply involved in the center and even considered becoming a monk and renouncing name and fame. Isherwood quotes liberally from his diaries, which gives the writing a visceral immediacy. Plus he’s brutally honest about his own prejudices and spiritual stumbling blocks. (Isherwood and Prabhavananda co-wrote How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali and co-translated the Bhagavad-Gita and other texts; Isherwood also penned the excellent 1965 book Ramakrishna and His Disciples).
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