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Where Westerners teach yoga and meditation – to Indians

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

Gurgaon : A small group of Westerners has been quietly teaching ancient meditation and yoga techniques here for years, earning the admiration of their steadily increasing Indian students.

In the eight years since 2003, when they stepped into Gurgaon, bordering Delhi, the dominantly American disciples of the late Paramhansa Yogananda have made a mark with their devotion to ‘Sanatan Dharma’.

Over the years, more and more Indians have become full time activists of Ananda Sangha, reducing the number of Westerners. But the expatriates are still there – with no desire to be in the media spotlight.

“What we are trying is to make relevant and practical the ancient traditions of India in the search for god,” said John Helin, a tall well-built American known as Nayaswami Jaya Helin.

“We are engaged in spreading Sanatan Dharma using the writings and teachings of Yogananda,” Helin, 65, told IANS.

The Bengal-born Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” is considered a gem in spiritual literature. It has sold millions since its publication in 1946.

It is in that classic that Yogananda revealed how the long lost Kriya Yoga was rediscovered in 1861 — and has since been embraced by those searching for salvation. Kriya Yoga places emphasis on spiritual growth through Kriya Kundalini Pranayama, combining deep breathing and meditation.

Yogananada, who died in the US in 1952, also wrote and lectured extensively on god and spirituality, encompassing virtually every aspect of life and death.

“These are universal principles, whatever the religion,” Helin added. “After all ‘moksha’ is for everyone! Sanatan Dharma transcends religion.”

It was Ananda head Swami Kriyananda, an 85-year-old American and one of the few surviving disciples of Yogananda, who introduced Helin to spirituality some 40 years ago. Kriyananda will visit India next month.

Canadian Michael Taylor, like Helin, explains how surprised many Indians are to see Westerners like him.

“When they realise how practical our approach is, and not simply theoretical or philosophical, they are very pleased and receptive,” he said. “Indians have been most gracious, responsive and welcoming.”

His wife and fellow teacher Diana, now known as Daya, added that she was only doing “God’s will”.

“Our focus is more on quality than on quantity,” she explained. “Krishna said that out of a thousand seekers only one finds him. Not many have the very, very good karma it takes to be on a serious spiritual path.”

Yet, thousands have benefited from these teachers at Ananda, which has slowly expanded to New Delhi, Noida, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Pune.

Indians who come to the Ananda centre are mostly from the middle class. They include housewives, students, corporate executives, doctors, teachers, artists and a range of other professionals.

Besides yoga and meditation, Ananda lays emphasis on group prayers, spiritual healing techniques, readings of the Gita, energisation exercises and devotional songs.

All the Westerners admit that the early years were a real challenge, when they had no local support and when almost every task involving authorities appeared a Himalayan task.

Since then, a few Indians who came to learn have ended up becoming teachers themselves.

“When I first came, I found it strange that I was learning all this from an African American woman,” said Ashis Chakravarty, referring to Dhyanaji. “It was a novelty. I loved it.”

The 39-year-old geo-physicist, who last year quit a multinational to join Ananda Sangha, explained what attracted him most.

“Their (Western teachers’) energy level fascinates me. They are always positive. And they have nothing bad to say about any religion or religious masters.”

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])