I Meet My Spiritual Teacher, Swami Kriyananda
by Ram Smith
In the summer of 1977, I visited Ananda World Brotherhood Village for the first time. “What an idyllic environment,” I thought, “that these devotees of Paramhansa Yogananda’s have created to fulfill their guru’s dream of World Brotherhood Colonies, cooperative spiritual communities — ‘Where,’ as Yogananda said, ‘member’s might have job, church, schools, and home in one place.’”
During my initial visit to Ananda, I knew I was guided there for a purpose — to receive the spiritual training under one of Yogananda’s greatest direct-disciples, Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), Ananda’s founder and spiritual director.
“When the disciple is ready, the guru appears.” This maxim became true in my life when I found Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. Within a year of reading this book and studying the Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons, I felt guided inwardly by Yogananda to meet Swami Kriyananda.
My first contact with Swamiji was during a spiritual vision quest at Yosemite National Park. I needed to get away from family and friends in search of greater clarity and spiritual purpose. During this two month stay at Yosemite, a Christian friend gave me a gift of Swami Kriyananda’s yoga book, Yoga Postures for Self-Awareness. I was thrilled to read this book and began doing the yoga posture routines before my daily meditations.
Indicative of his Hatha Yoga system called, Ananda Yoga for Higher Awareness, Kriyananda has stated, “The best posture, is learning how to stand on your own two feet!” This statement epitomizes Kriyananda as a teacher, who always instructs his students in the practicalities of spiritual living.
In the back pages of the his yoga book, I found, to my astonishment, that the author was a disciple of Yogananda and that he had started a spiritual community called, Ananda World Brotherhood Village. Reading this, I realized my vision quest was over!
I visited Ananda within one week. I was hoping to meet the author of this wonderful book, but unfortunately Kriyananda wasn’t there. He was away in India taking a time in seclusion after completing his newly written autobiography, The Path — A Spiritual Autobiography.
Therefore, my first contact with Swami Kriyananda was in an impersonal way — I found him speaking to me, like Yogananda did, through his books, songs, and audio talk tapes. But most directly, I saw him in the people that I met at Ananda — those who he was training spiritually in Paramhansa Yogananda’s name. I recognized many of these people as my spiritual friends from past lives. They radiated a light and joy that I wanted to have.
Jesus advised in The Bible how to determine the qualities of a true spiritual teacher. Christ simply explained, “By their fruits ye shall know them!” Meaning, a true spiritual teacher may be known by his fruits, or those people who follow his teachings.
Also, it could be said that a true teacher is one who radiates divine fruits, or the spiritual qualities of God’s joy, wisdom, power, light, and attributes of loving kindness and service to others. Kriyananda demonstrated himself to me most profoundly through meeting his students.
So, within one week after visiting Ananda, I returned to live there. I became an Apprentice, or postulant in Ananda’s membership program. Now, over twenty-two years have past. In this time, I never doubted for one moment the decision I made. I’ve been through the good times and more recently the so-called bad times at Ananda. I’ve seen people come and people go, but I’ve never wavered in my loyalty to Kriyananda and in his directions for me and others at Ananda. His example of how to deal with the ups and downs of life are second to none. Never stating that he is a Self-realized guru, or in someway infallible, Swami Kriyananda has shown the way of wavering devotion to God, amidst great personal adversity in his life of divine service. To reach the mountaintop, one needs a guide. Swami Kriyananda has followed the lead of his guru in helping others to arrive at the highest peak.
Yogananda advised one male disciple, living at the SRF headquarters at Mt. Washington, “Mix more with Walter (as Yogananda called Kriyananda in those days). You don’t know who you have in him!”
Upon Kriyananda’s return from India in the Fall of 1977, I finally had the chance to meet my spiritual teacher personally. I was living at Ananda’s Apprentice Village, site of its membership program. Swamiji arrived by plane into Sacramento in late October.
My first impression of him as he got off the plane was the peaceful aura that surrounded him. I could see the depth of his spiritual nature. I’ve never seen anyone so completely calm and centered in all my life. My first impression of him was, “This is someone who knows the truth. He is wise, humble, and doesn’t flaunt what he knows.”
As I watched Kriyananda interact with his long-time friends, I understood why Yogananda placed him in charge of the monks at Mt. Washington — he was like another Rajarsi Janakananda, one of Yogananda’s spiritual children, who came to build his guru’s work beyond the confines of Yogananda’s organization.
“Never could there have been such a close contact with the brothers in SRF,” I thought, “as Kriyananda is now demonstrating with these Ananda devotees.” The monks that I knew, from attending the services in Los Angeles, were certainly great souls, but you could never get close to them. The rule was, “You must come in silence and leave in silence.” At Ananda it was different. You could relate with Kriyananda openly and personally. Yogananda had guided me to be trained at the feet of one, with whom he had placed in charge of training, those same brothers, in the SRF monastery. Brother Turiyananda, who I knew at the Lake Shrine, once said privately to a group of Ananda members, “I love Kriyananda. When he was here, there was such joy at Mt. Washington. Laughter rang through the halls. But now, it’s not like that anymore.”
A week or so later I had the opportunity to meet Kriyananda in person. It was after a Sunday service that he had given in the community temple at Ananda Meditation Retreat. Shivani, a very dear friend and co-worker in the garden introduced me to him after lunch. Our first meeting was very casual. We pronamed to each other and spoke briefly. I told him a little about myself and he said to me, “You have good eyes.”
Afterwards, I thought, “What does he mean by good eyes?” I meditated on his comment and later realized that he was looking into my consciousness. Yogananda said, “The eyes are windows to the soul”and you can learn to tell a person’s consciousness by looking into their eyes.
Swamiji must have seen something in me, because shortly after I took Kriya Yoga Initiation from him in December 1977, he ask me to be a part of the Ananda singing group, The Gandarvas. He said that he wanted me to be apart of the group and sing because they were going out with him across the country on a four-month lecture tour to promote his new autobiography,
Amazed at his invitation to sing, I thought, “How could I go out on tour after living at Ananda for only six months?” Since I was working at Master’s Market, the community natural food store, I was set on integrating myself into the community. Somehow, I didn’t think that this would be an opportunity to be trained directly by Kriyananda.
The Songs of Divine Joy that Swamiji had written over the years, based on yoga philosophy, thrilled me to the core. I loved singing the melody lines of his songs on my own, but I thought, “Could I learn the bass parts in time for the trip?” The fear of messing up the group on stage weighed on me. So, I tried to get out of it!
Nervously, I ask Swamiji, “Why do you want me to go? I’ve been at Ananda for only six months. Wouldn’t it be better for a long-time member to take my place with someone who already knows the bass parts to the songs?”
Kriyananda simply replied, “I want to reach out to more Black people. That’s why I’d like for you to come with me.” I countered by saying, “Well, I’ll have to think about that.” I was in shock! I couldn’t think too long though, because there were only two weeks to learn all the bass parts.
Ready or not, I was thrust onto the stage with long time Ananda members: Durga, Kalyani, Shivani, Maitri, and Lakshman. As we embarked on our four month campaign across America, from January to May 1978, only a hand full of African-Americans ever came to our programs. This didn’t bother me though, because I gradually understood that Kriyananda was reaching out to me personally. Ananda’s Joy Tour, was more for my own spiritual training and upliftment. (Although, a childhood friend from south central Los Angeles miraculously ran into me on the streets of Boulder, Colorado during the tour and eventually moved to Ananda Village the following year.)
I reflect, now, this tour is one of my most cherished memories being at Ananda. It was a dream realized for me to see almost every major city in America — New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Denver and more. During one wonderful lunch in Santa Barbara, as guest of Swami Satchidananda of the Integral Yoga Institute, I was given my spiritual name, Ram, in a divinely led encounter between Swami Kriyananda and our host. Outside of Philadelphia, I was blessed to meet Swami Kripaluavananda and his disciple, Amrit Desai, at their newly formed Kripalu Yoga Institute. But the most important and enlightening experience for me on tour was the personal transformation that took place within myself. I had the opportunity to serve along side my Ananda friends and spiritual teacher. It gave me a deep understanding of how Yogananda must have trained his disciple, less by words, and more by his example and vibration.
One example I’d like to share was how Kriyananda worked with me on the music. As I said earlier, the bass parts to his songs were new to me. I was having a hard time with them and many times I’d just fake it, by singing the melody line. Swamiji never said anything. He was never critical. He just quietly encouraged me to practice more. Toward the end of the trip, I finally got it! I began to sing that bass part somewhat perfectly.
I knew it was Swamiji blessing too. At times, I would stand next to him and sing. During those movements, I felt like his spiritual magnetism was recharging my third eye, at the point between the two eyebrows. I felt a great force at that point which brought me great joy. I still feel this when I’m around Swamiji, or mentally tune-in to him at a distance.
After an evening program, people would come up to Swamiji in tears, saying they never heard anyone give such an uplifting talk, or heard such heavenly music. Many lives with changed from attending one seminar. And what did these people experience? They experienced, like myself, Swami Kriyananda’ integrity, perfect honesty, and complete spiritual openness. He told us that the only preparation he did before a talk was to meditate and ask God and Guru to use him as an instrument of Their blessing to all. In some unique way, he would address, somehow, the needs of people in the audience. He touched their souls with divine inspiration.
Once, however, a man came up to Kriyananda after a talk and was very upset. He accused Swamiji of giving a “superficial lecture” on the subject matter. Swamiji very politely listened to the man’s complaint, as he went angrily on for several minutes. Although it appeared that this fellow was not completely rational, Swamiji simply responded, “You are right!” He told that man that he had deliberately shortened his presentation that evening in hope that people would come for a more in-depth discussion during the weekend seminar. Impressed that Kriyananda had responded to his complaint without contempt, the man quietly left the venue satisfied that he had been heard.
I had a real lesson in patience too, years later, while giving a public lecture, in Italian, on Yogananda’s teachings at a yoga school in Florence, Italy. The founder of the school where I spoke was a bite senile and decided to give an on-going commentary of my talk. After each point that I made, he would suddenly interrupt me. Although his students were on the verge of shouting him down, I patiently continued my talk by going with his flow. After all, I thought, “God was somehow playing with me through this man, trying to see if I’d get angry!” Keeping calm and centered as Kriyananda showed me on that nationwide tour, and in other circumstances of angry confrontations by others, it gave me great strength to do the same at this yoga school. Afterwards, the old teacher, his wife, and his students, all, praised my talk as being one of the best they’ve heard. While later going out for a pasta dinner, they marveled at the fact that my patience was unruffled in the midst of such outrageous behavior.
“Whatever comes of itself, let it come,” Yogananda would say. In other words, the situations that test us in life are there for our benefit; they are for our personal transformation — to become instruments of peace as St. Francis wrote in his prayer: “Lord make me a instrument of Thy peace. Where there is doubt, let me sow faith. Where there is sorrow, let me sow Thy joy. Where there is hatred, let me sow Thy love.”
“To those who received Him, to them He gave the power to become the Sons of Gods.” This quote from St. John gives the promise of spiritual attainment to those who are open and receptive to their guru, or spiritual teacher. This is the way of discipleship, or spiritual training. How can we receive Him, if we are not open to His discipline?
During the tour, there were times I wasn’t open to receive what Kriyananda had to say. I was so fatigued from all the traveling. In fact, I remember being so tired at times that I would actually fall asleep during his talks! Night after night, city after city, we went on our nationwide tour, but Kriyananda would get up there and give a better talk than the night before on the same topic, “The Art of Spiritual Living.” Of course we were all tired from the traveling as we prepared for the programs, sold books to stores, cooked the meals for the all day Saturday seminars, or doing this or that around town. I was amazed, however, that Kriyananda and other Ananda members, always had great enthusiasm and vitality. I thought, “How do they do this, and yet, I’m falling asleep during Kriyananda’s talks?”
I remember Swamiji saying to me once, “Ram, you need to energize more!” As I meditated on his words (which I’ve done for years to gain a deeper understanding), I took them to mean, “You need more energy in your life. How do you expect to do those things that God wants of you, like learning those bass parts, if you don’t put out more energy?”
For the first time, I began to understand Yogananda’s principle for the Energization Exercises, “The greater the will the greater the flow of energy!” Swamiji’s example of boundless energy during our nationwide tour give me new insight into the universal law of energy and success.
“The instrument is blessed by what flows through it,” Yogananda said, and in this way, Swami Kriyananda has trained devotees to be instrument of their guru’s teachings. Kriyananda’s example of being a channel of light in presenting our teachings to the world is paramount among Yogananda’s disciples. The some 60 books he has authored, the more than 300 pieces of inspired music he’s composed, and the thousands of people that he’s inspired to seek God’s love, makes him a shining light among the people on this planet.
Recently, I’ve come to understand what the Sanskrit word, Hari , truly means — Stealer of Hearts. When God’s steals the devotee’s heart, He manifests Himself there. A true spiritual teacher is Hari, or one who instills the love of God in his student’s heart. This is how Kriyananda teaches yoga, or union with God, by demonstrating in everything that he does that cultivating God’s love in your heart is all that matter. Even if you slip and fall along the way in searching for that love, Paramhansa Yogananda said, “A saint is a sinner who never gave up.” May we someday all attain to our sainthood as spiritual warriors, sharing God’s love and joy with all!