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YOGALife - Spring 1996
Table of Contents Om
 ·  Memories of Swami Vishnu-devananda:
- A Different Kind of Swami
- The Spirit of Renunciation
- Cherished Memories
 ·  The Yogi: Portraits of Swami Vishnu-devananda
 ·  Swami Vishnu-devananda speaks: Questions and Answers
 ·  Ekadashi
 ·  How to Get Vairagya
 ·  Brahmacharya
 ·  Sex is not compulsory

A Different Kind of Swami

I first came to the ashram many years ago, in the summer of 1966. I'd just come from India, and my brother-in-law thought, since I must be homesick for India, they would take me to this Yoga Camp and introduce me to an Indian Swami, so I'd feel at home. When he suggested it to me, my first reaction was, 'Oh, no. Not another Swami! I've seen enough of them in India. I thought I'd like to go and see Montreal instead.'

But my brother-in-law said, 'Oh, no, Jaya. He's a different kind of Swami. I've never met a Swami like this. And you'll like him!'

I didn't want to fight, so I let them take me. In my mind, my image of a swami was of someone with a long beard, a venerable-looking person with a sage-like appearance, with beads round his neck and so on.

When we arrived here that summer afternoon, I was looking all around for a Swami. My sister asked her husband, 'Do you see the Swami?' And he said, 'Yes, There he is.' I started looking everywhere. And I saw my brother-in-law looking up at the sky. And right on top of a tree was this very agile looking person, wearing khaki shorts and a white shirt. And he was hacking away at one of the branches of the tree.

I asked, 'You mean that person, there, in the tree? You call THAT a Swami?' Is he really a Swami? You're kidding!'

He said, 'Yes. He's a Swami. I told you he's a different kind of a Swami.' I got out of the car and I looked up. And then my brother-in-law shouted, 'Swamiji, Swamiji, my sister-in-law from India has arrived and I've brought her here.'

And then he walked under the tree, and Swamiji looked down at us and asked, 'What's your name?'
I answered, 'My name is Jaya.'

After that, he said no more preliminaries. He called someone and told them to go and get some things to cut the bushes. 'We'll get them to do some karma yoga,' he said.

He knew my brother-in-law. So he said, 'Vasant, you'll have to help us out. We have to clear all these bushes. You take charge of these men. And we'll put the ladies to work, too. I need shramadan.'
'Shrama' in India means 'labour'. 'Dan' means 'donation of'.

I asked, 'Is he really a Swami? How come he's wearing short pants and all?'
Then my brother-in-law laughed and said, 'He's more than a Swami. He's not like the ones you've seen in India. And he's very good.'

So, he just asked me my name, and he started putting me to work. I took an instant dislike to him.

Swamiji used to put everybody through their paces. And then, all those bending and twisting exercises - my dad used to do it. I always avoided it at home, so, I didn't want to come and do those exercises, here. I saw Swamiji taking some people through the Sun Salutation - the first thing he taught - and pranayama.

And when Swamiji notice me breathing, he said, 'You know something? You don't even breathe right. I don't know how you are alive.' I just looked at him and kept quiet. I never used to answer him back. Whatever complaints I had, I made to my brother-in-law. I said, 'How come he says this?" My brother-in-law replied, 'Maybe you don't breathe properly.' Then Swamiji explained, 'Have you ever seen a baby sleeping? Go and watch a baby when it is sleeping and see now it breathes. It doesn't breathe from high up.'

And he tried to teach me. And, when he came to teach me, I got so nervous and frightened, I did everything wrong. Finally, he got fed up and told Rabbi Gelberman, 'Take her and teach her how to breathe.' But I didn't want him to touch me. You know, I'd just come from India. I said, 'Swamiji, I think I'd prefer a lady to teach me.' Then Swamiji called Swami Ramananda and she taught me. So, I crossed that hurdle.

Then there were the sun salutations! He used to do it so fast, I used to get so tired and exhausted. He didn't stop at five or six rounds. We did twenty/twenty-five sometimes. And he kept on going, no matter what. And I was so afraid, I didn't want to come to the Yoga Camp. My sister would come with the kids. Swamiji would always say, 'Where is Jaya? I would make myself scarce. I would either be in the kitchen, or somewhere else. Then when Swamiji finally saw me, he would say, 'Where were you? We were doing asanas. Why didn't you come?'

In the mornings, he used to say, 'I want everybody out here for asanas.' I used to find some way of disappearing because he was so strict with the asanas. Whenever he asked me about the Teachers' Training, because I knew it involved asanas, I didn't want to do it. I'm game for any studying, but anything to do with exercising my physical body, I didn't want. Especially with Swamiji! I didn't mind anybody else. And Swamiji knew. He used to smile and say, 'Oh, well.'
Once, I remember him saying to me, 'Can you not bend?' when he was showing somebody else something. I think he had eyes in the back of his head!
I said, 'Swamiji, I can't bend very low.' He said, 'I will see that every bone in your body will bend when I'm through with you!' And I really used to get scared. Swamiji was very short with words. They came out in full force, and I used to take him literally. But he was all kindness. Afterwards, I began to realise, he talked that way, but he was all love and kindness.

One day, Swamiji said, 'I'm going to fly to Nassau. Does anybody want to come with me?'
I said, 'In your plane, Swamiji? OK, I'll come.'
So, we left on 5 January - on a cold, icy wintry day, from Timmins airport. I was carrying a small suitcase in my hand, and the whole field was frozen over, and we had to walk to the plane.

And then we got to the plane, it was very very cold. I thought he was going to put on the heater. But he never told us that the plane didn't have any heating. It was a Piper Apache - single engine.

So we got in and settled ourselves. I was going to sit at the back. We were going to pick up Hubert at New York. So, I said, 'Swamiji, what about the heating?'
He said, 'Are you cold? Start chanting "Jaya Ganesha, Jaya Ganesha." And he was singing, and then we took off.
When we reached Nassau, Swamiji said, 'Look. You are going to stay here for two weeks, okay? Please don't tell me in the middle that you want to go back.'

But, after the third or fourth day, I was feeling restless. Something kept bothering me. You know those panic attacks you get. I couldn't place what it was. And I thought if I go to tell Swamiji I want to go, he would really blow up. I didn't know how to approach him.

That night, I could not sleep. I was awake until 3 or 4 o'clock. I knew Swamiji was meditating. At 4 o'clock, he would get up. In the Bahamas, on full moon nights, the waves would be like the height of 3 or 4 men. But on that night, the sea had receeded, and Swamiji had gone out about half a kilometre. There, you know, you hear the ocean night and day. Even if it is far away, you can hear the sound of the waves.

When I went out, in the dark, I could see Swamiji sitting and facing east. It seemed that I could see a lot of people walking around him. I had to go. I don't know why, as though something was pushing me. As I came nearer, I was shocked. There were all those stray dogs - all sitting around him. I started walking back. In those days, I used to wear a sari. As I started walking backwards. I fell in the sand. And all the dogs were just sitting like that, and Swamiji didn't know they were sitting there. It was uncanny. Then Swamiji turned around. And, you know, Swamiji always used to warn us in lectures - if somebody is in meditation, never never never disturb them with a sudden jerk. Even my parents had told me that when somebody is in meditation, you must never make them rise.

Swamiji looked at all the dogs. Some of them went a little further off. Then Swamiji said, 'What is it Jaya?' as he turned around.
And I said, 'Swamiji, I think I want to go back to Montreal.'
He didn't say anything. He didn't shout. He said, 'Ask the office to buy your ticket and you can leave,' - he said very kindly. I was so shocked and surprised at his kindness.

Anyway, I went and bought the ticket and all that. It wasn't to Montreal direct, but via Miami. So I got off at Miami as my sister was there; I thought I'd surprise them. When I called them, it was morning. My brother-in-law picked up the phone, 'Jaya, where have you been? My God, we been trying you in Montreal. Your sister is very sick. She is in the hospital. And she's been looking for you and she's been asking for you all the time.'

She had an operation on her backbone and it was quite a serious operation. It was successful. And, she was supposed to be coming around, but then she was deteriorating. And, the thing is, she thought that something had happened to me. And nobody could explain, because they called Montreal and my roomate - because she couldn't get on Swamiji's flight - she was a little angry. When they called, she said, 'I don't know where Jaya is.'

My sister had kept asking for me, and she thought that I was dead or something. And then when she saw me through the delirium, she grabbed me, and you should have seen her recover!

Later I asked Swamiji, 'Did you know?'
'Yes. I knew,' Swamiji said.

All this was Swamiji's greatness. He had a boundless love for people. Even when he scolded, it was because he was fond of them. And always, when he blew up, the next minute he would be all love again.

- Jaya Berkowitz, Montreal, Canada


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