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How a Catholic Kid in Kentucky Became a San Francisco Swami

My Faith Journey

by Swami Ramananda

Looking back now, I guess my life is another testimony to “Ask and ye shall receive.” I was serious about religion as a child and, in one way or another, was always trying to find the truth and do the right thing. It was questioning and seeking that gradually led me step by step to become a sannyasi, or monk, in the tradition of Yoga.

I grew up as a Catholic in Kentucky in the 50s and 60s, which exposed me to a rather narrow spectrum of spiritual paths. I did well in school and was crazy about baseball, though I was completely inept at it. In our religious studies and in church, I aspired to be holy. I learned the Latin prayers and became an altar boy, helping the priests at mass.

I purposely befriended the unpopular kids on the lunchtime playground in an effort to practice the words of Jesus. I also remember thinking that those who lived when Jesus was alive had an unfair advantage over the rest of us, since they could be inspired by him in person.

In high school, I gradually lost faith in Christianity altogether. The teachings felt like meaningless platitudes that we had to accept purely on faith, without any personal experience. I had no vision to compel me in choosing a university and ended up in a small liberal arts college, where I initially became more interested in getting high than going to heaven.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Without consciously planning it, I gravitated to the one place where I felt like I was getting closer to ultimate truths — literature. I read all the “beat” poets who gave voice to the dissatisfaction of my generation with the American dream and the cookie-cutter life it represented to us. The most valuable thing I found was the writing of Thomas Merton, who, as a Catholic monk, found in the depths of his faith a connection to the Eastern spiritual traditions.

On the Road

After two years in college and inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I dropped out and hitch-hiked my way around the U.S, looking for new experiences. I visited a cousin in Oregon, who took me to a Buddhist center where I first learned to meditate. I found work as a construction laborer in Colorado and saved up enough money to finance more travel. I spent a year in Europe, meeting people as I traveled and going whichever way the wind blew.

One contact led me to Israel where I lived and worked on a kibbutz. It was in Jerusalem during this time that I took my first Yoga class in French. I was intrigued and tried to practice Yoga from a book. At this time I was beginning to search more consciously for answers to the confusing mix of spiritual ideas I had heard about and for the ache in my heart to find answers. On my way out of Israel, I placed a small note in the Western Wall of Jerusalem asking for a teacher.

When I returned to Louisville in August of 1975, I began to take classes from one of the only Yoga teachers in town, who was running a small Integral Yoga Center. My first class brought on a profound experience of inner stillness I had never tasted. It was energizing and calming, healing and freeing. It felt like the first time I really experienced something beyond the body-mind. I remember not wanting to talk afterwards for fear of losing that precious feeling.

I continued taking classes for another eight months until my teacher told me that he and his family were moving to live at an ashram, or spiritual community. I was eager to continue learning, and he convinced me that I could take a Yoga teacher training program at that same ashram. He assured me that this one month intensive would be a great way to develop my own practice, even if I did not teach.

At this point in my life, nothing interested me more. Though wary of the idea of an ashram with a swami living there as the guru, or spiritual teacher, I hitchhiked to Connecticut and took the training. While there, I met Swami Satchidananda, a Yogic monk from India, and found in his teachings answers to all my questions. I discovered a whole lifestyle based on Yoga, which continues to act in my life now as an unfailing source of healing, learning and personal growth. I also noted with interest that other students had taken monastic vows, devoting their lives to a life of celibacy and selfless service.

Swami Satchidananda

Swami Satchidananda

When the training ended, my teacher from Louisville told me that he had left everything there for me so that I could take over running the Integral Yoga Center, a small affiliate of the ashram. So there I was at 23, teaching three Yoga classes a week in the evenings and trying to establish myself in the teachings and practices of Yoga. I never went back to school.

For the next three years, I continued to teach and visit the ashram in the summers. I had a girlfriend who became a Yoga student as well, and we supported each other in practicing.

Both of us found our experience of Yoga deepening, quieting the normally incessant internal dialogue and revealing glimpses of inner peace.

A Major Decision

I gradually became convinced that if I really wanted to fully embrace Yoga and pursue its ultimate goal of realizing the Spiritual Self, I would need to devote myself to it full time. In 1979, I made the biggest decision of my life. Giving up the idea of marriage and family, I applied to make the initial commitment that would lead to permanent monastic vows. I moved into the Ashram and eventually took my final vows in 1984.

That Yoga teacher training changed the course of my life. What I learned began a process of completely altering my understanding of who I am and what true happiness is. I see myself as part of an interconnected web of life joined by an underlying spiritual consciousness that is the essence of all creation. I experience happiness when I disengage from the old habitual thought patterns that guide me to look out only for myself, and allow the deeper voice of the Spirit within to open my heart and think of the well-being of all.

Integral Yoga Institute, San Francisco

Integral Yoga Institute, San Francisco

For the next 10 years, I lived in the ashram where Swami Satchidananda lived when he wasn’t traveling and teaching. He taught us to see all the faiths as equally valid expressions of the same truth. I have come to see Yoga as one method of uncovering the Spirit that dwells in all of us and can be understood and approached in myriad ways.

Since 1989, I have been living and serving as the director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in New York and now in San Francisco. I travel extensively offering the teachings of Yoga that have enabled me to feel a oneness with all peoples, and to now see the beauty in the Christian faith I once rejected.