Sanātana Dharma is a pluralist faith which acknowledges various avatars of the divine Brahman. It’s also a tradition where the divine feminine or shakti is worshipped and there are numerous Devi temples in India where one can experience rasa that’s evoked from the sacred feminine temple murtis. It’s this aspect of dharma that drew the founder of the Kula Kamala Foundation & Yoga Ashram, Swamini Shraddhananda Saraswatiji to Hinduism. “I suppose it started when I was a child. I was baptised Catholic as a child and I went to catholic school. In my really young days, I’m talking about when my age was in single digits (around five, six or seven). It's the earliest memory I have. I always felt an intense love for animals, for nature, for people and for the divine mother. When I was in Catholic school, I would sit in front of the statue of Mother Mary and just stare at her and pray, and of course, I had an affinity towards Christ and the Holy Spirit, but there was something about Mother Mary that called to me. As time went on, I became disenfranchised with the idea that one aspect of God is more important than another, and part of my education in that particular system at least in the school I went to was that your focus should be more on the masculine aspect of divinity rather than the feminine and that just didn’t sit in my heart well. So I started looking at other traditions and investigating, particularly in my teenage years — I suppose that’s normal for most individuals who start getting curious about what’s out there — and I became interested in many different traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism… I became interested in the more feminine-oriented traditions or those that were self-empowering. So from there I was introduced to yoga and my practise of yoga then was most certainly the asana because that’s what we’re typically introduced to first here in the West, but I also practised meditation and I really took to meditation — I absolutely loved the idea of sitting in stillness. I had a pretty tumultuous childhood and so that stillness was very welcome. The quiet was very welcome. From there, the enquiry just continued and eventually, I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita and that was a life-changer. It was this beautiful conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and the questions that Arjuna asked were the very same questions that I had been asking my whole life, and the answers that Krishna provides are so poignant and so perfect — my heart just completely melted in the experience of that reading and studying. Then from there, I was introduced to the individual who would become my guru, Swami Adhyatmanandaji, of the Sivananda lineage. His asham is in Gujarat. He attained Mahasamadhi so he is no longer with us physically, but always with us spiritually. I studied with him for many years, and just kept diving deeper…No matter which direction I looked in within the tradition, it was more poignant, more soulful, more truthful, more honest, more complete, more whole…(and so my husband would tease me saying, ‘this is a tradition you would never get bored with because there’s just so much there for you.’) He was absolutely right,” says Shraddhaji about how her journey to yoga began.
Her spiritual journey began to develop when she was very young and speaking of the most profound spiritual experiences she’s had, she attributes three major moments or experiences that paved her life’s purpose, “My first experience was when I was five or six years old and I was walking through a town in New Jersey called Spring Lake with my grandmother and a woman walked up to us, and she was a bit dishevelled and my grandmother was taken aback because we didn’t know her. Then this woman knelt down in front of me so she could be at eye-level with me, and she looked at me and she said, ‘Never forget why you’re here. Never forget your purpose. Always remember your purpose.’ Then my grandmother, who was a little tossed by that, asked the woman to leave us alone and we continued walking. But I never forgot that woman’s words and perhaps that was a turning point where this word ‘purpose’ really became a centre point in my life. The second would be when I met my guru, and the wisdom that he so selflessly shared, not only with me but with everybody he met. Meeting my husband when I met him was also a profound experience. He was this kind individual who really illustrated all the wonderful qualities of love and compassion. I think he showed me or rather he was evidence that love really is the antidote to pain, it truly is.”
Her guru and his teachings inspired her to make her first trip to India when he invited her to live at his ashram.”My first trip to India was in 2007 and that was at the invitation of my Guru. He had been here for ten days and had said you should come and stay at the ashram for a while. So I did. I stayed there for six weeks in 2007. During those six weeks…it’s one of those journeys that is really hard to put into words…what I can say is that what I experienced at the ashram and being so deeply immersed in the teachings was a different wholeness, a different quality of understanding the Self, and witnessing the journey of others. It was a life-changing experience. I think some of the most poignant points were the sense of community…the importance around sangha. This tradition is not just about going to the temple once a week or showing up at church once a week, or praying once a day. It’s really about the walk. It’s really about how you carry it with you. I witnessed that every day at the ashram. Living this path and carrying it is as important when you’re even shopping or parking your car or talking to your neighbour…Every interaction that we have matters — hence the yamas and niyamas…and the importance of these life virtues. So these things really struck me, they struck me as things that I had not necessarily experienced in my Western life. The longing in my life to have a close-knit community to have a relationship that I felt was constantly deepening and constantly growing with divinity and the sacred in life. I found that in India, in my own journey and the calling to be of service has always been my calling for as long as I can remember. ”
Her trip to India and what she felt and discovered motivated Shraddhaji to develop a similar ashram space in the US and so she formed the Kula Kamala Foundation & Yoga Ashram, “The Kula Kamala Foundation is a reflection of the experience that I had in India. Suffering is prevalent in the world and so many people think that America is well-off…she really is not…and suffering is very prevalent here in a very large way right now. Separation is bringing about so much human suffering — the break-up of families, the differences between communities — there is just so much hardship in this moment…mentally, emotionally, spiritually. When I came home from that journey in India, I said to my husband (he had travelled to India, too, and spent two weeks there so he felt the experience as well), I really felt called to develop that type of community here — the ashram community — and to have it be focused not just on yoga asana but on these teachings, these teachings of wholeness. My husband supported me 100 percent and I spoke to my guru to ask him if it was ok, because I’m a white Western woman, I was not born into the tradition, so how do I best respect this calling and tradition. He said, ‘Do it.’ I wanted to bring forward something that can give people solutions to their lives. So I founded the Kula Kamala Foundation toward being a non-profit where these teachings are available to people by donation so people who can’t afford to pay for things don’t need to pay. It’s really about the heart-felt intention to offer these practices and this wisdom as a way of alleviating suffering and empowering a sense of wholeness in people. The student’s wellness is the first focus. Swamiji would come here and he would teach, and in 2019, he invited me to come to an early celebration of his 75th birthday. I thought we were only going to Rishikesh, but we ended up travelling throughout Northern India to Vaishno Devi, to Dharamshala, to the Chinmaya Mission, and we visited seven or eight Shakti Peethas, and it was just such a blessing to spend that time with him because in the next year, he passed,” says Shraddhaji.
She started teaching yoga and meditation in her early 30s and the journey that began in her childhood culminated into her taking her vows of sanyas when her husband passed away four years ago. “I have been wanting to take my sanyas vows and when my husband passed away, we brought his remains to India. Swamiji oversaw a beautiful ceremony dedicating his remains to Ganga — the beautiful river, the mother. The day after, I took my vows in Rishikesh with my guru, and I’ve been walking this path since, which is not much different from the path before. It’s heartfelt, it’s deep and it is service-oriented and it continues…”
Shraddhaji has ensured that the Kula Kamala Foundation & Ashram is a place where everyone is welcome and her aim is to share the teachings that have affected her journey with any spiritual aspirant who comes to her. “All different people come to the ashram. We offer many different things. We have meditation classes and we also offer yoga asana classes — some students come here searching for those, some students come because they’re curious. We also do personal retreats and we always make sure that we interweave the spiritual teachings in every class we offer. We cover all aspects and offer classes, rituals, ceremonies — we officiate weddings, we work with individuals who have health issues and challenges, we work with children who are at risk — we really are a service organisation and there’s nobody who is left out. We also train yoga teachers and yoga therapists and we ground their training in a deep understanding of the yamas and the niyamas, the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Shankaracharya, and we also have spiritual study programmes…it’s a long list (laughs).”
I asked her what her favourite literature on spirituality is and her favourite authors include, “I have to say I love to read Swami Sivananda’s work, Swami Dayananda’s work. My Lord Loves a Pure Heart by Gurumayima is one of my favourite reads, I love Rumi’s work, of course…Christopher Wallis is an amazing author and he has done some tremendous work in bringing forward teachings from his tradition, Nischala Joy Devi is another author I enjoy reading — she’s written a beautiful book called The Secret Power of Yoga — and it’s from a more feminine perspective and that is in an absolutely inspirational read, then I adore Eknath Eswaran…”
Talking to Shraddhaji is evidence that you don’t have to be a Hindu or even an Indian to learn to apply the wisdom of yoga to your life. At the same time, she ensures authenticity in her teachings by always remembering and honouring the source of the wisdom so there is genuine respect without a trace of appropriation. My last question was, what does she think of modern yoga? “Yoga is a living, breathing tradition and it will grow with humanity as it needs to. It will be utilised by some individuals for physical purposes only and while in the mind we say that might be a bit of a shame as there is so much more to it than that, in the heart, we can try to understand that each person who is introduced to yoga is going to be introduced to it according to their karmas, according to what they need at this moment in their life and that this moment in life is not completely a reflection of the other moments to come. Maybe this is just a starting point for some people so I think that patience and non-judgementality is important while also standing firm in one’s own understanding of the greater wholeness of this practice.”
For further information on Shraddhaji’s work, visit the Kula Kamala Foundation & Yoga Ashram.