Anyone can yoga
Sacramento’s Self-Realization Fellowship
Indian yogi Paramhansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, argues that we are all one spirit. “When you experience the true meaning of religion, which is to know God, you will realize that He is your Self, and that He exists equally and impartially in all beings.”
I first encountered Self-Realization Fellowship in San Diego, where the gold-topped temple perched on the bluffs over Swami’s Beach inspires awe. I never ventured inside the temple itself, but spent a lot of time wandering through lush meditation gardens and gazing at surfers (an ideal of a spiritual activity, of course).
Sacramento’s SRF, located on a quiet street in the Arden/Arcade neighborhood, isn’t quite so impressive, though the grounds boast a crayfish-filled creek. Sunday services begin at 10 a.m. with group meditation, followed by a “Readings Service” for an hour until noon. I skipped the meditation in favor of yoga class, and slipped in the door right as melodic chanting came to an end.
A gentleman named Michael greeted me in the foyer and assured me that I wouldn’t be stoned for being tardy. I stepped into the dimmed hall, where a video was just beginning, and took a seat in a back pew.
The video, part of an “experimental” offering during occasional Sunday services, was a recorded talk by Sri Daya Mata, president and sanghamata (Mother of the Society) of SRF. She spoke to a packed auditorium about her history as one of the earliest and closest disciples of Yogananda and passionately described her love for God.
“There is so much joy in the thought that I have nothing, I am nothing and I am seeking One,” she said. With her smooth face, snow-white hair and girlish voice, she reminded me of Ellen Burstyn.
Mata encouraged “Self-Realizationists” to simplify their lives, begin each day in divine communion with God and “build an interior life.” Her tender sincerity and enthusiasm were infectious.
After the video ended and the lights came on, I got a better look at the congregation: a diverse group that included families, a few couples in their 20s, older individuals and all colors of the cultural spectrum. The altar was lined with pictures of spiritual teachers, among them Jesus Christ, Bhagavan Krishna and Yogananda.
Yogananda founded SRF in the United States in 1920, to make available worldwide the sacred spiritual science called Kriya Yoga—methods of concentration and meditation designed to attain “direct personal experience of God.” The yoga techniques are described in detail in Yogananda’s famous life story Autobiography of a Yogi.
One of the cornerstones of the SRF religion is that we are all connected by underlying unity, and that the benefits of yoga and meditation can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of faith. SRF honors a long line of masters, and addresses God as Heavenly Father and Divine Mother, Beloved and Friend. Sunday readings and service typically consists of a passage from the both the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.
The service ended with a few moments of meditation, an offertory and a prayer for healing and world peace, closing with “Om, peace, amen.” Folks milled into the book shop, socialized in the dining area and ate brunch on the back patio. I talked with Michael, who hailed from Scotland, and a man named Robert, originally from the South, who explained that the organization is run by volunteers and loaded me up with information on upcoming events, like visiting monastics, India Night and weekend retreats. I told them I was sorry there wasn’t more chanting, but that I loved the sense of inclusiveness.
“Yoga means ‘unity,’” Robert said as he led me out to the creek. After pointing out the crayfish with the excitement of a country kid, he added, “With things like yoga and meditation becoming more mainstream, I’m hoping the world is catching on.”