How do people find their way to the gate of the Satyananda Yoga Centre at 70 Thurleigh Road in South London? In my case, by the fortunate karma of a guru’s grace and the hospitality of an extraordinary teacher, Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati. Such was my path when, as a callow seventeen-year-old in 1971, I was offered a garden paving job.
The lady of the house was just that, a true Lady – a beautiful and charismatic woman of grace and poise, convinced of the benefits of Yoga practise and dedicated in loving service to her guru, Paramahansa Satyananda. Even in those days, raising her children France and Adam in a loving family home, there was a place around the kitchen table for musicians, artists, mystics, swamis, yoga students, waifs and strays. The love and the kindness, the laughter and spirited conversations and endless life-supporting cups of tea are some of the most cherished memories of my formative years. This informal kind of satsang was both springboard and fertile soil for many students spiritual growth. Thurleigh Road was a magnet for those of like-minded interests to connect, to explore and to practise yoga from an authentic tradition.
Swami Pragyamurti started teaching Yoga classes in 1971 from a very modest-sized yoga room to the left of the front door (a handy place to observe the late arrival of students). They’d make little piles of their clothes in the study, find their spot in the room and lie down in savasana to centre themselves for practice. It was not uncommon for popular class times to squeeze up to fourteen bodies into that space, which made surya namaskar practise a supreme test of spacial awareness. For thousands of aspirant yogis that little yoga room became both sanctuary and spiritual laboratory. And, if you sit quietly in that room today, you might still hear the echoes of a thousand kirtans, tune into our meditations and, above all, experience the peace.
For a growing band of ‘serious’ students, Pragyamurti reserved Wednesday evenings for the teachers’ class. Her methods and techniques were, as with all good teachers who come to live their subject, ones she practised herself from the main book we adopted as our Yoga Bible, the orange-bound; ‘Asana, Pranayama, Mudra & Bandha’ by Paramahansa Satyananda. Those keen students in the 1970s expanded their well-established practice disciplines with developmental programmes like Kriya Yoga and meditations, both yogic and tantric.
As a group we were enthusiastic and keen to teach others, but the issue of teacher qualification was a thorny one. The largest employer of evening class Yoga teachers was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and, without a major campaign to change the hearts and minds of officialdom, we elected to produce our own certificates and stand in the truth of their worth should we be called to account.
This led to an expansion of Pragyamurti’s teachings and she continued to be a trail-blazer. Perhaps a dozen of her Satyananda students took up posts as yoga teachers, largely throughout South West London (and North Cheam) and either at evening class venues or in dedicated practise rooms at their own homes. Wednesday nights were never complete without the attendance of the posse of Cheam ladies, Lesley Orr, Melus Costenbarder, Catherine Edwards and Roy (to name but four), Gloria, Shankara, Malcolm, myself and many others fellow chelas throughout the 70s and 80s. The yoga room got a new coat of paint and was, in time, graced by a painted mandala courtesy of Stephen Sturgess (Shankara) and the very first surya namaskar chart, which became both a teaching aid and reference source for a generation of Satyananda Yogis.
I can’t be too sure on dates but in the mid 70s we received our first visit from a real swami from the Bihar School of Yoga, Monghyr, Swami Atmananda Saraswati, also known at ‘choti’ or ‘Little Swamiji’. She had a no-nonsense approach to the cleansing practices of Hatha Yoga and had come to teach us, in particular, shankaprakshalana (the complete alimentary canal salt water purge). So one misty Saturday morning a group of us found ourselves by the duck pond on Wandsworth Common, nervously anticipating ‘we did not know what’. Pragyamurti had been through the procedure the day before, but apart from looking a little tired, was not giving any clues away. A galvanised bucket of steaming salted water appeared in the Yoga room and Choti Swamiji, casting her eye round the room for likely candidates, thrust mugs of this mixture at Shankara and I and sternly ordered; “Drink”. Thirty six glasses and a sore bum later testified to our doggedness although, for some, Pragyamurti needed to resort to childhood exhortations to encourage them to drink”just one more mug”. Since this time many SYC students at Thurleigh Road have had a similar introduction to these hatha yoga practices that include kunjal, neti, nauli and dauti.
Then two students, one from Northern Ireland (Satyamurti) and another from England (Kriyamurti), joined English Swamis Nischalananda and Vyasudev at the old Monghyr ashram. Thereafter, others from the UK, myself in 1976, made the sannyasa commitment and often received the suffix ‘murti’ (symbol or embodiment of).
Sometime, around 1973-5, we formed the SYC’s first kirtan band, ‘Satsang’, that would periodically grace yoga days and other functions. Our friendly relations with other London Yoga groups such as the Vishnudevananda’s swamis at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in North London and the ‘Hare Krishna’ devotees in the West End, led to exchange visits of enthusiastic kirtanists and the Indian community smiled with delight when they saw Westerners so joyfully embrace something of their culture and yogic heritage. Well, the band went from strength to strength and, as our expertise grew, we progressed to harmoniums, mridangas and a regular Friday evening slot. This continued every Friday night without fail until 1986, and perhaps to this day.
From the first student class notes to advertising it was clear we needed to establish a logo and identity to coincide with Pragyamurti’s official establishment of 70 Thurleigh Road as the ‘Satyananda Yoga Centre, London’. Apart from promoting Satyananda Yoga we wanted a way to reach out to our fellow chelas and brothers and sisters in Yoga throughout the UK and abroad. To this end, and with the help and encouragement of Pragyamurti (director), Lesley Orr (editor), Stephen Sturgess (graphics), we started publishing ‘Yoga Times’ magazine in 1978. There is probably a small wooden coffee table to this day that is ‘dinked’ by a staple gun testifying to my inexpert efforts on that first issue. ‘Yoga Times’ afforded us a platform to promote Swamiji’s Yoga and, from the positive feedback we received until it ceased publication in 1981, established a fine reputation.
From the mid 1970s we were sufficiently organised to host seminars and retreats with experts and friends such as Swami Janakananda from Sweden and Arundhati & Swami Vasishtananda from Newcastle.
Eventually we were able to raise the funds to host Swami Satyananda’s visits to London. His satsangs and public lectures at Caxton Hall in London, Manchester, Plymouth, Otterburn and Dublin were duly recorded and transcribed and eventually became two booklets called ‘Satyam Speaks’ (1 & 2).
Then, to our immense satisfaction, in 1979 in Dublin, Pragyamurti was finally free to make the commitment to full sannyasa, shaved her head, then simply continued with her Guruseva teaching Satyananda Yoga.
The last particular project I was involved with was in 1985 when Arundhati & Swami Vasishthananda asked me to produce and publish the first edition of the ‘Yoga Education For Children’ book. It featured the expertise and experienced views of Paramahansa Satyananda and a number of his skilled and devoted swamis (Arundhati, Yogabhakti, Karmananda, Shakardevananda, Bodhananda, Nischalananda, Karmananda), many of whom had a special interest in the welfare and teaching of children. In addition, it was to be a commemorative edition to celebrate the silver jubilee of Swami Naranjanananda Saraswati.
My everyday involvement with the life of the Satyananda Yoga Centre Thurleigh Road came to an end (as all good things must) when I moved away to Worcestershire in 1986. Others stepped forward and, with patient endeavour and Pragyamurti’s wise direction, tackled further challenges, formed new social groupings and to this day, fulfils its function as a much-needed spiritual powerhouse, beloved by so many.
I have learnt that is not always possible, nor strictly necessary, to repay in full measure the kindnesses of a particular friend or teacher. However I hope it will please you to know, dear Pragyamurti, that every cup of ‘Yoga Brew’ and slice of toasted Halloumi cheese you so kindly shared with me has been offered tenfold to my students and friends in loving tribute to your generosity of spirit. You taught me, supported me, laughed with me and sometimes tolerantly endured me, I’m sure. Such is the way with true spiritual families. It gives me the greatest pleasure to offer you my personal namaskars and the thanks and appreciation of hundreds of your students from the 70s and 80s who would not be in the least surprised that your energy and commitment are as solid as ever.
The rest of this marvellous story will need to be written by succeeding generations of Satyananda Yogis at the Satyananda Yoga Centre, Thurleigh Road, London. Forty two years on now, and to all those who entered the famous gate and crossed the threshold to embrace a spiritual life, I offer fraternal greetings. To the producers of this commemorative book, Yagnamurti & Siddha, my thanks for including these remembrances and photographic contributions and allowing me, at long last, the chance to express deep gratitude to my friend and teacher, Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati.
Bless you, bless you, bless you.
Hari Om Tat Sat.
Swami Tantramurti Saraswati
Satyananda Yoga Centre (London), 70 Thurleigh Road, London SW12 8UD.
http://www.syclondon.com/wp/ tel: 020 8673 4869
office hours are Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm – please do not call before 9am.