Founder and Principle Teacher at Pyramid Yoga
Since graduating from Ananda Ashram in 1972, David has continued his personal and professional pursuit of the yogic lifestyle as an international Yoga Teacher, Healer and Founder of numerous Retreat Centres.
When I began my journey into yoga I knew of no one in my environment, friends or family, who had heard of such a thing. I just happened to find a book about it in the local library in North Bay, Ontario, in the psychology section: Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda. I had a keen interest to explore the mind, so I looked for related information in that section of the library. Little did I know where this first book would lead me. I gained an interest from it, or at least a curiosity. In that library book I found many techniques to improve the functioning of the mind through physical exercise, as well as to promote better health. There were also statements about better perception and higher states of consciousness, though at the time I really did not know what the author meant by that. Some months later I began traveling and bought my first small book on the practical exercises, or Hatha Yoga. Thus began five decades of experience and research. I certainly didn’t realize when I first started doing a few exercises, in 1969, that I had stumbled upon the oldest “science” on the planet; I didn’t even until later that it was a science.
The basics were simple enough, a bit of exercise and some breathing. In some ways it was like looking at the first two letters of the alphabet; I had no idea there was a whole alphabet to follow. I was coming from a different culture. In my Western culture, exercise was acceptable and cleanliness was connected to health, but this elaborate system seemed a little extreme. There were some strange things in this yoga book. For instance, there were pictures of a man passing a string up one nostril and down through the mouth, to clean the nasal passages; another picture showed him swallowing a 30-foot strip of rag and pulling it out again, to clean his stomach and digestive tract. I found this type of internal cleanliness a little far-fetched. I did not think I would ever want to do that, and I never did. However, there were other aspects of this yoga method that did capture my attention, like the concept of perfect health and developing mental abilities.
Quite innocently I entered this realm with my curiosity in one hand and my pioneering spirit in the other. I did have an interest in improving my health since I had a weak heart condition perhaps inherited from my father (he had died of a heart attack). This dysfunction was obvious whenever I did hard work or strenuous exercise. I did not find the problem surfacing when I did the gentle exercises in the yoga book. In fact, I soon discovered that these “exercises” done with the physical body felt good and did indeed have an effect on the mind, an interesting fact that made me ever more curious.
This curiosity led me to India in 1971, to find out more about these states of mind. But as the connection between body and mind became ever more complex and detailed, I found myself researching further and further into the phenomenon of energy itself—the link between body and mind. The yogic perspective in India held a very refined and detailed view of the nerves as a wiring system which every part of the body was plugged into. These nerves carried the energy impulses between the brain and the entire body. To me this was like a schematic diagram giving us an indication of how we actually functioned.
Perhaps I found this to be interesting because of my previous education. Having finalized my high school education with math, chemistry and physics, and with electronics and stereos as my favourite hobby, this whole idea of the electrical energy side of our being made a lot of sense to me. Most of man’s latest creations were electronic, while he himself also had an electronic part. This “part” is as obvious as the nervous system – an elaborate wiring system that is continuously conducting energy impulses between the brain and every part of our physical bodies. It seemed to me that gaining an understanding of how we were wired could lead us to some interesting places. I got the impression that the nervous system and its mental effects had already been largely mapped out in the East, while everything I had read in the world of Western psychology seemed primitive in this regard, although this “wiring” aspect of the nervous system was a bit documented; the research that I could find was still directed at rats and attempts to modify their behaviour. I had the feeling little was known about the human brain, while the phenomenon of the mind hardly received any mention; in fact the Western concept made no distinction between brain and mind at that time. (1968-69)
Meanwhile, physics and chemistry had merged in my mind (as they have in science by now to form nuclear physics). In this new merger the key element seemed to be energy, yet in the exploration of this energy there did not seem to be a clear picture of what it was. Add to this what I was reading in research books like Bertrand Russel’s “The A B C of Relativity”, on the space-time relation and how everything was indeed relative to the position and velocity of the observer—it all brought me to the point of wondering just what this quantum reality consisted of. There were a lot of theories about it but no one really knew, and the best of the “scientists” also carried this impending question mark! I found myself traveling, my curiosity directing me to find out more about the mysterious magical methods that apparently could lead people to grasp the truth about “mind over matter.”
I was quite fortunate in my travels, in that everything worked out fairly well and I never had any “bad” experiences. I don’t mean to say there were no challenging times, but I met a lot of good and helpful people along my journey. Within the first months of my solo journey I connected with some people of like mind in Mexico, who invited me to stay with them. They had a paradise villa in Cuernavaca and were all interested in yoga, so we soon became friends. Each morning the sun would rise and shine onto the front lawn to find us breathing deeply and doing postures. Half the day would be spent talking about the philosophy of the East and the religions of the world. The experience created a nice bond of kinship amongst us. For me it was the first occurrence of being with a group of friends I could fully relate with
After a month of living in this heart-warming environment, I continued along my solo journey, but I kept meeting folks who were on similar paths, exploring the world and looking for philosophical idealism. There were many coincidences of meeting the right people at the right time. I learned to enjoy encountering friends with whom to share spiritual experiences and worldly adventures.
As I went through the Orient I met more friends from different cultures, who exposed me to a variety of spiritual ideas. In Japan I spent a few months studying Buddhism, learning to calm my mind so that I could meditate. That is where I first realized that consciousness was separate from mind – an awakening discovery for me. In Thailand I wandered a bit with the young monks who had invited me to join them. With a begging bowl in hand, I followed their simple lifestyle, enjoying rural life and contemplating the workings of the mind.
By the time I reached India I had more or less become a monk myself. After a year of being on the road, observing all the sights one could imagine, my eyes had seen enough of the outer world. I was firmly established in my yoga practice and had gleaned some wonderful meditational techniques from my Buddhist friends. Now I just wanted to go inward. I wanted to know more about the inner world and about the chakras that were referred to in so many books. What was this phenomenon all about?
I had shared a room at the YMCA in Malaysia with a Hindu man from India. This gentleman was a Brahmin (priestly caste), well versed in the philosophies of India and yoga. He practiced yoga every day and had been doing so for years.
I had shared a room at the YMCA in Malaysia with a Hindu man from India. This gentleman was a Brahmin (priestly caste), well versed in the philosophies of India and yoga. He practiced yoga every day and had been doing so for years. We spent many hours discussing all sorts of spiritual ideals that had recently been awakened in me. During our week together he showed me how to get up into the headstand, amongst other things. He assured me when we parted that I would have no problem finding my “guru,” mentioning something I had read in Yogananda’s writings: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” The coincidence factor I had begun observing earlier had evolved into mystical synchronicity for me, especially in the people I was meeting along my path. This Hindu roommate and friend was one of my teachers. At this point it felt to me like there was an overall Intelligence making the connections I needed and setting the times for the meetings.
Someone else along my journey had mentioned Pondicherry as a really nice place to go in India. With that in mind I headed south from Calcutta, where I had landed. In Madras I boarded a bus for Pondicherry, and in stepped Teresa, who sat in front of me and said “Hi, where are you going?”
Teresa had come to India to visit her sister Barbara, who had been studying with a yoga master in Pondicherry for a couple of years. She suggested that I come along. Arriving at the ashram, we were greeted with a royal welcome and it soon became clear that Barbara was more involved than a student. She lived in the master’s suite, was now called Meenakshi, and worked as his secretary. We received this warm and intimate welcome as a result, with a great dinner and a lengthy evening getting acquainted. For me it was a wonderful opportunity to make a connection with this teacher and find out about his teachings.
The ashram, called Ananda Ashram with 40-plus students, was at the beginning of the second semester of a six-month teachers’ training. I was invited to join. I did so, and during my stay I was so impressed with the quality and quantity of information and practice on yoga that I came back in the fall to do the full six-month training.
Swami Gitananda had studied yoga in his teenage years with Ram Gopal Muzumdar, who is referred to in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi as “the Sleepless Saint.” In his late teens he went on to England to study medicine. Either his mother or father (I don’t recall which) was British, so he had the opportunity to go to college in that country. His medical career went from there to Canada and the U.S., spanning 38 years. I heard many interesting stories about what was really going on in the medical establishment, some of which surprised me at the time, but since then I have come to see the reality of what he said. The result of his years of experience as a doctor and surgeon led him to the conclusion that Western medicine had no long-term positive effects. Consequently, he returned to India in order to teach people how to live healthy lives with a spiritual purpose.
At the time I arrived, he had only been there a couple of years, but he had managed to establish a very “happening” ashram. The atmosphere was bustling with activity; over 40 students were in the full-time residential curriculum and several others were coming in as guests for a period of a few days to a week. Swami himself taught eight hours of classes each day, seven days a week, except Thursday afternoons when we had time off to look after personal business. The course was intense by anyone’s standards. He made it more so that term, by extending it for one full month. Also, that semester was the only time that I know of when he taught the full course on Yantra Yoga.
He dropped it the following year. What he added in that year, however, was a series of discourses on the chakras. Again, this proved to be a one-time event that he never repeated. Some of us advanced students prompted him to do this, and we recorded every lecture. Afterwards, I took the tapes and spent my spare time during the next month transcribing the tapes. The notes I assimilated at that time became the foundation for my research on the energy world of the chakras, an exploration that is still expanding my inner vision 40 years later.
Swami Gitananda was a brilliant orator and a very inspiring teacher, always a dynamo of energy, who bounded up the stairs to our rooftop classroom in such a way as to stir everyone up with his radiance. With his storytelling abilities and his sense of humor, he kept us all well entertained. When we were not being entertained by his words, we were busy practicing the multitude of things we had learned. For me, this experience of being intensely involved in the practice of yoga for so many consecutive months created a lifestyle that simply became part of me. I am forever grateful for that gift. The wealth and depth of his knowledge of yoga was encyclopedic – it covered such a wide range of the various aspects of this science that I have not since found anything like it in my studies.
That first year at the ashram, the Yantra year, there was another doctor who came every day to teach homeopathy. Dr. Ganapathy was his name. Only about a dozen students took the course. I did not because it was half over when I arrived, but I did get to know him as a teacher. A couple of the other students, Teresa and I, became friends with him after the teachers’ training, when all the other students had left. He was full of good philosophical advice on how to live a spiritual life, very knowledgeable on herbs, and, as we found out through the grapevine, quite an adept at healing through touch. I got to verify the latter when Dr. Ganapathy put the final touch on healing my heart problem one day. He quite literally touched my rib cage, just near my heart, and kept his fingers there for what seemed like one whole minute. Meanwhile he was talking about compassionate living – through reaching out to people in need and helping them in whichever ways were appropriate. I noticed the dramatic change in my condition a few minutes later when I went running up two flights of stairs to get something, and felt empowered at the top of the stairs, rather than my usual heart palpitations.
These two doctors were the teachers who initiated me into the ancient wonders of yoga, health and healing during my first few months in India. In the months that followed, I travelled around the country as a saddhu, a wandering monk, staying in temples and mingling with those who had renounced the world for the spiritual path. It was during that period of travel that I met Om Prakash, a man with a name that translates as God’s Light. Though I met many people who had something to teach me throughout this time, I can say that Om was one of the three principal teachers who contributed to my transformation. I spent one week with him and his family up in their Himalayan home, during which time he offered me his meditation room and often gave me advice on what was important to practice and what to teach or not teach. This enlightened gentleman always possessed an aura of serenity, but what impressed me deeply was his vision. He could scan through you to past lifetimes, and let you see what he was seeing. My time with Om was not filled with teachings and techniques, but rather like an expansion of mind and consciousness that allowed me to see the greater picture of who I was, had been, and was going to be.
This summarizes my encounters with some of the masters of India. The next significant phase of my education came the following year when I began living in Guatemala and Mexico. I was still a wandering monk, a penniless monk in fact, as is the tradition in India, but now exploring the old ruins of the Mayan civilization from Palenque to the Yucatan. Within these ruins I kept finding icons, statues and symbols that reminded me of India. In one of the old temples I found a life-size statue of Shiva with the five-headed cobra rising up over his head. This my friend Don and I discovered in an underground area of the temple that was closed to the public. We were there at 5 a.m. with flashlights, and there was no one there to stop us from exploring. We were also finding mandala symbols of the chakras in a variety of places and contexts, while the serpent Kundalini kept raising its head everywhere. Not only did the serpent raise its head, but here it had wings, as if it were a flying serpent. Obviously, Kundalini was once awake in this part of the world. As well, little icons of people in different postures that were very yoga-like could be purchased from some of the locals (often illegally, since they had been found during excavations and were not supposed to be sold).
The familiarity of all these things made me feel there was an old India buried here, and we were just seeing some of what was coming up to the surface. Even the structure of the temple towers looked the same as in India. The following year I made my way to Tikal and found what I recognized as a South Indian Temple, still half buried in the Guatemalan jungle. To me this was the final proof that the ancient system of yoga and the chakras had been here. It was still here. I had been living in Guatemala for a couple of winters by then and had spent time observing the ways of the “brujos,” the local shamans. They had a lot of chanting and drumming rituals similar to the saddhus of India. What struck me the most was their bright jackets embroidered with those same chakra mandalas that kept resurfacing.
This was the period during which I was painting mandalas myself, while reading books about ancient native cultures. Books like Burning Waters by Laurette Sejourne, and Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm, were providing further inspiration about an underlying perennial philosophy that was bonding all these cultures. That philosophy explained the universal energy of the chakras, the energy which weaves the fabric of the world as we perceive it.
The more deeply I looked into it, the more apparent it became that beneath the surface of these belief systems from separate cultures lay the understanding of the energy world and its manifestation into matter.
Almost a decade later I finally made it to Egypt, again for the purpose of exploring what they knew about yoga and the chakras. Although much of what I found in Central America was coded in symbolism that requires a background in Yantra to decipher, Egypt required a lot less interpretation. Many of the classic postures of Hatha Yoga are carved in stone. In the museum at Luxor, for example, you can see Queen Nefertiti and her dancers in a whole variety of classical asanas. There is a statue of King Tut sitting in the half-lotus with a scroll in one hand, his other hand held in a mudra position usually demonstrated by Buddha or the Hindu deities. This is said to be in his student years; so what was he studying? One of the favorite things he was buried with was a golden, two-and-a-half-coiled cobra—Kundalini strikes again. This serpent is everywhere in Egypt; the seven chakras are in most temples, and the little pyramid I had seen in a Hindu version of the first chakra is here blown sky-high.
In the Temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I visited during the winter of 2001 with my teaching partner Marina, I found the serpent to be woven into the fabric of virtually every wall and walkway. No one doubts the strong Hindu influence that inspired the original temples. For those who understand yoga and the energy world of the chakras, the whole area can be seen as the expression of a culture which lived to awaken all the dormant forces within us and develop full human potential.
It is not within the scope of this text to go into all the details of my/our research. However, I want to highlight my eclectic perspective on yoga. I have observed that this wonderful science of the energy world is based on a universal reality that goes beyond any one culture.
It has been a long and interesting study, and after 40 years I can say that “mystical” yoga turns out to be much more scientific than most of the “sciences” of the West. Because of my experiences with high school science, which taught what “science” and “scientific” meant, I could clearly see the logic in this yogic approach. For instance, in the classical scientific experiment you need an objective, a method to demonstrate that objective, and then you must observe what happens when you apply these methods. After a certain amount of observation of the results, you can draw conclusions about what is going on during this experiment.
With yoga the experiment is performed on your own body and mind. You, the practitioner, must become the scientist, performing the experiments with posture, movement, breath, diet, concentration, visualization, sound, and a variety of techniques over an extended period of time. You must carefully observe the results of what you are doing at the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels over that time period. Then, and only then, can you draw conclusions about what affects the body, feelings, mind and spirit, and just what those effects are. You learn this from your own experiences, and although this is considered subjective rather than purely objective, it is valid for each individual. Yoga is a very personal experience, one that each individual needs to go through on the path to enlightenment. Don’t worry too much about getting to that final enlightened state either, as you will find that with the practice, the inner light simply becomes progressively brighter, as the outer world becomes more colorful.
Peace and Om, David