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Spiritual aspect of yoga integrates with different faiths

Through her own life struggles, Mary-Ann McDougall’s interest in yoga as a physical exercise led to her learning of the spiritual side of yoga and into following a path to become Swami Radhananda.

Swami Radhananda
Swami Radhananda

Now she is president of the Yasodhara Ashram, a yoga retreat and study center in Kootenay Bay, in southeastern British Columbia, where she helps people find tools to deal with their struggles.

She said she had little spiritual development after Sunday school and hearing her grandmother read the Bible every day when she was growing up in Princeton, B.C.

She married, lived with her husband in a commune on the British Columbia coast, and then traveled with him to Cambridge, England, for his doctoral studies—where their son was born in 1970—to Mexico for his anthropology fieldwork, and back to Cambridge where their daughter was born.  Then they settled in Lethbridge, where he was offered a job.

She started a day care center, was in a women’s consciousness-raising group and was a jogger when she started yoga.  Having studied teaching at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she taught grade school in several small communities.

A friend who had gone to the ashram—a “spiritual home”—invited her to go, too.

That started her journey to finding what was missing in her life. Renewed by her experience at the ashram, she invited her husband to go several times, but they grew apart and separated when their children were young.

As Mary-Ann went to retreats and programs, the healing she found drew her to be a disciple of Swami Sivananda Radha.

Learning about inquiry “turned me around,” Swami Radnananda said in a recent interview at the Radha Yoga Center in Spokane.  She was in town for a tour related to her memoirs, Carried by a Promise:  A Life Transformed through Yoga, which was published in January.

The book shares her journaling about her spiritual development as a disciple of Swami Radha.

“When I first came to the ashram, I wanted my family, community and world to become more like the ashram—more accepting, open and whole,” she said. 

She said she gained self-confidence and the ability to accept herself and others.  She learned to live in simplicity and be more “present” in whatever she did—dishes, cleaning, teaching, shopping or being at the ashram.

Yoga is more than physical exercise.  It is control of the mind, starting with control of the breath, speech and service—putting the body to use for good purpose,” Swami Radhananda said.

Her guru or teacher, Swami Radha, had studied ancient traditions under a guru in India, Swami Sivananda, and reflected on what would work in the modern West before she founded the ashram in 1963.  In 1989, she founded the Radha Yoga Center in Spokane.

“She took the essence without the culture,” said Swami Radhananda, who often visited Spokane, where Swami Radha spent her last years.

Mary-Ann opened Radha House in Lethbridge, where she shared what she was learning. Others have opened other Radha centers in Canada, the United States and England.

When her children finished school, Mary-Ann moved in 1990 to the ashram.  Swami Radha prepared her to become president in 1993.  In 1994, she was initiated into sanyas—the Hindu tradition of “renunciation of desires” to become a swami.  Swami Radha, who moved to Spokane in 1993, died in 1995.

“I chose her spiritual name, ‘Radha,’ which means ‘cosmic love.’  I seek to embody it, knowing that love means making myself available.  ‘Ananda’ means bliss or peace,” she explained.

“While there is overlap of yoga and Hinduism, yoga can be used by any faith tradition,” she said.  “The essence is the same.”

Faith Hayflich, who attends Congregation Emanu-El and teaches at Spokane’s Radha Yoga Center, also participated in the interview with Swami Radhananda’s sister, Swami Lalitananda.

Faith, who first went to the Yasodhara Ashram in 1984, moved with her husband from California to Spokane in 2000.

She said yoga helps her understand her Jewish faith, just as many Christians also use yoga.

Yoga does not change people from their own faith but adds purpose to their living, said Swami Radhananda.

“While many think spiritual life is calming, it requires effort,” she said.  “Through yoga postures, the body is ‘busy’ allowing one to focus on controlling the mind.  Yoga can help people solve life patterns and be released from being stuck in the mud, unable to move, carrying huge burdens.”

At the ashram, people do not avoid problems, but use yoga to dissolve problems so problems become more transparent and the person develops inner wisdom, she explained.

Swami Lalitananda, formerly a psychologist, is part of the 12 staff who live at the ashram and serve guests in retreats and courses.   The ashram has space for more than 100 guests and residents.  About 30 people are in a three-month course on yoga development.  Staff teach yoga, reflection, self study and group work.

They teach various types of yoga—kundalini yoga to build character, divine light invocation to activate healing, mantra yoga to meditate with chanting, karma yoga to open people to the divine in all they do, dream yoga to interpret subconscious messages, sacred dance to express harmony, hatha yoga to reflect on postures and satsang chanting in community gatherings.

“We ask questions to help people explore their lives and concerns, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses,” said Swami Radhananda. 

She encourages people to write diaries, so they can reflect on what they have learned and bring it into their spiritual lives.

Faith said Spokane’s center offers the same kinds of yoga as the ashram.  The hatha yoga they offer invites people to reflect on the symbolism of the poses—what it means to stand still in “mountain pose” or what it means to fly when they are in “eagle pose.”

Poses and questions allow people to open, stretch and release their muscles, minds and spirits, said Swami Lalitananda.

Swami Radhananda said karma yoga helps move people into selfless service, aware that “every part of our lives is sacred.”

For information, call 838-3575 or email radhayoga@comcast.net.