Pioneers, by definition, do not have the luxury of precedence. So in the earliest days of 3HO, the late 60’s and early 70’s of the last century, those of us who studied with YogiJi were featherless harbingers of an era and unwitting co-founders of a family that has not only grown through generations and spread across the globe, but has been woven into the fabric of the culture at large. But in those earliest days our history had yet to be written, and the things we were asked to do were done with no evidence of veracity, but were done purely on faith and the immediate experiences we had in yoga class. It is a wonder we had any faith left after the prior tolls extracted from our generation. But somewhere we found a deeper well of hope, pulled it up willingly and offered it freely, as though we had never been betrayed. Such is the relentless drive of the soul and the regenerative power of faith.
In the manner of our unfolding culture, there was no one who had gone before us to explain things, no one who had crawled through the tunnel or over the wall ahead of us, no one standing at the end of the obstacle course to assure that it could be survived. No one, that is, except our teacher who had already gone through it all, and whose commanding presence was testimony enough to his students. It was a time when we were still a small band of disparate gypsies with nothing left to lose, coming together to do yoga. 3HO was barely conceived; we had no established traditions, no existing culture with which to identify ourselves, no social standing. To the contrary, most everything we did separated us from our own history and society at large.
In hindsight, I might wonder why in the world I agreed to do so many of the endlessly radical things I was asked to do, and why in such faith I chose to do them. The answer is just that, faith. But not blind. Blind faith connotes a substitution for critical thinking or lack of intelligence. There was at play a force greater than mental acuity; there was intuition, there was heart. There was a slowly building trust born of personal experience, that each thing I was asked to do, as outlandish as my mind screamed that it was, once done not only quieted my mind but showed my spirit another plateau on which to soar.
So what were some of these outlandish things? Initially, the easy ones were getting up at 2:30 AM to do yoga, meditation and chanting. And how about that yoga? Not a walk in the park. The meditation and chanting were never anything but bliss for me, but holding my breath until I passed out, well, strange to say the least. Sometimes I hated the physical exertion of the yoga, except, of course, for corpse pose. Vegetarianism, not a problem, I was already a vegetarian. Wearing white, not a problem, I’d already been wearing white for a year before I met YogiJi. Walking barefoot in the morning dew, again, not a problem, I grew up at the beach and I came to YogiJi barefoot. He even gave me his giant pair of rubber flip flops to shuffle around in when I had to walk on the pavement or go to work at the Source Restaurant.
No, the first big one was the arranged marriage. Unheard of in those times, and mine, horror of horrors, was the first. People were outraged at the concept of it, let alone its execution. And I use that word purposely. Even Shakti was appalled. It may have been a part of Indian culture, but it sure as heck wasn’t a part of ours, and I can tell you just how it came about. It was the spring of 1970, about a year after I’d been living in Yogiji’s kitchen; when there was just Shakti, Premka and I with Yogiji and our roles were clearly defined. Shakti was the mother of his mission and future organization, Premka was his personal staff member, and I was his daughter. But once Pink Krishna and Susie joined our household it became a little estrogen laden and the herd had to be culled.
(The photo above is just after our wedding in 1970, with plenty of dancing and singing in the desert!)
We were robust and young and even though committed to our mission and to celibacy, the hormones did run, and soon there began to appear a series of young suitors at the kitchen door of the Phyllis house. So, in his infinite wisdom and to my great dismay Yogiji sat us all down one evening and asked who wanted to get married and who wanted to be on his staff, reminding us that whoever was on his staff would not have a householder’s life. I remember that Susie definitely wanted to get married and I believe Pink Krishna said the same thing. But when he asked me I could only weep saying I never wanted to get married, I just wanted to stay with him and remain his daughter. He replied, “Fathers don’t keep their daughters, they give them away.” The bitterest words I ever heard him say. I begged and I begged and I begged, but he would not relent. But the truth of the matter was my actions were not in total keeping with my words as much as I wanted them to be. I kept “falling in love,” as much as I tried not to and Yogiji announced that in his duty as my father, he must find an appropriate husband for me and arrange for my future. As a concession he said he would give me my pick of the suitors and began reciting a list of the most fitting men. After each one I replied an emphatic “No.” But when he got to Larry I hesitated for a split second and he said, “Done.”
As an aside, ironically, Larry (who later became Lehri Singh) and I both worked at the Source Restaurant and previously had a crush on each other, but as was in keeping with our commitment to the yoga, chose to transmute our attraction to devotion to God. Perhaps it was because of this that I hesitated in that pivotal moment and my destiny was sealed and the climate of our marriage was set.
Well, no sooner were Yogiji’s words spoken then I fell to pieces, literally. I went to the kitchen and collapsed in a sobbing heap of despair and at the same instant felt rise up out of me like a phoenix out of its ashes, a being so elegant and etheric I could only gasp in wonder. She was who I had always wanted to become. She was the ideal I’d always held but had no idea how to reach. In a moment I understood that it was my vast and tumultuous emotions that kept my spirit bound, and that by cracking this egg the freedom I so diligently sought could be found. Of course, there is a big difference between visionary insight and the process of living it in the day to day. It was against this vision that my emotions continually broke themselves like waves against the rocks throughout the ten years of my marriage.
Here, we were posing for a series of tantric pictures. Larry was counting off the rules he had for me to be a good wife, and I think my body language shows my response reflective the immortal words of Guru Liv Kaur of LA who added the fourth statement of the yogic wives’ three allowed responses to her husband: "You’re right, I’m sorry, it’s the Will of God, and I’m leaving."
Initially, when word spread of my arranged marriage, the men of the Juke Savages that I had come to Yogiji with the year before came down from San Francisco and said they would spirit me away in the night and protect me from Yogiji and the destiny he had designed for me. When I said I didn’t want to go with them, that I wanted to do what Yogiji said, they asked incredulously, “Then why are you crying?” I said because I couldn’t help it and just because I couldn’t show courage in the moment didn’t mean I wasn’t totally committed.
Sadly, I continued to cry everyday for the next three months until that first Solstice in 1970 when YogiJi conducted the first marriage ceremony in the dry arroyo of Robert Voissier’s land outside of Santa Fe. I cried during the ceremony and continued every night for the first year of my marriage, until my husband finally said, “Enough.” He was a man of few but eloquent words.
I can’t say that the marriage was ever fulfilling on an interpersonal level, but then that was never its true intention. Rather, it was a conscious commitment to Yogiji and his teachings and through our steadfast devotion to him, we did give birth to a gifted and amazing spiritual family through Ahimsa Ashram and its tributaries. The ten years from 1970-1980, when I was blessed to live there and share the leadership with my husband, were the crown of my youth, the exaltation my heart and magnified all the love I ever hoped to give or receive.
The music that was born there, beginning with chanting to Guru Ram Das every evening for 31 minutes, was transcendent and transformational. My heart and soul opened so fully through chanting that I feel woven forever with the music and those with whom I shared these musical meditations. I remember one prayer I made when I so sorrowfully agreed to marry and move to Washington, D.C. was that there be music, beautiful music and beautiful musicians to share my days. And indeed my prayers were answered. So many of our family’s great musicians passed through Ahimsa Ashram: Sat Peter Singh, Livtar Singh, Gurushabd Singh, Gurudass Singh, MataMandir Singh, GuruGanesha Singh, SadaSat Singh and Kaur, the Adi Shakti Choir, the Khalsa String Band, and many others who composed and channeled their sublime music into chants and songs which were the genesis of our musical legacy and continue to inspire to this day and beyond. (In speaking of divine music I feel compelled to acknowledge two great musicians from Tucson — Sat Nam Singh and Singh Kaur. They, as well, gave incalculable spiritual inspiration to this family through their celestial music.)
As for that etheric being that rose from my anguish in YogiJi’s kitchen, she was indeed prescient. Although there was never anything in my marriage that nurtured me emotionally (to the contrary it was a daily test of rejection), it was the harshness of that desert that caused me to reach into the higher octaves of love through the Nam that were my source and my sustenance. And really, if I’d gotten all I needed in the marriage or in the world, would I have ever reached further? Probably not. And had I not reached further there would have been no miraculous spiritual journey and my soul would have been the one weeping instead of my emotions.
When I first came to Yogiji in the spring of 1969 he asked me what I wanted and I said, “God.” He said, “I can deliver you there if you promise to do whatever I tell you to do." He never told me my path would be easy, but he did promise to deliver me to the place I wanted and I experienced that bliss each time my kundalini rose. He showed me my spirit through the myriad tests he put me through, even though through each of them I railed. I wept copious tears and thought I would never survive, but somehow I did. I didn’t always excel in the execution of the challenges, but I did find a place of excellence within myself at the end of them. In counterpoint to all that I suffered, he showed me a way to illumine my soul through the soft, merciful, and liquid radiance of Guru Ram Das through chanting, and later through Gurbani kirtan.
Mine was not a journey that could be explained to anyone who wasn’t on the same path, and if they were, it needed no explaining. To me the spiritual path seemed an inverted reflection of the worldly path. What was true in this world was false in the spiritual. What fed the emotions would bleed the soul. What was courageous in the spiritual world was foolhardy in this one. It is said that it doesn’t count as courage if you aren’t afraid, and that was the whole point as his student; to be repeatedly challenged to overcome fear, limitation and to step into the unknown.
It was just all the more challenging because no one had done it before us at that point. He was not just our first yoga teacher, he was a Master, and we either did what he asked or we left. There was no negotiation. We either kept up during a kriya or we didn’t. But if we quit before the yoga set was finished, in class or in life, we never got the bliss that came at the end. We were asked time and again to jump off a cliff and had no idea if we would sprout wings or splat on the rocks below. It required that we live each day with unremitting courage and suspended disbelief. It was the only way to get through it. Everything was asked of us, yet everything was given in return. Why else would we have stayed?
So when you hear the old timers referring so nostalgically to the old days as if they hold some great significance, they do. That was the beginning, the foundation, and much important history has been written in these forty years and much more will be written in the future. It’s just that there is always a profound poignancy to a beginning, like being swept off your feet in love for the first time. You never forget the first time. It informs how you live out the time which follows and how you look back upon it. At least that is the case for me.