It was between 1969 and 1970 that I began awakening to a different way of thinking. I was reading different spiritual books at that time, one of the first being “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda, and many others on different Indian spiritual masters and metaphysical subjects. My two older brothers shared this interest with me. We had many discussions about our new-found spiritual awareness. It was an exhilarating time in my life.
Also, around that time, one of my brothers and a sister started attending yoga classes nearby. They brought the teacher home one day, and we ended up having an impromptu yoga class in our back yard. This is when I met John Twombly, the teacher trained in kundalini yoga by Yogi Bhajan. I joined in with my brother and sister in attending the weekly yoga classes given by John. Sometimes we met at Rollins College, other times at the tree-canopied park on Park Avenue or elsewhere around town. I felt like this is where I belonged. One by one, the other three of our siblings joined in with the classes.
Soon John found a modest home in College Park that he rented and started an ashram representing the spiritual teachings of Yogi Bhajan. I attended my first weekend intensive course there and my life was forever transformed. It was a weekend of complete silence and focused hours of yoga and meditation. I was still a teenager.
Some months later, John moved the ashram to a spacious house out in Pine Hills that was isolated and surrounded with woods and even had a private little pond on the property. It was the perfect location for an ashram. It was then that I joined him and moved from my parents’ home into this commune of like-minded yogis.
In December of 1971, I first laid eyes on Yogi Bhajan. We had received word a few weeks earlier that Yogiji (as we then affectionately called him) wanted to put on a Winter Solstice gathering for all his students for 10 days of rigorous yoga practice and meditation all done in complete silence. Suddenly, we were to be hosts to hundreds if not thousands of fellow yoga students who would be arriving in just a few short weeks from across the United States, Canada and worldwide. There’s a long story that precedes this regarding all the planning, mishaps, and good intentions that went awry but I won’t go into that here. But it was there, at this first Winter Solstice, that I met my spiritual teacher face to face for the first time.
Hundreds did show up (I don’t now recall the exact number) to a local campground. We all had gathered there, many pitching tents or having come with campers, and eagerly awaited his arrival. I remember Yogi Bhajan suddenly appearing in the crowd, dressed from head to toe in white–his Sikh bana, or traditional, spiritual clothing, including turban, kurta and churidars. He was an imposing and commanding presence of 6’ 3”. He had a jet-black beard that reached halfway down his chest, piercing dark, brown eyes, and large, broad shoulders; and in spite of his size, he carried himself with a refined grace. He spoke in a loud, powerful, heavy Indian-accented voice that grabbed my attention. I had never seen anything like him and was captivated. I had read about Indian yogis and teachers but had never personally seen this type of person before now. He had a lot to say to us over the next 10 days. He had come to America, he said, “to create teachers, not to gain students”. I was to become one of those teachers.
Born Harbhajan Singh Puri on August 26, 1929, in a part of India that later became Pakistan, he was the son of a medical doctor. His family were devout Sikhs. He spent his youth in private schools and his summers in the exclusive Dalhousie mountain region of Himachal Pradesh. He was eight years old when he began his yogic training with an enlightened teacher, Sant Hazara Singh, who proclaimed young Harbhajan Singh to be a master of kundalini yoga when he was just 16 years old.
When Harbhajan Singh was 18 years of age, during the time of turmoil of partition in 1947, he moved to the safety of New Delhi, India. It was there that he settled and resumed his studies attending Punjab University and graduating with a degree in Economics. He began government service with India’s Internal Revenue Department and later moved to the Customs Service and became head of Customs at Palam International Airport (now known as New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport).
He married his wife, Inderjit Kaur, in 1952 and they had two sons, Ranbir Singh and Kulbir Singh, and a daughter Kamaljit Kaur.
Throughout his college studies and government work he continued to teach yoga to people from all walks of life.
In September of 1968 he had flown to Canada to teach yoga at Toronto University, carrying a letter of recommendation from Sir James George, Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi who had been his student there. After two months in Canada, he traveled to Los Angeles for a weekend visit and it was there that he came into contact with the “baby booming” hippies of that era. He recognized that instead of the drugs they were turning to for their experiences of higher consciousness, they could achieve this through the science of kundalini yoga. He decided to make his home in the United States.
Soon he was teaching classes at colleges and universities in many cities across the United States, and true to his word, he created teachers through his non-profit 3HO Foundation (which stands for Healthy, Happy and Holy Organization) and his International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association and Kundalini Research Institute.
He was an ardent advocate of world peace and religious unity and he traveled extensively in the eighties and nineties teaching people their birthright to be healthy, happy and holy. He met and worked with many world leaders of all faiths, which included Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama. In June of 1985 he established the first International Peace Prayer Day in New Mexico, which continues to this day bringing national and international leaders in the realms of religion, politics and humanity together to further the spreading of peace.
He was a defender of women’s rights and believed that women were the backbone of society and were to be respected, revered and cherished. He started a summer camp for women that is held each year in New Mexico to further their self esteem and the realization that they are the “Grace of God” as he put it.
From a personal viewpoint, Yogi Bhajan was a charismatic teacher, full of witticisms and vast knowledge on many topics. For example one famous quote: “If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all”. He was very accessible and would take phone calls from his students and dispense advice on any struggle that you may be having. I still have letters that he wrote to me when I turned to him with my concerns. He always had a remedy to administer for any type of physical malady and practiced aryuvedic healing customs along with the use of homeopathy, herbs and even different foods and yogic exercises for enhancing and maintaining health.
My years spent in the ashram were unforgettable ones. I was propelled along my spiritual journey by all that I learned through teachings of Sikhism, kundalini yoga, a vegetarian diet, healing techniques and the example of being a strongly convicted, authentic human being. Yogiji’s teachings have added immeasurable meaning to my life and a lifetime of gratitude.
I left that lifestyle in 1979 but the many experiences I amassed while under Yogiji’s tutelage will be with me for lifetimes to come.
Yogiji left this physical plane on October 6, 2004 at the age of 75.
When I wrote this I was wanting to focus on the positive lessons that I came away with from living that lifestyle. I was not trying to “white wash” some very real problems that the organization was challenged by…some of which I experienced while there. All groups of people who gather together and try to accomplish goals run into problems and 3HO was not exempt. When I look back at that time I see how it strengthened my physical and mental abilities. I learned to meditate and quiet my mind. I learned reverence and humility and so much more. But in the end, I knew it was time to move on and I’ve come to realize more and more that I need to rely on my own self to guide me through this life. And in this way keep myself open to ideas and other people’s perceptions that may help me learn and grow.