Making of an Ashram
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
"Making of an Ashram” a Talk given at our Ashram Open Day by Shanker Madan
Beacon Yoga Centre and the Sivananda Ashram, Perth both operating under the banner of Integral Yoga Association (IYA) were inspired to “come into being” by Swami Venkatesananda. Swami Ji (as he was affectionately known) first visited Perth in 1961 at the invitation of Dr Werther from Nedlands, later Swami Sangitananda.
In June 1972, his enthusiastic followers led by Nancy Horwood, later Swami Lakshmi Ananda got hold of a rundown property at 46 John Street, North Fremantle and started to teach yoga through IYA. IYA had the use of the property but not its ownership. Broken windows, missing taps, broken hot water system were fixed up; painting and cleaning took place over the next 3 and half months through weekend busy bees. Friday satsang prayers and meditation, a small library all started within a short period of time. A volunteer yoga teacher would take free yoga classes between 1 and 3 pm every day. Many people turned up on Saturdays, to also participate in Karma yoga and other activities. In 1974, passage walls between the rooms were taken out to create a small hall for practicing and teaching yoga.
In early 1976, IYA activities were growing and even at that time it was being felt that this half acre property which was not owned, was too small to become a full-fledged Ashram with appropriate permissions. At the same time inflation was high and property prices began to move up sharply. The owners of the John Street building suggested selling the property and graciously gave plenty of time to find alternative accommodation, a permanent larger venue for IYA to grow.
After much research the current place at the corner of Field Street and South Street in Beaconsfield at around 4600 sq m (more than an acre), near the heart of Fremantle and yet secluded on top of a hill was found and acquired. The building, more than 100 years old, then rundown and which had seen better days as Grosvenor hospital and prior to that as the residence of George Curedale a well-known farmer and a Mayor of Fremantle, needed a lot of work to become habitable. The building and the place had the size to grow into a nice future. Once again, the Karma Yogi’s of the mid 1970s set themselves to the task of breathing life into this place under the stewardship of Swami Lakshmi Ananda.
This is about the time I and my wife Anu met Swami Lakshmi at the residence of David Woodroffe, our then neighbour in Bull Creek. An Anglican priest and a lecturer and student counsellor at Murdoch University, David was well known and often invited spiritually inclined people to his home. Not long thereafter we met Swami Venkatesananda himself at the residence Kanubhai and Hemlata Patel, who had migrated to Australia from South Africa and had become close friends through our common interest in Indian Association of Western Australia. My mother visited us in 1977 and brought a few icons and a copy of Ramayana and set up a prayer altar in our home. I am not sure when exactly but possibly soon after I heard Swamiji passed away in South Africa in 1982, I bought a book on “Yoga” by Swami Venkatesananda from the Ashram and tore the front cover of the book to cut out a picture of Swamiji, put it in a frame and put it on our altar to pray to every morning. I also started reading the daily readings of Swami Sivananda (the blue cover book) and visiting the Ashram at regular intervals. In years since 1977, we met most of the early disciples of Swami Venkatesananda, among them Janaki, David, Sobha, Robert Becker (Narayan), Rasik Devia, Jogia, Hamsa and many others. Swami Lakshmi taught Anu how to meditate and I too attended yoga classes with Swami Lakshmi and David.
In 1985 both my parents visited us in Australia. The same year Swami Lakshmi published the eight volumes on Swami Sivananda. We bought the books and many more, some of which my father took with him to India.
By now, the Ashram, Swami Lakshmi and Rasik Devia had become a part of our lives. Anu with her knowledge of Sanskrit was often sought out by Swami Lakshmi to help with Sanskrit words and proof reading some of the books she compiled.
In 1985, we had also started the Hindu Association of WA with a view to build Perth’s first Hindu Temple. Swami Lakshmi had also become a regular visitor at the Temple site on Warton Road in Huntingdale, her blessings and advice eagerly sought and always lovingly given.
Swami Narsihmulu who would come to the Ashram every year from Rishikesh for a few months at a time to assist with publishing books compiled by Swami Lakshmi became a regular visitor with her to our home and we too started making regular visits with our children to Sivananda Ashram every time we visited India. Our connection with Divine Life Society, both here in Australia and Rishikesh India deepened over time.
My memory of Swami Venkatesananda although brief and few are his happy beaming face, his thick beautiful curly white hair, always dressed warmly, his raspy laughter as if at the end of a Bhastarika expiration, mischievous smile as if thinking of something completely funny, left field, with a “pun on words” and briefest of silent pauses of reflective introspection before answering questions.
Although we did not meet him at the inauguration of the Ashram at Beaconsfield which ceremony he graced by his presence on 14th January 1977, I have read about the opening ceremony and the account goes something like this.
He called the newly purchased building “Sivananda Ashram” and the teaching wing as the Beacon Yoga Centre (again his marvellous ability to draw inspiration from the words like Beaconsfield, the name of the suburb in which the Ashram is located). Both these came under the jurisdiction of the Integral Yoga Association.
The building was inaugurated by Hon D H O’ Neil then Deputy Premier. Other dignitaries present besides Swamiji himself included Swami Sangitananda, Mr H Fletcher MLA, the Deputy Mayor and some members of Fremantle City Council and Father O Donovan. The President of IYA at the time was Dr Colin Douglas-Smith. The opening was held under a marquee on the front lawn of the building.
The programme started after a brief ceremonial flag hoisting by Swami Sangitananda followed by a blessing by Father Donovan, some Buddhist chanting, a speech by Swami Venkatesananda and finale thanksgiving by Bill Hughes.
The story of how Bill Hughes and his family became involved with IYA is an interesting episode in the history of IYA. His office was just opposite the John Street Centre in North Fremantle when it was first opened in 1972. He would often drop in to see who these Yoga people were and what they were up to, initially just concerned with the renovations. He soon became friends with Swami Lakshmi and not long thereafter his daughter who was asthmatic started taking yoga and meditation lessons from the Swami. Her condition improved quite a lot and the family themselves became ardent supporters of IYA. In 1976, when IYA was contemplating buying the building in Beaconsfield, Bill and many of his personal friends made substantial contributions towards the purchase of the Beaconsfield building.
Swami Venkatesananda’s message to his disciples and devotees was always pointed and focused reflecting his own convictions and the path that he taught in many lectures and scores of books, some of which have now become internationally acclaimed and sold world-wide through book stores. Excerpts from his speech on that inauguration day in 1977 ring the same bell and are worth reflecting on this beautiful “Open Day” in front of you all 41years later.
“The Yoga Centre is the fruit of the concerted efforts of people of all faiths, all walks of life and different age groups. Doctors, architects, businessmen and politicians young and old have contributed in one way or another to its creation.
That indeed is the spirit of Yoga. My Gurudev Swami Sivananda often remarked that the spirit of Yoga does not interfere with one’s religious faith, life style or profession.
It makes you a better person by introducing you to your constant companion who yet somehow remains a stranger to you – yourself.
In the absence of self-knowledge people put on different masks and their life becomes artificial and superficial. By introducing you to yourself it enables you to discover for yourself the true meaning of understanding of fellow-beings and therefore to true love. Yoga enthusiasts may proclaim that this would instantly transform the earth into paradise; a more modest and justifiable aspiration would be – it will enable us to leave earth a better place than it was before we were born into it.”
Such an aspiration was reflected in the plaque that the Hon Deputy Premier unveiled with the words “The Beacon Yoga Centre (Sivananda Ashram)” written on it. The Ashram is in Beaconsfield, and hence the name – Beacon Yoga Centre.
Swamiji then went on to add
“Yet this Beacon could also be a beacon of light that is literally set on a hill, not so much to attract attention as to announce its presence.
They who enter its portals to practice yoga will discover this as the centre of their own Being – the Self. If by the grace of God and Gurudev Sivananda this spirit prevails it will continue to be a blessing to all and will flourish like banana trees that adorned the entrance.”
Your own Self is the Spirit of this Place. “Know Thyself” is Swamiji’s legacy for us all that we at the Ashram endeavour to discuss, practice together and reflect upon.
Although we have specifically called our Sunday morning group get together as the Jnana Yoga group which meets at 7.45am in the library every Sunday morning to read and share our thoughts on texts like Supreme Yoga (Yoga Vasistha) and many others that we have read, everything that is done here in this Ashram is in the spirit of “Knowing Thyself.” It is our core theme.
Through the twists, turns and stretching of our bodies in more than 18 Yoga classes a week where specialist experienced teachers teach surrendering our aches and pains and personal self to the inner intelligence.
Through Friday night Satsangs in the Satsang room, where we learn to share and surrender our being to inner self in singing bhajans and reading a page or two
Through the readings of Patanjali Yoga Sutras or lectures on on week nights
Through regular fire offerings in Havans and chanting of mantra and hymns on the west verandah
Through the “Parliament of Religions” presentations on Monday nights
Through Yoga Days once a month
Through regular spiritual Retreats
Through daily meditation in the mornings
Through peaceful walks and quiet contemplation in the native gardens
Through reading or watching discourse and videos in the library
Through daily Karma Yoga by the residents who come here for short stays, as “Wwoofers” or others who live here, through chance or personal desire for such life of quietude and self-reflection
Through cooking and eating together in the spirit of Yoga
This is the place where we sacrifice a little bit of ourselves and become larger than the individual we are born as with the ultimate objective of merging into the very Canvas that we are projected on to.
This Canvas is our God of no particular denomination. Indeed, it is the One and only One by any name and many languages and religious persuasions.