By Kirpal Singh Khalsa
I couldn't wait to move into the Ashram. I had been doing yoga for months; I wore white clothes; I had done a yoga intensive; I had even met the Yogi. I was ready.
But my yoga teacher did not agree. In fact, he tried to talk me out of it. "Are you sure you're ready?" he asked. "You will have to get up every day at 3:30 in the morning."
"That sounds great," I gushed.
"You’ll have no privacy," he continued. "It’s like living in a fish bowl."
"I don't need privacy," I said.
"We work all day in the restaurant and make almost no money," he warned.
"That's okay," I said. "I don't need much money."
He threw up his hands and shook his head. "I’ll give you a 40 day trial," he said. "If you can make it 40 days then we'll talk about really living here."
It was 1970. The '60s were over. For most, it was a time to come back down to earth, to clean up and get serious about life. But for me, it was time to take the 60s' ideals and live them. My Kundalini Yoga class at Denver University had opened my awareness. My teacher, Hari Dass, with his long blond hair, bushy beard and twinkling eyes was my idea of an enlightened soul.
I moved into the unfinished basement at Guru Ram Das Ashram on Clayton Street along with the other the single men. The single women were not allowed down there, but the injunction was unnecessary. Mataji, Hari Dass’s wife and the ashram "mother," had dubbed the basement "The Pit.” The women would not come near.
At 3:30 a.m. one of my roommates, Mahadev, walked through the Ashram banging on a guitar and singing at the top of his lungs, “Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory.” Additional sleep was impossible. The entire house was up and beating a path toward bathrooms. Cries of “Waheguru! Waheguru! Waheguru!” marked another yogi taking his cold morning shower.
What a motley group destiny had thrown together to work off our karmas in the Ashram. Hari Dass, our leader, was the former Cosmos Lovejoy of Venice Beach, California, and one of Yogi Bhajan’s earliest students. Ramanand, Lisa and their four-year-old daughter Ferngold had just arrived from the Hog Farm Commune near Taos in their little renovated school bus. They were looking for more structure in their lives. Laura, the old lady of the group at 38, had left a disintegrating marriage in Chicago.
Mahadev and Krishna, two young men from New York, had hitchhiked across the country looking for spiritual community. They could have been a comedy team, and kept us in stitches with their antics. Narayan was so spaced out from (previous) overenthusiastic consumption of psychedelics you had to call his name three times to get his attention.
Tyrone, a compact African American, had just been paroled from the Colorado State Penitentiary. He took Kundalini Yoga classes in prison and was the kindest, gentlest soul of the group. Melissa was a music student at Denver University and loved chanting.
Our Sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, began at 4:00 a.m. and consisted of two and a half hours of chanting long Ek Ong Kar (also known as Morning Call). We did it everyday. Chanting was followed by a full set of Kundalini Yoga. We ended with some music and singing. On some days we added 31 minutes of Sat Kriya.
Hari Dass kept a monthly Sadhana chart.It was posted on the bathroom door. Green meant present and conscious. Yellow meant present and not conscious. Red meant AWOL. Ashram members took pride in large swaths of green on their Sadhana charts. Those of us with a preponderance of red became lively topics at family meetings. Each month the Sadhana chart was sent to 3HO Headquarters in Los Angeles. I believe those Sadhana charts still exist in some dusty file somewhere.
Family meetings were an integral part of our lifestyle. We met after Sadhana every Sunday morning. Hari Dass did his best to keep the group focused as we bared our souls, shared our fears and ambitions, released anger and listened to the feedback of the group. Somehow it worked. Group consciousness prevailed, truth was revealed, hearts opened and the group grew closer.
Sadhana was followed by a group breakfast. We always had very good food from “our” restaurant—yogurt, fruit, granola and Yogi Tea. After breakfast there was karma yoga. We vacuumed, swept, did dishes, washed floors, made beds and generally made the ashram livable. Mataji made Yogi Tea. The ashram was continually filled with the rich aroma of cinnamon, cloves and ginger. To this day the smell of fresh Yogi Tea brings me back to those early ashram days.
Most of us worked for the next 12 hours in Hanuman’s Conscious Cookery, just down the hill from Denver University. The restaurant was a “break-even” enterprise, in that it would break even the biggest egos. The first day I showed up to work, Hari Dass made me wash out all the garbage cans. After that it was the refrigerators. Finally I was promoted to dishwasher and pot scrubber, scrubbing my karmas away. Further promotions were fairly well assured as cooks and managers regularly freaked out and left. In no time I was head cook and manager. I had plenty of my own freak-outs, but somehow I did not leave.
The ashram doubled as a community center. We offered yoga classes, cooking classes, had frequent parties, full moon meditations, special yoga intensives, picnics, games, music and other fun activities. Everything we did had spiritual meaning. People were eager for a spiritual connection.
As if our lives were not already intense enough, we offered several Kundalini Yoga Intensives each year. Twenty or thirty hearty souls would spend two and a half days up in the mountains doing yoga and meditation, eating a special diet, sitting for group discussions, walking the trails, and expanding our minds. The intensives were really a lot of fun and introduced many future ashram residents to their first experience of a spiritual lifestyle.
The biggest event of the year was Yogi Bhajan’s visit. The week before he arrived we scrubbed the ashram from floor to ceiling, painted everything in sight, bought new furniture and kicked most residents out into the back yard to make room. We borrowed nice furniture from friends, students, and family and transformed the Ashram into a very comfortable house.
Yogiji always made time to meet with all the ashram residents, hear their problems and inspire everybody. He could blast the tar out of you with his words and at the same time flood you with love from his eyes. For three days, from early morning to the wee hours of the next morning, he would go non-stop, teaching classes, visiting people, receiving guests, going to movies, shopping, sight-seeing, eating out and continually teaching anybody within shouting distance. I don't know how he did it. We were utterly exhausted when he left and needed a week to recover. But he would just get into a plane, fly to his next destination, and do it all over again.
Each ashram had its eccentrics. Ours was Krishna, a food fanatic. He obsessively read labels on all food items and quickly pointed out to anyone the dire consequences of their food habits. At one point he cleared out the ashram cupboards of all foods he deemed unhealthy, including our personal food stashes. He said that he was right—healthy and close to God—and that we were eating ourselves to disease and death.
It took Yogiji to set him straight. We were eating at a restaurant and our fanatic friend Krishna glowered at all the unhealthy food people were eating. Yogiji leaned over to him and ordered, “You eat that!” He pointed to a huge chocolate chip cookie sitting on the dessert tray. With those three words, the teacher's hammer came down. Krishna could have freaked out and left. Instead he laughed, ate the whole cookie, and dropped his food obsession.
Hari Dass was my first yoga teacher. I looked on him with a sense of awe. In my eyes, he was divinely inspired, always right, and guided his flock with grace and wisdom. The truth was that he was just a kid like me, only a little older. I refused to see his inconsistencies and personal insanity. But one day when we got up, he was gone and so was a young lady who had recently moved into the Ashram. In retrospect the signs of his leaving were there. He had stopped coming to sadhana, distanced himself from the group and no longer worked at the restaurant. It was time for the rest of us to step up.
A week after Hari Dass left, Yogi Bhajan called and asked me to serve as Ashram head. A little more than a year and a half had passed since I started as a novice yoga student. Since then I had became a Kundalini Yoga teacher and was managing the restaurant. Two weeks before the phone call, Yogiji had visited Denver and married my wife and me in an elaborate ceremony at the restaurant. Now I was the leader of the ashram. All the hard-times I had given Hari Dass would return to me as karma as I took on the role of leader.
Soon the Ashram outgrew its Clayton Street house and shifted to a larger house on Josephine Street. After a few years we sold the restaurant and moved the center of activity to Boulder, where the Ashram evolved into a community. Instead of a group of people living together in a single house, we were a group of people living in our own houses and working together to build a community. Each member was a teacher in his or her own right, and the position of the ashram head evolved into a committee of responsible and committed individuals, manifesting a shared vision.
Even today, the idea of community is evolving. Instead of a limited geographical area, our community includes people all over the world. We still live for each other, still support each other’s sadhana, and still work together to grow in consciousness. We may not be living under one roof, but the values are the same as they were in the old ashram days.
Kirpal Singh Khalsa served as director of Guru Ram Das Ashram in Boulder, Colorado from 1972 – 1992. From 1992 – 2003 he served as Academic Director for Sikh Dharma Education International and helped found Miri Piri Academy in Amritsar, India. He currently lives with the Sikh community in Espanola, New Mexico.