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A Woman of Wisdom: Marge Alpern, 89-year-old Kundalini Yoga Teacher

Video interview

By Sat Shabd Singh (Dale Prentiss), Michigan

For many years, Marge Alpern wrote a monthly national gardening column. For most of her 89 years she’s lived in Michigan, 65 of them with her husband, Bob Alpern, who recently passed away. “Someone once said that we fulfilled each other’s neurotic needs,” she explains, probably something that could be worked into all wedding vows. She has raised four successful human beings, and has eight grandchildren.

Few knew, however, that over the past 40 years she’s developed into a devoted and serious yogini. It’s not the thing she would discuss with all of her friends or all of her relatives, but you can be sure that her students knew. She has spent long periods of time teaching Kundalini Yoga to inner-city fifth-graders, cancer patients, and suburban women. Marge has followed Yogi Bhajan’s direction to teach Kundalini Yoga wherever it is needed. Her only request now is that others continue spreading the teachings and technology that Yogi Bhajan brought to us.

Why Am I Here?

Marge attended her first Kundalini Yoga class during the early 70s at an ashram in the Detroit area. The class was taught by Guru Marka. “From the beginning,” she remembers, “I had many questions. What is an ashram? What is yoga? What is Kundalini? What kind of a name is Guru Marka? And why the turban? But the real question was why am I here in the first place?”

She would find the answer to that last question in New Mexico.

In June, 1971, Marge set off alone for New Mexico to attend a White Tantric Yoga® course, “whatever that was.” One of her clearest memories of that event was hearing Yogi Bhajan say to the group of about three hundred people gathered there, “The people who are here are here because they have to be.” Marge sensed then, at that moment, that this man, Yogi Bhajan, could answer many of her most important questions.

Yogi Bhajan taught Marge to become all she was capable of becoming. She learned that she needed herself more than she needed Yogi Bhajan. “I learned to trust myself,” she says, “and I learned to be strong. I remember hearing these words, ‘You have to grow, from the inside out. No one can teach you. No one can show you the way. There is no teacher but your own inner consciousness. A teacher can awaken only that which is already inside of you, and a teacher spoils everything if he thinks he is teaching.’”

Those first seven straight days of White Tantric Yoga® were very challenging, but Marge did the best she could to “keep up,” as Yogi Bhajan constantly urged them to do. The fact that everyone was on silence for the entire week made it an even more intense experience. But the silence was another challenge that Marge welcomed. “It was almost as challenging as the tantric itself. It was demanding, but fascinating. I came to realize that we all talk too much and also think too much. I found that the silence helped strengthen my resolve to keep up.”

Summer Solstice Sagas

Summer Solstice Sadhana in those days was more primitive than today. “The physical conditions of the camp were rather rough,” she recalls. “The showers and the toilets were clean and adequate but, shall we say, quite plain. The tent area was down a steep slope that became very slippery when it rained and was rather far from the main camp area. I must have been up and down that slope three or four times a day, and it was not easy terrain.”

It was worth the discomfort and the challenge, according to Marge, and she would attend 17 more Summer Solstice Sadhanas. “The teacher and the teachings were compelling,” she says, “and the energy of the sangat (spiritual community) was almost mystical. Here I was with several hundred strangers, in total silence, in a strange place, sharing, learning, and pursuing a totally new and different way of life. I knew, almost immediately, that I was embarking on a course that was going to change not just my life, but also my most inner self and that of the people with whom I was sharing this experience.”

Marge expresses a great deal of empathy for the mostly younger people who shared her early solstice experiences. It was a time of a crisis for many young Americans who had developed crippling drug addictions, often in a search for spiritual growth. “They were bright young people,” she says, who hoped to achieve higher consciousness through a healthier path. “They were very young and, all of a sudden, they were confronted by this scary situation and they recognized it to be an enormous problem. I wasn’t sure then,” she says, “but now it is clear to me that they were coming for the peace that they had found in drugs and hoped they would find in yoga.”

For some, though, “the yogic path was harder than they had anticipated.” Marge recalls that many of the young people suffered more than she did through the tantric days. One afternoon, she says, “my young partner was shaking so hard and obviously suffering with great pain. Respecting my silence and his, I wrote him a note offering to get him an aspirin. He put up his hands and shook his head as if to say, ‘I cannot take an aspirin.’” Even a single aspirin would send him back down the road to drug use.

This fear could serve a healthy purpose. Many attended the early solstices, says Marge, “out of fear of drugs. Today,” she continues, “in 2009, we are now seeing millions of people coming to yoga. Some are desperate. In the 70s, they wanted to get off drugs. Today, people are looking for ways to find inner silence, peace, security, and sanity, to get away from the craziness out there. Many people of all ages, who have led good lives, now are frightened by job insecurity, a shaky economy, a shocking decline in morals, a general tawdriness, or to use one of Yogi Bhajan’s phrases, ‘little reverence for each other or for life in general.’ No wonder people are looking to yoga.”

As soon as she finished her summer solstice experience, she would check into a Hilton Hotel in Santa Fe and call her husband to tell him what she’d learned. “Through the years, I found I really needed a few days of easy living, hot baths, and regular food before reentry to my normal life.” And despite the hardship, her annual trips to Summer Solstice “became the high point of my calendar; it renewed and strengthened my personal sadhana.”

The Power of Practice

Marge has kept up, to this day, with a personal sadhana that gets stronger over time. “I am in good health for someone my age,” she says, and that’s an understatement. It can be intimidating to sit next to this 89-year-old yogini at a yoga class; she has more stamina and strength than some people half her age. “I also believe that my daily sadhana and powerful meditation will help me experience a peaceful death by leading me into eternal silence,” she says. “That would be a real blessing and a great benefit from my years of practice.”

It wasn’t until she reached her eighties, says Marge, that she became truly aware of the lasting benefits of yoga. “Up until then I just felt like I was growing, getting stronger, having more energy to get out in the world. It is only in recent years,” she says, “as I’ve become old, that I feel a deep need for it for self-healing, and I lean on it very heavily. Every morning I try to do fifteen or twenty minutes on the floor. If I don’t do it, I’m sorry for the rest of the day. I meditate twice a day because I need it. Since March, I have been doing the 1,000 Day meditation with the recently distributed video entitled, ‘The Meditation for an Invincible Spirit.’ It certainly helps me.”

My Teacher: When He Spoke, I Listened

Yogi Bhajan, the invincible spirit who taught this and so many other meditations, was a guest at Marge’s home on a number of occasions, and she considers him to be her teacher. “As I come to the end of my life,” she says, “I want to pay tribute to the memory of Yogi Bhajan. When he spoke, I listened and I learned. From the very beginning, I felt he was speaking directly to me. His words still resonate through me. I feel honored and blessed to have been his student.”

It would be many years after her first solstice when she would first speak with him. She recalls telling him that she wasn’t yet ready for a spiritual name or any great commitment, and he told her to speak to him again when she was ready. “Several years later,” she says, “I just knew that I was ready. I wasn’t going to put on a turban, or even a bracelet, but the second time when I approached him, I said, ‘I know I am now ready and I would like you to please give me a spiritual name.’ He just smiled at me and he gave me the most beautiful name of all, I think. My name is Daya Kaur. He said that it means the compassionate one. And then he said, with another big smile, ‘The Daya Kaur is the one who brings the chicken soup to the village.’ I just loved that and I said to him, ‘Thank you very much for that special name, but I really don’t think I deserve it. I don’t think I’m nearly as compassionate as I should be.’ And he said to me, ‘You’re not, but maybe you can grow to be.’”

Marge understood that this was her path, the one thing above all that she must strive for, to be more compassionate. “It has been a treasure for me to carry inside of myself,” she says, “where I think these teachings belong and are most powerful. It is on that level that yoga does its magic. It helps me to explore my own inner spirit, how it grows, and how I listen to it. And, so I think it has great value. Thank you, again, Yogi Bhajan.”

Carrying the Banner On

One direction for her compassion has been in teaching Kundalini Yoga to those who would not otherwise have access to it. She began to take a new approach to teaching, moving beyond her small weekly group of suburban women, first to teach underprivileged urban young people, and then seriously ill cancer patients. In the early 1990s she started to teach a small group of elementary school children from a low-income area of Pontiac, Michigan. Once a week, for many years, she taught a small group of children selected by a teacher, a new group every year, each from broken homes or alcoholic families, children “starved for personal attention, if not love,” she says. “Most of them were receptive, excited, and quite attentive to whatever I was teaching.” They learned the value of tuning in and practicing basic Kundalini Yoga breathing exercises and postures—many of them animal poses. “But,” she notes, “it was the meditation lesson that I repeated almost verbatim at every class that really fascinated them.” Marge still remembers many of these children individually, and she displays drawings and other small gifts from them with a teacher’s pride.

One day an earnest little boy named Eric told her that he had to learn more about how to meditate because he was teaching his mother how to do it. He had to listen very closely to every word, he said, so he could say the same things every day to her. Marge will never forget the children who taught her that she was a yoga teacher.

She next taught at a Detroit-area home for terminally ill cancer patients, Gilda’s Club, once a week for five years. This cancer support center had originally been established by the local comedienne, Gilda Radner, herself a cancer victim. “By the time I was teaching there,” she says, “I felt quite experienced and could confidently adjust the teachings so that they would be appropriate, authentic, and helpful. These people had been disempowered and were really living in fear and desperation from one doctor’s appointment to the next. They were encouraged and comforted with anything they could do to help themselves to relieve the tension, open their bodies, and to breathe more deeply. This is something I felt I could do. I hope I helped some of them.”

Marge points to another huge group of people who desperately need the benefits of Kundalini Yoga: senior citizens. “There is a real need,” she says, with her youthful passion, “for a program for senior citizens. I don’t know whether their needs are being met very well. Our country is having a problem with the large population of people growing old. There is not a lot of respect or interest in old people, just a lot of concern for what’s going to happen.”

Marge is especially concerned about senior men, who in her view have a great need for Kundalini Yoga, but few ways to become connected with it. “Older men are dying of overwork and exhaustion. As a matter of fact, I know ten widows and two widowers. If the men could just be taught how to quiet themselves, relax, and open themselves to Universal energy, they would feel better. I remember Yogi Bhajan saying, ‘You just sit, and God will bring his bus to you.’ Doesn’t that just sound like him?”

“Men think they’re getting their exercise if they play golf or play tennis,” she says. “They think that because they are tired when they’re finished. And then, when the men retire, they totally fall apart. Many of them fall by the wayside and have a very hard time. Others stay in front of the computer or the television and are stooped over, often sound asleep. Doing yoga would lead to other things and help them regain a life. We want to show them that yoga does not mean sitting in a cave and meditating. Certainly, that is not what Yogi Bhajan taught us. He said to be strong, to keep up, to be tough, and work in the world. Another thing that Yogi Bhajan said that has been in my mind for many years is, ‘It’s not enough to just know it; you have to do it.’ This is an activist way of life.”

When Marge Alpern, also known as Daya Kaur, talks about an activist way of life, she knows what she’s talking about.

Sat Shabd Singh is a yogi, writer, historian, instructional designer, and Communications Manager for IntellinGen, Inc. In 1990 he earned a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Stanford University; in 2004 he completed Kundalini Yoga teacher training in India, and he is a member of IKYTA.