Carried By A Promise is the story of Swami Radhananda, the president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram, and her relationship with her teacher, Swami Sivananda Radha. Yasodhara Ashram is a thriving spiritual community in Southeastern British Columbia which was founded by Swami Radha, one of the first Western women to be initiated into sanyas.
The story follows Swami Radhananda’s life from her first meeting with Swami Radha in 1977 until her teacher’s death in 1995. While reading this humble and clear memoir, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey and my spiritual life. Like Swami Radhananda – or Mary-Ann MacDougall, as she was known at the time of her meeting – I am in my mid-30s. Even though I don’t have a husband and children, or a career for that matter, I relate to her dissatisfaction, her desire for more out of life, her questioning.
Also, full disclosure, I have studied yoga with Swami Radhananda and I lived at Yasodhara Ashram for two years. I have intimate experience with the teachings and practices that she talks about in the book. But I also feel that this book has much to offer anybody who is on the path of yoga, anyone who has the courage to practice, investigate themselves and apply what they’ve learned in their real lives.
Swami Radhananda’s journey begins in Lethbridge, Alberta, when a friend introduces her to a powerful yogic practice, the Divine Light Invocation. She has two small children and an unhappy marriage, and she’s working as an educator. Over the next twelve years, she studies yoga with Swami Radha, develops her relationship, gradually leaves her marriage, gets a masters’ degree and upgrades her skills so she can save up enough money to make the permanent move to the Ashram.
She writes honestly and frankly about her struggles, her doubts and her victories. “How long everything takes! Even though I’m making what for me is good money, it takes so long to gather what I need to support the children and myself for the years ahead. It takes so long to move to where I long to go.”
During this long process, she is bridging two worlds – her work in the world and the work of the Divine. Swami Radhananda’s writing style also successfully bridges both these realities: she openly discusses the real world challenges she faces in a clear, matter-of-fact tone, and at other times, her writing is poetic and ethereal. This makes for an enjoyable and engaging reading experience.
“Crisp moonlit walk – moon shadows, trees swaying, deer paths, boots crunching, snow twinkling, empty path, devotion, being here,” she writes on her first day of being an Ashram resident. Then she immediately follows this with a brave reflection: “Years on hold bring forward both sides of myself – tiredness, likes and dislikes countered by deep gratitude, happiness and willingness. Even though I’ve been connected to the Ashram for years, it feels a bit like a foreign culture.”
In the second half of the book, Swami Radhananda gives a rare insight into the culture of the Ashram, her adjustment to living there with her children (the husband is out of the picture) and, most importantly, her relationship with Swami Radha, who, in her early 80s, is preparing for her next step and looking for a successor to guide the community.
Just as in the years leading up to her arrival at the Ashram, Swami Radhananda shares experiences of complicated relationships (this time, with other Ashram residents) and challenging work situations. These are all steps on the path as she assumes presidency of the community, is initiated as a swami, and moves into leading the Ashram just before Swami Radha’s death in Autumn 1995.
“Do what is most challenging,” Swami Radha tells her before passing. “Don’t allow yourself excuses. The main thing is to ask the Divine to blow away the clouds from your mind. Face the mind and not all the clutter that surrounds it. Take time to study, reflect and practice.”
The book ends with Swami Radha’s death, but that’s not the end of the story. To this day, fifteen years later, Swami Radhananda continues to guide the Ashram, effectively putting into practice the qualities that her teacher saw in her. The community continues to thrive as a world-renowned yoga retreat and study centre, and is also a leader in environment sustainability.
Carried By A Promise is a story about the guru-disciple relationship and the transformative power of yoga. But I also saw at the core of this story the message that no matter how much we want to unite with the Divine, commit to our practice, follow a teacher – there are real world things we have to take care of. We have to deal with our relationships, raise our children, get our finances in order. We have to take responsibility for our lives and create space for our spiritual growth. The spiritual path is not an escape from our day-to-day concerns – it’s a recognition of our full capacity, and this includes the mundane details of life as well as the transcendental.