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Auroville Adventure

Oct 2000


America and the yoga

by Alan


This summer we, Alan and Annemarie of Auroville Today, paid our first visit to the U.S. While there we were hosted by many friends of Auroville and sadhaks who inspired us with the intensity, devotion and openness to the future with which they practice the yoga.




On the individual level, the yoga seems to have a very strong foundation. But how do those who practice the yoga in the U.S. relate to each other?
Do they form a strong community?
Are they attracting new adherents?
And does Auroville have any role to play in this?


In the U.S. there are a number of different organisations which are associated with the Integral Yoga, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. These include organizations which give information about the yoga, and channel or raise funds for Auroville or the Ashram - like Auroville International USA (AVI USA), the Sri Aurobindo Association (SAA) and the Foundation for World Education (FWE); centres which host conferences and retreats - like Matagiri and Sri Aurobindo Sadhana Peetam (Lodi Ashram); and educational centres like the East-West Cultural Centre and the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS). There are also a host of smaller study groups, both regionally-based and 'virtual'.

"The various centres in the U.S. have tended to act pretty much independently, at least until recently," explains David Hutchinson, President of the Sri Aurobindo Association. "In the U.S. the yoga tends to be practised in a very individualistic manner - perhaps this has to do with the national character and the geography of the country - and this makes people eschew large organization and distrust formal hierarchy. For example, a plan for a confederation of the U.S. centres which was floated a few years ago met with more resistance than enthusiasm."

Many of the centres were set up by influential, charismatic figures and even today many of them have individuals who are in strong leadership roles. Dakshina who manages the Lodi Ashram in California along with fellow Ashramite Vishnubhai, sees this as another possible deterrent to closer collaboration between the centres. "A group with a strong leader may not feel the need to reach out to other centres. And many of those other centres will not accept these leaders in that kind of role."

But there may also be other factors which make for less overall cohesion. Those Americans who lived for some time in Auroville have tended to constitute an informal but close group of their own. At the same time, among those groups in the U.S. which tend to be Ashram-oriented, there is still quite a widespread sense of confusion concerning the relationship between the Ashram and Auroville, and some seem to feel that Auroville is, in some way, alienated from or even hostile to the Ashram - a legacy, no doubt, of the earlier conflict between Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Society. While this doesn't at all reflect the present relationship between Auroville and the Ashram, Gordon Korstange - who has been active in various Auroville and yoga-related groups in the U.S. - believes that if inhibitions exist between certain groups in America, it is partly because there has never been a true and formal reconciliation between Auroville and the Ashram.

But the times, it seems, are changing. Both the boards of the Foundation for World Education and Sri Aurobindo Association have taken it as one of their key tasks to encourage greater collaboration between the centres. In this respect, the 1998 AUM (All-USA Meeting) was something of a watershed, for the organizers deliberately sought, in Vishnubhai's words, "to mingle the waters" by bringing together different groups. This has continued in subsequent AUMs, in the trend towards common membership of the boards of different organizations, and in the efforts of the Sri Aurobindo Association to bring over Aurovilians on a regular basis to meet with various groups in the U.S. "What I see over the past two years," says David, "is that a very strong force towards harmony and co-operation is driving us together."

Why are there not more?

Paradoxically, while there are many centres in the U.S., few Americans have even heard about the Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo or Mother. Is this a matter for concern? "No", says Julian Lines, who runs the East Coast office of AVI-USA, and he remembers the force with which Mother quoted Sri Aurobindo's words: "Nothing depends upon the numbers". "It's in the Divine's hands," Julian continues. "Obviously the right people will come at the right time." Rudy Phillips, who is a powerful influence in shaping the policies and workings of the Foundation for World Education, takes another view. He believes that many outsiders cannot grasp what the Integral Yoga is about because it lacks an obvious unifying factor. "When people get interested in the yoga, they call one of us up and ask `Who can I meet with? What can I do?' But we don't know what to tell them because we don't agree among ourselves what the yoga is and how it should be practised. So, of course, such seekers often go elsewhere."

Tom O'Brien, Rudy's close associate in the yoga, explains further. "It's very difficult to explain to others what the Integral Yoga is because, ultimately, it is all of life. The advantage of this freedom for us, as sadhaks, is that we can invent for ourselves whatever we feel is a true expression of the spirit. The disadvantage is that it's difficult to find anything which unites us."

Rudy believes that many American sadhaks are looking for community. "One way to achieve this would be to have shared spiritual practices. Unfortunately, in this yoga we have this deep-seated - and, I think, wrong-headed - bias against religiosity which makes some of us go overboard against any kind of shared spiritual practice, thus denying ourselves an essential aspect of the spiritual pathwork."

David Hutchinson notes another danger. "In a country where there is such a plethora of New Age movements, the seeker can unknowingly be led into various by-paths unless he or she has a very clear idea of the essential lines of the Integral Yoga. And these are not easy to discover." In this context Gordon notes that while spiritual masters from other cultures and traditions have flocked to the U.S., no senior sadhak of the Integral Yoga has as yet taken up residence to provide such guidance.

Americans and Auroville

Today relatively few Americans are joining Auroville. Why? Rudy is in no doubt: "In terms of the yoga, Auroville and America are mirror images of each other. In both places the core of the community remains hidden because of the lack of agreed spiritual practices, and that's why more people are not drawn to participate."

Tom O'Brien lived for two years in Auroville during the mid-70s. During that period proportionately there were far more Americans in Auroville than there are today. Many left in the late 1970s and early 1980s, never to return. Why? The reasons may be individual, but Tom's experience may also furnish some clues to some common factors. He mentions, for example, that his relationship to the yoga is essentially one of bhakti, devotion, and that the Auroville of that period did not encourage such expression. "It's as if Auroville had to develop the material foundation that correlates with the three chakras of survival, desire and will to help with the individuation process. But now perhaps what is needed is to open the heart centre more deeply." "I'd say this is Auroville's mission for the next fifty years," adds Rudy. "Find your heart and that will transform the numbers who are drawn to the community."

Many Americans left Auroville during the conflict with the Sri Aurobindo Society. "When Mother's chief disciples went at each other tooth and nail," says Gordon, who lived in Auroville during the 1970s, "the effect was a certain loss of faith in those who were not passionately partisan". It was a struggle which also generated conflicts among the Aurovilians themselves, a time when people were put into boxes and labelled 'good' or 'bad'. "Americans don't like boxes," Tom explains, "because they are by nature synthetic, not exclusive, and always willing to try new things." In other words, Americans are ground-breakers, initiators, which is perhaps why they were drawn to the wide open spaces, the tabula rasa, of Auroville in the early years. But Rudy also notes that Americans are "horribly impatient. Everything has to be accomplished in a micro-second. It's difficult for them to comprehend the larger sweep of Divine time and to take small, intermediate steps towards a goal." This means they are easily discouraged if things don't go swiftly their way.

Julian points out that many of the Americans who left during this period were "wounded". "Wounded from the battles with the Sri Aurobindo Society, from the intolerance of some of the French, from the closing down of the schools, from attempts to impose the Galaxy. Many of them wanted an eco-Auroville: they'd already experienced and rejected the American/Western model of materialism. But when they saw these same values beginning to infect not only the local population but also Aurovilians themselves, they felt the battle had been lost. So they left."

Gordon doesn't fully agree with this analysis. "We were not all radical environmentalists, and wounded though we certainly were, our big wide-open country, with all its possibilities, was still waiting for us. We Americans went to Auroville with a very American sense that everything was possible - the American Dream we were taught about at school - and we returned to the USA with that same sense." In other words, America itself still offers so much for pioneer spirits - both materially and spiritually - that many Americans don't feel they have to live in Auroville to satisfy that longing for adventure.

Julian notes, however, that a new season of American involvement with Auroville may be heralded by present discussions concerning the concept of the American Pavilion. "There's a new energy in these discussions which may be a catalyst for bringing Americans - and American dynamism - to Auroville once again." He warns, however, that if such an inflow is to take place Auroville must do much more to actively support its centres abroad, through a better and more regular flow of information, through sending volunteers to help with the work, and through helping make the centres financially viable. "For, ultimately, the long-term health of Auroville depends on the long-term health of its `embassies' around the world."

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