Self Realization Fellowship: what goes on behind the walls?

The Self-Realization Fellowship is arguably the most recognizable landmark in Encinitas, but what goes on behind the temple walls? Meditation, sublime solitude and strict diets are just part of the mystery behind the monkhood….


My mind operates in constant turmoil. I can’t shut off my brain. Incessant thoughts invade my sense of mental well-being, like a motley crew of uninvited, rowdy guests to my own birthday party. I desperately want them to leave.

How did I get this disconnected from spirit? How long have I been a slave to my cell phone and computer and other soul-depleting electronic diversions that have been masquerading as essential to my happiness? Do I really need to check my voice mail and e-mail for the 10th time today?

Am I making enough money? Why am I not doing more to realize my full potential? Should I have children one day? Are the Chargers going to make it to the Super Bowl this year? When will the next good swell arrive?

Thoughts both profound and utterly petty shock my consciousness like constant mental land mines, shattering my sense of peace. This is not how any Encinitas resident should feel living in paradise.

Fortunately, I’m not this neurotic every day, but when I am, it’s good to know there’s a place in town where I can quiet my monkey-chattering mind: the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) meditation gardens.

Striking varieties of flowering plants and trees form a tropical canopy over a series of koi fish-filled ponds, all connected by miniature waterfalls, leading up to an intoxicating and exotic, succulent-lined pathway with views overlooking Swami’s Point.

This is where anyone can come to meditate and focus on quieting the mind, or at least concentrate on setting positive intensions.

But if you’re not a member of SRF, how does one learn how to escape the ego and take a respite from the physical world? Do you need to bring a yoga mat and towel to try it? And who is Swami’s named for anyway?

Yogananda’s Excellent Adventure 
The SRF was founded by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who was born in Gorakhpur, India on January 5, 1893. Yogananda’s birth name is Mukunda Lal Ghosh, who had a reputation for being a precocious and spiritually-advanced kid, someone who today might be called an “Indigo” child by the New Age movement.

At a young age, Ghosh desired and sought out a guru to learn the ancient Indian meditative practice of Kriya Yoga, a style of yoga very much different from the kind offered in contemporary Encinitas yoga studios. Kriya is intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual development and stimulate a profound state of tranquility and establish communion with God. No downward dogs and cat/cow poses; Kriya is pure stillness.

In 1910, at the age of 17, Ghosh became a disciple of Swami Sri Yukteswar. In the hermitage of this Kriya master, Ghosh spent almost 10 years, receiving Sri Yukteswar’s strict but loving spiritual discipline. After he graduated from Calcutta University in 1915, he took formal vows as a monk in India’s monastic Swami Order, at which time he received the name Yogananda. (Swami is a Sanskrit word for “one who has mastered God-consciousness;”Paramahansa means “highest swan;” Yogananda translates as “divine bliss through yoga.”)

After Yogananda founded the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India in 1917, Yukteswar encouraged his disciple to travel west, to America, to spread the gospel about Kriya yoga and the common bonds between the mystical, original teachings of Jesus Christ and Krishna (the Hindu deity), as well as all other religions.

From 1920–1935, Yogananda traveled tirelessly around the U.S., giving lectures to packed auditoriums. In 1925, Yogananda founded the SRF international headquarters in Los Angeles.

While Yogananda was visiting India during 1935, Dr. James Lynn, a successful businessman who would become SRF ’s second president, purchased the land where the Encinitas SRF now sits.

One of Yogananda’s favorite things to do was go for a road trip down to a spot called Noonan’s Point, where he and his devotees would meditate and spend the day under cypress trees, overlooking the surf break at what is now called Swami’s Point.

When Yogananda took his first trip to Noonan’s since his return from India, Lynn surprised Yogananda with his own personal ocean-view hermitage. The guru was delighted.

Yogananda Chills Out
After racking up what would have been many tens of thousands of frequent flier miles, Yogananda spent the majority of the remainder of his life in his Encinitas hermitage, sleeping little, meditating a lot, and dictating to SRF nuns his teachings, which would eventually serve as the foundation for the SRF Lessons. (It costs $48 for 60 lessons. There are a total of 180 lessons, which takes about three and a half years to study. There are six sections in total. Members don’t have to wait that long, though, to become eligible to receive Kriya instruction, which lay members must apply for after practicing three initial techniques, taking approximately one year’s study.)

Yogananda directed the original landscaping of the meditation gardens, which are open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. The guru supposedly planted many of the trees and shrubs himself.

It was in the hermitage that Yogananda dictated the fascinating anecdotes of a levitating saint, a female yogi that never eats food, and many other fantastical mystics and personal vignettes that would become one of the best-selling books of all time, Autobiography of a Yogi.

For many people, Autobiography, which has been translated into 19 languages (including Icelandic), is the gateway to discovering SRF, whether becoming official devotees of Yogananda or not.
Today, there are over 500 SRF meditation centers in 54 different countries. The Encinitas SRF is one of the most world-renowned spiritual destinations, having been the home of Yogananda for most of his adult life.

Dr. Lynn intended the hermitage—preserved exactly as Yogananda lived in it and open to the public, Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.—to serve as Yogananda’s private quarters. But Yogananda didn’t want to bogart the beautiful grounds; he wanted to share it with the public.

In 1938, Yogananda supervised the construction of a Golden Lotus Temple, which slipped from its foundation in 1942, due to bluff erosion. (To this day, church services have been held adjacent to the SRF campus, on Second Street.) A retreat was later added for SRF members to immerse themselves in silence, meditation and communal spiritual growth.

Yogananda passed on in 1952. According to accounts by a coroner who handled the postmortem operation, Yogananda’s corpse supposedly never showed any signs of decomposing—the sign of a pure saint.

Monk-y Business
The backbone of the SRF is the monks and nuns who run the retreat center, preside over temple services, counsel members and work on the meditation and vegetable gardens. About 15 Encinitas SRF monks care for the meditation gardens. Over 30 volunteer SRF members help grow approximately 40 fruits and vegetables on the patches of land between San Elijo and Summit Avenues and Santa Fe Drive, an area that surely would otherwise be saturated with condos and homes if it weren’t for the SRF owning it. This home-grown food feeds the monks and nuns at the Encinitas SRF as well as the men’s-only ashram in Hidden Valley outside Escondido.

Those who want to enter the monastic life begin their training as a “postulant.” Male postulants live in the Encinitas ashram, which is the dorm-style building adjacent to the Swami’s parking lot.

Postulants eventually take vows as a “novitiate” and wear blue and white. After more training, they take “brahmachari” vows and wear yellow. The final renunciant vows, called “sunnyasi”, bestow the official title of brothers or sisters, who wear ochre, orange-colored robes. All brothers and sisters take a Sanskrit name that reflects a divine concept or virtue.

William Moskowitz was living in Los Angeles and working as a software developer in the early 1980s. “I was making lots of money but I felt empty inside,” says Moskowitz, better known as Brother Bhumananda (“eternal bliss and peace,”) who has served in the SRF since 1982.

“I read Autobiography when I was 12. My father had it in his house. He was a curiosity seeker and he liked reading about the yogis and their powers walking on hot rocks. At 12, much of the book was above my head but some of the stories stuck with me,” says Brother Bhumananda, who has since reread Autobiography at least 30 times.

Many SRF members claim to feel Yogananda’s presence and vibrations around the Encinitas grounds. Yogananda himself experienced visions of Christ in his Encinitas hermitage as described in Autobiography. For a long-serving monk with thousands of hours of meditation under his belt, or robe, for Brother Bhumananda, perhaps he experiences visions of Yogananda.

“I do feel the beloved guru’s presence here, but I feel it as peace, as wonderful contentment.”

Brother Bhumananda’s booming laugh proves that although he is revered by SRF members who aren’t in the monastic life, he has a down-to-earth approachability.

“The day I believe everything I hear about how wonderful I am, I’m in trouble,” he says. “Any minister will go through this. People will put you on a pedestal but in the end it’s just between me and God.”

SRF monks don’t totally cut themselves off from the world, meditating like a hermit in a Himalayan cave. “Sometimes I have to get in my car and go to the store. I use my cell phone and computer,” Bhumanda says.

As for earthly desires, Bhumananda claims to get a rare craving for deep-fried chicken. How does he suppress the urge?

“If you have a rock and somebody gives you a diamond, the diamond means so much more to you that you don’t mind giving up the rock,” Bhumananda says, the diamond referring to the sensory-conquering teachings of Yogananda. Like all the SRF monastics and SRF members who have become devotees of Yogananda, Bhumananada has sworn off fried chicken or any other meat.

John Griffin, a.k.a. Brother Anilananda (“eternal joy”) has been an SRF monk since 1963. After decades of perfecting the science of Self-Realization, Brother Anilananda says that for him, meditation “uplifts the center of the consciousness, which leads to a feeling of love washing over me and welling up in my heart …this is yoga, a union, an embrace of love.” No matter what someone is going through in their life, whether it’s financial matters or relationship issues, says Anilananda, “If you can take a few minutes in the morning and evening and the middle of the day to tap into the spirit source, you’ll find that meditation cleanses body, mind and soul.”

Top 3 Ways to Spot an SRF Member 
3. The Bangles (Not the 1980s new-wave band)
Many SRF members wear a golden, spiral-shaped arm band called a bangle, which is mentioned in Autobiography of a Yogi. According to Brother Bhumananda, members are not required to wear the golden spiral-pattern bands but are worn to subtly neutralize the effects of astrological phenomena such as going crazy on the full moon. “It’s the one fashion trend at the SRF,” says a laughing Brother Bhumananda.

2. Walk Tall and Carry a Big, Wooden Stick
Through many years of practicing meditation, many SRF members have great posture, sitting up straight for hours, slowing down the heart rate and breathing patterns, coating the 24 vertebrae of the spinal column with love.

Many SRF members use a wooden T-shaped arm rest while meditating. You’ll see members walking with them on their way to a meditation service. Members learn that sound is a divine experience but sometimes extraneous sound can interfere with going deep in meditation. The vertical attachment of the arm rest is wedged in between the legs; elbows rest on the horizontal portion. Thumbs are wedged in the ears and the rest of the fingers lay gently on the temple. The experience of blocking out external sound is much like having your head submerged in a bathtub and possibly like being back in the womb.

1. Yogananda Is My Co-Pilot
Have you ever noticed a picture of Yogananda gracing many a vehicle dash board around town? For many SRF members, Yogananda is their version of St. Christopher, an iconic figure who will guide them safely through the chaos of driving on Interstate 5 during rush hour. “There are many times I thought I should have been in an accident but somehow managed to avoid them,” says Encinitas SRF member Tom Rhett, who volunteers as an usher at the SRF temple and works on the farm in the pumpkin seed house. “I think Yogananda kept me safe,” he says.

Tuning In, Dropping Out, SRF Style
If you’re like me and need a break from the rat race and you’re curious about the teachings of SRF, consider staying for an overnight retreat.

Although usually reserved for members who have at least started to receive the lessons, if you’re really interested in the SRF Retreat program, they might grant you an exception if you’re not a member.

There are 20 single-bed rooms, each with a shared-suite bathroom. The retreat, which is located immediately south-east of the entrance to the meditation gardens, is a transformative experience even if you only stay for one night as I did, though the recommended stay is at least three days.

The cost of the retreat is on a donation basis, though the SRF suggests a donation of $80 per day to cover costs such as three meals, all of which are vegetarian and taken in silence. No having to waste time with small talk, such as, “Where are you from? How long have you been an SRF member? How many hours a day do you meditate? What’s your favorite Autobiography of a Yogi story?”

Having checked in the late afternoon, all I wanted to do was sleep. Of course, there are no televisions in the room and not having my phone and laptop made me feel naked, yet blissfully lethargic.

Gong! Gong! Gong! Five minutes before every retreat activity, an SRF nun bangs a gong. Thankfully, the first activity was Energization Exercises, perfect for waking up the hibernating bear inside of me. About a dozen people joined me in the small retreat courtyard square. No utterance of even a barely audible “hello” was sent my way, in order to maintain the commitment to silence during the retreat.

The Energization Exercises were led by a yellow-robed nun. The series of 38 movements took about 15 minutes and felt like a geriatric exercise routine, though they did manage to revive me somewhat.

After the exercises, we went straight through the double wooden doors into the meditation chapel for a 45-minute service, most of which was sitting in silence—at least for me, an uncomfortable silence. As someone who is not used to sitting still unless I’m in a movie theater, I had a hard time not thinking about anything.

A few times I opened my eyes to see if anybody else was struggling. Seems like I was the only one; everybody else was blissfully still with eyes shut.

Late at night when most of the other retreatants were most likely deep in meditation, and several hours after our silent dinner ended, I started to get a craving for a carne asada burrito and perhaps an ice-cold beer at the local dive bar. But when I turned my head and stared at the wall, the framed head shots of Yogananda and five other saints revered by the SRF all said to me, “Chill out. Resist temptation. Don’t even think about it!”

The next day, after the 7:15 a.m. Energization Exercises, morning meditation and a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, dates and watermelon, I checked out of the SRF having stayed less than 24 hours but feeling a noticeable shift in my consciousness. I will strive to practice still meditation.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.