Final rites: Yoga master dies teaching peace in India


The founder of Buckingham County's most famous shrine and commune, the man often called the "Woodstock Guru," has died. Swami Satchidananda, 87, died early Monday in Madras, India, after suffering an aneurysm while at a peace conference.

Since his 1966 American arrival at the request of pop artist Peter Max and filmmaker Conrad Rooks, Satchidananda was a key figure in the increased popularity of yoga in this country. His speech at the opening of Woodstock in 1969 helped kick off three days of peace and music– as well as ensuring his enduring fame.

Ten years later, with a gift from musician Carole King, Satchidananda founded the ashram at Yogaville, a commune that serves as the headquarters of Integral Yoga International. Residents of the ashram teach yoga and operate two health food stores.

The Swami's legacy, according to Yogaville spokesperson Swami Karunananda, was "peace to the individual that comes through the practice of hatha yoga, a vegetarian diet, and meditation."

Plenty of meditation has occurred at the Light of Truth Universal Shrine, or LOTUS, the mammoth pink sanctuary completed at Yogaville in 1986. Honoring all world religions, the ecumenical structure stands as a living symbol of Satchidananda's teaching, "Truth is one, paths are many."

The Swami's tenure in the U.S. was not all peace and light. Like many of today's religious leaders, Satchidananda was accused of extracting sexual favors from some followers. In 1991, placard-carrying protesters demonstrating against the alleged transgressions marred one of the Swami's last local public appearances, a speech at the Omni Hotel.

Satchidananda denied the allegations. "He responded with forbearance, love, and compassion in his heart," says Karunananda. "He saw it as a test from God."

A yoga master for over 40 years, Satchidananda wrote many books on yoga and spirituality, and influenced the work of Dr. Dean Ornish in fighting heart disease and Dr. Michael Lerner's work in cancer, says Karunananda.

He was the recipient of several humanitarian prizes, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award. His 80th birthday celebration, held in 1994 at the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center, drew Jurassic Park stars Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. Other celebrity devotees include Dern's mother, Diane Ladd, and Sally Kirkland.

A follower at the Charlottesville Integral Yoga Natural Foods store (the other store is in New York) says she spent 30 years the Swami's student. Although declining to give her name, she says she will remember the Swami for teaching people to find happiness within themselves and to live peacefully among others.

"We're born, and we'll die, and the world goes on," says the follower.

Satchidananda often said to this student, "When I'm gone, you'll feel me more." She describes the mood at Yogaville: "There is no sadness. That's the beauty. The energy is so strong."

A private funeral is scheduled for Thursday, August 22, at Yogaville, where Satchidananda will be buried. As for a replacement, the Charlottesville follower says, "There is none."