Through her own life struggles, Mary-Ann McDougall’s interest in yoga as a physical exercise led to her learning of the spiritual side of the practice and into following a path to become Swami Radhananda.
Now she is president of the Yasodhara Ashram, a yoga retreat and study center in Kootenay Bay, in southeastern British Columbia, where she helps people find tools to deal with their problems.
Inquiry through yoga “turned me around,” Swami Radhananda said in a recent interview at the Radha Yoga Center in Spokane.
She was in town for a tour promoting her memoir, “Carried by a Promise: A Life Transformed through Yoga” (Timeless Books, $19.95), which was published in January.
The book shares her journaling about her spiritual development as a disciple of Swami Sivananda Radha, founder of the Yasodhara Ashram.
“When I first came to the ashram, I wanted my family, community and world to become more like the ashram – more accepting, open and whole,” Swami Radhananda said.
She learned to live in simplicity and be more “present” in whatever she did: dishes, cleaning, teaching, shopping.
“Yoga is more than physical exercise,” she said. “It is control of the mind, starting with control of the breath, speech and service – putting the body to use for good purpose.”
She said she had little spiritual development beyond Sunday school and hearing her grandmother read the Bible every day when she was growing up in Princeton, B.C.
She married, lived with her husband in a commune on the British Columbia coast, then traveled with him to Cambridge, England – where their son was born in 1970 – for his doctoral studies, to Mexico for his anthropology fieldwork, and back to Cambridge, where their daughter was born.
Then they settled in Lethbridge, B.C., where he was offered a job. McDougall, a grade-school teacher, started a day care center, participated in a women’s consciousness-raising group and was a jogger when she started yoga.
A friend who had gone to the ashram – a “spiritual home” – invited her to go, too.That started her journey to finding what was missing in her life.
Renewed by her experience at the ashram, she invited her husband to accompany her several times. But they grew apart and separated when their children were young.
As she attended retreats and programs, the healing she found drew her to be a disciple of Swami Radha, her guru, or teacher.
Swami Radha had studied ancient traditions under a guru in India, Swami Sivananda, and reflected on what would work in the modern West before she founded the ashram in 1963.
In 1989, she founded the Radha Yoga Center in Spokane.
“She took the essence without the culture,” said Swami Radhananda, who often visited Swami Radha in Spokane, where she spent her last years.
Swami Radhananda opened Radha House in Lethbridge, where she shared what she was learning. When her children finished school, she moved in 1990 to the ashram.
Swami Radha prepared her to become president in 1993. In 1994, she was initiated into sanyas – the Hindu tradition of “renunciation of desires” to become a swami.
Swami Radha, who moved to Spokane in 1993, died in 1995.
“I chose her spiritual name, ‘Radha,’ which means ‘cosmic love,’ ” Swami Radhananda explained. “I seek to embody it, knowing that love means making myself available.
“ ‘Ananda’ means bliss or peace,” she added. “While there is overlap of yoga and Hinduism, yoga can be used by any faith tradition. The essence is the same.”
Faith Hayflich, who attends Congregation Emanu-El and teaches at Spokane’s Radha Yoga Center, said yoga helps her understand her Jewish faith, just as many Christians also use yoga.
Yoga does not change people from their own faith but adds purpose to their living, said Swami Radhananda.
“While many think spiritual life is calming, it requires effort,” she said. “Through yoga postures, the body is ‘busy,’ allowing one to focus on controlling the mind.
“Yoga can help people solve life patterns and be released from being stuck in the mud, unable to move, carrying huge burdens.”
At the ashram, she said, people do not avoid problems, but use yoga to dissolve problems so they become more transparent and the person develops inner wisdom.
Swami Radhananda’s sister, Swami Lalitananda, formerly a psychologist, is one of 12 staff members who live at the ashram and serve guests in retreats and courses.
The ashram has space for more than 100 guests and residents. About 30 people are in a three-month course on yoga development.
Staff members teach yoga, reflection, self study and group work. They teach various types of yoga: kundalini yoga to build character; divine light invocation to activate healing; mantra yoga to meditate with chanting; karma yoga to open people to the divine in all they do; dream yoga to interpret subconscious messages; sacred dance to express harmony; hatha yoga to reflect on postures; and satsang chanting in community gatherings.
“We ask questions to help people explore their lives and concerns, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses,” said Swami Radhananda.
She encourages people to write diaries, so they can reflect on what they have learned and bring it into their spiritual lives.
Spokane’s Radha Yoga Center offers the same kinds of yoga as the ashram. The hatha yoga they offer invites people to reflect on the symbolism of the poses – what it means to stand still in “mountain pose,” or what it means to fly when they are in “eagle pose.”
Poses and questions allow people to open, stretch and release their muscles, minds and spirits, said Swami Lalitananda.
Swami Radhananda said karma yoga helps move people into selfless service, aware that “every part of our lives is sacred.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter