The Kind Smile That Changed The West
by Pritha Ricoy
I started seeking at the age of thirteen. At that time, my mother enrolled me in a Catholic school because she thought it was the best alternative to the local public schools in our area. I subsequently spent every Sunday thereafter in the pews, eventually reading from scriptures upon the altar. I was deeply interested in the nature of God, but I always felt something lacking in my experience. So I spent the next fifteen years moving from church to church, then yoga studio to yoga studio, looking for answers. In February of 2017, I drove past a shopping mart in Larchmont and saw a kind, familiar smile on a studio window. It was an enlarged photo of the great guru, Paramhansa Yogananda.
When you ask Yogananda devotees how they stumbled upon his teachings, there’s one common denominator in all of their answers: his smile. The smile displayed on the cover of the Autobiography of A Yogi, a smile that embodies the spirit of kindness, has drawn hundreds of people into the communities that share and live his teachings. And, it’s magnetized thousands more to the practice of yoga and the rich philosophy of the East. The Autobiography of a Yogi has now been translated into twenty different languages and is regarded worldwide as a spiritual classic.
Paramhansa Yogananda, born in 1893, was the first yoga master of India to take up permanent residence in the United States. He arrived in Boston in 1920 and filled some of the largest halls in American cities with his spiritual campaign. He became known as “The Father of Yoga” in the West, and his universal teachings of superconscious living had an impact on everyone from political leaders of his time, to musicians like The Beatles, innovators like Steve Jobs, and millions of others today. Yogananda’s devoted disciple, Swami Kriyananda, described his mission best:
“He spoke of the underlying oneness of all religions. He spoke of incorporating spirituality into daily life. He described the ideal government of the future. He spoke a great deal, in fact, about the future, explaining how this new age of energy would affect everyone, and urging people everywhere to work toward world harmony, in keeping with the needs of this age.”
This March, thousands will gather to celebrate Yogananda’s 100th anniversary of arriving in America at Yogananda Fest: Awakening Compassion, Kindness, and Mercy. Many agree that his anniversary is timely given the fact that the great yogi broke through many racial divides in order to reach people with his message, often teaching in the same political climate we see happening today. It’s during these times, which can feel full of uncertainty and divide, that we can look to Yogananda’s life for guidance on how to be more kind to each other— not just for each other but for the future of our planet.
“Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.”
– Paramhansa Yogananda
What Is Kindness?
Swami Kriyananda once commented that Yogananda’s kindness was revealed in the small exchanges between his devotees and others. It was often an affirming look or the right words that would bring someone the gift of peace. For example, Swami leaves us with one of many stories where Yogananda puts others first, often complete strangers, even before the interest of expanding his organization:
“One day Master visited an antique shop to purchase a few canes. In whatever he did, he assumed the consciousness appropriate to that activity. Now, therefore, since he was conducting business, he bargained carefully. But once the transaction was over he ceased to play the role of conscientious buyer saving money for his monastery. Gazing about him, he noted marks of poverty in the shop. Sympathetically, then, he gave the owner much more money than he’d saved by bargaining with him.” —Swami Kriyanananda in his autobiography, The New Path
While his generosity was evident amongst those who had the privilege of witnessing his life, more often than not, it was the small acts of kindness, like his smile, that created a ripple effect of kindness around him.
Kindness as the solution to our modern problems might sound deceptively simple, but it’s much deeper and much more profound than we could imagine. According to a professor at the University of Stanford, “The positive effects of kindness are experienced in the brain of everyone who witnessed the act, improving their mood and making them significantly more likely to ‘pay it forward.’ This means one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect and improve the day of dozens of people!” To that effect, Yogananda would often encourage us to be smile millionaires, generously sharing kindness with all whom we meet.
And I believe that this was part of Yogananda’s magnetism and the reason he was so successful in spreading the teachings of yoga. Through his very kindness and friendship, he opened the hearts of many and created a worldwide community that continues to pay it forward.
Ananda, the global movement and community founded by Swami Kriyananda which continues to share Yogananda’s teachings, holds these two tenants supreme, which I feel embody what kindness is and what we can strive for:
People are more important than things.
And where there is an adherence to right action,
there lie success and fulfillment of all kinds.
If the only thing we did right now was to embrace the idea that “people are more important than things,” we could improve many of the social issues of our time. At the heart of kindness is a willingness to move beyond our personal desires, beyond our political affiliations and beliefs, and remember that people are why we are here.
Yogananda also showed us that kindness is not only an act but an attitude. Once after being told that there were 80 thefts in Boston when the police were on strike, he said, “How wonderful… A city with a million people and only 80 stole.” It’s difficult to maintain a positive attitude when news headlines are not as ready to share all of the amazing things also happening at this time! But we can maintain a positive attitude by remembering that there is more good in this world than we’re often led to believe and, in being kind and positive, we can collectively continue to affirm a better reality.
Beyond his written works, Yogananda left a legacy of his kindness: Kriya Yoga. While he emphasized kindness as the social way of achieving self-realization, he also taught the metaphysical way to achieve union with the Divine.
The path of Kriya Yoga is an ancient meditation technique of energy and breath control or pranayama. Neuroscience is proving the connection between our ability to be calm and our ability to be kind. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained in a recent study that meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states. The report states, “People are not just stuck at their respective setpoints…. We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.”
Kriya Yoga is a way for people to train their mind for kindness. It helps us more easily neutralize our reactions to life’s challenges, such that we can become a true spiritual warrior, vanquishing our bad attitudes and strengthening our ability for right action. With an inward practice and increased self-awareness, we start to dissolve the small self so that we can serve the needs of the collective self. Each one of us, no matter what place we are on the spiritual path, has the opportunity to become a channel for the light, for kindness, and for compassion for all, one act of kindness, one smile at a time.
You can learn more about Kriya Yoga and the path of yoga brought by Paramahansa Yogananda at our upcoming celebration this spring, Yogananda Fest: Awakening Kindness, Compassion, and Mercy. The first 100 people who attend in person with a friend receive a free copy of Autobiography of a Yogi (also available in Spanish), and one raffle prize winner will receive a trip to Cozumel, Mexico.
Interested in learning more about Yogananda and Ananda?
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