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Founding Member Feature: Janaki Polden

Janaki Polden
Janaki, part of the Centre family

Yoga on the Road

In London, while working as a nurse, I started taking yoga classes in 1973 with my boyfriend Rod. In the spring, we set out ‘across the pond’ on our travels – the World Tour. Lots of people our age were ‘on the road’ to India, N. America, South-East Asia, Australia, Mexico, Peru, all over. We spent that summer living and working as staff members at the Sivananda Yoga Camp in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, and met Shankar (yes, our Shankar) and Girija, head cooks feeding hundreds of other young aspiring yogis, guests and YTT students, while we all learned the fundamentals of asana, meditation, pranayama, mantra, kirtan (and pizza construction) under the guidance of Swami Vishnu Devananda. Roll-call at compulsory early morning meditation earned it the name Spiritual Boot Camp! By now, we had become Murali and Raghava, and I car-shared and hitch-hiked across Canada in the autumn to the Yoga Farm at Grass Valley, California to take Yoga Teacher Training, while Raghava spent some months in India with Swami Vishnu.

Up the west coast then to Vancouver, where we helped to found the first Vancouver Yoga Centre in 1974 with Anand Dass and several other teachers, along with teaching Adult Ed. asana classes in high schools and community centres to the wave of enthusiastic beginners (of all ages) who were just discovering yoga. Shooting photographs for our planned book on yoga and pregnancy led us to Ravi Dass and Aparna, who had begun writing a text on the same subject. (Ravi Dass had been managing speaking tours by Ram Dass and promoting his book Be Here Now, which helped turn on a whole generation of us to yoga and the spiritual life.) We joined forces with them on the book Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth, eventually published by Schocken in NYC.

Janaki with her daughters. 1980

Meeting Babaji

With their encouragement, we flew to California to meet their teacher Baba Hari Dass, at one of the first retreats at the Calabasas Road farm. Such a different energy surrounded Babaji, playful, gentle, deep, a vivid and ever-alert presence, engaging individually with us, a constant teaching by example. Babaji visited Vancouver that summer, staying at the Spruce Street house. In our first interview with him, before we could ask the question “should we get married?”, he wrote in chalk “when will you get married?”, then suggested a pair of possible dates – two days away, or eight days away! We chose eight days. AD (Anand Dass) married us with a yajna fire ceremony on a brilliant summer day in West Van., among a circle of our dear yoga friends, with the ocean lapping beside us – perhaps the first ever Canadian yajna to be attended by two smiling RCMP, called by a neighbour anxious at the sight of hippies building a fire. Babaji gave us the names Janaki and Raghunath, and when our twins were born in 1976, he wrote “Jaya = Victory” and “Hamsa = sound of the breath, inhale/exhale. It becomes So-Ham, then Om”. Babaji’s letters and darshans have guided us through so many decisions, both hard times and joyful times.

Finding the Centre

We had been living a communal life with our friends for some time, in intentional communities and house-shares, so when Babaji told us in 1978 “Buy land, and the people will come to join you”, Raghunath and I decided we would move out of the city, and find a place near to wherever Dharma Sara’s land would be. First, of course, we just had to find it… Up to Vernon, Cultus Lake, the Comox Valley, Fraser Valley, South Pender Island, Mt Tzouhalem – car fulls of satsangis drove in caravan to corners of BC far and wide, looking for the place that was going to be home for us all. The place we would make the dream come true. Back to the land. A community of yogi-craftspeople-artist-cook-musician-gardener-teacher-healer friends.

The barn and house, 1981
A lot of clearing and clean-up was needed when we first took possession of the land. 1981

Eventually the place found us, and we got to work on it. The first time Babaji came to see the land with us, before anyone had really moved in at all, he decided we should get rolling on some clean-up. Within twenty minutes, a score of strong hands were rolling a big old disused oil-storage tank from where the greenhouse now stands, and a cheer went up when it took off down the slope on its own momentum. Next were the tangles of blackberry brambles that festooned the area, so Babaji plunged into the middle of them with Anuradha close at hand, secateurs and loppers, sickles and shears, snipping and tugging till bare soil came in sight. We sent a mountain of thorny greenery on its way to a new home in the compost pile. “This will be the garden”, Babaji’s chalkboard told us. It was a very exciting time.

Babaji led the de-brambling and rock-clearing effort. Later, this area was the first to be gardened.
On Babaji's first visit to the land, under the big maple on the mound. 1981

Building a Home on the Island

Raghunath and I built our home together a little way down the valley, on a ridge-top where the vultures and the deer are our neighbours, close enough to the Salt Spring Centre for the Creative and Healing Arts (as it was then), so that we can walk to and from. We hauled beams and posts, joists and studs and shingles, taught ourselves framing and plumbing, collected thousands of rocks for our chimney from the roadsides of Salt Spring on the way home from collecting our kids from school. They grew up singing the food prayer before dinner each night, doing homework by oil-lamp (in the early days), a vegetarian and ahimsa (non-harming) childhood with Babaji as a friend, where we all shared helping each other out with the Centre, with our businesses and workshops, the Centre School that Usha founded, the food co-op, the Health Collective, the committees (meetings, meetings, meetings), the gardens and orchard, the retreats, the yajnas, the Women’s Weekends, teaching at Yoga Teacher Training, and staging the Ramayana in mid-summer with an overheated cast that numbered in the hundreds of thousands sometimes, by the feel of it . Our giggling babes in arms turned overnight into a splendidly demonic Surpanaka to remember, and a proud Lakshman to confront her.

Left: Janaki tackles some bedrock for a water-line from the well to our cottage. 1983; Right: On the ridge top above Cusheon Lake, Janaki stains siding, while perched on the scaffolding. 1985
Janaki takes a break at sunset, after a long day of framing and nailing on our house. 1983

Meanwhile, as the years rolled around, I continued with my original motivation to care for people by nursing, working at Greenwoods, the seniors’ home on the island, running the activity programs, then becoming Director of Nursing Care. With encouragement from Babaji, I completed my education in Healthcare Administration in the evenings after work, and then was hired as the Administrator and CEO. I found that the skills I had developed through yoga, meditation and pranayam were put to good use each day, working with a staff of fifty, handling a million-dollar budget, government agencies, unions, service clubs and families. Most of all though, I wanted to stay in touch with the residents of Greenwoods, and treat them as individuals, not spend all my workday secluded in an office. So for years I cycled to work each morning in time to serve them a cup of tea at breakfast, to know their names and their stories, their families, their partners and their lives. Sometimes I was privileged to sit beside the bed as they breathed their last too.

I love to walk. We have walked the West Coast Trail, in the mountains around the Stein, in the Olympics, over the moors in the Hebrides, in the desert in Arizona, along the beaches of Clayoquot Island and Sinaloa and Jersey, and the forests and meadows of Salt Spring. One of the ways I found to unwind from a demanding work environment was to walk and breathe, swing my arms and love the world of Salt Spring’s nature, as it passes by my regular pace.

Janaki and her girls

Simple Compassion

I have also enjoyed choosing each week for Sunday satsang one of the short readings, since it has given me a reason to become more familiar with the simple compassion of Babaji’s teaching. We are so fortunate, blessed beyond our understanding. Perhaps then, I will close this little look at the life of just one of Babaji’s students, with a favourite gift from one of his letters:

“Practice your mantra regularly. Try to attain peace in life. Do some physical exercise for the gross body. Do some breathing exercises to purify your mind. Do meditation for attaining liberation. Life is not a burden. We create burdens by our desires, attachment, and ego. If we accept life in the world, it creates contentment and all conflicts fall away. Wish you and your husband happy and healthy. Om”