In 1984, I was the first and the only swami in Germany. Like a traditional sannyasin, I had come back from India with a bag and a dhoti. I started work in a place where I had lived before. I did not really want to go there, but Paramahamsa Satyananda had told me to. He had told me that it would be very difficult and that I would need to be with people that I already knew. I did not like that idea very much and would have preferred to have gone somewhere where no one knew me. However, after a while, being there did prove to be very helpful and help came to me from many unexpected quarters. And I needed help. In Germany, people's idea of yoga was and still is very close to the feeling of doing exercises, sports, gymnastics - high class gymnastics. We were presenting yoga as a philosophy, as a spiritual way of life, and this was, and still is, something very new and very rare.
Now let me go back a step. In Germany I had met a close disciple of Paramahamsa Satyananda at a weekend seminar of ten people. I went into a room, saw the swami sitting there in a geru robe and from that moment on my life changed. After the seminar I bought a ticket to India. For me, India was a completely new country and a very strange one. I had never even read about it. I knew that there was a country called India but I did not know much about it.
I took the long train trip to Munger, opened the Ashram gates, walked inside and knew that it was my home. Ten days later I was initiated into sannyasa by Paramahamsaji. It all happened very fast, but it was very clear to me that this was my life.
This in itself was very impressive because in Germany, in Europe I had searched for many years. I had been in the green movement, the peace movement, the women's movement, I do not know which movement. I had tried them all. And I had always found one thing missing. People could speak very beautifully and say things which made me feel warm and nice but when I looked at their own lives I realised that although they could talk about it they could not live it. So I had always kept on going, looking for the real thing, where life and teaching would come together. When I met Paramahamsaji in the ashram in Munger, it was clear to me that he was my guru, my teacher. At the time there were many things I did not know about yoga. All my knowledge of yoga had come from books, because I had never wanted to have a teacher. So I was really impressed by the simple teachings which I learned in the ashram, and many of them were quite new to me. In particular, the Hatha Yoga cleansing techniques - Laghoo Shankhaprakshalana, kunjal kriya, jala neti - impressed me deeply. So did Pawanmuktasana and kirtan.
Religious conditioning in Europe is very strong. We have one religion, Christianity, and all other religions are considered somewhat second class. I remember a story about a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of Ramakrishna. This swami had a chance to go to Europe. Before he came he said, "It will be beautiful to go to a place where the people are Christians. They must love the whole world." When he came he was shocked because very few people actually live the life that Christ taught. Our way of thinking has been conditioned by the Church and, unfortunately, this is no longer Christianity.
I had also been trained and conditioned by the Church so for me a practice like kirtan was quite horrible. When I heard the mantra sung for the first time, I was feeling relaxed and happy, but when the swami went on repeating 'Om Namah Shivaya' three, times, four times, on and on, one part of my mind said, "My God!, does she think I am stupid? We have learned this now; we should go on to something else."
However my later experiences of kirtan in the ashram in India were just wonderful, and in Germany now, whenever we have a week-long seminar we practise kirtan every evening and it is incredible what happens to people.
I would like to mention one incident. I know an old woman of seventy. She came to the ashram to learn Kriya Yoga, and then I did not see her for a long time. She was very suspicious of kirtan. She liked everything, Kriya Yoga was beautiful, even Pawanmuktasana was beautiful, but not kirtan. From time to time she would come to me and say, "Can I stay out of the room? I am a Christian and I do not want to sing this Hare Rama, Hare Krishna all the time." I would say, "By all means, but why don't you just try it? It is not such big thing." When I met her last week, she sat down and cried. She told me that she had had a long-term back disease and that no doctor had been able to help her. One day she was listening to kirtan, not singing, just listening. She was lying on the floor and found that she had to cry. She cried for one and a half hours and when she got up, her back disease was gone. These little wonders happen all the time.
In Europe there are two Christian sects Catholic and Protestant. I was a Protestant and in my childhood I learned that Protestants are the most privileged people in the world. I also learned that the Catholics are not as good as us and they have many things like malas or rosaries, and flowers and holy people which we do riot need because we are much more evolved. So it was very difficult for my Protestant subconscious to adjust to kirtan. When I was able to drop this conditioning I felt very, very free and it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had while I was living at the ashram in India.
I could not speak or understand English very well, and when the swami teaching me asanas asked me to do something, I always did the opposite because I did not understand! But I found the teaching of Paramahamsa Satyananda so impressive that, when I returned to Germany, I wanted to take it to the German people. So, I started to translate. German people do not like to read another language, not even English, nor do they want to listen to it - they always need a translator. So whatever I wanted to bring to them of my experiences at the Bihar School of Yoga, I had to translate. This translation work was encouraged by my guru. I feel very proud to have come to a point where I am able to translate Paramahamsaji's teachings for the German people.
Once, I would not have believed it possible. Now I know that it is possible and solely through the encouragement of my guru. Many other things have happened that I also would not have believed possible. These days I live with a computer, a fax machine, a telephone and a photocopier. Unbelievable for someone who, twenty or thirty years ago, thought that all these machines were unhealthy and bad for the environment! Now I am using them to bring Paramahamsaji's message to the hearts of the German people.
These days, the emphasis in my teaching is still very much on the fundamental techniques that I learned in India: Pawanmuktasana, the Hatha Yoga cleansing techniques and basic asanas and pranayama. These have to be practised for a long, long time before we can move on to the more advanced practices. I am so keen on these simple practices that in Germany I am known as Swami Pawanmuktasana. We need to practise these basic techniques for years on end, and 'practise' here means not just once a week but every day. In Germany it is very difficult to get people to do this. They go to clubs and to regular sessions of sport and bowling. And, of course, there is church once a week and the weekly yoga class. In the beginning, it took enormous effort to get the message through to people that they had to practise every day, every morning. But it was very necessary. My feeling is that what we are receiving now from Paramahamsa Niranjanananda will take us into a new era of yoga practices and yogic life but, in order to benefit from this, it is necessary to have done our basic ground work. Then we will be ready to step into the more advanced yoga practices and into a more yogic way of life.