Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat History: Glimpses of the Beginnings on Paradise Island
On May 14, 1969, Swami Vishnudevananda was quoted in a Bahamas newspaper: “Down there," he says, pointing to the distant white sand beach, "they stand on their feet and gamble, and we stand on our heads and meditate. They let their bodies get stiff and we keep ours in tune."
The 4 1/2 acre property, the story reports, rented for an undisclosed amount on a 99-year lease, had become a yoga retreat in autumn 1967. At the time, Swami Vishnudevananda estimated that there were 100,000 followers of yoga at the 30 Sivananda branches he had created in the Bahamas, the United States, and Canada.
Swami Anasaktananda recalls meeting Swami Vishnudevananda on Paradise Island. “There were so many sandflies, mosquitoes, and scorpions on those six acres of land. I cannot understand how Swami Vishnu could stay there all alone in an old house before acquiring the property from Mrs. Boswell.”
An 1994 article in YogaLife magazine described how it happened. “Swamiji was invited to speak in Nassau, where he met Mrs. Natalie Boswell.” Swami Vishnudevananda, whose love of God was expressed in his love of humanity, ended up helping Mrs. Boswell's daughter, who suffered from serious problems with drug addiction, to turn her life around using yogic methods. This led Mrs. Boswell to want to support him.
She decided to rent her estate on Paradise Island to Swami Vishnudevananda for the creation of a yoga ashram, although her lawyers opposed the plan and attempted to stop the rental. But according to YogaLife, “Swamiji had seen a magnificent aura over the land, and knew that this would be the site of the second ashram.”
“My destiny to start a Yoga Retreat to teach people the ancient science of yoga, health and mysticism,” wrote Swami Vishnudevandnda, “came to me when I first visited the Bahamas in 1960. Again destiny brought me to Paradise Island six years ago, guided there by the need of a young girl whose mother's estate, now the retreat, is situated on the island, on an enchanted beach overlooking the rolling sea. In 1968, my dream came true. In January of that year we opened the Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island.”
According to YogaLife, “On the exact same day … that the yoga retreat opened, a big casino also opened on Paradise Island. Swamiji cites this as the workings of the law of karma, for every action there is an opposite reaction.”
In some early film footage at the ashram, a smiling, middle-aged Swami Vishnudevananda can be seen holding a yoga class on the beach, the students lying on folded blankets. It has the look of a cooperative household, a couple of dozen people pitching in to do chores and prepare food, small huts and tents dotted across the grounds.
Swami Hyridyananda, who took the Advanced Teacher Training Course at the ashram in Val Morin in 1986, had spent time with Swami Vishnudevananda there every year for eight years. She arrived in the Bahamas at the end of 1996 for a one-year stay. She never left, and is now senior staff at the ashram.
“Years back, this was a psychedelic place," she said. "Swami Vishnu attracted many people who became yogis. He wanted this place because it had a role to play. This is what this place is meant to be.”
Arjuna, a disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda’s for a number of years, and who has been on staff at both the Paradise Island and Val Morin ashrams, often leads tours through the Yoga Retreat, telling stories about the early years, like when the house was boarded up and cold water for the showers was gathered in rain barrels on the roof.
He recalls the loyalty of Reverend Hepburn, the minister who had invited Swami Vishnudevananda to the Bahamas in the beginning. "From 1969 to 2011 [when he passed], he sat in a plastic chair in the temple, in attendance at every teacher training graduation," he says. "His picture is there now, right above where he sat."
Sharon Babu (Narayani) visited the ashram for the first time in 1977 with a group of yoga students from Vancouver and their teacher. She was 26. "It was very basic, but some of the original buildings like the temple, and part of the reception area and the main building were here," she says. "The kitchen was on the top floor. The tennis court was where we taught yoga, and there was a beach platform. Swamiji's house was there, of course, and a little health hut."
She stayed for a week, then decided to do the Teacher Training Course (TTC) at the ashram in Grass Valley, California. She started to travel and after a month in Mexico thought she would make her way back home via Paradise Island in the late fall of 1977. “I came as a guest — I thought — but all the staff were very sick with some tropical illness and they asked if I could stay and help because I had taken the teacher's training.”
Swami Vishnudevananda gave his permission that she work at the ashram and soon Narayani was taking care of the laundry, housekeeping, the health hut, and also worked as a part-time cook. “I remember cleaning the beach huts, sometimes late in the night because people would arrive at all hours,” she says. “I would wash the laundry with sea water. I'm guessing there were about 100 people with the TTC. The food was pretty basic and would be brought over by boat — back and forth, back and forth, a million times.
“I did well at developing my Karma Yoga practices but not so much with everything else. I lived in a little pup tent for six months. I remember sleeping in the laundry room sometimes when it rained. I never worked so hard in my life.”
New to the tropics, Narayani remembers getting a terrible sunburn at one of the impromptu outings to Rose Island. “Swami Vishnu would take the staff over there every once in a while. He would do things like that, no matter where he was in the world.”
He was also unafraid to take on Club Med, the all-inclusive vacation resort located right beside the ashram. “It was our noisemaker,” she says. “The music would start at 10:00 pm. I remember Swamiji went out on a boat at 5:00 am with speakers and he blasted away with chants. He wanted to give them a taste of their own medicine.”
He was very present, she says, at every satsang and would sometimes lead the chants. One day she met him on a path and “I said, ‘Swami, could I have a spiritual name?’ And he gave me my spiritual name and my mantra, right there on the path.”
Swami Hridyananda is also familiar with the early living conditions at the ashram, and recalls that the tennis court was for special events, sometimes for tennis matches, where even Swami Vishnudevananda played. "There were some simple rooms, all made of wood, and the house of Swami Vishnu with a tiny kitchen. But there were no tent platforms. I lived in a tent for 17 years,” she recalls.
When she first arrived, the temple floor was made of rocks, only smoothed out in front of the main area. Later, the floor was cemented, and then tiled. What is now the Garden Platform used to be a garden with raised beds containing mint, basil, and vegetables. “You can still see the frames for the beds underneath the platform,” she says.
“The Swami loved what we now call the Vishnu Pond and when he was in a wheelchair we would often take him there. Earlier on, he had his hammock on the north end of the pond. The Swami loved hammocks.”
In that early film footage, there is the same long, straight path that leads to the main house, laundry is strung on lines, dirt paths are bordered with conch shells, meals served on an open veranda. On the table, sliced cheese, oranges, celery, and radishes.
In another shot, we see Swami Vishnudevananda, his thick hair just beginning to go grey, leading students in asana practice. We see them doing their sun salutations, then he guides them into their headstands. He walks through the lines of yoga students, instructing, his light saffron robes flowing.
In the years since, as awareness of yoga has grown, so has the ashram. From the early seeds of Swami Vishnudevananda’s vision and the hard work of countless Karma Yogis, the ashram has become a leading destination for those seeking immersion in the yogic lifestyle and the timeless practices and teachings that yoga offers. Yet while the physical plant of the ashram and the people serving to keep it running have changed since its inception, the same classical yoga tradition taught by Swami Vishnudevananda continues unbroken.
Watch In the Name of Peace on YouTube, an early film about Swami Vishnudevananda.