The Brahmananda Ashram, also known as the Yoga Society of San Francisco, is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend. And, yes, you’re invited.
Ashrams, known as places for spiritual hermitage and sacred tradition, are common across a multitude of religions. This one in particular, located at 2872 Folsom St., was incorporated in 1972 by Shri Brahmananda, an Indian doctor who also founded the Yoga Society of New York in 1958.
To celebrate its founding, the Brahmananda Ashram will open its doors on Saturday and Sunday to anyone who wants to visit and take part in their traditions.
“The hope is that people in the neighborhood will join us for free pilates, yoga, and our concert,” said Kiranavali Devi, the president of the board at the Yoga Society.
Devi added that lunch and refreshments, including classic chai, will be served, and that the ashram would screen a documentary about its history.
Besides offering its regular services, the ashram’s itinerary also includes several performances: Elektra Schmidt, an award-winning pianist, is on the roster, as well as a sitar concert by Arjun Verma.
The anniversary is especially important to the ashram because it also happens to fall on the same calendar week as Brahmananda’s death 30 years ago, on Sept. 19.
“Shri Brahmananda tried to demonstrate the commonality of all religions and practices, rather than their differences,” Devi said as she entered the temple, gesturing to the statuettes of Buddhist entities, Hindu gods, and portraits of Virgin Mary.
“He truly believed that the way to serve God was to serve others.”
Devi met Brahmananda in 1972 and began living at the ashram after it was established. Brahmananda, as the website for New York’s Ananda Ashram put it, “left his physical body” in 1993.
“Our guru [Brahmananda] was very cosmic, eclectic, inclusive,” Devi said. Brahmananda, who was a doctor before he founded the ashrams, did not believe in ascribing to a particular faith or sect, but instead drew from select traditions and practices that he felt were conducive to a life of peace and happiness.
“His approach to yoga and meditation was for everyone, regardless of their particular religion,” said Devi. She sat before a chalkboard covered in text used for Sanskrit lessons, one of many services she and fellow members offer at the Ashram.
Morning meditation, fire ceremonies and Sanskrit classes
The ashram is open to everyone and offers free daily meditation, yoga sessions, and Sanskrit lessons. While these are free of charge, the ashram suggests a donation.
Regular members at the Yoga Society pay $25 dollars a month, a fee that includes room and board in the expansive house-turned-ashram on Folsom Street.
Devi said that six people currently live at the ashram as part of an “intensive residential program,” in which they take Sanskrit classes, yoga and meditation lessons, and more.
Daily meditation begins at 7:30 a.m. sharp. Attendees participate in a fire ceremony, where they sing, meditate and “gather together in truth,” according to Devi, who leads the sessions.
Devi also leads the Sanskrit lessons, a language which she has studied for more than 30 years.
Dr. Ram Karan Sharma, a notable Sanskrit poet and scholar, used to join Devi at the ashram as a visiting teacher, up until his death in 2018.
From an outside perspective, the ashram looks like a regular house on a residential street. But inside, the floors and walls are coated with imagery alluding to Buddhist, Hindu and Christian motifs. Behind the house sits a temple, called the Cosmic Templum.
When about 20 aspiring yogis and yoginis moved into the house in 1973, they began digging out the basement underneath the property, establishing the temple and a large hall for yoga sessions.
Lining the walls of the temple are photographs of notable Swamis and Yogis, a nod to the Ashram’s storied tradition of hosting the traveling gurus.
Featured is Swami Gangeshwarananda, who is most notable for his publication of all four Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures written in Sanskrit for priests of the Vedic religion. He compiled them in one book, which was distributed to libraries, universities and spiritual centers around the world.
She presented a book that summarized the Ashram’s history and notable figures. The ashram compiled it on their 40th anniversary, including pictures and letters from members who wished to commemorate Shri Brahmananda.
“The people who come to study these concepts are few,” Devi said. “But everyone is welcome here.”
As she stood, a cat striped in orange, yellow and black entered the lesson room, plopping onto the soft blue carpet. This seventh live-in resident, named Madhuri, has been calling the Ashram home for 17 or 18 years.
“Madhuri is also featured in the book,” Devi said with a wide grin as the cat licked her paw.