Body & Soul

More and more South Floridians have taken up yoga for exercise, but relatively few explore its spiritual underpinnings

Overturning assumptions with the grace of a judo flip, Hari underscores the oneness that is at the core of yogic thought. But Yogi Hari was not always Yogi Hari, and he was not always so contented. Born Hari Narine Sukhu in an Indian community of Guyana, Hari says he was plagued with medical problems in his youth and was dependent upon a phalanx of prescriptions. "At the age of 20, I was really old," he relates. "I used to pray for the day to finish."

He often tells the story of how his wife, Leela Mata, left a yoga book out for him, but he would stubbornly ignore it. Finally, alone behind closed doors, he practiced the poses, and he felt better. In fact he felt -- as many serious yogis do -- like he'd always known the asanas. "The moment I got into yoga, my whole life began to change. I don't have need for even an aspirin," he says. "Is that freedom?"

It was a calling. Hari began to practice intensely and in 1973 met his guru, Swami Vishnudevananda, at the Sivananda Yoga Center on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. For seven years Hari, his wife and four children in tow, traipsed after Vishnudevananda, moving from ashram to ashram. During that time he also met Swami Nadabrahamanda, originator of nada yoga, a method that uses sound vibration for inspiration and healing, much the way asanas are meant to prepare for meditation. Hari studied music with the Swami, and in 1975 he moved to Florida.

Poseurs, beware: Yogi Hari insists yoga is more than a physical practice
Joshua Prezant
Poseurs, beware: Yogi Hari insists yoga is more than a physical practice

Hari opened a yoga center on Oakland Park Boulevard, but with his growing international teaching career and the video and audio recordings the pair produced under the name Nada Productions, he was stretched too thin, he says. Last year alone he produced 12 CDs of his music.

He closed the center about three years ago but continued to hold two-week teacher-training seminars out of his home when not traveling. His wooden bookshelves brim with photo albums filled with pictures of him posing with other famous yogis, students, and teachers around the world, including several snapshots of Hari with his son-in-law, actor Mario Van Peebles. In one, taken at Everglades Holiday Park, Hari straddles an alligator holding its snout closed, while Van Peebles crouches next to him. Both men are beaming.

Hari teaches a method he calls sampoorna yoga, which means fullness. A number of local yoga instructors have been certified in his two-week program. Students live with him like a family, rising at 5:30 each morning from their bunk beds to practice chanting, meditation, and asana. They dress entirely in white, read yoga philosophy, and eschew drugs, alcohol, meat, and cigarettes. Some forms of abstinence are particularly tough: One former student remembers his colleague walking to the convenience store in sight of the ashram, buying a pack of cigarettes, smoking only one, and leaving the rest on the curb.

His training regimen does not differ much from the Sivananda approach, though Hari doesn't call it that. "I tried," he notes with a rueful laugh, "but I get threatening letters from lawyers." Hari voluntarily agreed to stop using the Sivananda name at the organization's request, he says. Hari also would describe his approach to yoga as integrated, but Integral Yoga, he notes, is already copyrighted. He breaks into laughter again: "Soon you will copyright Jesus."

Hari has made a living marketing his videos, but he insists preoccupation with the body misses the point of yoga.

"This that is made up of pizza and ice cream, you mistake that for the self. And because of this misunderstanding, you cater to it 24 hours a day. In yogic philosophy, when you talk about the body, we are not only talking about the physical body. This which was born, which grows up, which changes, will go back to the elements. To dust. But who you really are never dies. That is immortal. It is divine. It is one with the Father, pure consciousness, one without a second. This process which is called yoga is to help unveil the soul."

He is thus wary of the quick-fix, "Enlightenment for Dummies" approach. "All of this New-Age stuff," he continues, "that is from deranged minds. Read the scriptures. Take yoga teacher's training course."

Scrawled in blue on a white dry-erase board in the storefront chiropractic office of Jesse Rogers are the words Spine of the Month. Written underneath is the name Yogi Hari. Though Rogers and Hari are little more than acquaintances, the two men have much in common.

Sixteen years ago Rogers was 36 years old and working, or rather trying to work, as a standup comedian in New York City. One night, on a whim, he showed up at a talk the Swami Vishnudevananda gave at a local yoga center, and for once Rogers' timing was right-on.

"It was just the right talk for me at the right time," Rogers remembers. "I was a burned-out case. It kind of sparked a light in me that I needed to get back to the source, that I needed to be more spiritual."

So at the advice of the swami, he left the city for the Sivananda Vedanta Ashram in Canada. Expecting to stay two weeks, he ended up staying three years and later spent five years at the Sivananda ashram on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, where Yogi Hari also has lived.

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