This article was written by Siri Ved Kaur and posted on January 15, 2008 on the “Our True Tales” website.
Who ever could have imagined the destiny of such a humble building? Comfortably squeezed between two duplexes, it had served as a colon hydrotherapy office for some years; now closed down. A storefront with a small residence behind, and an enclosed back yard with a garage on the back alley, its faded yellow entry faced a small park on the other side of the street. It seemed like it had some potential, was in a good location, and… it was for sale, and that’s how it got a place on Norm Cohen’s short list.
Norm was a commercial real estate broker in Los Angeles who in 1971, along with his wife Marci, had become acquainted with some of Yogiji’s students through their health food business, Sat Nam Products. Then he and Marci met Yogiji. As was his way, Yogiji saw the destiny of each piece of the puzzle of life, and within no time Norm and Marci were looking for a new location for Guru Ram Das Ashram (at that time located at the SW corner of Melrose and Robertson, in the remodeled garage of Jules Buccieri’s antique shop), which needed a permanent home. They showed this ex-colonic office to Yogiji a short while later.
Not long after that, Yogiji told a story how he was flying back to Los Angeles from his travels and, looking out the window of the plane as they approached the airport, he saw the part of town with the little yellow building on Preuss Road, and noticed that out of all other areas of the city covered with smog, this area was clear. And he knew this was the spot, this was the destiny, and the short list became one.
Shakti Parwha Kaur tells me Yogiji wouldn’t let her see the new ashram until much of the renovation and remodeling had been completed. But, she does know the story of how the building was purchased. Yogi Bhajan personally made the down payment from his own savings. There were enthusiastic promises by community “leaders” to each pay $10 a month toward the mortgage. The truth be told, the promises were kept for barely one month. I think all or most of those people are now long gone, but Guru had a plan, and Guru Ram Das Ashram was to be. Yogiji traveled, lectured, taught and continued to make the monthly payments until, after many years, he finally donated this precious property to Sikh Dharma.
Marci, however, was involved to a great degree in the interior design of the new building. Knowing that turquoise was Yogiji’s favorite color, she picked out a multi-toned turquoise shag rug for the front L-shaped “yoga” area that faced the street. Also, the dark brown wood paneling that covered all the walls and the raw silk curtains that hung in the front windows. The gold marbled mirror panels from the Melrose and Robertson ashram were moved to this new building and installed on the long south wall of the “L”. A small bathroom was built, with the entrance exactly opposite the entry doors. On the right of the bathroom were closets for storage.
In the three weeks preceding the move to the new ashram (which was approximately March of 1972), Diana Schnurr, an artist and avid member of our yoga community, completed 10 paintings at the Siri Singh Sahib’s request, one of each of the ten Sikh Gurus. Vibrant color flowed from her brush and these very first paintings of the Gurus by a western Sikh came to life. For the first ten years or so those paintings graced the long north wall of Guru Ram Das Ashram. They now hang at the Yoga West yoga center.
Since the primary use for the new ashram at the front of the building would be for yoga and meditation classes, we needed a reception and entry area. A dividing wall was put up, so as you entered the building on your immediate left would be shelves from floor to ceiling for shoes, bags, etc. That little entry area, as wide as the doors and as long as the shelves (about 6-7 feet) was covered with linoleum flooring. This created a nook on the other side of the dividing wall where we would place the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. This Guru’s nook would be separated from the rest of the room by a curtain.
About ten years later, we would move the bathroom over to the right allowing some expansion of the ashram interior and moving the entrance to the bathroom facing the far right wall. This was during a major remodeling in about 1985, when the dividing wall of shoe shelves was also removed. Also, blue marble donated by a student in Mexico was installed on the floor and part way up the walls, and the ashram was transformed into a full-time Gurdwara. The remodel was completed in 1986.
Back in 1972, there was a small window centered in the far east wall, where the teacher’s bench would go. The first teachers bench was designed and built by Sunshine Brass Beds (“the Factory”) headed up by Guru Singh. Over the years we went through two teachers benches, the second more elaborate than the first. What vibration each must hold, the master sitting so many nights sharing his wisdom with we blessed ones who filled the room to sit at his feet. Adjacent to the teacher’s bench, a small triangular altar stood in the corner, with candles and incense, a painting of the Chakras with the Wheel of Life (which used to hang at the original GRDA on Melrose & Robertson) and some photos. Yogiji would always face the altar, bow his head with hands folded, and say a short prayer before he taught each class (and all the yoga teachers followed his example). When asked one day what he said in his prayer, he replied, “I’m saying, ‘I’m just a nut, Guru Ram Das, please teach this class for me!’”
The walls still resonate with so many countless souls chanting, meditating, and praising the Name.
That small window behind the teacher’s bench was kept covered with a curtain. On the other side of the window, there would have been a small patio, but this was built into a storage shed-laundry room. From the cement floor to its metal roof, the shed was filled to the brim with cleaning, household, laundry and other supplies. One day, a devoted student who desperately wished to speak to Yogiji, would climb through that window as a way to reach him in “the back.” After that, the window was walled over and never opened or seen again.
The door to the kitchen would remain as Yogiji’s private entrance to the ashram from his living quarters in the back, and also for his staff to serve sweet and milky hot gunpowder tea and peeled almonds to sadhana goers every morning. Yogiji, with care, made certain that a sword and picture of Baba Siri Chand were placed over that door for protection.
The small living area in the back was designed with a living room facing the back yard (this is where Yogiji received guests, counseled students, and spent much of his time, sitting in his white recliner), a very small office-sleeping room (there was not room for a bed, just for one or two to curl up on sheepskins on the floor, so we cannot really call it a bedroom), a small tidy kitchen, and an even smaller bathroom. Yogiji’s quarters (a simple room without a bathroom, painted white, carpeted in white, with a long altar along one wall and little other furniture) would be built in the garage that abutted the back alley, about 15 yards or so from the main building. A cement walkway was put in, leading from his quarters to both entrances of the main house, at the kitchen door and the sliding glass doors to the living room. Regardless of the weather, when he needed to use the bathroom, that is the distance he walked. The backyard was turned into a rose garden, and would go through various transformations over the years.
When we first moved there, his personal staff was quite small, consisting of Shakti Parwha Kaur (who still had a small apartment in West Los Angeles, but would soon move to an apartment on Preuss Road), Sardarni Premka Kaur, Sat Simran Kaur, and black Krishna Kaur. I think that was it. Pink Krishna Kaur and I, both married, were considered household members. She primarily cleaned and ironed. I primarily cooked and helped with office tasks.
When we first opened Guru Ram Das Ashram on Preuss Road, it contained an Indian imports store (in the right front quadrant) where Toni Pond sold colorful saris, Punjabi suits, scarves, shawls and jewelry. After some months, she closed her shop and the 3HO offices took her place, with desks, chairs, typewriters and phones… The secretaries would stop their typing during yoga class but it was not unusual for the phones to ring… the adjacent long back area with the marbled mirrors was where we had sadhana every morning and yoga classes every day and night. Around 1976 Sikh Dharma would purchase a building on Robertson Blvd. (the Secretariat) for all of the Sikh Dharma and 3HO offices.
Guru Singh led sadhana every morning for the first four years. Sadhana started at 4:00 AM with one hour of yoga. Then we had one hour of meditation, and finally ended with one hour of kirtan. We knew very little Gurbani kirtan in those days, but we sat in a large circle and sang chants and English songs, with guitars, drums, whatever instruments we had. One young man even brought his dulcimer and harpsichord! The kirtan was the liveliest you could ever imagine, so spirited. Then, at the end, we would all stand, turn around and face the front of the ashram for Ardas. Opening the curtains to Siri Guru Granth Sahib, we stood in prayer and listened to the hukam for the day. It was not uncommon for Yogiji to come out from his meditation toward the end to sit with us, poke some fun, tell a story, play with a little one who had crawled into his lap, and share in the prashad, hot tea and peeled almonds served each day.
Within a short time of moving there, Yogiji’s family came and joined him (this included his wife Bibiji, his three children, and, later, his father, Papaji. The children stayed only for the summer and then went back to India for school). Sat Simran designed a sitting/sleeping space in the living room corner to make a cozier living space for them. Essentially, a queen-sized bed on an extra wide platform (underneath which was storage). The platform was wide enough to accommodate big square cushions around two of its sides. The mattress was covered in a lovely turquoise upholstery fabric and was accented with big purple and turquoise bolsters. The square cushions alternated lavender and turquoise (turquoise was a big color back then) brushed corduroy. This way Yogiji could comfortably sit there during the day and his family and guests sit around him. I remember him even having guests sit on the mattress with him. It was very cozy and simple. At night it was a bed for his family or staff members, and the cushions could also be used for sleeping on the floor. A few newcomers had joined Yogiji’s staff, including Gurumeet Kaur (then from San Rafael, and now of Espanola), and Nirinjan Kaur and Hari Har Kaur, both from Washington DC. At night, the laundry room, Nirinjan’s small office, and even the main ashram, were turned into sleeping quarters for staff members. And that’s how, somehow, everyone lived in this little ashram, except Shakti and Premka, who shared an apartment down the street. There was also Wha Wha the little West Highland White terrier and White Cat. So, just imagine this. I served in the kitchen all day and left every night at about 6 PM or so, and I never saw everyone sleeping… but it’s hard to imagine how they managed it. Within a very short time Guru Ram Das Estate was purchased a few blocks away, which allowed for more graceful living arrangements for everybody, and also a welcoming place for guests to stay.
With all the staff and family, there was also a constant stream of guests. Every day, when the Siri Singh Sahib was in town, there was someone new. He might invite over, on the spur of the moment, 10 or 15 people to share in a dish he had just made. Students and seekers had appointments for counseling throughout the day, and others would stop by simply to sit and offer their respect. Spiritual leaders that I remember coming to meet with him, included the Dalai Lama, Baba Ram Dass, Swami Satchitananda, and Swami Mishra… along with so many sants and sages… I walked in one day to serve Yogiji and Baba Ram Dass some tea, and there they both were, sitting up on the mattress with those big bolsters, laughing so hard I thought they both might roll off the platform! Lacking a dining room or table, we would spread a big Indian bedspread/tablecloth out on the living room floor or, if we needed to serve a lot of people, out in the main ashram
Now I will break off for two very short stories about Wha Wha and White Cat.
The Siri Singh Sahib told the story of how he was in London teaching yoga and was being driven through the city by Guru Dain Singh. Suddenly he called out, “Stop! Turn the car around and go back around the block!” He directed Guru Dain to a pet store they had just driven by. Guru Dain stopped the car in front of the store and the Siri Singh Sahib went in with one of his secretaries. He emerged a short while later with a tiny white ball of a dog, the light of whose little soul he had recognized in the window. He named him Wha Wha right on the spot and had him brought to Los Angeles. Such a cheerful, devoted and grateful little soul, you cannot believe. Perhaps you have heard the song he wrote called “Wha Wha Loves Me.” Now you know who it is about.
White Cat was a big long-haired white cat. The Siri Singh Sahib had told us that White Cat was a saint who came back as a cat to once more have a chance to sit at Guru’s feet. White Cat knew he was a cat, and took full advantage of the privileges of being a cat; he knew he could get away with acting like one – he could do things we might get in trouble for doing as humans. For instance, he loved to hide in the rose bushes and pounce on Yogiji’s feet as he walked by, and he could jump up on Yogiji’s lap whenever he pleased, where he would surely be lovingly stroked. I noticed myself being a little jealous of White Cat over this. What I wouldn’t have done to be him! What he loved most though, was napping in the ashram. Without fail we would find him either sitting on the teacher’s bench or under the palki sahib during the Akhand Path. As he grew older, his health was failing, he could hardly see…. He disappeared for a few days. Then one morning his body was discovered, literally at the door of Guru Ram Das Ashram, where he had come to bow and give his last breath.
So this was Yogiji’s household, for a short while, and with grace and without complaint (at least, not that I ever heard) all shared the blessed space known as Guru Ram Das Ashram.
Over these last 36 years at Guru Ram Das Ashram, we have had over 1800 Akhand Paths, over 15,000 Gurdwara services, the Siri Singh Sahib taught hundreds of meditation classes, and thousands more Kundalini yoga classes have been taught, since it served as our yoga center for about ten years. Until we had our first yoga center in the mid 80s, we had sadhana there every single morning. Individuals have come every single day for prayer and solace. World leaders, spiritual leaders, sages, the simply curious, and humble seekers, have all come through these doors and felt the blessing and grace of Guru Ram Das.