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Yogi Amrit Desai
Amritlal C. Desai
16 October 1932
|Spouse||Urmila Shah (Mataji)|
|Children||Pragnesh, Kamini, Malay|
|Founder of||Amrit Yoga Institute and Kripalu Center|
|Literary works||Yoga of Relationships, Love and Bliss, Amrit Yoga and the Yoga Sutras|
Amrit Desai is one of the earliest pioneers of yoga in the West, and is one of the few remaining living yoga masters who originally brought over the authentic teachings of yoga in the early 1960s. He is the creator of two brands of yoga, Kripalu Yoga and I AM Yoga, and is the founder of five yoga and health centers in the US. His yoga training programs have reached more than 40 countries worldwide and over 8,000 teachers have been certified.
Homegrown Gurus (2013) states: "Although Desai has not received scholarly attention, he has arguably been one of the most influential and sought-after figures in the development of Hatha Yoga in America over the last 40 years."
Born on October 16, 1932, Amrit Desai is the second son of Chimanlal and Buribhen Desai. A member of the merchant class, Chimanlal supported his family by bartering goods in his storefront, literally a veranda in front of their home in the tiny village of Pratappura in the western state of Gujarat, India. Later, when Amrit was ten, the family moved to Halol. Although Amrit preferred sports over study, his heart ached for spiritual growth, even at an early age. But he was not attracted to the rituals in the Vaishnav temple to which his parents belonged. He wanted to learn from a living master rather than from rituals and dogma. At age 15, he got his wish when he met his guru, Swami Kripalvananda (Bapuji), a wandering sadhu who was offering free talks on the deeper meaning of the Bhagavad Gita in Halol. Bapuji's guru, Dadaji, is said to be Lord Lakulish, the 28th incarnation of Shiva.
Young Amrit taught himself the practice of yoga asana (postures) from a chart he had found tacked to the wall of the local gym. Such was his enthusiasm that he started teaching others outside the goshala (cow-house) where his guru lived. After the swami observed him teaching one day, he offered him a rare demonstration of his private sadhana. During the fifteen minutes that Amrit was permitted to observe, the swami went into a trance-like state and began to perform movements unlike anything he had seen on the asana charts. Amrit recalls: “The pranic energy became so strong his body was hurled across the room with tremendous force. As I watched in awe, he was dancing, weaving in and out of complicated asanas.”
After a brief period studying engineering and training with the Indian Air Force in Madras, Amrit returned to Halol and took a job teaching art at the local high school. He married his betrothed, Urmila Shah, in January 1955. The couple moved to Ahmedabad a year later where Amrit earned his art diploma over the next four years. Their first son, Pragnesh, was born in 1959. The couple had two more children, Malay (1962) and Kamini (1968). On a teacher’s salary of $30 a month, Amrit supported his wife and son, and even sent some money to his parents but, little by little, was able to collect twelve hundred dollars to fulfill his dream of going to America. In February 1960, he came to the US to study at the Philadelphia College of Art with only enough money in his pocket to cover his first semester’s tuition and rent. After a year and a half of working around the clock, teaching fashion design classes and yoga on the weekends, and washing dishes at the college cafeteria (that secured him a full meal every day), he was able to save enough money to bring his wife and infant son to the US.
Amrit Desai's creative life had started early when he made clay figures of animals as his mother washed clothes by the river bank. As a teenager, he sketched scenes of his village life and got his first job as a poster designer for a movie theater.
Graduating in 1964 with a degree in fine arts and design from the Philadelphia College of Art, he took a job with a textile firm. During this time, he also began to see success with his unique style of watercolor paintings, earning awards at a number of art shows, including a show at the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art. Experimenting with unusual tools, he created distinct textures and patterns with razor blades and eye-droppers. Desai's talents were not limited to painting - while still an art student, he played the flute in a "Music of India" concert at the Commercial Museum (Philadelphia Trade and Convention Center) in 1961.
His short but prolific professional career as an artist spanned only four years from 1962 to 1966. Desai abruptly abandoned the promise of his artistic pursuits to dedicate his life to the inner journey of yoga.
Desai had started teaching yoga in the early 1960s in the Philadelphia area while still an art student. 1966 marked a turning point when, during his first visit back to India since coming to the US, Swami Kripalvananda gave him initiation and further instruction in kundalini yoga. Returning to the US, with his guru's blessing and the support of his family, he left his job with the textile firm to form The Yoga Society of Pennsylvania and dedicate himself full-time to teaching yoga. In 1970, he had a Kundalini awakening experience in which his body automatically moved through a series of flowing yoga postures without his direction. It was the movement of his body that directed his attention inward, and expanded his consciousness into the stillness and ecstasy of deep meditation. This experience revealed to him that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a manual for the practice of Ashtanga Yoga rather than mere philosophy. Out of this experience Desai created a form of hatha yoga called Kripalu Yoga, named in honor of his guru. His Meditation in Motion approach is based on the practical application of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga in daily life. The unique system he developed combines two traditional paths of yoga: the rigorous discipline of Ashtanga yoga with the path of initiation and surrender that is Kundalini yoga. In this system, the student begins with the practice of willful discipline and gradually moves on to the more advanced practice of surrender to prana.
To date, Desai is the founder of five yoga and health centers in the US, and co-founder of a university of Ayurvedic sciences.
- In 1966, the not-for-profit Yoga Society of Pennsylvania was formed. By 1970, it had trained 44 teachers and had grown to 150 Yoga classes, attended by more than 2,500 students per week, in southeast Pennsylvania, Delaware, and southern New Jersey, making it one of the largest Yoga organizations at that time.
- In 1972, the first Kripalu Ashram was founded in Sumneytown, PA. The 50-acre property was purchased to fulfill the growing demand among students for a yogic lifestyle experience. Desai reduced his teaching to once per week to make time for higher yoga practice. The ashram also became a program center that provided the volunteer residential staff and teachers the in-depth study and practice of yoga, along with a yogic lifestyle. A variety of health, yoga and spiritual trainings and programs were offered. As the demand for programs grew, the residential staff grew from 37 to 70. In 1974, Desai spent three months in seclusion at a small cottage on the property that came to be known as Muktidham. Upon his return, he was greeted by 350 disciples, mostly dressed in white, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Detroit, Chicago and Montreal for the celebration.
- In 1976, an additional ashram in Summit Station, PA, was opened to accommodate the growth in program participants and volunteer staff. As a result, the program center grew to provide a greater variety of programs, and the residential staff grew to 150.
- In 1983, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health was founded in Lenox, MA. The staff of Summit Station was transferred to Lenox, and soon grew to 350 full-time resident staff. By 1994 Kripalu Yoga teachers were teaching in 50 states and 45 countries worldwide, and it was described as the world's largest yoga and health center.
- The Amrit Yoga Institute in Salt Springs, FL was founded in 2001, and currently operates as an ayurvedic healing and yoga retreat center. Regular yoga teacher trainings are offered in the Integrative Amrit Method, or the I AM techniques.
- In 2014, he co-founded the International University of Yoga and Ayurveda that offers accredited training programs in the US and in India.
A Shaktipat lineage
Yogi Desai was initiated into the secrets of Shaivite kundalini yoga by his guru, Swami Kripalu (Kripalvananda), a master of tantric sadhana. There are numerous documented accounts of energetic transmission or shaktipat experienced in his presence.
Many have reported having experiences of infinity and timelessness, ineffable joy and happiness, lights and colors, energy surges running up the spine, prana kriyas (spontaneous jerking motions in the body), and other such phenomenon. Some have even found themselves in spontaneous yoga postures in configurations that would otherwise be physically impossible for them. The ability to transmit Shakti in this manner is considered a rare siddhi (yogic power) and indicative of a yoga master of high attainment. Shaktipat received in this manner sweeps out the latent samskaras or karmic memories lodged in the mental, physical, and emotional bodies, accelerating the recipient’s path towards the goal of ultimate unity, which is the literal meaning of yoga.
In “Kundalini Evolution and Enlightenment,” D.R. Butler describes a meditation led by Yogi Desai at a seminar with about 200 attendees at the 1973 ICSA Yoga Convocation. Yogi Desai was an unannounced guest at the week-long retreat.
“Clad in a flowing white robe and sitting before us, Amrit easily assumed the lotus posture, his body perfectly poised. He led us into a meditation and the first thing I noticed was a wave of euphoria permeating my body. Suddenly surges of energy like electrical charges streaked up my spine. These gradually evolved into a steady current of hot energy flowing from my tip of my spine to the top of my head... Brilliant colors stirred inside my head. I thought I would burst with happiness. Nothing had ever felt so good... In a few moments the place was a madhouse. People were crying hysterically, laughing uncontrollably, gasping for breath, even rolling on the floor. Apparently everyone was experiencing some manifestation of the same energy I was feeling... My feeling of euphoria continued for several hours and I knew I would never be quite the same again.”
Dr David Frawley has stated:
“Yogi Desai revived the ancient teachings of the millennial old Shaivite Yoga, rooted in the Lakulish tradition from Kayavarohan in Gujarat, one of the greatest centers of India’s older Yoga practices… Yogi Desai has demonstrated a Prana Siddhi in which he can allow the Universal Prana to move not only through his mind and body but also through his environment and into the audience around him, awakening their own inner prana and spiritual intelligence.” (Personal letter to Yogi Amrit Desai on the occasion of his 60th birthday).
In the afterward to Ancient Wisdom, Modern Master, Mickey Singer describes a meeting with Desai during which his heart chakra was “permanently opened” by “the simple touch of Amrit’s hand.”
The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health was an Ashram. One of the spiritual practices that the single residents were expected to practice was celibacy (brahmacharya). Although sex within marriage was condoned at the ashram, after his third child was born in 1968, Desai declared that he would now practice celibacy too. A large celebration was held for this event. So important was this practice of celibacy that occasionally meetings were held and residents were asked to divulge anyone they thought might have violated that sacred practice. As a result, some residents were kicked out of the community. The irony was that the two most senior members of the community, including Desai, were practicing adultery. After years of infidelity with numerous people, in 1994, it was revealed and admitted that Desai had sexual contact with at least three female resident disciples and was forced to resign his position as Spiritual Director.
Then in an open letter to the Kripalu community, Desai stated, "More than anything I want Kripalu to remain a spiritual home for many. I want you to know that we came to this decision together… I deeply regret any suffering I have caused to the people directly involved and to the entire Kripalu family."
Post-Kripalu years and the Amrit Yoga Institute
When Mickey Singer, a long-time supporter and host of Desai's seminars, heard that Desai had left the Kripalu community, he invited him and his wife to spend some quiet time living with the Temple of the Universe community in Alachua, Florida. The Desais arrived in December 1994 and stayed on the property for the better part of three years.
Desai resumed teaching in 1996 at the original Kripalu Ashram in Sumneytown, PA. After a couple of years, mostly in PA, the Desai family relocated to Salt Springs, Florida in 2002, where Yogi Desai currently teaches at the Amrit Yoga Institute, a beautiful lakeside retreat on the banks of Lake Kerr in the Ocala National Forest. Amrit Yoga Institute is an ashram where the guru-disciple relationship continues to flourish and residents enjoy the benefits of a traditional yogic lifestyle. Programs of varying length are offered for yoga teacher training, ayurveda, and recovery.
Kripalu, while no longer an ashram, continues to operate and is presently one of the largest yoga and health centers in North America, offering a wide range of programs and professional trainings in health, spirituality, yoga, and more.
Paul Harris Fellow – In 2011, Yogi Amrit Desai received this award from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, in Naples, Florida, "in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world."
Bhuriben Trust – The Yug Prabha newspaper, Halol, India stated in a 2007 article, “Yogishri Amrit Desai was honored in his home town of Halol for his humanitarian works known to offer scholarships to the poor and approximately 5,000 women are helped financially through the Bhuriben Trust he established… Helpless and poor patients receive free medicines and medical treatment… [H]e has financed the building of the new children’s school in Halol.”
- International Yoga Grand Master, 2013 – From H.H. Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda Maharaj (recipient of Padma Shri). The only previous recipients of this award were B.K.S. Iyengar and Dr. Nagendra, SVYASA University, Bangalore.
- Maharishi Sandipani Award, 2013 – From the Ujjain Yog Life Society International, at the 4th International Yog Conference, held in January 2014 in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, India.
- Inaugural Fellow, Council for Yoga Accreditation International (CYAI), 2012 – The council recognized four inaugural Fellows who have demonstrated extraordinary achievement and contribution to the field of Yoga.
- Patanjali Award, 2010 – For Excellence in Yogic Research and Teachings in North America, from the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA).
- Unity in Yoga Plaque, 1993 – In appreciation for years of dedicated services to yoga in the Americas. Presented by Unity in Yoga Teachers Association celebrating 100 years of Yoga in America.
- Padma Vibhushan Nomination, 1992 – Nominated by the late Prime Minister of India, Chandra Shekhar, with a positive response from then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao for 1993.
- Vishwa Yoga Ratna, 1987 – Conferred by the Vishwa Unnayan Samsad (World Development Parliament of India) to 10 world-renowned teachers from 10 countries (India, USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Brazil, France), this one-time award was presented by the President of India in recognition of lifelong dedication and service in the field of Yoga. Yogi Amrit Desai was selected to represent the USA.
- Maharishi, 1986 – From the 105-year-old H.H. Sadguru Swami Gangeshwaranandji Maharaj, Udasin, chancellor of Udasin Sanskrit University, Benares, founder of 12 ashrams in India and 600 Ved Mandirs.
- Jagadacharya, 1986 – From the World Religious Parliament, New Delhi, India, established by Swami Vivekenanda in 1894. This honorable title, equivalent to Jagadaguru Shankaracharya, was awarded to five world-renowned teachers for spreading Hindu philosophy and wisdom worldwide.
- Yogacharya, 1980 – From Swami Kripalvananda, Amrit’s guru and founder of Kayavarohan Tirtha Shiva Temple, Malav Ashram, and Lord Lakulish Yoga Institute, in recognition of years of intensive study, teachings and practice of philosophy and spiritual principles of yoga.
- Doctor of Yoga Science, 1974 – From H.H. Jagadaguru Shankaracharya Maharaj, Dwarka, spiritual leader of Hinduism, for outstanding contributions to humanity.
Publications and media
Books by Yogi Amrit Desai:
- Love and Bliss: Meditations on the Art of Living (2014)
- Yoga of Relationships (2015)
- Amrit Yoga and the Yoga Sutras (2010)
- Amrit Yoga: Explore, Expand, Experience (2004)
- Kripalu Yoga: Meditation-in-Motion (1985)
- Embodying the Power of the Zero Stress Zone (2017)
- Letters from Swami Kripalu (2017)
Audio and video releases of devotional chanting and yoga instruction include Ecstatic Chanting Vol I and II, and Integrative Amrit Method Yoga Level I and II.
- Yoga Nidra:Journey to the Heart MP3 (2013)
- Yoga Nidra: Healing and Rejuvenation MP3 (2005)
- I AM Yoga Nidra led by Yogi Amrit Desai - YouTube
- "Return to the source" with Yoga Nidra led by Yogi Amrit Desai - YouTube
- Yogi Amrit Desai, Love and Bliss, 2014
- Ellen Goldberg, Amrit Desai and the Kripalu Center, Homegrown Gurus, State University of New York, 2013.
- Lila Ivey, Bikram Choudhury and Mickey Singer, Ancient Wisdom, Modern Master, 2012
- Gene Thursby, Hindu Movements Since Mid-Century, America's Alternative Religions, State University of New York, 1995
- Exotic Music of India played at Concert Here, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 1961
- Yoga Group Lists 2,500 Followers, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1970
- The Day The Guru Came Down From The Mountain, Today (The Philadelphia Inquirer magazine), May 5, 1974
- D. R. Butler, Instant Cosmic Consciousness, Kundalini Evolution and Enlightenment, ed. John White, Anchor Books, 1979
- Yogi Desai Resigns From Kripalu, Yoga Journal, Feb 1995
- Michael A. Singer, The Surrender Experiment, 2015
- Yug Prabha newspaper, Halol, India, 2007
Yogi Amrit Desai has been the subject of several biographies, including:
- Lila Ivey, Bikram Choudhury and Mickey Singer (2012). Ancient Wisdom, Modern Master: The Story of Yogi Amrit Desai. MahaMedia Inc.
- Amrit Desai and Christine Deslauriers (1992). In The Presence of the Master. Kripalu Publications.
- Sukanya Warren, Peter Mellen, and Francis Mellen (1982). Gurudev: The Life of Yogi Amrit Desai. Kripalu Publications.