In Encinitas, nature’s beauty feeds the soul at Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens

Dana Joseph and Carter Marquand, 3, visit a koi pond at the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens in Encinitas.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Founder Paramahansa Yogananda ‘loved to landscape. One of the main things to talk about the beauty of the grounds is that it reflects the serenity of God’

Many visitors to the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens come to gaze at the plants, koi ponds and expansive ocean vistas.

But for Fellowship followers, the public gardens that SRF founder Paramahansa Yogananda established in 1937 (along with the adjacent hermitage, retreat and ashram) offer much more.

“Visitors come primarily just to enjoy the beauty of the grounds and maybe reflect a little bit,” said Brother Nakulananda, a minister at the SRF Encinitas temple. “But our hardcore members, our regular church devotees, they may come here with more of a reverence for Yogananda and his teachings.”

Nakulananda gave us a tour of the gardens as a way to introduce the spiritual aims and ideals of the SRF, which are based on the teachings of Yogananda. He wrote his most famous work, “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” at the hermitage.

For devotees, Yogananda, who helped bring meditation to the West and died in 1952, is everywhere in the gardens, which were a surprise gift from dedicated follower Rajarsi Janakananda in 1936.

“Yogananda loved to landscape. One of the main things to talk about the beauty of the grounds is that it reflects the serenity of God,” Nakulananda said.

Brother Nakulananda shows the plaque that commemorates and features a photo of the Golden Lotus Temple.
Brother Nakulananda shows the plaque that commemorates and features a photo of the Golden Lotus Temple on the site of the former temple, which was rendered unusable in 1942 because of bluff erosion.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At the center of the garden along the cliff was the Golden Lotus Temple. There Yogananda taught followers about what he called “the science of meditation” and encouraged them to look at the ocean through immense windows and a four-story glass tower.

“Yogananda loved the altar of the horizon, which is like the meeting of the ocean and the sky, the infinitude of that,” Nakulananda said.

In 1942, shoreline erosion and seepage from the nearby lake caused the temple to slip into the sea, leaving only the terrazzo stairs that are still visible in the gardens.

“Divine Mother told Yogananda that she took it away because she wanted him to found other temples. Otherwise, he would have just been satisfied with this beautiful Golden Lotus Temple,” Nakulananda said. “I think what it would mean to our membership is that even Yogananda, who is our great teacher and guide, had to go through trials like this. It’s just part of life on Earth.”

The iconic lotus flower from the temple appears in the SRF logo along with, Nakulananda said, “the spiritual eye, which is at the point between the eyebrows. In human beings, that’s the spiritual center of the body.”

An image of St. Francis anchors the St. Francis garden at the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens in Encinitas.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Connecting with divinity

Yogananda went on to establish temples in San Diego, Hollywood and around the world to teach followers about SRF ideals and the meditation technique of Kriya Yoga (which is different form of yoga from the poses and breathing techniques taught in yoga studios). The Self-Realization Fellowship and Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (also founded by Yogananda) have approximately 800 centers throughout the world, according to Blythe Fraser, SRF director of public relations.

“The foundation stone of the SRF teachings is meditation,” Nakulananda said. “It’s through meditation that we can contact that divinity within ourselves. … Yogananda said we don’t have any dogmas in SRF, but if we had a dogma, our dogma would be Kriya Yoga because Kriya Yoga is what brings God awareness.”

Today, devotees learn about Kriya Yoga through a home study course. They come to weekly services at temples in Encinitas and San Diego to learn more about how to apply SRF teachings in their daily lives (like the meaning of salvation or the dream nature of the world), to meditate together, to chant, and to pray.

(Those, like Brother Nakulananda, who wish to become monks or nuns attend SRF ashrams and follow four stages of monastic life: postulancy, novitiate, brahmacharya and sannyas.)

The garden paths lead to many meditation benches, including one near the bonsai Ming Tree, a Monterrey pine given to Yogananda.

Among the SRF’s Aims and Ideals is cultivating a spiritual understanding between East and West, as well as, “To reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”

“Yogananda, through his attunement with both Krishna and Christ, is able to come out with an interpretation of the true teachers, both of those great teachers. So, we’re not a Christian religion, we’re not a Hindu religion. We’re a path of scientific yoga meditation,” Nakulananda said.

The gardens include the St. Francis circle meditation area. “Yogananda said he had many visions of many saints here, walking along the grounds,” Nakulananda said. “And they just came to visit him. He didn’t talk about their conversations. St. Francis was one of Yogananda’s favorite Christian saints for his simplicity, humility and devotion.”

The circle is near the koi ponds, which used to be large enough for Yogananda to tour in a small rowboat, but now are smaller (and lighter to stave off erosion) and dotted with meditation benches.

Looking at the small waterfall that connects two ponds, Nakulananda said, “Yogananda loved water. He has waterfalls at the Lake Shrine (in Pacific Palisades), here in Encinitas, and Mount Washington (the international headquarters), so he loved water. … The sound is very peaceful and calm-producing.”

Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens, Retreat, Hermitage and Ashram Center

Address: 215 W. K St., Encinitas

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Online: yogananda.org

Chaffee is a freelance writer.

Amanda Casanova meditates at the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens in Encinitas.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)