ENCINITAS — Behind the golden turrets that line South Coast Highway beginning at K Street and ending just before Swami’s beach, the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram Center is familiar to residents and visitors for offering a tranquil respite from the daily grind of life.
What isn’t as visible is the international organization’s long ties to the city, the monks and nuns who live and prosper among other residents and the large local following of its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda.
Yogananda, a Hindu monk from India, founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920 in an effort to share the value of meditation and Kriya yoga — a scientific approach to quieting the body and mind in order to experience inner peace and God’s presence.
The international headquarters opened five years later in Los Angeles and has grown to include more than 600 temples, meditation centers and retreats in 60 countries.
After coming to Encinitas in 1937, Yogananda was taken by the vast beauty where the temple now sits. He wrote “Autobiography of a Yogi,” while living there. He died in 1952, after a lifetime of writing about the links between Christianity and yoga. The swami’s image — serene, soft brown eyes framed by black flowing hair — can be seen throughout the retreat center of the fellowship and the bookstore next door on South Coast Highway 101.
While many are familiar with the gardens, what people may not know is that the religious nonprofit organization also owns some of the city’s most prime coastal real estate, most of which it uses for purely agricultural purposes.
Brother Anilananda made it clear that none of the holdings are for sale. “We get a few calls from developers inquiring about the property but I think most of them have gotten the message by now,” he said. “We aren’t selling.” Anilananda said he had no idea what the monetary value of the 14 acres is but that it serves a higher purpose to the organization. “We grow 20 different kinds of fruits and vegetables for our monastic on the Summit and Vulcan (Avenues) fields,” he said. “Tending the gardens is a part of who we are.”
The annual pumpkin harvest also yields benefits to the entire community. Until 2001, the fellowship hosted a Halloween festival that featured intricately carved pumpkins as a highlight of the evening. “It just became too big of an event for us to handle,” Anilananda said. “What started out as a few hundred people decades ago turned into 10,000.” The organization has been donating carved pumpkins to the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association’s Halloween celebration.
Postulant, or beginning monks, are responsible for carving the pumpkins each year in addition to their spiritual studies and meditation.
“We leave it up to the postulants and their own creativity what they want to carve,” Anilananda said. The fellowship has 50 monks, nuns and postulants, who are not recognizable as monastics when walking around town without their orange robes.
With the exception of 2006, the fellowship has taken pumpkins from its own garden to supply the monks. According to Anilananda several changes were made two years ago to the agriculture systems that necessitated a break in planting. “We set up permanent beds and added a new irrigation system,” he said. “With the addition of worms to enrich the soil we are hoping to increase the nutrients in the soil.” The monks managed to use pumpkins from the fellowship’s Escondido location to create unique carvings for the city’s downtown event. “I think we might have bought a few, too,” Anilananda said with a laugh.
While the fellowship doesn’t invite visitors into the vegetable gardens, Anilananda said he understands the draw that they have on people. “I love to see people enjoying the garden as much as we do,” he said. In 2005, an estimated two-thirds of the pumpkin harvest was stolen just before monks began working on the carvings. The experience has not deterred the organization from continuing the growing season in the same relatively unconfined way. Two benches along Summit Avenue provide a sitting area for those not willing to venture past the fence into the garden.
With a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean, the fellowship’s gardens are an obvious attraction for locals and visitors alike. “You don’t have to call in advance, just come and enjoy the paradise,” said Brother Ramananda, a senior monk, whose youth and vigor belie his mid-70s age. Photographer John Westing said he visits the “inner sanctum” on a regular basis. “I take photos of the same scenery but there is a difference in the final image depending on how I am feeling and the spiritual energy of the place on any given day,” he said.
Others come to meditate or practice the teachings of Yogananda that are offered through a home study course for a fee. Cynthia Callum admitted she was self-conscious about sitting cross-legged to meditate on a bench in the fellowship gardens. “I’m new at this (meditating) and I thought coming to this place would help me concentrate,” she said. “Yogananada’s teachings make a lot of common sense but I feel like I’m just taking baby steps right now.” Callum lost her job as a human resources director early last year and has been unable to find work. “I came here very desperate and not much has changed in my life except the way I deal with it, how much energy I give to the negative,” she said.
After two hours of focused meditation, Callum said she felt better. “The point is to maintain this great feeling I have right now,” she said. “I’ll get there, I’m glad this space is here to help me feel the presence of God.”