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Magana Baptiste has been a
renowned yoga teacher for over 50 years. She was the wife of Walt
Baptiste (1917-2001), one of the foremost authorities and teachers of
yoga in the world and an international authority and leader of the
Physical Fitness and Human Potential Movement. Magana was the founder
and director of the first school of Middle Eastern Dance in San
Francisco. She is currently the owner, artistic director and
choreographer of the San Francisco Royal Academy of Belly Dance. Her
children Sherri Baptiste Freeman, Devi Ananda, and Baron Baptiste are
all well-known yoga teachers as well.
Back in 1955, my husband Walt and I opened the first comprehensive yoga
center in the United States. It was located right in the heart of Union
Square, in downtown San Francisco. We were really pioneers, as yoga
wasn't known like it is today. People were cautious, wondering about
this strange science from India. This was at least a decade before yoga
started becoming popular with the Love Generation. There weren't any
Indian stores or boutiques, and the clothing and music of India were
not popular yet. There were no other yoga studios or
teachers&emdash;it was like the Dark Ages! However, the word soon
got around, and a few brave souls came up the stairs to look around our
Center and to register for classes. Many said things like "Please don't
let my husband or wife know I am doing this!"
The going was a little difficult at first. Classes were small, and we
were only charging the great sum of $5 a month, which barely made ends
meet. There was an attitude in those days that there should be no
charge for yoga instruction. I might mention that over the years we
sponsored several thousand students who couldn't afford classes or
instruction. Walt and I were often called upon to do free yoga
demonstrations and shows with my Dance Troupe of 15 East Indian dancers
At that time I developed what I call Yoga Dance, which is a combination
of classical yoga postures, spiritual movement, Hindu dance and mudras
(spiritual gestures). I am still offering these classes today in my San
Francisco Studio, as well as yoga classes with my daughter, Devi
Ananda. Our Center generated great interest back in the 1950s. Our
classes grew from 2 or 3 in a class to about 20 within the first year.
Eventually I was teaching 22 classes a week! There were visiting
spiritual and yoga masters starting to come to America, and we were
happy to present them in the auditorium of our 2-story Yoga Center.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to America for the first time, and we
presented him in a series of lectures and initiations. Swami
Vishnu-Devananda, yoga master and founder of the Sivananda Centers and
Retreats worldwide, was another yoga pioneer who first came to our
center for support. Prior to the opening of our Center in 1955, we had
already been teaching yoga asanas, pranayama, concentration and
meditation principles. This had always been the foundation of our
system. Walt had already been expounding these truths since he opened
his first Center at the young age of 17. He was introduced to these
techniques by his Uncle Joseph Baptiste, who was a disciple of
Paramhansa Yogananda and instrumental in sponsoring Yogananda when he
came to America back in the 1920s.
When I married Walt in 1944, he had the only studio in California of
physical culture using weight resistance. The only other one was Jack
LaLanne's studio in Oakland. The Great Saint and Spiritual Master, Sant
Kirpal Singh Ji Maharaj, came to our Center the first year of our
opening and blessed it with his discourses and initiations. Walt and I
and my daughters Sherri and Devi were initiated into his teachings of
Surat Shabda Yoga and commissioned to carry on with his teachings.
In the late 1940's, Sri Deva Ram Sukul, president and director of the
Yoga Institute of America came into our lives and was a major
influence. He later came to our studio, asking for our support in
announcing his lectures to our students. His subject was the Raja Yoga
System of Self Culture. We were initiated into his teachings, and the
mantra we were given by him was the "Gayatri." This is the very sacred
Vedic Mantra which is full of the secrets of yoga. Sri Deva Ram Sukul
taught that the highest goal of life is spiritual realization and
conscious communion with the forces and powers that are Divine. This
conscious communion and awareness of Divinity is what yoga is all
about. In his teaching he used color meditation on the chakras, and
shabda or sound principles.
Throughout the 1960's, we were a center for the "Flower Children" or
hippies. They were very beautiful souls seeking the Divine. They loved
our work: the yoga classes, my dance activities and the nutritional and
health principles. (We also gave classes in the famous Haight-Ashbury
district.) We presented many performances with our concert troupe,
performing on the same programs with Santana, Janis Joplin, the
Grateful Dead, and Timothy Leary. Madame Indra Devi, the first lady of
yoga, frequently came to our Center. It was there that she introduced a
film of Sai Baba for the first time in America.
In 1975, we established a beautiful oceanside retreat in El Salvador.
We took groups 2&endash;3 times a year to practice daily yoga and
meditation. There were also dance classes, spiritual hikes and more. We
built a Mayan Meditation Pyramid, encrusted with crystals and holy
rocks. Everyone experienced transformations on all levels.
Yoga changed my life. I went from a very chubby, weak young woman, to a
strong and centered person. My whole figure and personality changed. In
those days we were thought of as fanatics because our ideas were so far
from the mainstream. It was thought that women should not use weights,
as they would become too muscular. (I do not advocate the muscular
giants that some women are training to be these days.) Using the
Baptiste System of exercise, breath control, and visualization
techniques, I became first runner-up in the MISS USA Competition held
in Los Angeles in 1951. It's been my karma in this life to be a
pioneer, an initiator, a catalyst for introducing and popularizing
esoteric, transformational forms of movement for body-mind-spirit.
The work of Walt and myself is being carried on with our children:
Sherri Baptiste Freeman, who is very active in Marin with her own yoga
center; Devi Ananda, who is internationally recognized as a teacher of
dance and hatha yoga; and Baron Baptiste, author of the bestselling
yoga book Journey Into Power, and founder of the Baptiste Power
Institutes in Boston, Cambridge and Philadelphia.
Magana Baptiste is the author of Breath Is Life,
and a new book on yoga to be released soon. For more information,
please call (415) 387-6833 or visit maganabaptiste.com.
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