Nobody dominates, and nobody is dominated
I met the French Ananda Marga Yoga monk Pierre Charron (42), known with his spiritual name as Dada Padmeshananda, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. He talked with me about his personal yoga journey and discussed a wide range of intriguing personal and Yoga-in-Africa-related questions. Why did his inspiration to become a monk not come from the monks themselves? How accepted is yoga in Burkina Faso and in other parts of Africa? Could the promotion of yoga by Europeans in African countries be seen as a form of spiritual colonialism? How does the Ananda Marga Yoga team find ways to reach out and come closer even to the more sceptical villagers in Burkina Faso?
Read the INTERVIEW
Jennifer: Imagine, a child asked you: “What is yoga?” - what would you answer?
Padmeshananda: I’d tell the child: “If you buy a device or tool, there comes an operational manual along with it, which explains how to use the device properly. Yoga is the operational manual for the proper use of the body, mind and heart of a human being.
“I began to think I must have a problem of metaphysical nature.”
Why did you get into the yogic journey?
That’s a long story [smiles]. I was studying physics in France and I used to be involved in many activities like theater projects, juggling, partying, sports. Interestingly, even though I had a good life, I was never fully satisfied and didn’t understand why. ‛What the heck is going on?’, I wondered, and I began thinking I must have a problem of metaphysical nature [laughs]. This inner search for deep happiness continued when I finished my studies and I joined a rock band in Marseille. Rock music and it’s scene it’s a world of its own. I was vegetarian, activist and finally able to rebel and express my discontentment with the society – but was I deeply happy? No. My world view was negative, we were pessimists and still quite far away from inner peace. When I realized this lifestyle was not the right one, I decided to leave. I broke up with my girlfriend, left the band and wanted to travel. For some reason, I was drawn to India, where a friend of mine was working. I packed and visited him, and then explored a bit of India, volunteering at some organic agriculture farms. Intuitively, I felt I might find some answers, though the focus for my travel was not necessarily a religious quest.
You had a pretty good life, as it seems. A life, that probably many people would dream of. Where did this urge for searching something more come from?
This was all linked with a feeling I had earlier, when I was younger. I used to find the idea of settling down with a wife and having a job not enough – from early on there was a sense of mission within me. So, I realized back then that something was missing, something which could help me both to understand how to find this mission and to accomplish it.
“Lines appeared dancing through the desert sand”
How did you get initiated in yoga and take up the practice?
On a farm in Rajasthan. The owner used to get up at sunrise. Every dawn, he walked out into the beautiful desert landscape and practiced yoga postures (asanas) there. I loved sports, so I watched his movements in wonderment – I had no idea what he was doing, though. It was an amazing, silent, and very peaceful atmosphere. Already before I reached his farm I was in awe, seeing all these Indian temples and seeing the people praying devotionally had touched me profoundly. So, when I witnessed the rituals of this Rajasthani farmer, something tugged at my heartstrings, and just a couple of mornings later I asked whether I might join him. He told me to come, so it was with him that I did my very first asana sequence. Afterwards, we chanted the Om mantra and went walking in nature. I remember well how lines appeared dancing through the desert sand, blown by the wind and how magical all that was to me. This experience really left a lasting impression on me. So, from that day on, I practiced asanas daily.
What was your most profound spiritual experience due to yoga?
When I got in touch with Ananda Marga Yoga and also practiced meditation for the first time in Czech Republic. The Didi (female Ananda Marga monk) there used to meditate every morning, afternoon and evening. I tried it, and just sat behind her in silence and I soon experienced something very powerful. I felt connected with the Source and I understood that I would never really die, that my soul is immortal and what I truly ‛am’ lives eternally. When I realised that, I could feel the transformation in the depth of my heart, and I cried many tears. Christianity is the dominant religion in France and in Europe, and it’s interesting that the Christian concept is based on the idea of “your” soul, “my” soul, “his and her”, etc., and one gets the impression that one is isolated and separated from the others. But in the end, this soul is the same, it’s all one.
How do you explain this?
This is not linear. There are moments when meditation is more challenging, and there are moments when entering a deep meditative state happens almost naturally. Because there are both, i.e. forces within us that cause us to be in a crude state of mind and to feel more animalistic emotions, and forces that pull us towards divinity and make us identify with the most subtle essence within ourselves, which is the soul, which is consciousness. And when you identify with consciousness, you identify with everything, because everything is made of consciousness. Being balanced, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that one lives the experience of oneness and bliss every time. We should rather become grounded, and feel more comfortable within ourselves.
“Even though I was fascinated by the simplicity and the bliss of the monks, I hesitated staying with them.”
How did you get the idea to become a monk?
Interestingly, I didn’t get motivated while I was in India, when I spent some time at Daramsala, the place where the Dalai Lama exiles. I met many monks there and had the chance to talk to them and to discuss with them the question of Dharma (Sanskrit: duty, mission). Even though I was fascinated by the simplicity and the bliss of the monks, I hesitated staying with them. Their life was austere, they were refraining from so much. I, however, love work and life. So, it didn’t dawn on me – not yet. I had a vague inspiration on the plane, however, while travelling back from India to France. I saw all those beautiful clouds and I told myself: ‛If God exists, he must be of an infinite dimension. He must encompass everything that I, or every human being, could ever desire. Whenever I am certain that God is really there, I will dedicate my life to Him. Because if I have Him, I have all I have ever longed for.’ After two months back at home, my energy level was going down the mountain. The travel experience had changed me, but my friends still carried their common mindset. So, I decided to find a solution for this situation by leaving again, volunteering to work in a farm in Czech Republic. It was there that I encountered Didi (female Ananda Marga Monk) through whom I got in touch with Ananda Marga Yoga for the first time and with whom I had the profound meditation experience with. This realization of oneness and immortality was like a rebirth to me, and it was the beginning of my life as a yogi, as a sannyasi. But before deciding to be a monk I had been working as a volunteer for the mission for almost four years in Czech Republic, Denmark, the United States and Mexico.
“It was not the world that was dark, it was how I had made it up.”
What were the most positive effects that yoga had on you?
Before my journey to India I used to have the habit of complaining. In the West, we know very well how to complain [smiles and laughs]. When I travelled in the third class in Indian trains to save some of my travel budget, I noticed the people there hadn’t forgotten how to smile and be friendly, even though they were poor. This revealed to me that it was not the world that was dark, it was how I had made it up. As if something had been taken of my covered eyes. This gave me hope: if I can change and take off that veil which covers my eyes, I can see how beautiful the world is.
In the West, we have experienced a yoga boom some time ago. Yoga in local African communities, however – this idea may appear exotic to many. Has yoga grown also more popular in Burkina Faso over the past years?
The number of people doing asana practice and yoga practice for health reasons has increased a lot. A few more yoga centers have also opened in Burkina Faso in the past years. At Ananada Marga, we have probably initiated around 700 people within the last years. The interest in the spiritual aspect of yoga did not grow, however. It remained more or less steady. But I think it will begin very slowly to grow along with the trend of vegetarianism and asanas. These are things that can contribute to a change.
“Some practise yoga hoping to find the means to increase their power and impact in the world.”
What motivates the local people to attend yoga classes?
The majority of the people here who come to practise yoga at our center are Burkinabe, inhabitants of Burkina Faso. Men and women of different age groups, school or university students, as well as professionals. Their motivation varies a lot. Some come only to practise asanas, the yogic body postures, wanting to improve their health. Others attend the asana classes in order to reduce their stress levels and to manage their emotions. And there are also those who come for spiritual reasons, while others are highly interested in attaining success in society through prayers and meditation. Finally, some practise yoga hoping to find the means to increase their power and impact in the world.
Why are asanas so well known here?
We celebrated the International Day of Yoga here, there are lots of videos and there is online publicity about yoga and asanas , so people got to know it more. Not to forget the impact that capitalism has on people, with its high workloads, causing high stress levels. That’s the reason why people begin to look for alternatives and find asanas and vegetarian diet good for their health. That’s why this lifestyle grows more and more popular here, nowadays. The motivation, however, is different from the reasons why I became vegetarian many years ago. I did not want to contribute for the slaughtering or suffering of animals. Vegetarianism was still seen back then as something very strange for most people.
Do you also sell ayurvedic medicine at your center?
At the moment, we have a project in the South of Burkina Faso. We produce moringa there and distribute it to many shops in Ouagadougou.
You have travelled quite a bit within Africa and been actively spreading information about yoga in different African countries. In which African countries are people more receptive to yoga and where have you faced more resistance?
The interest in yoga tends to be higher in African countries near the Sea, like Togo, the Ivory Coast, Ghana etc., because more tourists come to these countries and, hence, there’s a bigger mix of people from different cultures.
“I see people here as my brothers and sisters and I have never imposed anything.”
Before coming once again to Burkina Faso this year (after a 12 year break), I wondered whether I should teach yoga for free to some people and perhaps inspire them. I also wondered, though, if having a European ‛telling Africans how to do yoga’ wouldn’t be regarded as another subtle form of colonialism...
I think it all depends on the approach. At the beginning of my work as a monk in Burkina, we did not have much financial means available, so, naturally, before getting started with any humanitarian aid project, I took a couple of years to adapting to life in Burkina Faso, learning about the place and its people, and understanding what is needed and what is not. I see people here as my brothers and sisters and I have never imposed anything. Yoga was offered to all those who were interested. It’s an offer, and not something that people could or should be forced to. That’s why I have never had any problems. Here, nobody dominates, and nobody is dominated.
“The distance, from which they looked at our activities, has vanished”
How are your social work projects received in Burkina Faso?
Generally, our projects have been received well, here in Burkina Faso. At the beginning, people looked at everything quite distantly. Some did not understand and began wondering, for instance, why I dress in orange or how it comes that we are vegetarians. But the distance, from which they looked at our activities, has vanished over the years. So, when I initiated a weekly collective meditation with singing and dancing in the last year at the school we are running in Bissiri, around 40 or 50 students showed up. It’s a good sign and only possible with the natural approach we chose. People love singing and listening to the chants, so, even though many don’t yet speak French very well in a rural area like that, everybody could participate. In a context like this, we are slowly, and very naturally, able to explain to them that it is important to obtain some self-control and to train the ability to concentrate.
Thank you for this interview.
Padmeshananda (Pierre Charron)
Born and brought up in Grenoble, France, Pierre Charron, usually called by his spiritual name Padmeshananda (42), decided to travel to India after finishing his studies of Physics and playing in a rock band, but not having found deeper happiness in life. Both inspired and confused, he travelled on to Czech Republic, where he got initiated in Ananda Marga Yoga while working on an organic farm. From then on, he took on the path of this philosophy, working as a volunteer for several years in Czech Republic, Denmark, in the USA and Mexico. Later, he trained in Sweden for several years to become a monk of the Ananda Marga Yoga mission. He has been working in Burkina Faso, West Africa, since 2008, running several human aid projects and the Ananda Marga Yoga Center in Ouagadougou.
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