Swami shows homies a path to inner peace

Times Staff Writer

The swami was curious to know what "homies" meant.

As part of his North American tour to spread the practice of meditation and yoga, Mahamandaleshwar Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, better known as Swamiji, stopped by this week at Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit rehabilitation center for former gang members and at-risk youths. "Thank you for blessing us with your presence," said Father Gregory Boyle, the Roman Catholic priest who founded and oversees the center near Los Angeles' Chinatown. "I heard you were going to have a discussion with the homies."

The 63-year-old swami squinted, cocking his head slightly, and asked in English, filtered through his Indian accent: "The homies?"

"The homies are the people who work here," Boyle explained with a light smile.

"Ah, yes," the swami nodded, smiling back.

Swamiji's arrival prompted some double takes as he walked into the center at 3:08 p.m. Thursday, waving to young men and women bustling about in the lobby. It's not every day at Homeboy Industries that a man wanders in draped in flowing orange robes.

Swamiji was ushered quickly into Boyle's glass-door office.

"We are the gang capital of the United States," Boyle said, rattling off a few stats on how many gangs Los Angeles has and how Homeboy works to help young men and women leave the gang life behind.

The swami sat with legs crossed, his robes hiking up to reveal a hint of his brown athletic clogs, listening intently.

A group of homies then escorted the swami upstairs to a small classroom. About 30 homeboys and homegirls walked in.

The meeting, called "A Profound Discussion of Peace and Social Change," focused less on theory and more on practicality; the swami taught exercises on how to bring inner peace to the tumultuous environments many at Homeboy know.

He began by telling the homies, their shaved heads a contrast to his salt-and-pepper long hair and beard, that they were beautiful. He said they had inner talent. And then he asked them to please join in breathing exercises.

"Sit comfortably, close your eyes," the swami said. He then told everyone to pinch the tips of their thumbs and index fingers together, a familiar meditation pose. "Now rest your hands upright on your lap. Now for three times, let's deep inhale and exhale."

A few cellphones went off spouting hip-hop ringtones, and a boy and a girl in the back struggled to mask their giggles. But the swami stayed on task.

"Try to relax your fingers," he said, pausing in between commands for relaxing each part of the body. "Just relax. Tell to yourself, 'Relax, my friend, relax.' "

Then he asked them to open and close their palms.

"Now rub your palms and put them on your face. How do you feel?" the swami asked.

"Relaxed!" one shouted, and others quickly echoed him.

Most complied with the swami's instructions, but a few looked skeptical. Perhaps detecting this, the swami's voice rose slightly.

"If you don't do the exercise, you will miss it. I don't know when I'll be back," he said, prompting laughter.

The swami then took questions after he explained a little about himself.

Born in rural Rajasthan, India, Swamiji started studying with his spiritual master at age 13. Through rigorous study under his master, Holy Guruji, Swamiji attained the state of self-realization at age 17, he said. In 1970, he moved from India to Europe to spread the teachings of yoga and now calls Austria home.

Then Alex Diaz, 28, who was recording the session on his cellphone, spoke up. Seated in a wheelchair, he asked: "For my back, what can I do?"

"We cannot give you all kinds of exercise," the swami replied in reference to his disability. "But lay down on a hardwood floor and bend your knees, raising them up."

Diaz went on: "I got shot, that's why I'm in the wheelchair, and can't balance anymore, but can walk a little. What can I do to achieve balance again?"

The swami advised him to inhale and exhale to create inner balance. For outer balance, he said, hold on to a table or a wall and try to stand on one leg.

"I can't stand on one leg, only for a little bit," Diaz said, raising his eyebrows, extra urgency in his voice.

"A little bit is the first step," the swami said. "We are all little babies that fall. It all starts with a little bit."

Diaz nodded.

The session came together after a friend of Boyle's who also follows Swamiji's meditation practices suggested a meeting while the swami was visiting Los Angeles as part of his monthlong tour through Canada and the United States.

The 33-minute meditation session wasn't the first time yoga and meditation made an appearance at Homeboy; there are co-ed classes almost weekly at the center.

One attendee, Thelma Carranza, a 29-year-old who's 8 1/2 months pregnant, said she's had difficulty breathing. The swami then asked if she had asthma or smoked. No on both counts.

"Fear?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

The swami counseled her to go somewhere with open space, such as a park, where she feels safe and can focus on deep breathing exercises.

He later urged the homies to ask themselves: "What is the purpose of my life? What is the mission of your inner soul?"

By 3:54 p.m., no one was laughing and hip-hop jingles no longer interrupted the swami. Entranced, or perhaps intrigued, faces peered back intently at the robed man.

The swami talked about how he was counseling youths in Austria left traumatized by the warfare caused by the dismantling of nearby Yugoslavia. He urged the group to practice tolerance of others who are different from them.

The final question came from Anthony Collins, a Homeboy employee of 10 months.

"How do you control your anger?" the 22-year-old asked.

"First take a deep breath, close your eyes and inhale," the swami said. "Ask yourself: 'What am I doing?' Also, drink cold water or cold milk. Suddenly it makes you aware."

The swami then thanked the homies and stood up, adding: "I wish you good health and a very healthy life."

"Likewise," one young man said in the crowd as homies encircled Swamiji to get a photo with him. Within an hour, he had won their attention and, seemingly, their approval.

Oscar Garcia, a 19-year-old from El Sereno, turned to fellow homies and said, "He's tight, dogg!"



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