Yogi Barely

Swami Dâ Prem is the youngest American swami in the history of Sanatana Dharma, and a teacher of Brahman-Atman yoga. While you'd expect someone with those stats to be sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop, Swami Dâ Prem can be found sitting in a sparsely furnished studio apartment in Glendale. We met there just weeks before Dâ Prem made his maiden speech at the Glendale Public Library, and I got the lowdown on higher consciousness, the astral plane, and, of course, the meaning of life.

New Times: I hope you're happy. Ever since I booked this interview, I've been walking around the house singing, "Swami, How I love ya, How I love ya, My dear old Swami!"

Swami Dâ Prem: (Stares, says nothing.)

NT: Do you know that song?

Dâ Prem: No. Is it a song about a swami?

NT: No. It's . . . never mind. So, should I call you Swami?

Dâ Prem: Swami. Yeah. That's fine. People sometimes call me Prem, which is part of my spiritual name. Swami is just my title, but it's very formal to call someone that.

NT: Did you used to have a different name?

Dâ Prem: I still have my legal name. It's John Mitchell. I prefer Swami.

NT: So you're America's youngest swami. How do we know there isn't one younger than you?

Dâ Prem: I'm 24. Typically swamis don't become swamis until later in life, and it wasn't until this century that Americans or anybody outside of India were allowed to become swamis. My guru is very up on who's who in the swami world, he corresponds with one of the pontiffs, and so when he says I'm the youngest one he knows what he's saying.

NT: I thought swamis wore turbans and had paste jewels stuck to their foreheads.

Dâ Prem: Well, sometimes they do. A lot of them used to. The traditional swami wears a saffron robe, but the order I belong to chose this brown.

NT: It's very nice. It seems to have a built-in sash. Is that significant?

Dâ Prem: It's the traditional look of the swami, except with a more modern twist. And it's in an earth tone, which is important. My guru wanted me to have a long robe down to here, so that walking down the street it kind of looks fun.

NT: What do swamis do?

Dâ Prem: We teach whatever our selected path is. Mine is Brahman-Atman yoga.

NT: Is that like Pilates?

Dâ Prem: No! We do some of the postures, but those are secondary things. We're more about the evolution of the individual, going from a lower state of consciousness to a higher one.

NT: So your students aren't there to learn how to put their ankles behind their head.

Dâ Prem: It's more about meditation. But I get asked that a lot.

NT: How does one become a swami?

Dâ Prem: When another swami ordains you one. No swami can give himself the title. There's a swami training, and when your guru thinks you're ready, he gives you a test. Mine was I had to fast for seven days and meditate about why I was here on this Earth. The first three days were the hardest. But then my body became lighter.

NT: That's because it didn't have any food in it, I'll bet.

Dâ Prem: Fasting isn't that difficult. I was confident I would make it because I'd fasted for 21 days before. Fasting makes it clear what your path will be.

NT: After not eating for seven days, my path would lead straight to Whataburger. Okay, so what were you before?

Dâ Prem: I considered myself a yogi. I meditated every day, but I didn't have the knowledge I have now. But I'm still just like anyone else, really. I'm just a regular guy.

NT: A regular guy with a funny name and a saffron robe! Plus you don't own a lot. I thought swamis renounce everything material, but you have a computer, and you live in an apartment with curtains and an air conditioner. I thought you guys all lived in caves.

Dâ Prem: Well, renunciation is kind of a funny thing, because you're cutting yourself off from everything, including social interaction. Which leads you to wonder, "Why did God put all these things here if we're supposed to renounce them?" You have to interact with people to exchange energies. If you move into a cave, you're cutting yourself off from that, and other experiences that you're meant to have.

NT: So what do you do with your longing for physical things?

Dâ Prem: I don't really have them. Everything you see here is something I need. I've got a computer, yeah, and a radio, but not a very good one. I'm mostly worried about getting along in life, putting a roof over my head. I spend money, but because I'm a swami, I try to do everything as frugally as possible. Because if swamis have money left over, we can use that money to do something good for someone else.

NT: So for you it's more about bargain shopping.

Dâ Prem: It's about not living a life of luxury, but just living within your means.

NT: So if you find yourself desiring a Ferrari or a leather sofa or J.Lo, then . . .

Dâ Prem: I just don't really want those things. I don't have a car; I take the bus. The sofa I have is fine, or I can sit on the floor. This is my life. Those longings exist in a moment, then they're gone. My guru doesn't want me to beg like some swamis do, holding out a bowl and asking for money. So I have a job, which teaches life lessons like getting along with others. I'm the shipping and receiving manager at Glendale Community College Bookstore.

NT: Do the other shipping clerks know you have supernatural powers?

Dâ Prem: I don't think I do have supernatural powers. And if I did, I probably wouldn't tell you. It's just one of those things about swamis: If people find out that you have supernatural powers, they're going to want you to perform miracles for them. I guess you could say I have powers, because just achieving a higher state of consciousness is a kind of power.

NT: I read that swamis can cause their bodies to dematerialize.

Dâ Prem: That's a higher power than mine. You're reconstructing the atoms in your body, and then putting them back together in a different place. In order to do that, you have to be able to switch your body-mind consciousness into spiritlike consciousness, which is a power reserved for higher beings. We call them angels of light.

NT: We both grew up on the west side. How come you came out a swami and I came out a hack?

Dâ Prem: Well, I'm meant to teach people yoga, and you're meant to write things, I guess. It's about finding your calling. I mean, you love the writing process, right?

NT: Are you kidding? I abhor the writing process.

Dâ Prem: Wow. Really? I love writing! I'm planning to release a book. I write essays about life in my spare time. Are you sure you don't love the writing process?

NT: Forgive me, Swami. Now, I understand you're getting ready to make your maiden speech. What does that mean?

Dâ Prem: It's an important step because my plan is to lecture across the country, so doing my maiden speech -- maiden means first -- is a big step for me. I'm doing it at the Glendale Public Library. I don't have much time, so I can't teach all that I know. I'm going to talk about yoga, and achieving enlightenment, but I can't really teach all that I know about these things in a short amount of time.

NT: How do you remain humble when you know all these things the rest of us don't?

Dâ Prem: I guess it's hard in a way, because your ego wants to say, "Wow, yeah, I have all this knowledge," but there are things I don't know. Not knowing things creates a balance. Like, I don't know things about fitness, I don't know how fiber optics works, I don't know who a lot of the popular people on television are.

NT: I also read that the sleeping man becomes a yogi; that "the sleeper thus dips unknowingly into the reservoir of cosmic energy which sustains all life." So, when I'm asleep, I'm a yogi?

Dâ Prem: When you dream, your dreams are dipping into the astral plane. Sometimes you can go to different states of consciousness. But that doesn't mean you're a swami.

NT: Is your mom a swami?

Dâ Prem: No. She's a Mormon. But I think she's probably proud of me. I told her about this interview, and about the talk I'm going to be giving, and she seems pleased. Although she's of the Mormon faith, I'm still happy for her, and she seems to be happy for me.

NT: I've got to know: What's the meaning of life?

Dâ Prem: It's to live, to learn, to evolve, and to enjoy life to the fullest, without bringing harm to others. Do you really hate the writing process?

NT: If I really did, I probably wouldn't tell you.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela