An Interview with Nalanie Chellaram
There are some Yoga teachers who are so inspired, so motivated, and so dedicated that their lives warrant some study and reflection. That’s just one of the reasons that we sat down with Nalanie Chellaram, a powerhouse of selfless service, Yoga wisdom, and joy. An Integral Yoga teacher in Gibraltar, Nalanie truly puts the teachings of Yoga into action in her work with others. The story of Nalanie’s life, a “destiny plotted out by the divine grace,” as she calls it, is moving and uplifting. Nalanie had the rare opportunity to grow up in the presence of a Yoga master, her beloved Guru Swami Satchidananda. Guided by him in the teachings of Yoga, Nalanie’s life changed forever.
Yogaville: I understand that you grew up with Swami Satchidananda in your life. Can you speak about your early interactions with him?
Nalanie: We met when I was 5 years old. Swami Satchidananda came to visit my family in Hong Kong where we were living. My father was a very spiritual man, so I was blessed that he invited many spiritual people to visit our home. Gurudev was different! He was so tall and elegant. When he came to the house, he came with open arms. He would hug all of us children and we would pull his big beard. He was like a Moses or a grandad figure. He would come to visit virtually every year because my dad would always invite him. When he came, he would always teach Yoga classes. My dad would ask, “Is the class just for the adults or the kids?” Gurudev would say, “Of course the kids can attend!” Every morning at 7am, we would run downstairs and have Yoga with him.
For the longest time I didn’t think of him as a Guru. I already loved God so much, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that Guru-disciple path. I just thought he was a wonderful, wonderful man. Gurudev loved us, taught us, and told us stories. Gurudev even attended my wedding! Our family was so close with him that my father invited him.
At the time of my marriage, I had just come from university in the U.S. to Gibraltar. I had a tough time transitioning, and I became a little angry even though I wasn’t an angry person. I worked very hard at a dance studio and I worked hard at design in my husband’s shop, but something was missing in my life. I was angry that I had to work so hard and angry that I wasn’t in Hong Kong, but I didn’t want to be a bad wife. So I tried to handle it, but I failed.
My anger only grew to a point where I got really upset. I had two kids, and I knew I wanted them to see the world just like I had. Gibraltar was just too small, so I decided to send them to boarding school in the UK even though I didn’t want to see them leave. Around the same time, I developed some trouble with my knees and I couldn’t teach dance anymore. I was so angry and so despondent, I just looked to heaven and said, “If there’s a God, show your face!” I didn’t understand nonattachment at that point.
As they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will come. Gurudev called me and said, “I’m going to be travelling. Can I come see you in Gibraltar?” I agreed and then immediately called my mom for advice.
The last time I’d seen Gurudev was at my wedding. I saw that he had a great following, and I wanted to make sure that I could take care of him well. Mom said, “Just look after him and love him, bow at his feet.” That’s how the relationship started. At that time, Yoga was not popular in Gibraltar, and Gurudev was going to be leading a workshop there. I was worried that maybe no one would attend the program. I was also concerned that Gurudev wouldn’t be comfortable in our home, as we lived in a very small house. But like magic, everything worked out. A wealthy client of the shop was very interested in meeting a Yoga master and offered to have him stay at her home. She had two chefs flown in from the UK to cook for him! Everything fell into place. The client’s husband even had a Rolls Royce that he drove to the airport to pick Gurudev up!
Needless to say, that week changed my life. That week he gave me the tools that I give all my students today. The truly transformative experience for me was the vision I had while Gurudev was talking at the theater. While on stage, he transformed into Jesus, Shiva, all the forms of the divine that you could imagine. It was incredible. I pinched my husband, closed my eyes, and opened them again to the same vision. I told Prem Anjali (Gurudev’s secretary) the very next day and she reassured me that similar things had happened to other people as well. I knew then that I wanted to make him my guru. I told him that I realized, after seeing him, that I needed him.
That week I asked him, “What do I do with my life after you leave? I can’t go back to the way I was living.” His answer? “Just love, purify your mind, meditate. When you are ready, God will use you.” I kept it that simple. The change wasn’t outside of me—it was inside of me. But I protested, “Gurudev, I don’t know how to meditate!” “You’ve read lots of books, you’ll be fine,” he chuckled.
But without the practice, everything you read doesn’t mean anything! So that’s when I started meditating. My knees were really bad in those days. Every time I finished meditating I was in agony. I started with 5 minutes, 10, 15, and then my practice evolved to one hour. I continued doing everything I did before, I just did it differently.
Not too long after that, Gurudev asked if I would come to Portugal, where he was conducting a retreat. I already had plans, and tickets, to go to England to see my daughter’s play. Gurudev said, “Well, just come for a few days.” So I did. My husband drove me to Portugal, and then I flew to the UK from there.
Again, the experience was life-changing. That was the first time I learned how to forgive. That’s when I realized that forgiveness is essential to a spiritual practice. I was meditating, but I was still upset with people who I felt had caused me harm. Gurudev said, “You have to bless the people who have wronged you.” I protested again, “How? That would make me a hypocrite.”
“Do you want peace?” he asked.
“Do you want peace?” he repeated.
“Do you want peace???”
Bless them! That was my journey into forgiveness. If you have any anger in your heart, your connection with the divine is lost. Likewise, you lose that connection when you’re feeling fearful, guilty, or worried. So that started a long journey.
Six months later, I began to feel like I needed a mantra. One night, I had a dream that Gurudev gave me a mantra. I awoke in the morning and I was just telling my husband about the dream and how I couldn’t hear him say the mantra in the dream. Two minutes later, my phone rang. Of course, it was Gurudev, even though it was maybe 1:00 AM in the U.S. He said, “Get a piece of paper. Write this mantra down. Goodnight.”
That’s how I received my mantra and it stays with me through today. Two years later, Gurudev said, “Time to teach.” I tried to object, “But I haven’t studied the Sutras.” I delayed teaching for about a year. Then, I had a dream that I was in a park with a very good friend. An angel approached us and said, “You need to teach.” In the dream, my friend scolded me, “You are a coward. You don’t want the responsibility of teaching.” I woke up, and then immediately booked a hall to hold a class.
Over the years leading up to that moment, a few people came to my shop and noticed that I’d changed. Those people that asked me about what I’d been doing, I called them up and told them that I’d be teaching a class. Twelve people turned up. I was honest: “I’m not sure what I’m doing here, but I hope to help you find peace in your lives. And if you don’t want to come back, that’s fine!” I was still very reluctant to teach. But since then, I’ve had students.
After that, Gurudev called and said he would be in London, so I came to London to see him. Gurudev also asked me to go to India with him one time. I didn’t realize how privileged I was. Every time he called, I went and I learned so much. I realized later that he was trying to teach me all that time. Not long afterwards, Gurudev called to tell me that he’d be going to Bali to lead a retreat, and he wanted ME to teach. “No, no, no, Gurudev. Dr. Amrita is teaching. I’m not a Swami; I can’t teach at a retreat.” But Gurudev was insistent. I realized how wonderful of an opportunity that was and I was deeply humbled by it. I was very nervous in those days!
Another change took place in myself when I took Swami Karunananda and Rev. Jaganath’s Raja Yoga training. I had actually signed up for Intermediate Teacher Training (ITT), but Raja Yoga Teacher Training was taking place during the same time. Swami Vidyananda approached me and said, “It seems like you’re more of a Raja yogi than a Hatha yogi. Why are you taking ITT?” I switched it last minute.
Nothing is in our hands, is it? There’s a destiny plotted out by the divine grace. We must accept it rather than resist it and move ahead.
Yogaville: How did your unique spiritual background, in both Hinduism and Catholicism, influence your journey into Yoga?
Nalanie: I’m very lucky to have a father who was so spiritual and open-minded. Although my whole family is strictly Hindu, my father was very open to other religions. He welcomed people of all faiths into our home and would give to many different charities.
When I was a young girl, a convent school was taking in students. The school was quite strict in taking in new students and I was of age. My uncle asked if I would like to go, and I said yes. I loved my nuns! I loved the school! And when I went to my dad and said, “I really want to go to Church on Sunday.” He said, “Go to church! You can find God everywhere.”
I felt Catholic and Hindu already. I was blessed with my dad’s gift. I find it so difficult to see differences. I didn’t find it conflicting to have a background in both faiths. I had read the Bible; I knew the stories of Hinduism. The only thing I really questioned was reincarnation, since the Catholic church was so against it. I read all about it and then came to my own decision, but that was my only conflict. And yet, I wasn’t fond of strict religious traditionalism. I rebelled against all that. That’s why Gurudev was perfect for me. Many paths, one truth. Gurudev always said that religion was beautiful, it was just the ego of the disciples that ruins religion. I agreed. I love Jesus and Mary and Shiva. They all came from the same source! I found the perfect master. A Catholic or a Hindu master wouldn’t have worked for me.
I loved Gurudev’s universality. I loved the way he treated all different religions the same. I loved his internationalism. It reminded me of Jesus, who communed with all. Gurudev didn’t have any kind of bias in any way. I love that openness. I find sometimes that people are so cruel, even in Yoga. I don’t believe we’re here to do that. I don’t believe in rigidity—unless it’s in your own practice to grow yourself.
I meet so many people that can’t do Hatha or meditation. I tell them, “Choose whatever you want, but make sure that it’s uplifting.” God is love. I’m really into humanitarianism and peace. I used to be very attached to religion, but now I’m very detached. People are my thing. I love people.
Yogaville: You are a Yoga teacher, a teacher-trainer, and you established an Integral Yoga Centre in Gibraltar. You have been very active in the Yoga community and dedicated your life to seva (selfless service). What inspired you to become active in Karma Yoga?
Nalanie: For a long time, I worked in my husband’s shop. I never felt like I belonged there, but I couldn’t just walk out on him. I started to teach Yoga in the evenings after work. Once the kids finished school, people started asking me for help. Somebody that owned a clinic asked if I wanted to teach Yoga therapy there. I met so many people that wanted to come to the clinic, but couldn’t afford the 25 dollars. So I only asked them for the $10 or $15 to pay the clinic, not me.
Finally, I left the shop to my husband. It wasn’t really my dharma. I’m happy with very little. I still went to help him when he needed it, but that’s how this path started. When I taught classes, I would only charge people what they could afford—maybe just 3 dollars. I didn’t feel like I could use the money. I didn’t feel like it was mine, even though sometimes I wanted to use it!
At that time, I was teaching Yoga at a temple and we gave the temple 50% of the earnings and kept the rest of the money aside. Unfortunately, the temple managers were getting a bit upset because I seemed to be monopolizing the temple, but I wasn’t really teaching Hinduism (many paths, one truth!). Someone suggested that I write to the government for a grant to fund our charity. Out of 50 charities, we were the one that received it. Then I knew that the money I had set aside while I was teaching was to be used to fix this place. The government gave us one big hall in the downtown with a concrete floor.
We began raising money for offices and a kitchen. People started donating and money started rolling in. We had $17,000. I asked someone how much money it would take to complete the project, and I was told it would take $30,000. We weren’t sure we’d have enough, but somehow we got the place done.
I really wanted to test my faith with this. If I have complete faith, will everything work out? My husband’s business went down the drain. I never asked my wealthy family in Hong Kong for money. My classes were free of charge. I taught my students Hatha and Raja Yoga, then they would go on to teach for free, too.
I would tell my students, “I’ve taught you everything I know. Pass it on.” We said we’d cover the expenses and that everything else would go to charity. Any donations we received would go directly to the sick and needy. People started coming from all directions for help. Someone told me of the need for an orphanage in Nepal, so I went to Nepal. We never went out to look for anything. When there was a need, things just came to us. Whenever nothing comes, I say, “Ok, now I can take a break.” Each project takes work!
We serve many different needs. If someone needs a washing machine or a wheelchair, we find it for them or raise the funds for it. I have a great team. We work a lot with social services. Now we cover our expenses and we have a little bit left over to cover the basics of what we need and our travel.
The more people attending a program, the less we charge. We’ve always managed. We try not to keep too much money in that account. We just want to give it away. We don’t have big bank accounts. We’re happy to share. My students are setting up their own charities and we see the Karma Yoga spread.
Yogaville: Your upcoming workshop, Finding Peace in Chaos, sounds relevant during current times of social and political conflict. How do we find inner peace no matter the external situation?
Nalanie: We have to deal with obstacles along the way of life. The world has always been the way it is. When you live in it, it’s hard. The Bhagavad Gita says it so well when Arjuna has to go into battle. He doesn’t want to, but it’s his duty. Krishna tells Arjuna that it’s not about fighting, it’s just that this task has come to you. Overcoming this obstacle helps overcome your karma. You’ve been chosen as a warrior. If you don’t do the job at hand, how can we uphold righteousness in the world?
There’s a profound depth of allegorical meaning in the Bhagavad Gita. Know who you are: you’re the self. Weapons cannot touch the Self, fire cannot burn it. The Self does not die. You’re the Self. This body is temporary, just like worn out garments. You’ll cast out the body. You’ll just get another one. What do you fear?
So how can we deal with the challenges of life? By going within. Someone’s job is to be fighting, another’s job is to be praying. Do according to what you can do. Touch the higher Self inside. Know that “I’m not this body.” The only way you can know that is through meditation. Acknowledge that you feel the witness. No, it’s not easy. It’s difficult, but not impossible. That’s how we deal with it. It’s all a play in the end. You have to laugh and you have to trust. Living in fear doesn’t help anyone.
Life teaches us non-attachment. You come to see that life is just the way it is, and nothing else makes sense but love. We have to decide that we’re going to enjoy life no matter the obstacles.