Mormon-Born Daya Mata Typifies American Yoga

Daya Mata, born Faye Wright, served as president and spiritual leader of the Self-Realization Fellowship for fifty-five years. Her tenure ended on November 30, 2010 when she died at the age of 96 while living in seclusion at a Fellowship convent in Los Angeles.

I suggest that we use this event in the history of yoga in the United States as an opportunity to question and perhaps destabilize some of our ideas about what American yoga is and what it means to Americans today.

Although we tend to associate yoga’s entrance into the United States with the counterculture of the 1960s and especially the Beatles, gurus from India began to disseminate their creative and innovative renditions of yoga to Americans well before then.

The Science of the Experience of God

Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, was the second Indian guru (Vivekananda was the first) to travel from India to the United States and to attract a large following of Americans interested in yoga. These gurus taught renditions of yoga that were radically different from the systems of stretching and muscle-building postures meant to function as fitness routines that we so often associate with yoga in the United States today. They were also radically different from the ancient and classical systems of raja yoga or hatha yoga that saturate South Asian culture.

For Yogananda, yoga was the scientific path to the experience of God, and that path was as much about Christ consciousness as Krishna consciousness. This was a hybrid product of Hindu, Christian, and modern ideas about the nature of God, the nature of the Self, and the nature of the human body. By the 1960s and the influx of gurus to the United States who successfully disseminated yoga to members of the emergent counterculture, the Self-Realization Fellowship was already well established, and the spiritual leader was no longer an Indian guru but a former Mormon woman from Utah.

Mother of Compassion

Daya Mata came to occupy the leadership position after years of devotion to Yogananda as her guru. A member of a prestigious Mormon family in Salt Lake City, she was seventeen when she first heard Yogananda speak, and she knew immediately that she wanted to follow him as her spiritual guide. She moved to Los Angeles and joined his Self-Realization Fellowship, took vows of renunciation and became one of the first nuns in its monastic order. Having been renamed Daya Mata (Mother of Compassion), she would be one of Yogananda’s closest disciples until his death in 1952.

As the spiritual leader of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Daya Mata provided guidance and training for lay practitioners as well as monastic members and continued to disseminate Yogananda’s teachings on Kriya Yoga to the world. She was a spiritual guide to thousands of members who affectionately referred to her as sanghamata, “Mother of the Society.” According to David Ritz in his book, Elvis by the Presleys (2005), Daya Mata’s influence reached even Elvis Presley, who met her in the 1960s, meditated with her, and sought her spiritual guidance on several occasions.

Daya Mata was known for the depth of her love for God and for living a life devoted to further cultivating that love. She followed Yogananda in encouraging members of the Self-Realization Fellowship to enter into a guru-disciple relationship with the official gurus of the tradition, including Babaji, Krishna, and Jesus, as well as Yogananda himself. She taught that the gurus, having attained loving union with God, could help their disciples attain that same goal. Having taken the vow of renunciation, Daya Mata prescribed that path for those who, like her, wanted to devote their entire lives to love of God. Furthermore, she prescribed Kriya Yoga as a scientific system that awakened energies within the body, leading toward the encounter with the Divine.

The Real Goal of Yoga? Union with God. 

The path that Daya Mata prescribed, the path of Kriya yoga, is much more than a fitness routine. For members of the Self-Realization Fellowship, yoga means a path, mediated by the gurus, to experiencing loving union with God. Members consider devotion to those gurus to be invaluable. But for practitioners of more mainstream schools of yoga—the kinds you’d find offered at strip-mall yoga studios, college fitness centers, and even in some churches across the United States—there is no mention of devotion, unless it is to beauty, fitness, or well-being. 

But Daya Mata’s death reminds us that yoga has taken a variety of forms in the United States. Like the history of yoga in South Asia, American yoga has no single essence or form. It has meant a variety of things to American practitioners for a long time. Indeed, it’s in and through these countless varieties that yoga has become as American as Elvis himself.