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Inner-peace movement

Many in L.A. turn to Eastern spiritualism to be 'interior designers' of their minds. It's a tonic for frenzied lives.

March 25, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

You go where the road and the sky collide with the shimmering Pacific, pass the beach clubs, gas stations and the golden roadside Buddha for sale, until you see a horse and rider galloping across Zuma Beach. At a hillside mansion up above, you open a heavy carved door and find the Malibu swami Kali Ray, seated in the lotus position, as members of her morning yoga class emerge from meditation. A candle burns in the center of the darkened room, and the rush of an unseen fountain mingles with soothing music that sounds vaguely like sitar.

Sitting on yoga mats with Swami Kali are an actress, a real estate agent, a publicist, a Hollywood jeweler; interspersed with them are more serious young devotees.

"Yoga helps us to regain our natural happiness and inner peace," Kali is saying, her hair twisted into long braids, her clothes the flowing, apricot-hued robes of a spiritual master. "We can be like interior designers of our mind. Like an interior designer, we can move all the furniture, change everything around. We have these thoughts, this old baggage. We see it. Then we release it, and it all falls away. What remains is what we need."

Buoyed by the popularity of yoga and Zen meditation, swamis like Kali are riding the crest of a new wave of fascination with Eastern spiritualism. Anyone, from Hollywood actors to your stockbroker, might offer a personal testimonial about yoga, and some are taking the next step: exploring the spiritual underpinnings, visiting Buddhist temples or retreats or even developing a relationship with a swami.

In transient Los Angeles, where many live far from their roots -- religious and otherwise -- and personal experimentation is an enshrined tradition, it is less unthinkable for a Douglas Aircraft engineer like Stanley Guy to segue from Southern Baptism to meditation and ordination as a swami.

"People are looking for a deeper understanding of life, and the best way is to go look," says Guy, whose quest led to a new nom de transcendence, Brother Achalananda.

Hollywood, the capital of personal reinvention, is particularly fertile ground. Here, swamis mingle in the living rooms of industry heavyweights. Filmmaker David Lynch and actress Heather Graham are among those who have thrown their support behind building a 12,000-square-foot palace to achieve world peace through transcendental meditation in L.A. -- one of 3,000 such centers envisioned by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles' former guru. Los Angeles actress-yogi Sally Kirkland counts the late Swami Satchidananda as one of the most important influences on her life (along with Jesus, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Shirley MacLaine). Laura Dern and Lindsay Crouse were devoted to Satchidananda as well. Diane Ladd once had an assistant hunt for a cashmere sweater for him in just the right shade of apricot, and Carole King donated 600 acres to one of his ashrams. "The same qualities of glamour and grandiosity that go with the movie business make people more open to expansion of spirit," says Sally Kempton, a pioneering feminist journalist in the 1970s. She turned her back on that life to move to Los Angeles and spend 20 years, until 2002, as the Swami Durgananda. "There's something in the atmosphere that amplifies spiritual consciousness," she says.

In most of the United States, a swami -- a spiritual leader generally anointed by a senior member of a spiritual order -- might be written off as a religious UFO with about as much street cred as snake oil. In Los Angeles, by contrast, swamis are pandered to by politicians, courted by celebrities, spoofed in movies, invited to officiate alongside Catholic clerics and sought out as speakers for medical and business conferences.

"When I tell people back East I have a swami, people imagine a dirty old man who looks like Peter Sellers," says the real estate agent in Kali's class, Constance Chestnut, a petite, dark-haired woman. "But she's blond and from Kentucky with a Barbie-doll figure."

Chestnut herself is an atheist. She is from a successful Hollywood family: Her late husband, Don Devlin, produced "The Witches of Eastwick"; her stepson, Dean Devlin, produced "Independence Day."

"When I started here I was recently widowed and drained after my husband's bout with cancer for years," Chestnut says. "Somebody told me there was a woman who taught yoga in her home. I thought she was a housewife in Malibu. I walked into this ashram. It transformed me. People don't recognize me. It is amazing. It's a typical yoga miracle story."

She says she is not a follower of Kali, just a yoga student. But she has come to value Kali's mantra of self-love.

"It's an unanticipated benefit, one I treasure now," Chestnut says. "These are little pearls of wisdom, not empty platitudes. What did she say the other day, about the lotus bloom rising out of the muck? It's powerful stuff."

There are many dedicated practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism in Los Angeles County, especially in Asian immigrant communities.

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