LA Icon: The Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
It's all about you. And Gandhi.
In 1950, just two years before his death, Paramahansa Yogananda opened the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades. Envisioned as a “church of all religions,” this bucolic meditation space has drawn throngs of people from all walks of life over the decades. In an ordinary year, the Lake Shrine could expect 120,000 visitors from across the globe.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, those seeking solace amidst the lush greenery surrounding a placid lake have flocked here. Since the Lake Shrine reopened in July of 2020, 22,000 people have reserved time to visit. Reservations fill up quickly. Brother Satyananda, administrator for the Lake Shrine and a minister at the on-site temple, estimates that there are a thousand people trying to get one of the few hundreds slots available. About 70% of their recent visitors are not affiliated with the Lake Shrine or the Self-Realization Fellowship. “By far, it was the general public looking for a safe place to go,” says Satyananda.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the Lake Shrine was full of quiet activity. Some people strolled the grounds. Others sat in meditation. “People are discovering new priorities. They’re not taking old things for granted. They’re reinventing themselves,” says Satyananda.
For some, personal transformation is happening at the Lake Shrine. “I’ve had a lot of spiritual conversations and I’m deeply impressed with the effort that people are making to improve themselves in new ways,” he says.
Paramahansa Yogananda was born in Gorakhpur, India in 1893 and entered monastic life after college. In 1920, he arrived in the United States with a mission to teach yoga to people in the West and founded the Self-Realization Fellowship. “He felt that Southern California was open to new metaphysical concepts and that he could put down roots here,” Satyananda explains. “You can imagine, during the ‘20s and ‘30s, America was fighting different issues and having trouble accepting new ideas and new people. Yogananda found open arms in California. It turned out to be quite a successful genesis for his operation.”
In fact, the Self-Realization Fellowship went on to open multiple sites in Southern California. Its international headquarters, established in 1925, are in Mt. Washington. There is also a temple and ashram in Hollywood, as well as a Glendale temple. While Yogananda traveled widely, and did briefly return to India in the 1930s when he launched a branch of the group there, he obtained U.S. citizenship and spent his later life here. Yogananda is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
Satyananda, who has been stationed at the Lake Shrine for about a decade, joined the monastic community 45 years ago. “It sounds like a long time, but it goes by fast,” he says. “I enjoy meditation everyday. That’s the core of our life. Our life revolves around it.” The Self-Realization Fellowship’s practice is rooted in raja yoga, which Satyananda explains is a little different from the posture-centric hatha yoga with which people in the U.S. are likely more familiar. “Hatha yoga is a part of raja yoga,” he says, adding that while people do engage in physical yoga practices at the Lake Shrine, the emphasis here is on meditation.
“Meditation for us, in that sense, is more of a formal process of self-discovery. That’s why we call it self-realization, realizing our greater potential for ourselves.”
“Meditation for us, in that sense, is more of a formal process of self-discovery. That’s why we call it self-realization, realizing our greater potential for ourselves,” says Satyananda. “That’s really the core and the whole purpose of meditation. The lifestyles and teachings that surround it form what we would call a spiritual path that we walk every day.”
At the time of our visit, only the lower portion of Self-Realization Fellowship’s Pacific Palisades campus, which includes the lake and surrounding meditation garden, was open. There’s a temple on the upper level of the campus where they hold Sunday services, set to resume on July 18.
A simple walk around the lake can bring peace of mind. Although located on Sunset Blvd, just a half-mile from Pacific Coast Highway, the Lake Shrine feels like a hideaway. The lake is large and teeming with life. Koi fish congregate in small section near the Windmill Chapel. Near a houseboat, which had been left behind by a previous property owner and was used by Yogananda for meditation and overnight stays, ducks land on the water. “We have a big flock that comes in and then they disappear in a few days,” Satyananda says of the ducks. “They’re always coming and going.”
Surrounding the lake are small, gently rolling hills covered in rich greenery. While the Wisteria blooms had faded by early June, there were still pops of color throughout a garden that’s been a work-in-progress for decades. Shrines appear along the lakeside path. “The idea is that we’re honoring different faith traditions,” says Satyananda. “Yogananda was very generous in this way. He said that the inspiration that flows from prophets of all religions is basically the same.” Up one small hillside is a statue of Buddha. Krishna appears atop a waterfall in a shady nook, with a quote from The Bhagavad Gita underneath the statue.
Near the entrance is the Court of Religions with monuments honoring five major world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. “The idea is that there is one place where people can come and feel that their faith is being recognized and honored,” he adds. Further along is the Golden Lotus Temple, an open-air space where people were meditating on this day. There’s also a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi, which includes a sarcophagus containing a portion of the famed activist’s ashes.
Currently, the Lake Shrine is open on Wednesdays through Sundays and, although entrance is free, reservations are required. Guests can reserve entrance for either 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays or 1 p.m. on Sundays. “A lot of people are motivated by the pandemic to find a deeper source of answers for things that they wouldn’t normally consider because there are so many distractions,” says Satyananda. “We’ll see how it goes, but we’ve had a lot of seekers, I would say, that are very determined to discover something new.”
Reservations for Self-Realization Fellowship’s Lake Shrine open on Saturdays at 10 a.m. Sunday services resume on July 18 and guided meditations and other videos services are available online. SRF’s World Convocation event is also virtual this year and will take place between August 8 and August 14.