Muni Natarajan lived as a Hindu ascetic for 37 years until he married his beautiful wife, Mary Beth. He practiced a strict discipline of yoga and work and travelled extensively with his teacher until he died. Muni says, “Outside monastery walls, I have found myself to be surprisingly naïve.” Some of the toughest things about leaving the monastery were, “Driving a car. Talking to strangers. Making money. Mostly, just becoming adjusted to the ways of the world,” he says. Muni Natarajan, is an accomplished artist, musician, yoga teacher, and author of A Monk’s Tale. In this interview he talks about some of the joys and challenges of going from the monastery to marriage and living a life in the world.
Q: After 37 years of being a monk now that you’re married and living the life of a householder with daily pressures and strains what practice or practices continue to sustain you?
My teacher used to say: “Take the best and leave the rest.” Now that I am no longer a monk, this is what I try to do with what I was taught in the monastery. I strive to maintain what I feel are the most effective practices I have learned. Interestingly, I have discovered I have greater flexibility and freedom to practice yoga outside the monastery than in. This is because the monastery was rooted in a military-like discipline and schedule that was designed to achieve much more than each monk’s individual assimilation and practice of yoga.
There is one more very important point to be made here. In the yoga we were taught, a lot of emphasis was placed upon applying what we learned in life. This is what made our yoga a 24/7 practice during which our various daily challenges were perceived as opportunities for a down-to-earth application of yoga. In this 24/7 approach, our yoga became habit—good habit. A lot of what I try to do now is oriented around maintaining this good yoga habit that got developed in the monastery.
Q: What’s the best thing about no longer being a monk?
My new wife and my new life. Both of these have allowed me to continue my focus on yoga in a new way, in a new chapter of a life story that has suddenly taken an unexpected twist. The fact that this interesting twist in the story of my life has taken an almost completely positive turn is primarily due to the influence of my wife who has helped me
discover a selflessness in love that I might not have found otherwise. This distinctive selflessness could be described as not being able to think about yourself because you can’t stop thinking about someone else.
In the monastery our attempts to be SELFLESS involved a constant battle with an instinctive tendency to be SELFISH instead. Certainly, that battle was and is a noble war worth waging, but it was and is far different from the non-war of love that I have learned of from Mary Beth after having left the monastery.
Q: What has been hardest about changing from monastic life to living in the world?
In the monastery, we all shared the same spiritual ideals and moral standards of living. Those of us who lived there for a very long time naturally began to assume these ideals and standards were some sort of norm. When I first left the monastery, I found it strange to be living in a world where these ideals and standards were obviously not the norm. Now, I am getting used to it. The great lesson I have learned and am still learning from this is that, ironically, adversity in diversity is a great catalyst for positive change, even though this change may be gradual in its dawn and far from obvious.
Q: Have your life aims changed? If so how? If not, how have they remained the same?
My life aims have not changed — not even a little. As a matter of fact, now that I am getting older and further into what my teacher used to refer to as “the best years of life,” those aims have intensified. As complex and far-reaching as my teacher’s presentation of yoga was, it all hinged upon a one central and supremely simple life-aim which he summarized in perhaps his most often repeated affirmation: “You were born on this Earth to realize the Self. You are here for no other purpose.”
After many years of facing my lower nature with the kind assistance of my teacher and his mostly gentle guidance, I have come to respect this central aim of life and yoga from a number of different points of views. But the king of those viewpoints has been the one that emerged for me in the aftermath of this ultimate Self Realization, which—I have come to learn—is within easy reach for all of us.
Q: How do your fill your days now?
As in the monastery, I rise at 3am to begin my routine, which is more or less as follows:
After showering, I perform an hour and a half of meditation, an hour and a half of yoga asana (hatha yoga) combined with physical exercise, a half hour of pranayama (breath control), a half hour of Puja (an ancient yoga ritual performed in Sanskrit) followed by japa (mantra and affirmation repetition). Breakfast is at about 8:30. A 9-hour work day with a break for lunch starts at 9am.
For a long time my “9-hour day” was focused upon working as a commercial artist while writing two books on yoga and producing one CD of contemplative spiritual music. Now that these books and CD are finished, I teach the yoga I was taught to a growing number of students. This I do out of our home. I also continue to work as a commercial artist. When time allows, I produce more of my visual artwork which I sell primarily through my web site at 4siva.com. I also occasionally perform contemplative music.
Aside from a somewhat frequent, three-mile jog, my evenings are dedicated to my wife, Mary Beth, who has been almost singlehandedly responsible for my relatively seamless transition from the monastery into the world. I try to be in bed by 9pm. For the most part, this schedule holds firm for six days a week with Sundays left open for cleaning our home and relaxation.
Aside from all of this, I should mention that I also strive to fill my days “acting consciously rather than reacting unconsciously.” This was how my teacher most simply summarized the application of yoga in everyday life.
Q: You’re an accomplished and talented musician and painter/artist. How have spiritual practices/spiritual life contributed to this?
I was an artist and a musician long before I first became interested in yoga and later entered the monastery. The discipline I was taught by my art and music teachers before and after I began a spiritual life was basically the same. Discipline is discipline. Discipline is an influence that sophisticates the quality of any work. What changed for me in art and music after I became a monk was my intent. My intent before was self-expression. My intent now is Self-expression. To say this a little less abstractly, my intent now is to express revelation, inspiration and upliftment rather than the opposites of these. As to the quality of my work, I hope it is improving. Truth be told, this is not entirely up to me, for beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Debra Moffitt is the award winning author of Awake in the World: 108 Practices to Live a Divinely Inspired Life and “Garden of Bliss”. A visionary, dreamer and teacher, she’s devoted to nurturing the spiritual in everyday life. She leads workshops on spiritual practices, writing and creativity in the U.S. and Europe. More at Awake in the World and on Facebook.