Paramahansa Yogananda and J. Oliver Black, Los Angeles, 1946
“Secrets of Yoga from Detroit’s Mr. Black and India’s Yogananda”
by Eileen Wood Jasnowski,
This article appeared on July 10,1966, in “Detroit,” weekly magazine published by “Detroit Free Press,” Michigan
There is a new kind of man in the sphere of the . . . mystics in loincloths. He is J. Oliver Black, a great American yogi. He conducts Raja Yoga (meditation) services at the Detroit Institute of Arts every Sunday. The dapper Black seems as far removed from the sparsely clad Indian as can be imagined. He looks more like a prosperous Midwestern executive, mainly because he is one.
Black made his fortune in the automobile industry during the early twenties. …The story as he tells it is vivid and vibrant. But one is inclined to disbelief; the star of such a drama would have to be in his mid-seventies.
“Of course I am,” he admitted. “My wife and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary last April. I’ve never felt better in my life.”
The reason? A chance encounter with Yogananda, the great Hindu Master.
“Yogananda set me straight. When I first met him 35 years ago I was afraid to get half a mile away from a drug store. I was a regular hypochondriac. I took aspirins for headaches, and laxative pills, and probably would have taken tranquilizers if they’d had them. …
“I was a victim of inner pressures, too, like all my colleagues. The automobile giants made their fortunes — and then seldom lived to enjoy them…Besides running a successful company, Peninsular Metal Products, I studied and taught a small philosophy class. We were trying to find an answer to man’s existence. Everybody is, after his fashion. I was close to 40 when I met Yogananda…
What was so important about your meeting with Yogananda?
“He changed the whole direction of my life…I’m an American and I was impatient for results. I wanted them right away. Yogananda taught me that important things aren’t achieved overnight…You have to do the work: no preacher or priest or pundit can do it for you….
Paramahansa Yogananda with (l-r) Dr. Lewis, Rajarsi Janakananda, Oliver Black, Bro. Bhaktananda (seated)
Could Black give the American businessman his formula for beating tension?
…A yogi wants everybody to take advantage of the same benefits he’s had. Yoga isn’t a religion, you know. It’s a science, and this is the scientific age. The law of cause and effect applies here, just as clearly as when you mix yellow and blue you’ll get green. It’s a fact. Now when you begin to stretch the nerve endings and your muscles, and you flex the spine, ankle, knee, and hip joints, you’re just naturally going to improve your health and feel better. Immediately.
By stretching the nerves you lessen tension. Yoga is for everybody, not just a few rare individuals. It helps adolescents with posture, complexion, and growing problems; it definitely helps them overcome teen-age inferiority complexes. Older people get all the benefits of calisthenics without any of the drawbacks. We can all do these exercises if we’re taught properly…Men and women in their sixties become so flexible they have better posture and health than their children!”
“If you learn how to breathe correctly, and nothing else, it’s worth it. Doctors are pointing out what yogis knew 5000 years ago. Proper breathing prevents heart attacks, one of the main causes of early death of American men. What other diseases hit the executives? Ulcers and strokes. Proper breathing and yoga exercises help you avoid these diseases. Back troubles that plague many men and women are caused mainly by their terrible postures. The spine is meant to be erect — and yoga teaches you how to work at this…
“Yoga will take weight off you, redistribute it, and build you up. It will improve your memory and sharpen your brainpower. You’ll stop having colds every winter. Your hair will grow faster than it used to. Our teachers work on limbering your spine, ankles, knees. Mind and body work together; through concentration you’ll learn balance control….By reversing the pull of gravity in some of the `topsy-turvy’ exercises, you not only rejuvenate your body but improve your mental faculties…”
Besides doing a few simple yoga exercises every day, what else do you recommend to fight the tensions of our age?
“I have two other suggestions,” he said. “These hints are so simple, our smart Americans won’t follow them. After exercise, the second tip is — watch your diet. Quit digging your grave by eating mashed potatoes, thick gravies, overcooked vegetables, and refined-flour pastries. Fresh fruits and raw or barely cooked vegetables are your best friends. …We eat the wrong things, and starve ourselves on what our bodies cry out for.” …
YOGACHARYA OLIVER [Oliver Black] conducted his last Kriya Initiation as a Minister of Self-Realization Fellowship in June of 1989 at Song of the Morning Ranch. He consciously left his body at the age of 96 on September 16 of the same year.
What’s your third tip?
“This is the one that most of us truly want to learn, but we don’t know how or where to go,” he said. “We all knew this once, but we’ve forgotten. We want to learn to meditate, to be alone without being bored or afraid. The poet W. H. Auden called our time ‘the age of anxiety.’ It’ll remain that until we learn to find the inner peace that we were once, originally, steeped in. ‘Study to be quiet,’ says St. Paul. ‘Be still, and know that I am God,’ says the Bible. And yogis throw you a challenge that will keep you busy the rest of your life: ‘Learn to still your restless mind.’ “
Obviously it has worked for him, and for a good many of his varied congregations, some of whom drive in regularly from Chicago and Cleveland and Lansing. Every Sunday there are visitors from places as far off as New York City, Nova Scotia, and Toronto.
“I retired in 1951,” said Black. “Then I stayed on the board of directors of my company for a while until Yogananda told me to give it up, too. He said my true work was to teach, not preach. I didn’t think I was competent to do that, but he just looked at me with his dark, compelling eyes, and said, ‘That’s what you think, Oliver.’ So I did what he said, and I’ve never been happier. …
“I have never had anything afford me greater joy than my work in yoga. You can’t love life unless you give. Everybody’s joy is my joy — and that’s the most delicious drink you can imagine. But very few have tasted it. Most men haven’t learned how to forego selfish habits in this lifetime. Yogananda used to say, ‘If you’re stingy with God, He’ll be stingy with you.’ “
Letter to Yogacharya Oliver Black from Paramhansa Yogananda, May 11, 1951 [See letter below]
Your coming was a memorable occasion for I felt that you caught the spirit of the work which the Masters and God are guiding. ….
I am so happy that you liked the SR Lake Shrine and that you tuned in with Stanley. I see all these contacts reflected in your recent efforts to spread the Cause in Detroit. So, it is good not to stay away too long from the Mother Center.
I see that your promise to me of enhancing the work in two years has quickened from now on and you did not wait for the two years. Of course, it is less than two years now. Are you smiling?
The Detroit Center looks like the Taj Mahal and I am pleased that you chose such a place for the Center. The main Center should be in a centrally located place like this, but the retreat should be away from the heart of the city. On the outskirt of the city, the yogis say. In this transitory caravanserai of life created by God, it is so wonderful to find brother-souls like you who are willing to work for God and thus find the meaning of life; and abiding by His wishes, ultimately enter into Him. ….
I was very glad to receive the Detroit Center Announcements and, to see that everything is being patterned according to the Organization. ….
With all my love unendingly,