The Scent of Roses – Part 1 (The HSY Origin Story)

By Mark Solomon 

Note of Introduction:
Either through luck or good karma, I was honoured to be present at the very start of Higher Self Yoga in 1988. At the time, I was a ‘beginner yogi’ in New York City, as part of a very small group that has blossomed and grown, thanks to the tireless work of our teacher and founder Nanette Hucknall. While she’s still with us, it seems a good idea to gather these memories together for the sake of future generations who may wonder how this form of yoga was born. I hope you will get a sense of how excited we all felt to discover something new – a meaningful, active way to strive spiritually. This essay was written in the spirit of a co-worker, with hopes you will forgive mistakes and correct any inaccuracies. It is dedicated to yogis everywhere. 


In the mid-1980’s I was living in New York, trying to make sense of my place in the city, striving to balance my spirit, work and a creative life. I first attended Agni Yoga class at the East Side apartment of Patty H, and felt a strong sense that I had come home. Patty was an elegant Texan with a sly wit who played the piano beautifully. She opened her door twice weekly for a group of 10-15 people who, with admirable devotion to their teacher Ralph H, gathered to meditate and discuss the books of Agni Yoga. I was impressed that they continued to meet without the physical presence of their teacher who had died some years before. In his honour, they left an empty chair with his photo at each class. After a few months, it became clear to me that certain members of the group did not see eye to eye. Some members had been attending these classes for 20 years or more and were attached to the traditional form of meditation and reading from books. And another group was keen to try something new. We wanted something to DO – something more experimental and direct to imagine, visualise, and synthesise what we were striving for. This faction was led by Nanette, a gifted yogi who had written a series of ‘Lessons’ that expanded on these principles. Conflict between the two sides was building.

My first exposure to the literature of this second group was the lesson written by Nanette on “Uses of the Heart.” I found it terrifically appealing and was keen to understand the concepts on a deeper level. The work called for trust and honesty that seemed too much for our Agni Yoga group at the time. But there was no other venue to try them out and it seemed we had reached an impasse.

Without the tools to build harmony at the yoga meetings, our personal differences were impossible to overcome. After one frustrating class, Mike C. and Mario C. talked about the possible ways forward, but Nanette was clearly reluctant to lead a splinter group away from Agni Yoga. She didn’t want to be accused of setting herself up as a teacher like the beloved Helena Roerich. One September evening, as members once again fell into recriminations and irritation over how to conduct our yoga class, I interrupted to say, “Stop! We need to let this fall apart to see what else will grow.” Tempers subsided and we agreed to stop the classes and see what would happen.

What followed were weeks of silence. I kept wondering ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Are people talking?’ I was hoping for some kind of announcement. I worried – ‘Is this really going to just fall apart?’ ‘Is there no way forward?’ Later, I discovered that Mario and Mike had been talking about what to do, but with Nanette travelling through Europe, it wasn’t clear how long they should wait.

Never a terribly patient person, I eventually picked up the phone to call Mike and see if there had been any progress.

Mike said, “Oh, yes. Yes, there is. We’re meeting at my house next Sunday.”, I asked: “Can I come, too?” A pause. Mike said, “Sure, I guess so.”

I still felt like a rookie in those days. I had been coming to class for about a year and was meditating every day, but believed that everyone else was more ‘advanced’ than me. All these people knew Ralph, had studied with him, lived with him and I knew him only from his photo on the empty chair at Patty’s. Without wanting to step on any toes, I knew I had to be there, and Mike must have sensed my urgency. Generously, he offered to host a potluck brunch and I knew just what to bring.

Oct 2, 1988

On the appointed day, I took the train out to Long Island and found a tranquil setting in a quiet neighbourhood with trees and flowers – felt like a city kid from the Fresh Air Fund. Five of us gathered to see if we could help plant something new in the yoga field. Mike, Mario, Ingrid, Norman and me. Eager to please, I brought a big hunk of smoked white fish. Why? Because brunch in my family growing up had always been the highpoint of our culinary week. The key to a secular Jewish upbringing was bagels with cream cheese, lox and smoked fish, scrambled eggs with chive, this is what I knew, and I wanted to share it with my fellow adventurers. Only problem was that the fish was terrible. Smelly and under-done. Whatever it was supposed to be, it fell short. Way short. We tried to eat a little, but I felt foolish and embarrassed. (Tip: don’t buy Jewish delicacies from the supermarket. They don’t know) People teased me and Mike kindly put the fish out of its misery and it helped to ease the tension of what we were about to do – starting a new yoga, in Nanette’s name, but without telling her. What’s there to be nervous about?

Once we meditated together, we went over the ground rules that Nanette had printed out (probably on a dot-matrix printer with the tractor-feed paper) so we could address the problems that had arisen in the Agni Yoga classes. We would consciously link our hearts together and engage the connection to our Higher Selves. We’d rotate the leadership of the class and see each other as co-workers with the wisdom and trust to help each other strive higher. No gossiping, no judgements. We linked with our Masters’ hearts and faced the question of what to name our new class.

“Guide us O Wise Ones! May we grow closer to You with this endeavour and in all that we do.” 

We closed with another brief meditation and agreed to meet again. Who would tell Nanette?

Look for Part 2 of the HSY origin story next week, when Mark continues his story on how the small group blossomed and grew to form a groundbreaking, new type of yoga — and what HSY is like today and how it continues to thrive.  


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