Remembering Nina Johnson
May 5, 1925 – July 2, 2020
by Wesley Van Linda
Our dear teacher and friend Nina Johnson started the Yoga Society of Milwaukee in late 1971 at the direction of Swami Rama. Wishing to give a talk in Milwaukee, Swamiji asked his Chicago students to make a list of local Milwaukee yoga teachers. As I remember the story, those students put names on small index cards, and when Swamiji picked them up, Nina’s card fell out! They met, and he initiated Nina in July,1971. Saying that he would help her, Swamiji also suggested that she open a center.
Nina began her yoga practice in 1965 because of severe curvature of the spine. Her chiropractor suggested yoga as a way to relieve back pain. Her teacher Mrs. Ritchy taught at the local YMCA. When she retired, she asked Nina to be her successor. (Many Milwaukeeans became familiar with another of Mrs. Richy’s students, Kathleen Hitchcock, who also began teaching and produced a local TV show on yoga which aired early every morning for many years.).
I met Nina in October of 1971. I heard about Nina’s yoga class from a friend in one of my university classes. Her class was held in the parlor of a small church near the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. After class I spoke with Nina who said she recently met a yoga master named Swami Rama. She gave me two books he had written, Lectures on Yoga and the Kathopanishad. Both had been printed and published by the Himalayan Institute in India.
When I started attending her classes, Nina and I became friends. I learned that she was from Louisville, Kentucky, that her husband was a speech writer for the long time mayor of Milwaukee, and that she had two adopted children. She also cared for her elderly mother.
Nina had been immediately and deeply moved by her experience with Swami Rama. She recognized him as a master. She wanted to learn from him and to be enlightened. Since at the time, Nina had several friends who were interested in esoteric studies, the idea of enlightenment was not new to her. She told me that when Swami returned in spring, I should meet him.
I met Swamiji at 10 am on May 14, 1972, in a downtown hotel. He greeted me with a big hug and said that he was glad that I had come-he had a lot to teach me. Again offering his help, he encouraged me to help Nina establish a center and to start teaching yoga and meditation. He then initiated me into the Tradition and spoke to me for a while about personal issues. As it was for Nina, meeting Swamiji was a deeply moving and life changing experience for me.
The Yoga Society
The Yoga Society of Milwaukee officially opened later that year when we rented a small apartment above a pet store in a local, east side neighborhood. Only a couple of other yoga classes were offered in Milwaukee at that time, and our classes filled up quickly. Swamiji also started to come more often, sometimes weekly, to lecture and teach when he was in the US.
We began visiting Swamiji at one of his student’s homes in northern Illinois and at the Northwest Yoga Center which was in a storefront. We also met at a farm in Barrington, Illinois. and later at the Glenview Center. During those early years, we saw Swamiji often, and he was usually available for questions.
In the summer of 1972 Swamiji led a 10-day retreat in Wheaton, Illinois. At the time, most of us were interested in yoga and meditation for spiritual development. We were new to the Tradition, but he lovingly and patiently led us through the practices and explained the teachings.
Nina and I became board members of the Himalayan Institute and were charter members of the Himalayan Institute Yoga Teachers Association which was headed by Jackie Hornberger at Glenview. We knew about Swamiji’s other centers and met several of his students when they came to the Institute.
Early in 1974 Swamiji organized the Kumbha Mela trip. It was an amazing experience. Our group was given priority treatment as the police chief in Haridwar was one of his students. We had the opportunity to visit some of the great living Masters of our time including Anandamaya Ma, Gopal Singh, Devraha Baba, Tat Walla Baba and others whose names I no longer recall. Several students have written about this experience including Swami Jaidev (Justin O’Brien) in his book, Walking with a Himalayan Master.
Also in 1974 Swamiji trained Nina to initiate students on his behalf. She was very hesitant at first, but her faith in Swamiji was firm. We had moved into a new center and our classes were often full. Swamiji lectured at the Shorewood Woman’s club in Hubbard Park and met individually with students.
In 1975 there was a fire in our building. Larry Xavier (Virat) was living at the center and luckily escaped unharmed, but the building was destroyed, and we had to move. (We still have a photo of Swamiji, one that survived the fire, hanging at our Center.)
Later that year Swamiji suggested I start a business – a bookstore. I opened AUM Books opened in the fall of 1975. At the time Swami Ajaya owned a successful new age store in Madison, Wisconsin, called Shakti Books, and the Institute opened a store in Chicago called East West books that was, for a time, run by Gus Gatto.
Over the years our center grew. Some students left, but new students came. My business prospered, and there were long periods of time when I didn’t see Nina, but she continued to guide our Center. We also sponsored a series of annual retreats with Swamiji, Dr. Arya, and other teachers at the Baptist Retreat Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin, and at the Holy Hill Shrine.
Move to India
Some years after Swamiji left his body, Nina began studying with Swami Hariharananda Bharati. Swami Hari lived in the village of Malethi in the Himalayas. He came to the US to raise funds for Sriverm, a school he had started in Malethi. Nina looked to him for guidance in her practice.
After Nina’s husband and mother (who lived to be 107) died, Nina wanted to move to India. Swamiji had told her that she would eventually go to the mountains to be with him, and it was something she longed for. She soon left for India accompanied by her close friend and student Ginny Lechtenberg. From then on, Nina and Ginny spent most of the year in India. Traveling was difficult and the living conditions were rough, but she said it was the best place for her practice. Each year she returned for a couple of months to teach at the Center. Swamiji told her she would be teaching until she died.
The Journey Continues
When we were younger Nina would often say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just do what Swami tells me to do.” Later, when she spoke about her practice it was with great clarity. She spoke about the beauty and the bliss of her meditation experience and about the constant presence of Swamiji in her life. Outwardly she was the same person, but those close to her knew that she had made profound progress in her practice.
She never lost faith in Swami Rama and always felt his guidance. He was constantly in her thoughts, and she meticulously followed his advice. She never missed her daily practice. In my classes I have often used Nina as an example as someone who had great success with meditation simply by doing a regular practice over a long period of time.
Nina told us she didn’t spend a lot of time with Swamiji. She never imposed herself on him, yet she was very close to him. As she said, “Swamiji was never a person to me. Rather he was always simply a presence.” She spoke simply about meditation and was direct in her instructions to students. She was dedicated, loyal and loving. She remained close to many of us over the decades of her life. She made each of us feel special.
For over 49 years she was the guiding force of our Center. She initiated close to a thousand students and even after moving to India continued to visit our Center and teach. We were very lucky to have her in our lives and for bringing Swami Rama and the teachings of the Himalayan Masters.
Our Center now has a small, dedicated group of meditators. We continue, in our small way, to promote and follow the teachings of Swami Rama and the Himalayan Tradition. Many of our students didn’t know Swamiji but were inspired by Nina. We are grateful to her and to all the teachers in our Tradition who have guided us on the path and to all our guru family around the world who continue to inspire us.
Nina left her body on July 2, 2020, at 10:03 pm, local time, in the village of Malethi, in the mountains of India. With the blessings of her children, her body was cremated several days later.
OM Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi.
**If you would like to read more about Nina’s life, she wrote a short memoir which was featured in At the Feet of A Himalayan Master Vol 7, published by the HIHT Press and available on Amazon.
The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, center is an AHYMSIN affiliate center. The website is https://himalayanyogamilwaukee.org/
Articles by Nina or about Nina that have appeared in the AHYMSIN newsletter:
- “Talk with Nina Johnson”
- “Mediation: What, Why, and How” by Nina Johnson
- “I’m telling you of the joy I have experienced.” An Interview with Nina Johnson by John Barry Stutt
Nina can also be seen on YouTube: