Lisa Renner, Freelance Writer

It began with young idealistic hippies living in teepees in the forest and spending their days meditating and practicing yoga principles.

Today, it’s a thriving community of about 200 with a school, two spiritual retreats, several businesses and a stunning new Temple of Light dedicated to the Indian spiritual teacher Paramhansa Yogananda and the world’s religions. Against all odds, Ananda Village, an intentional community near Nevada City in Northern California’s Sierra foothills, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Back when it started, many young people across the country were forming communes and small communities in bold attempts to create a new and better world. But most didn’t last long as the challenges of making money, working together and balancing different goals got the best of them.

Ananda Village too has faced its share of challenges, including a fire that destroyed almost all its early homes, multiple lawsuits and the death of its spiritual leader and founder. Any one of those events could have ended the experiment for good. Yet the community lives on. And it has spawned other communities on the West Coast, Italy and India, as well as meditation and teaching centers throughout the world.

Nayaswami Devi, one of the spiritual directors of Ananda along with her husband Nayaswami Jyotish, said she knew when she arrived in the early 1970s that Ananda was something special. “I felt this energy,” she said. “Something is going to happen here. I don’t what it is but it’s going to help many, many people.”

Ananda Village was founded by Swami Kriyananda, also known as J. Donald Walters, who became a disciple of Yogananda after reading the guru’s now classic work “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Kriyananda was a powerhouse of energy who wrote about 150 books, composed more than 400 pieces of music and traveled the world spreading yoga teachings until his death at age 86 in 2013.

Nayaswami Asha, who met Kriyananda in the 1960s, said she knew right away she would follow him anywhere. “I felt I was a witness to greatness,” she said. “That greatness does not come very often.” Nayaswami Shivani, who also joined the community early on, said she was inspired by the idea of a creating a new better way of living. She said she thought: “I would sacrifice anything to be a part of this.”

Kriyananda was always interested in the idea of small cooperative communities, and when he heard his guru advocate the formation of “world brotherhood colonies” dedicated to high ideals and simple living, he was inspired to start one.

He eventually acquired the land near Nevada City and got some friends from San Francisco, where he was then living, to help him start turning it into a community. Initially, they would come up on weekends and eventually, they built three geodesic domes. Early residents recall that the first winter was hard with lots of snow and rain, teepees leaking or getting burned and raccoons and other wildlife causing problems. Those who didn’t give up bonded closer together and learned to work as a team. They dedicated themselves to deeper spiritual practice and some took on Sanskrit names with spiritual meaning.

In 1976, a fire destroyed 21 of Ananda Village’s 22 homes. Once again, many left. But those who stayed, rebuilt, and became even more committed to their ideals.

Living in the rural setting, far away from city jobs, the Ananda Village residents had to figure out how to make money. They started businesses including ones selling incense, wildflower jewelry, flower essences and spiritual books. They started a candy business and opened a health food store and they grew organic food in their own gardens. They lead lots of spiritual workshops and retreats – first at their initial Ananda Meditation Retreat and later at The Expanding Light Retreat, which both continue today.

Before long, they decided they wanted a school for the many children who were arriving so they started one, and eventually developed a system of education that reflected the ideals and philosophy of the community- known as Education for Life. That first Ananda Living Wisdom School is still going and there are other campuses in Palo Alto, Portland, Italy and Slovenia.

Nitai Deranja, who started the first school, said there was a feeling of unlimited adventure in those early years. “None of us knew the challenges that would be involved,” he said. David Kretzmann, 26, who attended all but one year at the Ananda Village Living Wisdom School from preschool through high school, now works as strategic research and operations lead for Motley Fool, a financial services company. He credits the school with teaching him how to cooperate with others and live a happy and successful life.

Nayaswami Bharat, also known as Joseph Cornell, turned his energies to helping people have a deeper appreciation of the natural world. Cornell’s “Sharing Nature” series has been published in 28 foreign languages and he has led workshops in his techniques around the globe.

It was his work that attracted Sundara Traymar, also known as Greg, to move to Ananda Village 12 years ago at age 24. Traymar, who is now international director of Sharing Nature Worldwide, was interested in protecting the environment and achieving sustainability but he came to realize that just focusing on external factors alone can’t do the job. He concluded that raising consciousness is the key factor to helping make a better world.

What he likes the most about Ananda is its integrated lifestyle. “It’s not like spirituality is out there somewhere like Sunday church. It’s integrated into everything in your life. It’s about changing consciousness and primarily yourself and from that radiates a change to others.”

What’s next for Ananda? During a recent celebration at the new Temple of Light, leaders said they believe Ananda is still in the pioneer days and that they foresee much more growth in the next 50 years, from new communities to schools and more.

Latika Parojinog, chief financial officer of Ananda Village, said community members will continue to express the teachings of Yogananda creatively. “The philosophy won’t change but the form likely will.” The Temple of Light, which was finished in July, is an example of Yogananda’s idea to “immortalize your ideas in architecture.” It includes a glass cupola and niches honoring Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam.

All are invited to the Temple of Light open house Sept. 21 from 10:30am-3pm for a ribbon cutting. Those attending will include the local contractors who helped build it, elected officials and members of the Interfaith Nevada County. Afterward, all are welcome to eat lunch on the lawn downtown Ananda Village (for $8), tour the Crystal Hermitage gardens visit the Ananda Living Wisdom School and visit a small market featuring Ananda businesses.

The Temple of Light is at Ananda Village, 14618 Tyler Foote Road, Nevada City. Call 530-478-7500 or visit anandavillage.org.