The Yogis of Devotion Bring Bhakti into the Mainstream
First introduced to the West in the 1800s, yoga remained a mysterious Eastern tradition to most Westerners for many years. In the 1960s, when a number of yogis such as Swami Shivananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and T. Krishnamacharya brought their versions of the ancient practice to the West, and some high profile celebrities such as the Beatles began to take it up, the layman’s awareness of yoga grew—but it remained separate from the mainstream.
In the past decade, however, yoga has become outrageously popular and completely integrated into Western culture, especially that of the United States. A 2008 study asserted that 6.9% of U.S. adults, or 15.8 million people, practice yoga. The Los Angeles Times estimates that there are more than seventy yoga studios in Southern California alone, while according to a Yoga Journal study Americans spend some $2.95 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, and clothing.
Perhaps the most interesting new trend for ISKCON devotees to note, however, is the recent proliferation of devotee yoga teachers. ISKCON devotees, of course, follow an ancient spiritual path also brought to the West in the 1960s by Srila Prabhupada, who taught Bhakti—the yoga of devotion—and did not place any emphasis on physical yoga exercises. So how did they end up as yoga teachers, and is it simply a way of earning a living for them, or is there more to it?
Even a quick look at the ISKCON devotee yoga teachers out there tell us that they are combining the health benefits of physical yoga with something deeper and more devotional.
In New York, Raghunatha Dasa, former lead singer of the Krishnacore band Shelter, who teaches at popular yoga studios such as Yogamaya, Kula Yoga, and Yoga Works, leads his students on regular spiritual pilgrimages to South India.
Meanwhile, Keli Lalita Dasi, who runs her own Karuna Shakti Yoga studio in upstate New York, offers “Bhakti Immersion Weekends” that are essentially traditional Krishna conscious programs, including a celebration of “Krishna’s Birthday Party.” (Janmastami)
In Los Angeles, Krodhasamani Dasi regularly brings students of her long-established Govinda’s yoga studio on retreats to the Vaishnava Academy in Mayapur, West Bengal, where Gaudiya Vaishnava founder Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared.
In Washington D.C., popular yoga teacher Gopi Manjari Dasi has organized Bhagavad-gita study workshops, Bhakti yoga and kirtan retreats, and has brought students to Krishna’s birthplace in Vrindavana, India.
Hari-kirtana Dasa, another devotee who teaches yoga in Washington D.C. at studios like Yoga Chai and Flow Yoga Center, and leads workshops at studios around the mid-Atlantic area, told ISKCON News that his interest in yoga came early in life.
“I developed a spontaneous attraction to yoga at ten years old, when I saw it being practiced for the first time on the original 1960s Addams Family television show by the fictional character Gomez Addams, who was a member of the Yoga Society,” he says.
He adds, with typical wry humor, “At the time, this was very eccentric—people didn’t do yoga asanas anywhere, much less on television. But Gomez Addams was my childhood idol—he was just the kind of weirdo I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Hari-kirtana was also exposed to Krishna consciousness at a young age, although he saw it simply as part of the counterculture at the time. In high school, his hippie friends chanted Hare Krishna and read Prabhupada’s books amongst other spiritual literature; and later, while working as a foot messenger in Manhattan, he would chant up to thirty-two rounds a day without even knowing what “Hare Krishna” meant. But the maha-mantra took its effect, and in 1977, he joined ISKCON.
It wasn’t until 2009, however, that Hari-kirtana became a certified Jivamukuti yoga instructor after meeting Prabhupada disciple and author Yogesvara Dasa.
“Yogesvara was teaching a successful regular Bhagavad-gita course at the Jivamukti yoga school in New York, and encouraged me to take some yoga classes there,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t spiritually qualified like him. But I was in pretty good physical shape, and teaching was already a part of my life—I worked in visual communications and video editing, and taught others how to make presentations. So I figured that I could learn yoga and become respected as a yoga teacher. Then that would give me an opportunity to pass spiritual knowledge on to others.”
And it does. Although teaching yoga is still part time for Hari-kirtana, his day job as a freelance video editor allows him enough flexibility to create his own teaching schedule—and today, he teaches a wide range of yoga classes, from four people all the way up to thirty five in size, and from twenty-five to over fifty-five in age.
And he begins each class by speaking from either the yoga sutras of Patanjali, or “yoga scripture” more familiar to ISKCON devotees such as Bhagavad-gita and Sri Isopanishad. After having everyone chant the Sanskrit verses in call and response fashion, he then offers some insight from his personal realizations, suggesting ways that his students can apply yoga philosophy to their daily life.
The “asana” portion of Hari-kirtana’s classes are very vigorous and flowing, and sound is a very important element.
“Each class has a theme—often a Bhakti one—and features music related to that theme, so I always have my students listen to Vaishnava kirtan while they practice yoga,” he says. “For example, I did one workshop on the Simhasana, or lion, yoga pose—which, to a great degree, was an excuse for me to tell the story of Lord Nrsimhadeva and Prahlada, to have them chant Lord Nrsimhadeva’s names, and to have them hear devotees sing the Nrsimha mantra on the music mix.”
Meanwhile, each class ends with some meditation. “I encourage everyone to notice how they can observe their bodies and even their minds operating, and I point out that they cannot be that which they observe—essentially that they are not their bodies or minds, but spirit souls,” Hari-kirtana says.
Another yoga teacher who integrates Krishna consciousness into her classes is Gopi-mata Dasi, a Prabhupada disciple who also joined ISKCON in 1977. Gopi-mata has taught a mix of hatha and vinyasa yoga styles since 1988, and currently teaches from her own studio, Bhaktivana Yoga Center, in a tiny rural Hare Krishna community near Baldwin, Kansas.
Her classes all begin with the call and response chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, broken up into manageable portions. They also include silent mantra meditation during exericises, and end with a harmonium-accompanied kirtan.
“In the early days, I was afraid that if I chanted the maha-mantra, my students would associate it with people trying to sell them books in the airport, and run away,” she says. “So I started with chanting Om, then progressed to chanting Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. As I became more confident that the Hare Krishna mantra was part of a bona fide ancient yoga practice, and that it was a spiritual sound vibration that transcended religion, I began to introduce it gradually. And the more comfortable I felt with it, the more my students seemed to reflect that comfort. I would hear them saying to each other, “At first I thought it was a little weird, but now the chanting is my favorite part.”
Gopi also brings her unique devotional perspective to the yoga teacher training program, dubbed “Yoga with Heart: The Bhakti Infused Hatha Yoga” that she has taught for the past two years. In 2009, sixteen aspiring yoga teachers and in 2010, fourteen took training wherein they regularly read Bhagavad-gita and chanted Hare Krishna. To study Patanjali’s yoga sutras, they used a transcription from classes by ISKCON guru Hridayananda Goswami, which bring out the verses’ original Bhakti-infused meaning.
Hridayananda Goswami also spoke at the training, as did Yogesvara Dasa, Malati Dasi, Krishnanandini Dasi, Divyambhara Dasi, Rukmini Dasi and Charu Candra Dasa.
Of course, despite all this integration of Bhakti yoga into their classes, Gopi-mata and Hari-kirtana are not over-zealous in their presentation of it.
“I’m not presenting it as ‘this is the absolute truth and you must accept it,’ but rather as ‘here is another way of looking at yoga philosophy that you can consider,’” Hari-kirtana says. “The yoga community is the modern western of Varanasi, where the only angle people have heard is that we’re all one. And I’m presenting the self-evident meaning of yoga scripture—that we are eternal individuals, and that yoga is about awakening a relationship with the Supreme Individual, who is living in all of our hearts.”
People respond well to this approach, because it makes sense to them, because they see it’s working for Hari-kirtana as a yoga practioner and teacher, and because the atmosphere in his classes is fun and friendly.
As far as taking yoga students to “the next step,” Hari-kirtana is very selective about who he invites to the temple. Rather than jump for this more typical “ISKCON-style” approach, he feels that yoga class attendees first need to experience a paradigm shift where they realize that yoga is not just for their own health or happiness, or even to make the world a better place, as they previously thought. While those things are good, he explains, they are not the highest expression of devotional yoga.
“That, in my opinion is the next step up for yoga class attendees,” he says. “Having said that, however, I have brought some fellow yoga teachers and students to the temple for festival days, and have had the opportunity to introduce them to more advanced devotees than me who have been able to inspire them and take them deeper into devotional yoga. In fact, one of my yoga students now considers herself a Vaishnava, has a nice little altar in her home, and is regularly chanting Hare Krishna. And that, of course, makes me very happy.”
Some of Gopi-mata’s students have also taken their yoga practice to the next level. One is now a full-time initiated devotee, Rupa Sanatana Dasa, and currently manages the ISKCON temple in St. Louis. Others are not yet ready to become a Hare Krishna, but tell Gopi that they are regularly doing their “meditation,” which they explain to her is chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
“One woman told me that she’d heard of a mantra that went ‘Radhe, Jaya Jaya Madhava Daiyite’ and had incorporated into her daily meditation,” Gopi says, citing the ancient Sanskrit poem by Vaishnava saint Rupa Goswami. “She told me she didn’t know what it meant, but that it had totally changed her life. She said, ‘You’ve mentioned Radha before—can you tell me why my heart has become so soft, and why all my relationships have become so sweet?’”
“Devotee yoga teachers can bring tremendous value to the yoga community in the form of all the knowledge and understanding that Srila Prabhupada has given us,” Hari-kirtana says. “The trick is to share it in a loving way without a tinge of judgementalism, which is something that we can be easily trapped by when we enter the yoga community and look at it from our ISKCON frame of reference.”
Hari-kirtana feels that devotee yoga teachers can also bring great value to ISKCON by establishing the credibility of Bhakti yoga in the contemporary yoga community, and thus laying the foundation for more advanced ISKCON devotees to be received positively when they speak. A good example of this is Bhakti Fest, the annual kirtan festival presented by the yoga community, where thousands of yogis welcome devotees such as Radhanath Swami with great respect.
“In fact, it’s very important from a public relations standpoint that ISKCON devotees are active yoga teachers and part of yoga communities around the world,” says Hari-kirtana. “Because it brings a certain credibility to our movement and encourages people to look upon us very favorably. Otherwise, the yoga community would have no way of knowing what our philosophy and practice are really about, and would still have the same preconceived stereotypical ideas about ISKCON that we ourselves did so much to create thirty years ago.”
For ISKCON leaders who have noticed the trend of devotees becoming yoga teachers, and who have asked the question, “How can we take advantage of this to engage in outreach to the yoga community?” Hari-kirtana has an answer.
Teaching yoga, he explains, is a specialized service, much like working in the scientific or academic communities. Therefore the best thing is for the devotees who become yoga teachers to become integrated into the community they’re serving. And the best thing that an ISKCON temple can do, if a devotee in their congregation is working as a yoga teacher, is to offer support from behind the scenes.
“For example, the temple can send someone to chant kirtana at a workshop, or bring prasadam, all in a low-key way,” Hari-kirtana says. “Let the yoga teacher do the talking, because they have developed the expertise on how to present our philosophy to this particular audience.”
Hari-kirtana explains that the most effective ways of working with the yoga community are often counter-intuitive for devotees accustomed to the traditional ISKCON way of doing things.
“Temples tend to think: ‘How can we bring people to us?’” he says. “They think that yoga teachers should bring their students to the temple. I say, think the opposite. Bring the temple to the yoga students, through the devotee yoga teacher. And then, when they eventually do come to the temple, they’ll have a frame of reference to understand what they’re seeing. Otherwise, they’ll come with no idea what it is, and will think it’s a Hindu cultural event, which is not what we want.”
As yoga continues to grow in popularity, devotee yoga teachers are working hard to integrate themselves into the yoga community in a positive way.
Gopi-mata Dasi intends to continue creating a loving, non-judgemental atmosphere at her Bhaktivana yoga studio that’s inviting to all types of people, and conducive to hearing and chanting. She also wants to keep developing her yoga teacher training program, and to encourage other teachers to add the element of Bhakti to their classes. Her next month-long intensive course will start on May 10th, to which devotees are welcome.
Hari-kirtana is also aiming to focus on teacher training this year, with guest spots at various teacher training courses. Meanwhile, he will continue to offer a variety of yoga workshops to students, each with its own specific devotional theme. Within the next year, he will also focus a lot of energy into writing on his blog site hari-kirtana.com, and integrating into the virtual yoga blog community on the Internet.
As far as the future is concerned, Hari-kirtana feels that as more devotees become better established in the yoga community, more people who are truly serious about yoga as a spiritual practice will be given the opportunity to go deeper.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to become devotees and move into the temple,” he says. “But it does mean that they will integrate this theistic idea of yoga, and the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, into their practice. And I think it will ultimately contribute to a clear differentiation between yoga as a spiritual practice, and yoga as a material indulgence.”