Category Archives: Kirtan & Bhakti

Return to the Sacred by Adam Bauer

Adam Bauer Honors His Gurus in Return to the Sacred

Adam Bauer released his third album, “Return to the Sacred,” last weekend. Bauer is a bhakti yoga practitioner, teacher, and healing artist. He routinely shares his voice and inspiration through both ancient and contemporary spiritual practices.

About Adam Bauer

Adam Bauer, Bhakti yogi and kirtan artist

He began this path when he was just 18 giving up sex, drugs, and rock and roll for a life of renunciation, poverty, and celibacy. After a few years, he left the monastic life, but remained true to his spiritual quest. 

“I feel incredibly grateful to be on this path, writing and singing and playing music in service of healing along the path of awakening. I’m very keenly aware of the depth of blessings and guidance that have run through my life since I began to awaken to divine reality as a teenager. I feel tremendously fortunate, to have felt so taken care of by the great spirit for my whole life.”

For 30 years, he has been a practitioner of the “I Ching,” or “Book of Changes.” Likewise, for almost as long, he’s immersed himself in the world of sacred music. He toured for many years with the Kirtan Wallah, Krishna Das. Another bhakti great he shared the stage with was the late Shyamdas, author of more than 20 books.

Bauer was also close to the legendary Ram Dass. Ram Dass was a Harvard psychology professor, who revolutionized American consciousness, with his blockbuster “Be Here Now.” Adam Bauer sang at his compound in Hawaii a number of times.

Krishna Das, Shyamdas, and Ram Dass each spent a significant amount of time in Kainchi, India. That’s where they soaked up the wisdom of their common guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

Neem Karoli Baba (1900-1973) was an inspiration to the younger American.  Maharaj-ji, as he was lovingly called by his devotees, was “a living example of the way boundless consciousness and love can abide within what appears to be a bounded bodily form. He’s an example of someone who shows how much bigger and brighter the world is than what most of us grew up believing. That in itself can be truly transformational,” Bauer says.

Tribute to Two Luminaries

Sadly, Ram Dass passed away December 21, 2019. That night, Bauer composed a mantra to Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba. The single is one of the highlights of “Return to the Sacred.” 

“This melody and mantra spontaneously arose in those predawn moments. I added some of the classic messages that Ram Dass brought us directly from Maharaj-ji. Love everyone. Serve everyone. Feed everyone. And, remember God,” Bauer says.

His tribute, “Baba (Neem Karoli Guru Bhai),” carries simple notes and repetitive lyrics. The tune is easily lodged in the listener’s head — and heart. Yet, it’s layered with the elixirs from India. Venerated musicians and vocalists joined in a recording studio in India. There, the engineers incorporated the pakhawaj, a traditional temple drum, a bass sitar, and the bansuri bamboo flute. Stateside, a cellist and percussionist added their special touches. “It’s great to have the ability to collaborate with such devotion-rich artists,” from East and West notes Bauer.

Definition of a Guru

Westerners, often have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of a guru. Adam Bauer clarifies it. 

“There’s a lot of different ways to think about the word guru. One definition is that which dispels darkness. There are many levels at which people can come into our life and help us move from darkness towards light.

“If we are looking for someone to be a big-G Guru—an infallible and perfect distillation of divinity with no faults or shadows in themselves–that is a very tall order which is not often fulfilled in this world. But, there are many ways that people can be small-g gurus, or teachers, for us in one domain or another. We can learn from so many people and situations, even though very few people are perfect and most everyone is fallible. In the end, I would say that one human definition of the word guru is someone who can truly help us evolve, practically speaking, into better and more complete expressions of ourselves. And there’s a lot of those people in the world, thank God.”

Finding Your Guru

Some say that your guru doesn’t appear until you’re ready for it. Therefore, it’s pointless to be searching with a fine-tooth comb. Bauer concurs.

“I believe the teacher appears when the student is ready. But, it’s good to remember that sometimes she appears in disguise. So, it’s on us to open wide our eyes and learn to see the divine everywhere.

“I never met Neem Karoli Baba in the body. I’ve only met him within myself and as shared in my relations with other devotees. Maharaj-ji has played a little hard to get with me over the years –as he has with many people– though he has shown up occasionally in the dream realm. I have often felt him in my own fashion while singing or playing kirtan, or involved in my own prayers or devotional practices. I have perhaps felt him most often in my relations with other devotees in his sphere—some say that the sangha (association) is the guru, which allows and invites us all to embody that sacred essence in how we treat each other.”

Some seekers fall for self-proclaimed gurus. Bauer says that’s not always a bad thing.

“In my experience, it looks like we’re all finding our own paths, even while divinity is guiding our footsteps in ways we cannot even comprehend. Plenty of people have learned a lot through their experiences with false gurus. One person’s guru is another’s shyster. We must believe in, and trust, our own Self, and do our best to love everyone and treat them all kindly. We are all one. As long as any of us suffer, we all suffer. We were born to love each other. So let’s do that.”

Finally, Bauer says Shyamdas, taught him that “detachment is useful to cultivate in many circumstances in the world, no question. But ultimately, when we find God, when we have our own living experience with the power of the divine, that’s when we should be holding on for dear life, so that we remain attached to what is sacred and true, and don’t lose our anchor.”

He concludes, “I’ve had a handful of very important teachers appear in my life at what seemed like just the right times. The blessings that arose from those relationships continue to unfold and ripen many years later. I feel like part of my life work is to redeem the faith that others have had in me, by continuing to focus my attention on some of the basics of living a good life, things like being kind to all creatures; stewarding nature and my relationships as best I can; looking for opportunities to serve others and recognize the divine in everything around me.”

To listen or buy Adam Bauer singles or album, visit his web site, iTunes, or Spotify.

For more about bhakti yoga, use the search function to read related archived articles.

Jai Uttal sings behind the walls

Jai Uttal Supports the Guys Behind The Walls

Everyone is Important–Jai Uttal

Month five of quarantine. Too many have lost a loved one. It’s no longer six degrees of separation. 

And yet, we retreat in our homes, and in our communities. We get in the car, or order pick-up or delivery, and tune in to Zoom sessions. Few of us are surrounded, daily, by the raging virus. 

For those cramped and caged in correctional and detention facilities, there’s no place to hide, retreat, or get away. Even worse, there’s no escape from coronavirus. Today, ICE reports 4,131 covid-19 positive cases throughout its facilities., 72 at Karnes County Residential Center, where I aided women seeking asylum.

Even worse, coronavirus took over the San Quentin high-security prison. As of August 3, there were about 2,200 infected San Quentin inmates (two-thirds of the population). While 22 died. Those who are “locked up,” for whatever reason, are mostly nameless and faceless neighbors thanks to the NIMBY mentality. 

Jai Uttal recognizes the guys at the state prison’s names and faces, as well as their melodious voices and tender souls. That’s why the Grammy-nominated kirtan artist released “Behind the Walls.”

We are All Brothers–Behind the Walls

Jai Uttal has been singing in San Quentin State Prison for many years
Jai Uttal leading kirtan at San Quentin (photo by Wari Om)

 

“For the last 11 years, I’ve been going semi-regularly to San Quentin, singing with the guys. I saw that these men, who at first seemed so hard, were melting and smiling and singing and expressing so much emotion.”

“Standing outside of San Quentin can be quite intimidating. It took me a while to find my way to be authentic and real with the men; to not see them as ‘other’. But once that happened, I found a community of brothers there who were so incredibly committed to their spiritual practices and to finding inner freedom within the confines of their incarceration. Their dedication and deep spiritual longing were completely inspiring to me.”

For example, one of the inmates told Jai, “We are all brothers here (at San Quentin): The House of Healing.”

What’s more, scientific studies confirm that music is healing. Many times, I’ve written about that, and it’s in my upcoming book.  Psychotherapist Viana Vallejo* says, “Music and movement regulate the central nervous system, and when done with others builds connection, and helps counteract trauma.”

Every Human Being Deserves Medical Attention–Jai Uttal

But Jai’s spiritual music can’t heal everything. In May, a facility in Chino, California transferred 120 prisoners to San Quentin. All were over age 65, or with underlying medical conditions. However, they weren’t tested before the transfer. Consequently, it spread like wildfire. 

Not surprisingly, the debacle at the oldest prison in California sickened Jai. “What kind of unconscious person decided to send 120 infected persons to San Quentin?” His new track tells the world about covid-19 spreading among the men he knows inside the high-security fences, gates, and doors.

“Everyone is important. Every human being deserves medical attention and care in times of deep crisis. When I heard about the intense covid-19 surge inside the prison, and how little the authorities were doing about it, I was affected very deeply, and personally concerned with the plight of some of my friends there. There’s very minimal medical care. And, the local hospitals are not overjoyed taking in prisoners.”

Hard Men Shed Tears…Behind the Walls — Jai Uttal

Back in the ’70s, when he sang in prisons while touring with Ram Dass, Jai saw the incarcerated as normal folks that made mistakes. Or, people of color who couldn’t afford the best legal defenses.  

Jai hopes his  “Behind the Walls,” viewable on YouTube will bring donations to a non-profit co-founded by a former San Quentin inmate.  Re:Store Justice aims to heal traumas, find lasting solutions to crime, and build safer, healthier, and more equitable communities.

“We have our local health food store, and our local penitentiary. It’s amazing to me that what’s happening behind those walls is going unnoticed by most of the residents of Northern California,” and beyond.

* In full disclosure, my daughter

 

Jai Uttal to offer online Kirtan Camp

Kirtan Camp with Jai Uttal Goes Online in 2020

Jai Uttal's Kirtan Camp Goes Virtual

This is the 18th year that Grammy-nominated recording artist, Jai Uttal, and his classical Indian dancer yogi wife, Nubia Teixeira, run a Kirtan Camp. This camp is all about play.  Playing and singing devotional chants, that is. Kirtan is an ancient practice. As part of bhakti (devotion), it is a branch of yoga that helps connect with one’s inner soul, and the divine. 

This year, Kirtan Camp is virtual. It’s more affordable. And, accessible. People can tune in to Kirtan Camp from anywhere, any time. No long flights or drives. Live Zoom sessions run June 30 until July 28. What’s more, participants can catch the recordings at their leisure, or even replay them repeatedly, for three months.  

The 2020 participants will learn all the basics about kirtan music, which Jai says is “a timeless gift that has been given to us by the saints and sages of ancient India.” Given the confusion, frustration and anger that’s sweeping our nation and the planet, the 2020 camp will be even more meaningful. Content will empower people to go inward to find greater meaning to what’s going on around them.

Kirtan is food for the spirit, a life raft of song. –Jai Uttal

Jai Uttal's Kirtan Camp in 2020

“The current global crisis brings a different context to the practices, demanding us to look much deeper into our spiritual selves. The rising awareness of the inequalities in our society demand us to reach out to others and express our bhakti in service. I hope to inspire the students to share this work far and wide.”

Furthermore, a bhakti practice can be very healing for oneself. Arguably, it can permeate the world. 

“With the many distractions and attractions of human interaction being cut off, we are left with our selves, our loved ones, and our practice. The harsh reality of police brutality asks us to keep our eyes open, and our vision clear, regarding who we are and what we stand for. All of this is very challenging, and requires a calm mind and an open heart. Singing kirtan, and chanting mantras, is a soothing balm for the soul and helps clear away the fears and anxieties of this transformational time. I hope that the practices shared in this online camp will become like a soft blanket of blessings over your life, like they have for me.”

Raised in the music industry, Jai learned classical piano at age of seven. However, it wasn’t until he attended a concert by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan that he discovered the music that moved his soul: the classic sounds and instruments of India. Ragas. Bhajans. Sarod. Harmonium. 

He felt the sounds, “entered my heart like the source of all life.”  As a result, kirtan and bhakti are pillars in his life. For 50 years now.

The idea for Kirtan Camp was actually Nubia’s. Also a bhakta, for 30 years she has dedicated herself to the “art-science-philosophy-practice” of yoga. Participants can enjoy a 40-minute bonus segment she’ll lead on the Gods and Goddesses of India. 

Kirtan is for all people. There are no advanced students, no beginners. –Jai Uttal

Jai Uttal's Kirtan Camp

Kirtan Camp is appropriate for anyone that wants to delve deeper into the sacred sounds. It’s not restricted to musical virtuosos or those who sing like a nightingale. Jai says his camp is ideal for anyone who:

  1. wants to explore the journey of bhakti yoga in a deep, joyful, and meaningful way; 
  2. has been touched by a kirtan experience, or who wants to bring more devotion into their lives;
  3.  is seeking a more heart-centered and soul fulfilling life;
  4. or is ready to find their voice, and learn musical skills that support a chanting practice. 

chanting devotional musicDivided into six extended all-level lessons, each is appropriate for a beginner or an experienced kirtan leader alike. While no instruments are necessary, Jai offers harmonium and guitar tutorials. Recordings facilitate participants to go at their own pace. At the same time, live Zoom sessions and a dedicate Facebook page will boost sangha (community, or association). 

Kirtan is a train carrying us home. — Jai Uttal

Virtual-KIrtan-Camp

The virtual sanghas are not new to Jai. He was onboard with livestream concerts and kirtans when quarantine began. Nor surprisingly, those gatherings built bonds among people all over the world. 

Jai notes that they “chat with each other and send me many letters of appreciation. I feel like my Friday concerts have created a real online community of bhaktas that want to give support and receive support. This has been very healing to all of us.”

Kirtan Camp to offer guitar tutorials

Additionally, he wants the interactive Zoom sessions to be a source for cohorts not just to learn the basics about kirtan, but to connect. Share their own music. Find homework buddies. Listen to one another’s thoughts and dreams. In essence, create a new community of like-hearted friends. 

Finally, as everyone reconsiders what to chuck from pre-Covid days, Jai encourages people to think about the planet.

“Air travel is one of the biggest causes of climate change. As we’ve been forced to share our work online, we’ve also felt the relief of not traveling. So we’ll continue to work this way as long as it’s sustainable. I do miss playing with other musicians and interacting with a ‘live’ audience, so I’ll still do concerts and kirtans, but I’ll stay much more local. And I’ll continue to compose and record new music till the day I leave this planet.”

Listen to Jai talk about his upcoming Kirtan Camp. Or, read one of my prior posts on the benefits of kirtan.

Covid 19 breathwork techniques

Covid 19 Breathwork Techniques

Covid 19 Breath Work Techniques for Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

ujjayi 3 part breathing

Ujjayi Breathing

Beset with chronic pain, I discovered the benefits of pranayama (breath work) as a teen. Today, pain free, I practice six different breath work techniques daily. Furthermore, as a yoga therapist, I routinely prescribe breath work tailored for my clients’ needs. Because of the current pandemic, most everyone should incorporate Covid 19 breathwork techniques. Here’s why, and what Covid 19 breathwork techniques you can do. 

A doctor in a Bergamo, Italy hospital referred to his Covid 19 intakes as “bilateral interstitial pneumonia.” My understanding is that interstitial pneumonia and fibrosis equate to a loss of elasticity in the lungs. Hence, the necessity of respirators and ventilators.  

Healthy lungs have elasticity, and should be exercised. However, we rarely stretch our lungs as we may stretch our hamstrings.  Furthermore, the diaphragm IS a muscle. While we don’t feel the diaphragm working as we may feel our quads, it stills needs a workout.  

Following are Covid 19 breath work techniques to exercise lungs and diaphragm. I recommend at least five to ten minutes, twice a day. For all the Covid 19 breathwork techniques described below, inhale and exhale through the nose.  Check out links below for more details. Or, contact me to sign up for private or small group 30-minute “Practice During a Pandemic” donation-based sessions that incorporate Covid 19 breathwork techniques.  

Ujjayi, aka Yogic, Three-part or Long Deep Breathing

Supported Fish yoga pose

Supported Fish

Traditionally, I try to engage Ujjayi, throughout my Hatha or Vinyasa practice. However, when focusing solely on Ujjayi, I sit cross legged. Or in child’s pose to feel the expansion and compression of the three parts (belly, upper abdomen and lungs). 

That said, as part of my Covid 19 breathwork techniques, I recommend lying on your back. A supine position provides more space for the diaphragm to descend and retract with each breath. Following are several supine options.

  1. Savasana.  Relax flat, no props. 
  2. Passive rest. Similar to above, but with knees bent and soles of the feet grounded. 
  3. Low supported fish. Place a rolled up towel horizontally under chest. 
  4. As an add-on, incorporate the following with for any of the first three poses. Place palms at the low belly. Make a diamond with your thumbs and index fingers surrounding your navel. Feel the hands rise with the “in” breath. With each exhalation, gently push the hands down to squeeze out the air.

Visualize the torso as an old ceramic decanter. With each inhalation, the vessel fills from the bottom up with water. With each exhalation, the liquid is “poured out,” top to bottom. In other words, deflate the chest, then upper abdomen, and low belly. 

While this is the most basic of yoga breathing techniques, it’s also the most important to get right. Tina Karagulian, a San Antonio-based Kundalini instructor, just posted a video tutorial for Long Deep Breathing.

Triangle, or Sama Vritti

Triangle or Sama Vritti pranayama

Triangle or Sama Vritti

Along with ujjayi, I often practice triangle breathing before bedtime. I find it calming. And calmness is a must, now. More importantly, Sama Vritti helps expand and contract the lungs beyond the norm. That’s why it’s one of my recommended Covid 19 breathwork techniques

I call this triangle breathing. Visualize an equilateral triangle. (Sama = equal). Each of the three components (inhale, retention and exhale) is of equal length or time. While ujjayi is good for everyone, neither retention nor suspension of breath is recommended for those with uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, or pregnant women. Adding the suspension is what creates Box or Square breathing. 

Dr. Loren Fishman is a physician and yoga therapist with decades of experience.  I recently attended a 90-minute Zoom session he led on Yoga and COVID-19: Possibilities and Problems.

Of the two Covid 19 breathwork techniques he reviewed, one was Sama Vritti. He recommended each of the three parts (inhale, retention and exhale) to last ten seconds. If that’s difficult, work your way up.   

Dr. Fishman notes multiple reasons to practice this. He says Sama Vritti helps considerably to generate peace and boost Prana (life energy). It strengthens the diaphragm and the muscles of respiration. Plus, it gives you more control.

“The point is to get control… Breath is sort of voluntary… you can control it. If you don’t, (i.e. when you fall asleep) you breathe anyway. It’s where the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems meet. In a sense, the mind and the body.”

25/25/25/25:100 aka Four to One or Segmented Breath 

Particularly good for people with respiratory issues, this is more frequently seen only in Kundalini classes. 

I refer to this as the 25 percent breath. Because you inhale just 25 percent of your lung capacity, four times. First 25 percent:  inhale and feel the chest expand a bit. Second 25 percent: repeat, filling the lungs more. Third 25 percent: fill almost to capacity. Fourth 25 percent: expand your breath beyond normal lung capacity. Next, release the breath with one long exhalation. 

I find Segmented Breath helps us to better gauge our lung capacity. And, recognize that we can always add a bit more. Like a balloon. Furthermore, there’s a very slight retention after each inhalation. When I practice it, I feel as if I’m giving my lungs a workout. 

Plus, to Dr. Fishman’s point, this breathing technique requires control. In fact, it’s said to help control the emotions as well. Another reason it’s part of my recommended Covid 19 breath work techniques.

Kapalbhati, Breath of Fire

kapalabhati ego eradicator breath of fire

Ego Eradicator Incorporating Kapalabhati

Note: Similar to the contraindications for Sama Vritti, only practice if your blood pressure is normal, you’re not pregnant, haven’t had recent internal surgeries, or have glaucoma. Additionally, since this boosts metabolism and digestion, don’t practice after eating.

If this is new to you, or if you have asthma or COPD, be sure to start this slowly, and take a deep breath whenever you need a rest. When I first began practicing this regularly, 15 years ago, I felt it was tough on my lungs. Now, it’s a cinch.  

Normally done in easy pose, with hands at the knees, I often prefer Ego Eradicator. This is basically a more challenging version of Breath of Fire by holding arms up, elbows straight, in a V.

Visuals of both, with complete descriptions are on my Yoga Rx page.

Or, visit Tina Karagulian’s video tutorial.

But basically, you force the air out of your lungs and belly with rapid exhalations through the nose. The inhalation should be an automatic reflex. You may want to imagine you’re being punched in the belly, with all the air being kicked out of you…through the nose. You may also want to imagine the beat of a drum. Consistent. Almost like a heartbeat. And time your exhalations to those imaginary beats.

Sing Along for Covid 19 Breathwork Techniques

Finally, don’t forget that singing or chanting is all about breath work. Moreover, your feel-good response kicks in when you chant.  What’s undeniable is that it’s a practice that cuts across all geographies, all religions, and all eras.

Beyond the joyous sensation that arises when you chant, studies confirm that singing is good for the lungs, especially vital lung capacity.

One study was among former smokers with Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COPD) in Brazil. “We have concluded that singing classes are a well tolerated activity for selected subjects with COPD. Regular practice of singing may improve QoL, and preserve the maximal expiratory pressure of these patients.

Bhakti House Band for chanting

Bhakti House Band

A 2016 review noted, “Qualitative data from studies of Singing for Lung Health (SLH) have been strongly positive…There has been a rapid spread of singing groups across the United Kingdom. SLH has the potential to have a positive impact on the lives of people with lung disease, improving health status and social participation.”

While you can sing or chant by yourself, the benefits are boosted when you’re with others. Following are a few of the virtual chant sessions I tune into as part of my Covid 19 breathwork techniques and chill time. 

Bhakti House Band meets every day at 9 a.m. CT via Facebook Live.

Snatum Kaur is at 10 a.m. CT, via Facebook Live. As she notes, it’s a “community gathering for a livestream healing meditation with me, and whoever in my family joins me, currently broadcasting from our kitchen.”

Finally, for a breath of virtual fresh air from Costa Rica, tune in to Deva Premal and Miten.  Via Facebook Live, their gathering is at 4 p.m. CT and you can hear the songs of the monkeys and lots of birds. 

connect via virtual sangrias during covid 19 shut ins

Virtual Sanghas Amid Shut-ins

 

World Bhakti with Sean Johnson now creating virtual sanghasSocial distancing and quarantines are no fun. Fortunately, virtual sanghas are forming to keep us sane.

For example, the other day, Gov. Cuomo mentioned an extremely heartfelt talk he had, virtually, with his daughter who was in self-isolation.

Without a doubt, technology is providing us with a welcomed doorway. A bridge to keep us connected. Uplift our energy and spirits in these trying times. For those missing their normal routine, now is an even more important time to soak up the wisdom, creativity and positivity of others. 

Moving in a pinch, all the lead presenters from the recent World Bhakti festival revved up ways to  get connected.  Opportunities for the homebound to connect with like minded people. What I call virtual sanghas

World Bhakti with Sean Johnson“I’m grateful for live interaction with my circle of support in challenging times,” says Sunshine Kessler Teran. She synchs to Bhakti House Band’s virtual sanghas. Plenty of others are finding solace tapping into the energy, spirit and talents of their favorite yogis or kirtan artists. Live. From their phone, tablet or laptop. Following are just post-World Bhakti offeringsi. (Details follow.) Because I was there. Felt the sangha form. And, recognize the doors to those virtual sanghas are wide open.

While I wasn’t a presenter, I’ve got sangha in mind. Aside connecting with other yogis in their virtual offerings, I revived my Yoga Book Club from San Antonio. Undeniably, this will be super simple. No need to buy or read anything in advance. Just tune in via Facebook Live Tuesdays, Thursdays and/or Sundays at 2 p.m. CT.   I’ll read a passage. Afterwards, folks chat about the meaning.

The first selection is from John Pavlovitz. “A Bigger Table.” Disenchanted with the Catholic Church, he ended up serving as a Methodist pastor for 20 years. His book addresses the need for spiritual communities, within our outside of places of worship.. 

Sean Johnson, Virtual Sanghas from New Orleans

Sean Johnson at World Bhakti Festival, Dallas

Last week, Sean Johnson launched virtual classes from his studios in New Orleans. “Here we go, entering uncharted territory together,” he said. “If yoga prepares us for anything, it’s for change, and we’re looking forward to supporting each other and seeking the gifts inside this challenging time together.” His next virtual class is Thursday March 26, while his instructors will lead asana and meditation sessions on other dayparts.

For those unfamiliar with Johnson, he’s a favorite among many yoga teachers. He performs, and teaches his unique style of Bhakti on the Mat, across the U.S.  For first timers, his classes may seem unusual. They may start with storytelling, Students sit close together on the floor around him. Not unlike kids huddled in a pre-school.

Like storytelling with the kiddos, Johnson isn’t reading bland words. He is a cross between a poet and an actor. Using animated gestures, vocal and facial expression, he incites the listener to join in with sound effects. Animal noises. Pounding the floor. Howling with scary animal or nature sounds. In essence, he pulls the kid out of the adult. Making his sessions not only fun, but memorable.

 

Considering that Johnson’s stories all connect to the ancient Scriptures, his ability to make those learnings relevant to modern day American city folk is remarkable.  

The son of a former nun, and father who was studying to be a Jesuit priest, he has an expansive vision of what’s holy. Johnson considers himself an educator that builds bridges between the physical and devotional aspects of yoga. Furthermore, he makes an effort to cross cultural and religious divides.

All the while, he expresses his New Orleans roots. Somehow, the Cajun spice mixes well with his reverence for the traditional mantras and vedas. He encapsulates the spirit and knowledge of the ancient sages through music that makes you want to rock and roll —and chant along. Regardless of whether it be via concerts, storytelling time or yoga classes.  Consistently.

Bhakti House Band’s Virtual Sanghas Radiate from Fort Worth

Bhakti House Band now with virtual sanghasAs soon as people started to tuck themselves into their homes, Bhakti House Band began daily FaceTime Live satsang (gathering of truth). Not only Monday through Friday. But every day. Good thing, as weekday and weekend is now blurred for many. 

Randall and Kristin Brooks of Bhakti House Band call their sessions Bhakti House Cafe. However, I call it chat and chant. 

First, beyond the virtual Bhakti satsang, what makes their sessions so beautiful is the simple lessons they teach. Yes, they share their knowledge of Sanskrit and mantras. But, they connect to every day living — and challenges. Especially those people face in this phase of quarantines and six-foot distancing. 

Second, each day is different in the virtual satsang. Nonetheless, they follow a routine that boosts self-discovery — and community. At 9 a.m. CT they elicit participants to share from their daily gratitude top three list. Close to 10 a.m. CT they chant a song from their latest double CD, “Roots to Revolutions.”  Called “Raise Your Words,” it’s become their anthem to “rise above” Coronavirus. The song blends words from a Rumi poem, with Sanskrit Universal Peace mantra.  After it winds down, they chant a verse from “Let it Be.”

“Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice. It’s the rain that grows the flowers, not the thunder.” ~Rumi 

Roots to Revolutions by Bhakti House BandAdditionally, Bhakti House Band is offering more intimate online classes and workshops Thursday evenings. Via Zoom, it enables them to delve deeper in discussions about the ancient learnings and modern day applications.

I first met Randall and Kristin about six years when they led 108 rounds of the Gayatri mantra in Houston. Now, they’re leading 108 rounds during their Saturday FaceTime Live satsang.

Over the years, I’ve chanted with Bhakti House Band in Houston, California and Madison, Wisconsin.  They are friends, mentors and spiritual guides. To top it off, they’re phenomenal musicians who stay true to their urban Texan roots. 

 

Roots to Revolutions. Indeed, they share their spiritual journey through relevant lyrics and heartfelt musical compositions.  Plus, their love for the yoga of sacred sound and conscious devotion. Over the last few decades, they have criss crossed the country –and beyond–to inspire humanity. To awaken hearts. To live with purpose. And experience a higher sense of freedom and connection with all life.  

While that sounds like a difficult feat, they’re successfully translating those desires to their virtual satsang

Virtual Sanghas for Kids, too, with Stefanie Tovar

Stefanie Tovar at World Bhakti Festival, Dallas

Stefanie is definitely the kind of person that you can tell likes to be in touch with people, person to person. She leads yoga and kirtan sessions to folks of all ages.  Sometimes, in Spanglish. Often times in outdoor public places. Plus, she leads retreats geared toward going within, regardless of where you’re at, spiritually. 

Moreover, The Dallas Observer recognized her kids’ initiative, Hanuman Homies, as The Best Underdog Nonprofit of 2019.

But, as of this week, she’s online. Daily. Most her offerings are on her two YouTube channels.

At the same time, she’s also connecting via Zoom and Instagram. Her new donation-based video classes range from Morning Mantra, to Practice in Your PJs. As part of Hanuman Homies, she leads mindfulness and yoga via shorter online sessions. 

While she recognizes that people need to keep up with sangha, any way they can, she says that this new work is also to helping her to stay connected and committed to her purpose. “I’m honored to be of service, in some way, to as many people as possible.”

Sangha Comes in Many Styles

Additionally, two of the World Bhakti organizers are getting ready to go virtual. Lavanga Latika will lead Sangha With Lavanga. Via Facebook Live, she’ll discuss the Bhagavad Gita. For those wanting a traditional yoga practice, Kirsten Burch will begin those soon. And, I’m offering private virtual Yoga Nidra, as I think it’s more important now for so many,.

Finally, a great way to tune in to the music of Sean Johnson, Bhakti House Band and Stefanie Tovar is through a World Bhakti playlist on Spotify. Tune in to the vibes of that festival, as you do your laundry, cook some healthy food, or drink some tea. 

 

WORLD BHAKTI Festival

World Bhakti Festival: DFW Embraces Strong Yoga Branch

 

Bhakti is big for me. Devotion, often expressed through group chanting, or kirtan, is my favorite of the yoga branches. So, my heart’s humming, knowing World Bhakti Festival is coming up. In Dallas. Feb. 28, 29 and March 1.

World Bhakti Festival is a yoga and wellness festival. However, it features Bhakti leading lights Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band from New Orleans, Stefanie Tovar from Dallas, and Fort Worth-based Bhakti House Band. Orchestrated by three dedicated yogis in Dallas, World Bhakti Festival honors one of the yoga paths that isn’t as ubiquitous as yoga and meditation.

The Past and Present of Bhakti Yoga

Some estimates point to nearly 50 million yoga practitioners in the U.S. Mostly yoga on the mat. However, Bhakti likely predates the ancient hatha postures. Without a doubt, Bhakti was practiced ions before the sun salutations. For example, Bhakti Yoga is described in the Bhagavad Gita, circa 300 BCE. What’s more, the Bhagavad Gita praises Bhakti as the highest form of yoga.

While the asana or meditative forms of yoga are powerful practices for the body and the mind, Bhakti goes right to the soul.  One can argue that heart-focused sincere practices are the seeds of spirituality, around the world, throughout the ages.    

Lavanga Latika, co-founder of World Bhakti Fest in Dallas

Lavanga Latika Devi Das, one of the three co-founders of World Bhakti Festival

For example, one of the World Bhakti Festival co-founders, and kirtan leader, Lavanga Latika Devi Dasi says, “Bhakti is inherent in traditions all over the world…in ALL religious/spiritual traditions.  It’s actually the string that holds them all together.  The heart of Bhakti is learning to see how we are actually more alike than different.” Latika, who was first exposed to Bhakti in 1985, notes, “When we sing in Kirtan, there is no us and them. Separation dissolves.  By awakening our relationship to the Divine, we can then see how we are all children coming from the same source.”

Not surprisingly, Bhakti has been gaining steam across the U.S. as there has been a rise in the spiritual but not religious population. Festivals from the west coast, to the east, and even in Mid-America are now attracting thousands. The Bhakti goers get something here that is amiss in most yoga studios or gyms. It feels good. Deep inside. 

The Texas Bhakti Explosion 

“Now it’s Dallas’ turn,” for a similar Bhakti explosion says Latika. In part, because Bhakti resonates with everyone. Just as everyone has a heartbeat, everyone can feel the connection with Bhakti.

“The time is right because Dallas is ready for the rest of yoga. Those who have been practicing asana for enough time are now hungry for more.  It’s a natural progression no matter why they started their asana practices,” she explains. 

Bhakti House Band to perform at World Bhakti Festival in Dallas

Bhakti House Band will lead Kirtan at World Bhakti Festival

The popularity of Fort Worth-based Bhakti House Band is proof. Husband and wife team, Randall and Kristin Brooks have been leading Kirtan for the two decades that they have been on their own Bhakti journey. 

Brooks says, “The DFW yoga communities, as a whole, may have started out being a little more cautious in adopting the practice of chanting, but resistance has been fading as people experience the peace of mind that comes with yoga and chanting mantra. Since Bhakti is all about powerfully committed devotion to the truth of who you really are, it can be expressed in so many different ways in order to reach the heart.”

“We are all trying to re-connect with our Spiritual Source,” adds Brooks.  “We call upon the many forms of that source…but there is only one Source.”

World Bhakti Festival in Dallas

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band

From New Orleans, Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band are featured musicians and presenters

Whether one is a longtime Bhakti practitioner like Latika and the Brooks, or a neophyte, World Bhakti Festival is a good fit for all. There’s a free fair featuring local vendors, healers and plant-based food and drinks. And, plenty of free traditional yoga and meditation classes and education workshops. On top of that, Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band will perform. Two nights in a row. Plus, Johnson and his band will lead a workshop for teachers on bringing Bhakti to the mat.

It’s a natural that Wild Lotus and Bhakti House share some of the spotlight. First, both bands share styles that range from funk to country to gospel/soul. Second, both are very high energy, and at the same time, introspective and soulful. Plus, the two bands routinely travel across the country with their Kirtan. From small intimate groups to mega-venues.

Stefanie Tovar, to present at World Bhakti Festival in Dallas

Stefanie Tovar will lead Kirtan at World Bhakti Festival in Dallas

In fact, Bhakti House Band and the Wild Lotus Band have performed together at Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California, Bhakti Fest Midwest, and Floyd Yoga Jam in Virginia.

“Sean and the band are a WONDERFUL way to further expose Dallas to Bhakti and chanting,” exudes Kristin Brooks. “Sean brings a very Southern, soulful vibe to his music. Texas culture is already filled with deep devotion—-it’s simply finding the entry point into the Texas heart–and anything with a little bit of that gospel vibe seems to do the trick. He’s truly an authentic and generous soul on top of his inspiring energy and quality musicianship.”

The Wild Lotus Band, beyond yoga crowds, routinely performs at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.  According to Latika, Sean Johnson was a perfect fit. Many in the community have already been inspired by him she said.

Stefanie Tovar, a Dallasite who has been a presenter at the Sedona Yoga Festival, acknowledges that Johnson “lit the fire in her heart for Bhakti.” Tovar will lead Kirtan on Friday immediately prior to Johnson taking the stage.

Sharing the Love and Devotion

kirstenjoyyogaworldbhakti

Kirsten Joy Burch, one of the co-founders of World Bhakti Festival

Kirsten Joy Burch is another World Bhakti Festival co-founder who will lead tantra yoga and meditation at the festival. She summarizes why she and the others created this event.

“Bhakti blurs the lines of separation and brings the world together through song. The energy of community devotion and song can be healing and nourishing to those suffering grief, loss, and emotional pain.”

A portion of World Bhakti Festival proceeds will benefit The Widows Journey. The non-profit helps women navigate emotional, mental, physical, legal, and technical obstacles after the loss of a spouse.

Burch, herself, recalls experiencing “involuntary reorganization of my home, career, worldview and lifestyle state losing both my father and husband to cancer.” The Bhakti Yoga practice helped her on her path to recovery. “It is my hope and intention to help other widows find their path to recovery, in whatever means fits them.”

Register online for concerts, workshop or the entire weekend.

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

An American Swami: And My Journey to His Home

temple deities in India

There may be a thousand people crammed in a large temple hall. If this were the U.S., it would likely be against fire code. But we are in Mumbai, India. With 26,000 people per square kilometer. This is an oasis of spirituality. A temple filled with love, gratitude, and flowers. A golden altar houses glorious deities, whose dressings and adornments change, daily. Lavish paintings and tapestries line the walls and ceilings. Many correlate to passages in the ancient scriptures. Gold-plated carvings, as intricate as the Italian renaissance palaces, grace the room. All eyes turn to the swami. An American Swami.

An Oasis of Peace and Love Built by an American Swami

ceiling at ISKCON Chowpatty Mumbai temple

This is a Krishna temple, filled with Indian men. Most are dressed in white. There are some tangerine-robed brahmacharyas. Every now and then, you spot someone in Western dress. One middle-aged gentleman sports an H&M bag. 

Despite the many men here, this is definitely a safe place for women of all ages. From grannies to toddlers. Most wear saris. To a lesser extent, younger women wear traditional long dress shirts over baggy pants, or leggings. The salwar kameez.

Radhanath Swami, an American swami in India

Three video cameras point at the American Swami. When he enters, many prostrate themselves in front of him as a sign of respect. Obeisances. The humble swami begins with Sanskrit chants. Then, he gives a lecture on the “Srimad Bhagavatan,” in the lingua franca of English. He drops in Sanskrit words frequently. But, his English reflects his American mid-western roots. The packed room of devotees applauds the swami generously when he’s done.  

It’s a bit incongruous.

At first glance, the man in charge here appears to be an Indian man, in his element. Indeed, he’s in his element. But, he hails from the suburbs of Chicago (like me). Furthermore, the American Swami is of Jewish ancestry (as am I). Thousands of devotees lovingly call this man Radhanath Swami.

Not unlike many of his Vietnam-war generation, he was disenchanted. At age 18, he hitchhiked throughout Europe and Asia. With little more than a harmonica in his pocket. His mission: find truth. Destination: India. He met many a guru before he found the real deal. Srila Prabhupada. That was almost 50 years ago. Now, Radhanath Swami is the sharer of truth. He has written a best-selling book, turned into a screenplay. More importantly, the American Swami has made an indelible mark in India. In the spiritual community and beyond.  

The American Swami’s Wide Reaching Charitable Endeavors

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

This American Swami fostered a long list of charitable initiatives. There’s the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Vrindavan. Sandipani Muni school for 1,500 underprivileged girls in Vrindavan. Mobile eye and dental clinics. Plus, a program serving 1.3 million lunches a day in India. Additionally, he established an award winning eco-village. That initiative includes a rural women’s empowerment program, and systems to boost agricultural outcomes for 900 previously near-starving farmers. 

Today, in Mumbai, however, the attention is all focused on the beauty of the temple adorned in flowers of all different hues. In the morning, women sit on the floor in a large room. They form small group surrounding baskets. We pluck petals off the flowers.  One group is working on marigold-colored flowers. Another, crimson. Others, garden-fresh white blossoms. In my group, I am the only foreigner. We are young, and old. Of diverse socio-economic strata. We have many different mother tongues (there are 22 “constitutional” languages in India).

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

In the main sanctuary, there is more diversity. The room is about the size of a basketball court, including the sidelines. Here, are the men. Children and some women, too. All are one. All focus on the same repetitive task. Plucking petals. Periodically, a few men with tilak on their foreheads bring out bushels of new, intact, flowers, and they pick up the color-separated baskets of soft feathery petals.

The plucking, in itself, is a bit of a meditation. But, the reason behind this is not revealed until Radhanath Swami returns to his microphone in the evening. In the meantime, we all dutifully perform the petal plucking. 

Our senses are satiated. We are surrounded by the sweet aroma of the flowers. The touch of the soft petals, and sturdier stems, against our fingers. And, a radiant array of colors surrounds us.   In all, more than 2,300 pounds of flowers. Marigolds. Chrysanthemums. Roses from Vrindavan. Jasmines from Coimbatore.

A Ton of Flowers in a Sanctuary

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

This is the Mumbai Flower Festival. Also the brainchild of the American-born swami.

In the evening ceremony, devotees squeeze into the sanctuary. We line up at least an hour in advance to get prime spots on the floor, eye to eye with Radhanath Swami. Everyone sits knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder. We are the lucky ones. The overflow watches from a large screen in the patio, below. Around the world, others tune in on a live stream.

The evening includes chanting led by Radhanath Swami. Behind me, are recording artists Gaura Vani and Jahnavi Harrison. They provide beautiful subtle background instrumentation and vocals.  Periodically, we all join in the chanting.  

Then, it’s time for the reveal. What, in fact, are we all doing here?

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

Radhanath Swami explains that we, humans, are like the flowers. All different colors.  Some from Mumbai. Others from Southern India. Still others, from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We are different sizes, scents, and senses.  Alone, or with our own, we are beautiful. But, when we are all together, mixed like potpourri, it’s an amazing sight. And feeling. Incredible touch on our hair…arms…clothing. There is, perhaps, nothing more beautiful than this. Unity in diversity. Beauty in diversity. Power in diversity. 

A Sea of Multi-colored Petals — The American Swami’s Analogy for Beauty in Diversity

At this point, from the altar, men overturn the individual oversized baskets of petals onto the deities. First, they are bathed in white petals. Then, yellow petals. Next, purple. One color, after another, we see the layers floating on top of the deities. After about two or three dozen huge baskets of uni-colored petals raining onto the deities, we see a slight meshing of colors. Subtle dark red peaking through the oranges. Flecks of white or yellow, underneath or between.

The crowd is in ecstasy. But, the high point is yet to come. 

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

Soon, we see a confetti of multi-colored petals. The deities themselves are completely hidden by all the beautiful colored flower parts. Petals form mountains atop the deities. Mountains keep growing, like layers of snow. A landslide is pending. There are so many layers upon layers of different colored flowers. Gold upon orange. Scarlet upon vermillion.  Color-less among the vivid. 

When there are no more petals to pour onto the Mount Everest looking deities, the fun begins. Think Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. Petals. Not beads. Devotion and spirituality. Not spirits.   

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

The mounds of delicate flowers are strewn upon the gazers. We are covered with orange. Pink. White. So many beautiful colors. All together. The confetti of petals. The diversity of our world. Of individuals. When all the petals make their way into the central area, atop the hundreds of fellow worshipers, all become kids. Spry folks bend down and scoop up the piles of petals by our feet. We let the petals fall like rain on those around us. Friends toss handfuls on each others’ heads. Or lightly spray their faces with the multi-colored blessed petals.

“The flower festival is like being on drugs in the 60s. But you’re not,” says Gaura Vani, the musician. In fact, Gaura Vani left the Hollywood scene to re-dedicate his life to Radhanath Swami and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.

The Petals Remain with us Forever

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

Five months later, Mark, who works in the financial industry in Chicago, says the petals are still with him. “The pockets of my kurta have an unlimited supply of potpourri. It’s magical.” Lauren, a comedian living in Los Angeles, too, carries the remnants with her nearly half a year later. “Just found ANOTHER flower petal from Mumbai in my purse,” she notes with a laugh.

Just as Mardi Gras may be unforgettable to many, the Mumbai Flower Festival, concepted by a Jewish-turned-Vaishnava man who threw away his blue jeans in favor of an orange robe, is like nothing else. We are all in a state of light-headedness. Bliss. Devotion. Awe. Despite our countries of origin, race, religion, we are flying high. Equal. Respecting one another. And, as is the norm for followers of the ISKCON traditions, drug- and alcohol-free.         

India is a land of spirituality. Siddharta Gautama, the buddha, left India for Asia where he was (and is) considered a Supreme Being. Likewise, many yogis left India to create large followings in the West. Srila Prabhupada, left India, with only a few dollars in his pocket, and created an enormous legacy for spirituality, around the world. But, sometimes it needs a boon in the west to gain more momentum in the homeland. Srila Prabhupada’s work in other lands has only strengthened the following in India. Likewise, it took a kid from Chicago to bring back, replant and nourish the 5000-year-old learnings from India. 

And, thanks to modern-day technology, everyone can connect in the learnings and experiences.

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.

candramauli swami of ISKCON Prison Ministry

Men in Orange #8: ISKCON Prison Ministry

Candramauli Swami is one of the Men in Orange who sat with us at our wall-free classrooms in India. He has been wearing his orange robe for five decades. However, he spends much time with men that some of us picture wearing black and white stripes. Five decades ago he became a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada. The founder of ISKCON, Prabhupada first approached incarcerated populations in Delhi in 1962, not long before he came to America to bring spirituality West. His teachings led to the creation of the ISKCON Prison Ministry, established more than 30 years ago.

Candramauli Swami currently leads that endeavor, and has authored two books about spirituality and the incarcerated. The “Holy Jail” redacts activities of the ISKCON Prison Ministry that has changed the lives of hundreds of inmates. His second book is called “Forbidden Voices.”  

Originally from New Jersey, he spends most of his time based out of an ashram in Chicago. Nonetheless, he travels frequently to share his wisdom. Our stars aligned. He was at both the Mumbai Flower Festival and later Govardhan Eco Village while my group was there. The following summarizes his pre-kirtan discussion with our group.

What About Me?

From 1986-1991 Candramauli Swami visited directly with people in prisons. Later, he began letter writing outreach. Today, he does both. “Prabhupada wanted this kind of preaching. We have good success.” As part of the ISKCON prison ministry, one former inmate joined the Chicago temple and writes a newsletter for the incarcerated. 

Candramauli Swami of Iskcon Prison Ministry
Candramauli Swami leads kirtan at Govardhan Eco Village

The ISKCON prison ministry program is a wonderful way to reach the hearts of people that are considered persona non grata, explains Candramauli Swami. The inmates can start to relate to other people more. ISKCON prison ministry transforms them inside and outside. 

Matter changes. It begins, develops, deteriorates and vanishes. Likewise, this body will begin and end. What is the heart? It’s a machine. It’s just an organ. The brain is simply a machine.

But WE (our souls) are eternal. The soul (you) is in the heart region. We naturally want to feed that soul. On the spiritual plane, every thing is perfect.  Yet, we spend practically all of our time doing things that are related to body. But what about me (my soul)?. When we focus on the material, we are surrounded by temporality. 

If you take all the parts of the body and put them together, do you have a life? There’s something else that gives animation to the body. That’s you. The soul.

So what is the answer? Spirituality.  As we connect with God, we connect with ourselves. 

Spiritual activity is reality. Peace in spiritual life is always growing.  Spirituality only gets more and more brilliant when you feed it. For example, the closer you get to fire the more you feel the heat.

Spiritual Life is Life. 

Participants chant with Candramauli Swami at Govardhan Eco Village

Material life is what we do in this life to fulfill our desires. Our relationship with God is our relationship with everything. Everything is connected to the source. Everything is connected to God. 

Consider the tale of a man in search of a buried treasure. He never finds it. Once he dies, he’s buried. And guess what? When they dig his grave, they find the treasure. That is an analogy for the concept that happiness is in your soul. It’s always part of you. Just buried sometimes. However, oftentimes, spiritual life can awaken you.

Or, consider your dreams. Who is seeing, and who is being seen?  Who’s real?  The one watching is the soul. Even in our wakened state we are seeing ourselves.

We need to turn things around. Educate that which comes from within. At the Universities we don’t get an education. We get a coat of paint. God is like the stomach. When you feed it, it expands. The soul knows everything. Past, present and future. The soul experiences no unhappiness. 

As we connect with sound, it awakens this happiness. The most powerful form of energy in this world is sound. Sound can create, destroy, transform. 

ISKCON Prison Ministry Feeds the Soul.

Sound vibrations are so powerful. The ear never stops acting. It is always alert to sounds, and our bodies feel vibrations.

Most of us recognize music as the language of the heart. It brings us happiness.

By chanting, you’re feeding your soul.  Chanting leads to a deep sense of peace. From that peace comes happines.  That joy is not something you can manufacture. It all starts from sound. 

Trying to understand through logic and reason falls short. You must feel it. Experience it. Then, you’ll believe it.

Move On. Karma is the Past.

Close up of ISKCON Mumbai temple carvings adorned with flowers

Some people think they have bad karma. Karma is very difficult. Some children may show signs of superb intelligence. Like a Beethoven. That, too, you can say is karma. Karma is not just the bad. Karma is simply our past histories. The soul is carrying karma from previous lives. No one is born with a clean slate. No one is perfect. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Regardless, you can improve your standing. That’s one of the intangible benefits of the ISKCON prison ministry program.

For those incarcerated, they have a heavy burden, and slimmer futures that most of us. Yet, we all experience periods of unhappiness. We we can’t stay in that state of consciousness. We have to move on. When you’re connected on a spiritual level, you move on. When we live our life around God, when we lose something from the material world, we move on. 

Give your love and emotions to God and you’ll always feel positive. He’ll reciprocate. 

We are all coming from the spiritual world. Some have chosen to leave God, and enjoy their days separately from God. God doesn’t interfere with your independence, or your choices. 

You can’t force someone to love you. If so, it’s not really love. Love is voluntary. Same with love for God.

Finally, time is conspicuous by its absence. Anything that’s born is under the influence of time. But in the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Just present. We think in terms of future and past. Learn from the past. Live in the future. However, everything exists now.

More Men in Orange

Read the other installments of Travels in India with Men in Orange, featuring learnings from Radhanath Swami, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda Das.

Photo of Srila Prabupadha in Vrindavan

Men in Orange #7. Radhanath Swami Speaks about Vrindavan

One of the many reasons why I chose to travel to India, earlier this year, was to visit the holiest of places. Vrindavan was top of the list, and my group stayed in Vrindavan for four nights. Throughout our journeys, we were accompanied by two men in orange, about whom I previously published six articles

Both these two Mumbai-based monks, as well as the two Chicago-based women who coordinated our tour, are disciples of Radhanath Swami. Coincidentally, Radhanath Swami was born and raised Jewish, in Chicago, as was I.  I’d heard this best-selling author and founder of numerous mega-charitable initiatives speak many times during his travels to the U.S. This trip was different. We were on his turf. My small group was graced to have an intimate get-together with him in his Mumbai office. Later that day, we were among the lucky ones granted entrance into his jam-packed temple for an incredible Flower Festival. 

A week later, we heard him speak to visitors at his award-winning Govardhan Eco-Village, located several hours north of Mumbai. At one of those open-air sessions, as we sat upon cow dung “flooring,” he spoke about the importance of visiting Vrindavan.  The following is a synthesis of his remarks. (Note: Radhanath Swami will give a rare public lecture in Chicago April 27, from 6-8 p.m. at Harris Hall in Evanston.)

Vrindavan is the world capital of bhakti (devotion/divine love).

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, there are references to devotion.  Krishna says, “as one approaches me, with the sincerity of one’s motivations, that’s how the lord will respond.”  Other interpretations are, “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.” Or, “In whatever way a devotee approaches him, he accepts them, for men approach him from all directions (4.11).

If you look at the history, such as England and India, “control,” is not positive.  When we are subordinated, we are controlled. Subordinate means losing. It’s a negative word. Yet in the spiritual world, it’s most beautiful to be subordinate to God’s heart. That is the highest liberation. The ultimate liberation. To love is to serve selflessly. Without arrogance.  

All of the great spiritual enlightened people have taught us that we must experience happiness in our heart. Real wisdom is to see the hand of God and to be grateful, as a grateful heart can recognize the blessings in everything. Gratitude is one of the most essential virtues for real inner prosperity and happiness because it can connect us to the Divine.

In the science of divine love, there is union and separation. That is magnified in Vrindavan. Here, the bhava or the feeling of prema or love between the Lord and His devotees is always increasing through union and separation.  Actually, the Lord never leaves Vrindavan, neither does He leave our hearts.

Vrindavan is a holy pilgrimage site

It’s important to be in a holy place of pilgrimage. Vrindavan has always been a primary aspiration for Vaishnavas seeking a spiritual pilgrimage. 

Why do all the spiritual paths recommend pilgrimages?  During a pilgrimage, one puts everything else on hold. It’s a time when we can invest — spiritually. Whatever benefits we get are forever there in our hearts. Going to a place of pilgrimage is so important. It’s a time in our lives to just seek our spiritual goal. 

We take for granted all the miracles all around us, such as the light from the sun. Vrindavan is not only an incredible place from the spiritual aspect, but also from a place of history. Vrindavan was Krishna’s playground. The sites for his lila

At a holy place, there is eternal love and beauty.  When we speak of spiritual energy, it’s never lost. The blessings of a spiritual energy you never lose. If you’re tuned into the spiritual channel it’s very clear. Without that energy, it’s static. If we go to a holy place, we can be spiritually transformed. We pray together. Chant together. That association (sangha) is very important.

The power of grace in Vrindavan

Radhanath Swami at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

The power of grace in Vrindavan

artwork by Vrindavan schoolchildren

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

Losing focus on the material  in Vrindavan  

deities in Vrindavan, India

The word Krishna means magnet, and all attractive. In our real world, everyone seems to be looking for pleasure and trying to avoid suffering and pain. Have you ever seen anyone that didn’t want to be satisfied? Some seek satisfaction through clothing. Others, with music. There are many different material ways that people seek satisfaction. But these are temporary.  

The most obvious things, we don’t recognize because we’re distracted.  Petty things. All the little things like fish in our lives could elate us. The big fish is the higher purpose of life. When leaders are consumed with all these petty things that never bring satisfaction to the heart. 

In the scriptures Krishna says “I am the primary manifestation of nature.” Krishna controls time and teaches us to remember him in eternal forms such as the sun and the moon. In reality, everything is eternal. Which is summed up when Krishna says “I am.” 

Human beings are not meant to be like computers that store data. We are not infallible memory chips. Theoretical knowledge has no true value, unless it brings realization. The purpose of knowledge is to bring wisdom. 

Nothing is material. Rather, the energy of the supreme. Just as a shadow is the absence of sun, we recognize there is a sun that causes the shadow. Likewise, to focus on the material is to forget god’s spiritual energy. We can turn that around through seva. That “selfless service” is about being in harmony with with the supreme by focusing our efforts away from ourselves or the material. That leads us to karuna, or compassion. To really care about others. Make sacrifices for others. 

Each and every one of us is limitlessly beautiful because each one of us is reflecting the dignity of our creator. We are all emanating from that same sun. Unity in diversity.