Category Archives: Kirtan & Bhakti

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti Fest

Benefits of Bhakti: Chanting and Singing Feels Good

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Music is a part of my life. I play no instruments. I’m not a trained musician. But, music is in my heart, and in every cell of my body. That’s why chanting (bhakti yoga or kirtan) is one of the most important aspects of yoga for me. Yes, chanting is yoga. As is dancing. 

When I was a kid, I felt something special when I would sing with my sister. After seeing “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins,” some of the songs were on automatic replay in my head. I couldn’t stop singing. Now, it’s the same way. But it’s mantras that keep circulating through my heart and my mind. I try to share that appreciation with my students. In classes, even if I’m playing Mary J. Blige or Stephen Marley, I’ll intersperse a rhythmic mantra.  

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Once or twice a year, I go to kirtan festivals. Recently, I was in California for Bhakti Fest. The following weekend I went to North Carolina for Sadhu Sanga. Both were gatherings of several thousand bhaktas. People, like me, that have been touched by the power of sankirtana (group chanting).

One of the most beautiful things about Bhakti Fest and Sadhu Sanga is the energy. Beyond the beautiful sounds and rhythms, there is a special atmosphere. Bliss. Devotion. Whatever you want to call it. That’s what bhakti is all about. In fact, one of the translations for bhakti is devotion. When you practice san kirtan that special feeling is magnified a thousand times.

Kirtan Fest Houston

Kirtan Fest HoustonNow, there’s a kirtan festival in Texas.  Labor Day weekend. September 2 to September 4.  The venue is the most beautiful ISKCON temple.

Kirtan Fest Houston brings together kirtan artists who travel around the world. Karnamrita Das is one. I’ve sung with her in California. Amala Kirtan Das is a Brazilian-born musician with whom I’ve chanted several times in Austin. In addition to many others leading the group chanting will be San Antonio’s Advaita Acharya Das. He’s my personal conductor. He’s moved my life in many ways. Not just getting me to dance or sing, but to make a difference in my life. To live the principles of yoga.

This is your chance to feel the power of group chanting without leaving the big state of Texas. In fact, Advaita is coordinating caravans to get to and from Houston. 

Kirtan Fest HoustonAdvaita quotes the scriptures to explain the value of chanting. 

“Compared to that person who is attached to chanting japa (beads), the person who performs loud chanting of the holy name of Sri Hari is one hundred times better. This is because the person who chants japa purifies himself, whereas the person who chants the holy name loudly in kirtana purifies himself, all those who are with him, and everyone else who hear the holy vibration.”

Quoting the scriptures, he adds, “The animals, birds, and insects cannot chant the holy name, but by hearing the holy name chanted they can benefit. Chanting the japa of the holy name of Krishna purifies oneself, but the loud sankirtana of the holy name of Krishna benefits all living beings. Therefore, loudly chant the holy name of Krishna in kirtana, and you will get one hundred times the benefit of chanting japa. This is the verdict of all the sastras.”

Advaita’s Tips for First Time Chanting

1) Get as close to the kirtan circle as possible. Imagine fire. The closer you are, the more wholesome is the experience.
2) Don’t burn yourself.  Respect the fire. Respect kirtan sound and you will be able to feel something without touching it, and see something with your eyes closed.
3) Don’t come to kirtan tired. Don’t over eat, or eat not enough. 
4) Remember your body is a temple. Focus on PPP:  Posture. Pronunciation. Presence.

It Feels Good

Girish is one of the frequent Bhakti Fest musicians. At this year’s Shakti Fest I attended one of his workshops. Kind of like Singing 101.  

“Every one of us is born to sing,” he said. “Each and every one of our bodies is a unique musical instrument. Are we a cello, or are we a flute, or trombone in this symphony of life?”

Girish pointed to research that validates what I learned as a young kid. Singing feels good.

Chanting is Good for you“It’s scientifically proven that singing is really really good for us. Singers have lower cortisol levels, by about 15 percent. It activates the parasympathetic system. It lowers our blood pressure and calms our mind.”

And, especially when we do so with groups of people (sankirtana). Think about singing at places of worship, or jamming with your friends or family. What’s more, Girish says when you sing in sanga (community of likeminded people), “Our heart beats and brain waves sync up.”

Girish said that freeing the voice is freeing the person. Moreover, “Our voice is a bridge between the inner world and the outer world. Singing and chanting is the best way to bring that forth. It’s not about having an amazing voice. I myself identify as a drummer who sings. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries.”

Girish’s Tips for Singing

  1. Find your key. The majority of women are most comfortable in the key of A. On the other hand, men usually prefer C. 
  2. Relax the jaw, tongue and throat. Try a few lion’s breaths before you start to sing. 
  3. The dan tien (a few fingers below the belly) is the root of the voice. In Daoist practices this spot is special. It’s where energy brews. A sea of qi (prana). Similar to with yogic breathing, expand the flower pot, beginning here.

Girish told us that the word voice is related to the word invocation. Both come from the Latin  voxdictionary.com defines invocation as the act of invoking or calling upon a deity, spirit, etc., for aid, protection, inspiration, or the like; supplication. Another definition is a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, especially one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony. So, that can be interpreted as chanting is a form of invoking that connects one with a higher spirit. 

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti FestGirish first explored devotional singing when he was in college. There,  he found Kundalini yoga. Then, he deepened his chanting practice when he lived as a monk for five years. He studied Sanskrit and translated many mantras.   Translations are hard, especially from Sanskrit, because there are so many interpretations. About “Om Nama Shivaya,” one of my  ingrained mantras, he makes it simple.  “I honor the inner Self. Shiva. The light of consciousness within me.”

Similarly, Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda are popular singing yogis at Bhakti Fest. 

Jaya Lakshmi acknowledged that Kundalini yoga was the gateway for her devotion. Not surprising, since mantra meditation is very much a part of the Kundalini tradition. Additionally, she said “mantras have such potency.”

Ananda’s Tips for Mantras

“The best mantra to practice is the one you are going to practice. You have to find the joy in it. For me, the Lakshmi mantra is the one I go to. We go through different phases. Whatever makes you a better person. The way is your intuition…your heart.”

One of my favorite recordings of Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda is “Divine Lover’s Maha Mantra.” The maha mantra is widely celebrated. It’s always the grand finale at Bhakti Fest and is the mainstay at Sadhu Sanga and the upcoming festival in Houston. Advaita leads it throughout San Antonio, and beyond. He explains that “maha means great… great mantra for upliftment and restoration of our original loving nature that will swell in your heart more and more, the more you chant.”

 

International Day of Yoga 2017

International Day of Yoga 2017 — Many Days, Not One

International Day of Yoga 2017 India 

International-Yoga-Day-CelebrationA few years ago, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made an appeal at the United Nations. As a result, 177 United Nations member states assigned June 21 as a day to recognize the benefits of yoga. International Day of Yoga 2017 will be celebrated around the world. Now, tens of thousands convene for mass meditations and sun salutations. 

For International Day of Yoga 2017, India’s Prime Minister, senior officials and yoga gurus are expected to lead more than 50,000 people in Lucknow, India.  Nearly a dozen events will take place in Delhi. One, in Red Fort, can accommodate 50,000.  In Southern India, venues even include a women’s correctional facility. 

Prime Minister Modi is a man who respects the ancient traditions, while moving forward. In a Facebook video he posted this week, he talked about the benefits of yoga on society.  “People want to live a happy life, and this can be possible only through yoga.” Yoga can make it possible for a person to have a balanced lifestyle mentally and physically, he explained. “Yoga can arouse the inner conscience of a person.”

International Day of Yoga 2017 New York

swami-sivanandaWhile cities around the world honor this day with special public yoga and meditation practices, the UN will host two days of activities. The Indian Mission to the United Nations is responsible for the impressive lineup June 20 and 21.

Among the yogis are California-based Seane Corn, Sharon Gannon of New York City’s Jivamukti Yoga and Gurmukh, who popularized Kundalini Yoga in Los Angeles.  Also on the lineup is Swami Sivadasananda, a senior teacher of Sivananda Yoga (my yoga roots). His session, expected to attract 1,500 participants, will be televised in India.

Other guests are spiritual leaders from India. President of Divine Shakti Foundation, Sadhvi Bhagawatiji, and H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, who runs an ashram, both reside in Rishikesh. 

Additionally, there will be discussion on Yoga and Health with World Health Organization officials, Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D and others. Finally, there will be pranayama, meditation and chanting. Grammy nominated Jai Uttal will lead thousands with his eclectic world rhythms.  

Shout it Out: The Yoga of Chanting

Jai Uttal to lead kirtan at International Day of Yoga 2017

Jai humbly, said, “Finally, after well over 5,000 years, yoga has made it into the modern calendar. International Day of Yoga is a celebration of the dedication and commitment of countless seekers, from time immemorial, who have discovered and then shared the path of healing and realization that is yoga. Starting in the West as a fad, the many styles and forms of yoga (and there ARE many) have become a healing balm to our hearts and souls in these troubled times. I bow in gratitude to the United Nations for acknowledging this ancient and sacred wisdom.”

The event coincides with Jai’s tour promoting his 19th album Roots! Rock! Rama! Named for Bob Marley’s “Roots Rock Reggae,” Jai’s three Rs celebrate Rama (God), reggae and classic Indian ragas. As an extension of his new double CD, Jai released a single, “H.E.L.P.” for International Day of Yoga. 

“We hear all the translations and interpretations of the mantras. But to me,” Jai said, “they’re all saying ‘Help!’ You know? Like, ‘God, help me. I cannot take the next step without your help.’”

California-based Jai returns to New York where he was raised.  His father was influential in the music industry in the 50s and 60s. So,  Jai picked up an  appreciation for the Beatles, Marley and other rock luminaries. Then, in the 70s he studied traditional Indian music. In India, he began his bhakti (devotional) yoga practice. As such, kirtan became the center of Jai’s musical and spiritual life. 

International Day of Yoga 2017 in Texas 

downward facing dog with The Namaste Counsel

Multiple Texas events will honor this day. Following, are just a few.

  • San Antonio:

International Day of Yoga 2017 at Tripoint Event Center. A free family-friendly festival runs alongside a CME-accredited conference for health practitioners. 

  • Austin:

The Indian Consulate is hosting a celebration June 17 at the State Capitol.

  • Greater Houston:  

June 24, the Hindu Temple of Woodlands will be at Town Green Park leading bhajans (songs), meditation and hatha yoga.

  • Dallas/Fort Worth: 

The official International Day of Yoga 2017 event is June 25 at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Plaza in Irving. Yoga mats will be provided, and breakfast served.

Bhakti Fest 2015

Boost Your Bhakti at Shakti Fest

Yoga is everywhere in the United States. You can even buy your blocks and mat at any big box store.

But the yoga that is so prevalent tends to be the physical component.  In fact, yoga is eight-limbed. Some of those branches may seem a bit obscure. Others, out of reach. However, it’s easy climbing. Especially if there’s a spotlight on them. Add in mega-stages and throngs of people loving their spirituality and you’re on your way. That’s Bhakti Fest.

Bhakti and Shakti Fest

puja ceremony at Bhakti FestThe guy who brought Swami Satchidananda to Woodstock created Bhakti Fest, and its sister, Shakti Fest. 

Shakti (divine energy) Fest is just around the corner.  Set for May 12-14, I booked my airfare last month. The next Bhakti (devotion) is in September. Both have a similar vibe to what I can only imagine was at Woodstock. But, on a much smaller scale. And, following yoga tenets: no drugs, alcohol or meat. As a result, people from all over head to Joshua Tree, California, for these festivals. I’ve made it a priority for many years.  It’s my fix. It’s powerful professional development. And, permanent personal development.

The festivals are rooted in yoga, Kirtan, and meditation. If you’re not familiar what Kirtan (or Bhakti), read more on my blog

Bhakti and Shakti Fest mesh traditional and non-traditional spiritual practices.  They are a smorgasbord for the yogi. I gorge myself on the music, chanting, and Bhakti yoga practices. Oftentimes, sleeping just a few hours under the desert stars. Unlike an all-you-can-eat buffet, you have to make hard choices. Siva Rea or Mas Vidal? Hemalayaa or Michael Brian Baker? Kia Miller, aerial yoga or the Hanuman Chalisa? There are three concurrent yoga sessions (many with live music). Additionally, there are two stages for devotional music.  Then, there are five workshop areas including a Family Village, a Men’s Lodge and a Women’s Dome. Plus, aquatic yoga, and holistic health practitioners offering massages and more. For those needing to chill, soak up healing sound baths every evening.  

Donna de Lory headlines on Friday. For many years, this spiritual vocalist toured with Madonna. Jai Uttal performs in prime time Saturday. Jai’s latest CD is both Beatles- and Brazilian-inspired. Closing out the night is Joss Jaffe about whom I’ve written in the past. Others include Sheela Bringi, Girish, Sirgun Kaur, Prajna Vieira, Johanna Beekman and Saul David Raye. 

As stated before, these festivals delve into the lesser frequented limbs of yoga. First, there are experts in Vedic astrology and Ayurveda.  Other workshops cover Sanskrit and the deities. Plus, advanced meditation and breath work techniques abound. Finally, for many of the guest speakers, instructors or musicians, the branches intertwine.

From Mantra Meditation to Kirtronica

Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda at Shakti FestFor example Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda are leading three 90-minute yoga sessions. On closing day, they perform on the main stage.  Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda are seeped into meditative Kundalini mantras. Nonetheless, they can switch gear into Kirtronica — Kirtan meets Electronica. As such, their workshops aren’t about a child’s pose or Sun Salutation. The Oregon-based yogi/musicians, with 12 CDs, inspire via waves of movement, breath work and sound.

Ananda Yogiji explains, “My own yoga practice has been heavily influenced by the teaching of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan.  In this practice, there is a quite a fusion of asanas with mantra meditation, bhakti, breath work and more.  In fact, Yogi Bhajan taught kriyas, which oftentimes are a combination of all those things. Almost always the breath is linked with movement and also mantra.” 

“The Bhakti portion really is about your own cultivation for the love of the divine,” he says. “I include that in my practice by singing, bowing to a deity, altar, the omnipresent God without form or simply to my own soul.  I also love making offerings at my altar such as incense, flowers and fruit.  There are so many ways to include these practices not only into your yoga practice but also in your day to day life. Ultimately, Shakti and Bhakti Fest are a super recharge to my devotional practices.  And they just get better and better each year.” 

Deep Dive with Govind Das and Radha

Govind Das and RadhaGovind Das and Radha are another married couple that blend music with mantras and movement. Their music, Bhakti yoga and intensives have made a mark on me. They are the featured band on closing night. Plus, they are offering three yoga sessions infused with their live music. Additionally, Govind Das hosts a men’s workshop and the couple is holding a post-intensive, May 15. The latter includes dialogue, journaling, dharma talks, a silent meditative desert walk, teachings from the great masters, and the philosophy of Kirtan. And, always in their, plenty of music, mantras and heart-opening hatha flow. 

Govind Das says, their intensive is “grounded in a rich and mellow devotional mood of gratitude, compassion, peace, and spiritual upliftment.” Their intensive is actually a satsang, or spiritually uplifting gathering of like-minded people. They motivate participants to reboot Shakti’s vibrancy — and learnings — into their daily lives, 

It’s About Satsang

Satsang and Sangha at Bhakti FestBetty and Bill, are frequent Bhakti Fest-goers. The Canadian engineers created their own Kirtan band, Shanti Maya, fueled by satsang at Bhakti Fest, and elsewhere.

“You can’t say enough about how beneficial it is for the soul to come into the company of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people who have gathered with the same goal,“ says Betty. 

“I read once that every human culture that has ever existed on our planet had two things in common; they had music, and they sought a connection with the divine,” recalls Betty.  “Devotional music, the musical component of bhakti yoga, is that sweet place where these two most beautiful pieces of our humanity come together.”

meditation and tibetan yogaShe says Kirtan is a major draw.  But, it goes far beyond that. 

“The music itself is blissful, and all the artists have their own unique musical styles that almost always keep us entranced. We all come in common purpose, and that is to feel safe and enriched in one another’s company,” says Betty.  

”Shakti and Bhakti are a place to celebrate the Vedic traditions of India in a modern western setting,” adds Ananda.  “The mixture of chant artists, teachers, and presenters offer participants a wide flavor of teachings for their personal journeys.”

 

 

Sound therapy and The Namaste Counsel

Sound Therapy in Joshua Tree: From Contact in the Desert to Shakti Fest

 

Dr. Dream and his Tibetan BowlsIn a recent blog, I wrote about Dr. Dream. This is the sound therapy conductor who uses 333 Tibetan bowls. A big fan of sound therapy, I hope to experience the 333 bowl effect next month. Dr. Dream and his team of “angels” will make magical music at Contact in the Desert

Dr. Dream’s bowl sonata will be somewhat of a postlude to a series of nightly sound baths the prior week at Shakti Fest.

Coincidentally, they are all at the same sacred space. The common venue is the very special Joshua Tree Retreat Center, about 40 minutes from the Palm Springs Airport. A not-for-profit center, it is the oldest and largest of its kind, in the Western U.S. It sits on many acres, above an aquifer, with buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and his son.  Adding to the coincidences, I was born and raised in Frank Lloyd Wright’s hometown, and my brother mowed the lawn at his  studio/home.

Sound Therapy in the Desert

Sound Therapy at Shakti Fest, Joshua Tree CaliforniaSo, for the last five years, I’ve headed to Bhakti Fest without fail. Now, I am headed to Shakti Fest. No typo. S. Not B. Bhakti is held each September.  Shakti Fest is in Springtime.  Actually, May 12-15 this year. Despite the fact that Shakti is a more condensed version than Bhakti, one stage will be dedicated to five hours of sound therapy, nightly. 

Both Bhakti and Shakti Fest bring the best yoga teachers, Kirtan musicians, and workshop leaders to Joshua Tree. Namely, they celebrate the devotional paths of yoga, Kirtan and meditation. Quite a few of the Bhakti/Shakti workshop leaders have influenced my teaching. Many more are staples on my yoga playlists. 

Sridhar Silberfein is the man behind Bhakti and Shakti Fests. Interestingly enough, he was also responsible for getting Swami Satchidananda to Woodstock. So musical extravaganzas and spirituality have been with him most his life.

A sincere bhakta, he has been expanding the festivals to meet the demands of attendees as more and more people head to these festivals. “For years many attendees were asking us for our sound bath programs to be expanded,” Silberfein explains. “For years, we had a small tent where some folks would do gong sessions. Now we have utilized our second stage from 7 p.m. at night to 2 a.m.  Folks can come in, lay down on the carpets, relax, and go into another zone due to the gongs, crystals, and bells surrounding them. It is a very magical environment, and takes each participant into a relaxed, deep, meditative space within.”

Why Sound Therapy?

Sound therapy and The Namaste Counsel As a Certified Yoga Therapist, I have studied many different forms of healing, and try to tap into a colorful palette of modalities when I create lifestyle action plans, homework or protocols for my clients. Sound therapy is most certainly a favorite.

I’m not alone. Dr. Oz is a proponent of sound therapy. On one of his shows, Dr. Oz explained how bi-neural frequencies influence the brain. He displayed brain scans of people listening to crystal sound therapy, to point out the positive effects.

His guest, Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, gave patient testimonials for sound therapy. Gayor is an oncologist, who uses sound in his practice. “It’s critically important,” he responded, saying that it can help everyone. Dr. Gaynor explained that with sonic therapy, you can improve moods and much more. For those that are in good health, it is a proactive measure. For those battling health issues, the differences are more evident. As an oncologist, he incorporated a 15-minute crystal sonic therapy session into his patients’ first visits. Apparently, it was highly effective. Many said they hadn’t felt that relaxed, ever. For Dr. Gaynor, this was especially rewarding. Especially, considering the first visit to an oncologist is often filled with fear and anguish.

Shakti Fest Sound Therapy Lineup 

Bhakti Fest, Joshua Tree, California

Ten different Sound Dome presenters are part of the extended Shakti lineup. Among them is Danny Goldberg.  His Sound Immersion Experience “weaves the restorative vibrations of singing bowls, gongs and chimes to create a blanket of healing sounds. The sound provides a channel for release, opening and transformation; tuning our vibrational frequency.”  In the past, Danny led healing sessions at Wanderlust, Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, UC Santa Cruz and Foothill College Music Programs.  

Guy Douglas is a sound therapy practitioner with a longtime interest in the healing power of music. A traveling gongmaster, he performs Sound Circle Ceremonies, Group SoundBaths, Retreats, Gong Workshops, Gong Yoga Flow classes and Gong Invocations. His focus is Eastern sound healing techniques that help clear dormant pathways and open the heart. 

Michelle Berc and her healing bowls and Shakti FestLynda Arnold is a healing sound recording artist and certified sound healer. She taps into the power of sound therapy to help people reduce stress, and transform consciousness.  Lynda was a Sound, Voice and Music Healing student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Additionally, she studied Tibetan Bowl Sound Healing with master practitioner and educator Suren Shrestha.

Michelle Berc has performed at Bhakti/Shakti fest in the past. She focuses on chakra balancing with Crystal and Tibetan singing bowls, percussion instruments, gong, tuning forks, and other rare instruments. She explains that “sonic experience allows you to; release blocked energy in the body, balance and align the chakra centers for greater energy flow, and elevate your holistic being for expanded awareness. Overall, a vibrational kinship between mind, body, and spirit will take place.” 

She holds a certification from the Sound and Consciousness Institute in San Francisco. 

(As a matter of full disclosure, Bhakti Fest has, at times provided me with complimentary admission. However, that does not in any way affect the content of my blogs.)

Shadows of the Sun Dynasty by Vrinda Sheth

Sita’s Fire: Trilogy Unveiled at Austin Performance

When Vrinda Sheth was 18 years old, an opportunity fell into her lap. Most would have run the other way. Or laughed it off. She toughened up to the challenge. She spent the next 15 years honing her talents, as part of “Sita’s Fire.”

This week, the object of her immense dedication won a prestigious award. “Shadows of Destiny,” was bestowed a Silver Medal by the Independent Book Publishers Association. One of the most influential associations in independent publishing, IBPA awards recognize excellence in book editorial and design.

Book Reading Performance in Austin

Vrinda Sheth, author of Shadows of the Sun DynastyVrinda lives in Central Florida with her husband, Vish.  He’s a kirtan artist about whom I’ve written many an article. April 21, they will perform their mesmerizing and invigorating blend of East vs. West music and dance at Austin’s Sanctuary Church. The visit is to promote what has kept Vrinda on the creative track all these years.  Not just one book. But three.  “Sita’s Fire” Trilogy.  All are published by Mandala/Simon and Schuster,

Well-known yogi, Shiva Rea says Vrinda is an “extraordinarily gifted storyteller” who makes the timeless epic come to life.

Vrinda explains how everything fell into place. 

Annapurna Johansson, Sita's Fire“This project began as a vision by my mother, who is the illustrator. As long as I can remember, she has been fiercely committed to her art, setting up studios for herself even with the most minimal of resources. She began her first Ramayana drawings over 15 years ago and was working with another author. That project came to a halt as that author dropped out. Determined, my mom asked me if I’d like to try my hand at writing. Her request really surprised me, as I was 18 at the time, about to start college, and with no clear idea of my direction. But the publishers loved the draft I wrote and that was the beginning of this joint mom-daughter work.”

The Trilogy: Sita’s Fire

Shadows of the Sun Dynasty by Vrinda ShethVrinda began “Shadows of the Sun Dynasty” from Internet cafes in India.  As she was writing the Sita’s Fire trilogy, she earned a degree in English from the University of Florida. She married Vish. They had a baby, and are expecting their second child this July. Now, she has gained confidence as a prolific writer. “Queen of the Elements” will be available August 8. Then, the third in the series will be released in 2019.  She acknowledges mom was always right.

“I think in some ways she knew me better than I knew myself, because her request really compelled me to start my creative journey as an author. In hindsight, I can see that my mom encouraged me in this direction, because I was always writing something or the other and an avid reader. It took more than 10 years for me to settle into my confidence as a writer, and that journey will perhaps continue lifelong. But I’ve at least grown past paralyzingly self-doubt into a mature ability to even critique and edit my own work.”

Vrinda’s mother, Anna Johansson, exposed Vrinda to the ancient tales of the Ramayana at an early age. Rather than tales of Mickey and Cinderella, her parents raised Vrinda according to Vedic cultures and traditions. Stories of Sita and Rama. She learned Sanskrit and basic Hindi.  For five years, she lived in India. She mastered  traditional Indian dance which guests will appreciate in Austin.  

“It is my personal aim to make these ancient Indian stories accessible to ‘my own people,’ in the sense that I grew up in the West, first Sweden and then America, and I’m quite rooted in the United States. I was raised on these incredible Indian epics from various ancient texts. Good stories are good stories. And we are all hungry for them, no matter where on earth they come from.”

Vrinda and Vish make sacred traditional music hip. Likewise, she hopes to be a cultural translator of the tales from India that date back to fifth century BCE.

The Ramayana is an Epic Tale

Vrinda Sheth, author of Shadows of the Sun Dynasty“The Ramayana is a complex, multi-layered epic that has stood the test of time, and is studied by scholars and is being constantly retold by various authors. In India, for example, there are over 200 regional versions. So I’m officially part of this vast and vibrant storytelling tradition. Knowing this actually eased some of my writer’s anxiety, as it was at times daunting to tackle such a beloved story,” says Vrinda. 

For Vrinda, much of what makes the story so special are the pivotal characters. While Rama is oft-described as a deity, one of the things that endears him to Vrinda is the human struggles he undergoes. “The challenges he faces are ones that any of us can relate to,” she says.

“The story itself has so many of the classic elements that a modern reader craves: palace intrigue, romance, a prince in exile, an abducted princess, a three-dimensional villain, the battle of good vs evil. And perhaps most of all, the question of womanhood is central to the story, as I see it, turning it ultimately from a love-story to a tragedy. This is, at least, one of the most fascinating and admittedly disturbing aspects of the tale: how it treats its women. Our retelling is unique in that it focuses not only on the inner lives and feelings of the characters but also explores the place and personal power of the women.”

Sita as a Heroine

Not surprisingly, the female protagonist is Vrinda’s favorite in the fable.  

“Sita, to me, is the most fascinating of the characters. Despite being a central character around which the plot of the story moves, she has received very little stage time herself.  Isn’t this exactly the position that women across history have faced? In our work, we make an intentional effort to bring Sita into the spotlight.”

Sita in Shadows of the Sun DynastyTo some extent, Vrinda is taking the classic tale and bringing a bit of feminism to the storyline. 

“All over the world there is a rise in the collective consciousness towards elevating women, valuing girls, giving equal opportunity to children, regardless of gender. I was reflecting the other day on the power of our childhood stories (in Sweden). One of my favorite childhood authors is Astrid Lindgren, who wrote Pippi Longstocking and many other stories with strong and powerful female leads. This has impacted the Swedish consciousness, and I think women’s equality is a going strong there. This motivates me to be part of a storytelling effort that pays attention to the women and girls even in stories that already exist.”

Similarly, Madhavi Mangu is a strong female in Texas. Of East Indian ancestry, she was raised in Dubai and works as an IT manager for a major multi-national. In her spare time, she is dedicated to Austin Bhakti Yoga. As such, she is co-host of the book launch performance. “This is a MUST COME cultural event. Vish and Vrinda combine contemporary touch with a classic twist at the beautiful Sanctuary Church in Tarrytown. The book reading is presented through a unique format of Indian classical dance and music that symbolizes honesty, goodness and sacrifice.”

Simrit Kaur

Music and Mantra Healing — Simrit Kaur Interview

Invoking the Warrior Within, With Simrit Kaur

Simrit Kaur and Deborah Charnes of the Namaste CounselRecently, I had to heal from a bad dog bite, and deep second degree burn. My daily yoga practice was placed on hold for nearly two months, as I tapped into other modes of yoga needed.  As a result, I chanted for almost three hours a day. Mostly, the Ra Ma Da Sa kundalini healing mantra, including Simrit Kaur’s recording. I invoked the sacred syllables and words that represent life’s elements like the sun and moon. I chanted day and night. In bed. At the beach. On the bus. I shut the outer world out to absorb and retain the prana and healing energies of the universe. 

 Simrit Kaur‘s was one of my favorite renditions.  It was trance-like, rhythmic and celestial. Simrit believes this mantra is great medicine. “(When) we chant this mantra with our own voices…it’s more powerful than even listening to someone else do it.” While there are many ways to interpret Ra Ma Da Sa, she notes its power of providing internal balance which says, “I am that infinite healing that is within me.”

Now that I’m back to normal, it was a real treat to meet up with Simrit, in Miami, as her band was setting up.

Simrit launches her Resilience Global Unity Tour Wednesday, March 15. The world premiere takes place within the zen-like setting at The Sacred Space*  in Miami’s Wynwood district off North Second Avenue. From here, she heads to St. Petersburg on the other side of Florida, Asheville, N.C., with many performances on the way to Canada.

Unity in Sacred Spaces

The Sacred Space, MiamiDespite her accolades on iTunes, World Charts and Billboard Music, Simrit has graced South Florida with her beautiful blend of mantra music only once before. She feels particularly grateful to return to this multi-cultural music mecca. Miami is a good fit, as her new album is about cultural blends, that reflect her own life, growing up Greek in the deep south. “This new album has to do with all of us coming together,” she says. “Diversity is the strength of the community.”

She’s looking forward to people from all backgrounds coming together and having a good time in Miami.

“This space is awesome. It’s rad.  I love that they have Reggae outside. Inside, it’s like a museum space. It’s an oasis,” she says.

Her full band, uniting from other parts of the country, includes world percussion, harmonium, the 21-string West African kora, cello, electronics, and vocals. While some may consider her music mantra meditation, or kirtan, influences from other cultures is clear.  Many of her songs are sung in Gurmukhi, the language of the Sikhs, but she also sings in English, and in her latest album, Resistance, has a subtle global warrior undertone to her tunes  

Tuning Up Intuition with Mantras

Simrit Kaur band at The Sacred Space“People tell me it’s a highly engaging experience. It takes people on a journey,” Simrit says about their dynamic style of music. 

The journey, is knowing oneself. Tuning into the heart. Intuition. 

“Mantra is the projection of the mind,” she says. “It’s not spiritual. It’s practical. It changes the chemistry of the brain…blood…body. It widens our perspective. It acts like a drug. We’re happy (when we practice mantra meditation) because we feel ourself. It has its own rhythmic pulse…and electromagnetic fields…”

She explains that it’s easy to get in touch with who you are. In fact, all mantras  are based on primal universal sounds that take you to that same place. Consequently, they are accessible by all, and empower intuition.

“Intuition has to do with not knowing. Feeling.  I don’t care to know everything,” she adds. 

Most noteworthy, the power of communal versus individual mantra is considerably stronger. Hence, guests at her concerts can expect to leave in a state of bliss. Ananda.  

“When one person is emitting a positive vibration, it affects the whole earth,” she says, talking about the scientifically proven theories about the power of meditation. She likens it to a ripple effect. “If you have a little bit of water, and then 500 times that, it’s so much more powerful. We feel inspired when we’re together. When we come together with music, sound and mantra, it has an exponential effect.”

Heal The World

That’s one of the purposes of her Resilience World Tour, and the name of her latest album, “Songs of Resilience.”   She believes that challenges only make one stronger.

“Songs of Resilience” is about her personal journey. She says her most recent music is about human conditions — and suffering — since the beginning of time. Simrit was born in Greece. An orphan, she was adopted by a Greek-American family. Her younger brother, who was also adopted from Greece, was a special needs child for whom she had to give considerable care and attention. Early on, she questioned the real meaning of life. She recognized the challenges that Greeks have been going through for thousands of years. And, the state of our society today. Especially in light of the intense isolation many of us consider as the norm, nowadays. 

Connecting With Your Roots

Simrit Kaur“That’s a big sickness of our time. Being alone,” she says, alluding to how music can heal. “We can create an incredible experience in tumultuous times. Music is a powerful medium. We feel inspired when we’re together.”

Simrit is saddened by the lack of family unity, and honoring of one’s heritage. Similarly, she says the abandoning of one’s roots is “a disease in America.” Her adoptive family passed on their respect for traditions and family. 

“Our parents were rooted in the Greek culture. They’re like yogis in the truest sense,” she says about her parents. Even though they don’t do yoga on the mat. “They taught us to be loving and kind. We do yoga to be expansive.”

As part of the global tour, Simrit, her husband and child, will spend time in her birthplace. Then, in April, she has two performances in Paros, Greece, before heading north to Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.  Finally, the tour ends in Mexico City in October. 

Tickets available at BrightStar.  

*Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Before or after the show, ticket holders receive 10 percent off food and drink at Plant Food Wine, located inside The Sacred Space.   

changing music industry

Jai! Bhakti House Band and Others Show Creativity — on stage and off

Kirtan artists like Jai Uttal and Bhakti House Band exercise creativity as artists and businesspeople. 

bob marleyThe rockin’ ‘70s. Those were the days when labels produced vinyl. I worked for a Top 40 radio station, a bit like WKRP in Cincinnati. A hefty share of our ad dollars came from the music industry. Rock stars flooded into our recording studios for live interviews with the DJs. We ran music promotions galore, funded by the labels. The station wooed the record reps with parties, complete with wine and weed. The labels leveraged their clout to introduce lesser known artists. The sales rep who managed the music clients confided that it was a dirty business.  But, it was a business. The labels produced the records, and showered, or sprinkled in, promotional support.

Over the decades, I’ve worked with numerous “successful” musicians and celebs.  I saw beyond the glam.

I went on the road with one artist with six LPs under her belt.  Even though Clive Davis was her manager, she was living modestly. While Davis propelled Whitney Houston to super stardom, sadly, this woman got more public relations support from me than the label.

Another two were rising stars. They felt they won the lottery being on Madonna’s record label. Wrong. One produced his own music video with a cell phone or flip cam. In the video, he let the world in on the dark music industry secrets. Actually, that video went viral and won awards. His investment: $0.  

The Times They Are A Changin’.

Jai UttalToday, as more people opt for digital downloads, the income to musicians is ridiculously low. 

“The streaming and download venues are major rip-offs for performers,” said musician Allan Evans. Evans is an author, professor, producer and founder of a non-profit that preserves world music.  “Perhaps a union will arise to win proper royalties from these new formats.”

Even though Jai Uttal was raised in the music industry, it hasn’t been easy for him. A Grammy-nominated leading Kirtan artist, with 20 CDs,  he lives simply.

“In the past, the money I made from touring was augmented by a small but consistent trickle of album royalties. But with the advent of music streaming, that trickle has dried up,” said Uttal.

Even though the digital age is detrimental to profits, Jai Uttal tapped into the streaming music trend.

Creativity in Connecting to Listeners

“For the last few years I’ve been raging at the streaming services and their exploitation of artists, but I realized that raging against this reality wasn’t going to help. Patreon offers a another option,” found Uttal.  “Fans can still stream their favorite music, but give back in a different way. It’s still young but I love it and hope that patronage grows and grows, not just for me but for all of us. In these intense and difficult times we need to become patrons of each other!” 

music as businessFor as little as one dollar a month, Jai shares daily mantras, life vignettes and more, with his patrons.

“With music subscriptions like Spotify and Pandora paying artists a fraction of a penny per every 100 plays, coupled with record labels taking around 99.7 percent of album revenue, we as musicians, have to get innovative on how we create and distribute our music to our fans,” said Randall Brooks of Bhakti House Band.

In the music world, it takes $5,000-$15,000 to record a CD. Add to that the tens of thousands of dollars to produce and market it.  

“Our ability to continue creating and releasing new music depends heavily on our fans’ direct support,” said Kristin Brooks of Bhakti House Band. “Like purchasing music and merchandise from us, or our crowdfunding campaigns rather than through third party services. The current state of the music business is devaluing music, an indispensable part of life that we humans couldn’t live without.”

From Concert Crowds to Crowdfunding

Bhakti House Bus at Bhakti Fest

Crowdfunding is a buzzword now. But, people don’t necessarily want to give, without getting anything in return. Hence, the creative juices must flow into the marketing, too. 

Bhakti House Band is based out of Fort Worth, and they drive a sky blue school bus for their road trips.  Aside from their vast knowledge of Sanskrit and world religions, they exude soul and creativity on stage. That same level of passion and creativity is in store in their next recording. 

“We will be integrating everything from old gospel and church hymns to rap and hip hop to Tibetan bowls, beloved classical Sanskrit mantras, and Kirtan. We combine western and eastern instrumentation and rich harmonies, all driven by a powerful combination of drums and percussion from different cultures all over the world. These various healing musical influences represent seeds of our musical past that have brought us to this present moment,” Kristin said. 

To help them record, produce and market their new baby, they launched a creative crowdfunder. 

Join the Revolution

Kristin and Randall Brooks lead workshops on mantras and chanting

Roots to Revolutions is the name of the new Bhakti House Band project.  Contribute via IndieGogo and you can record with them in the studio, learn to play the harmonium, or get a tailor-made recording. 

First, for just nine dollars, you receive a download of a 108-mantra recording. Plus, they’ll throw in a limited track recording, a personal shout-out on Facebook Live, and “eternal gratitude.” Not bad for the price of a fast food meal at some spots.

Then, donate $50-60 and receive Bhakti House Band merchandise, “It’s all Goodie in the Hoodie” or “The Shirt Off Our Back.” Both those levels tack on the 108-mantra meditation package.

Randall Brooks of Bhakti House Band records a customized song for IndiiGogo donorHow cool is this? For a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable donation of $500-700, pick “Your Song,” or “I’m With the Band.” For the first, you can be the director and Bhakti House Band will write and produce a song for you. It’s a great anniversary, holiday or birthday gift for the person who has everyone, or, needs nothing. Similarly, the second option lets you in the recording studio to sing or play as an honorary member of Bhakti House Band. 

Another option is “Nirvana in C.” That package includes a harmonium, plus eight weekly sessions to teach you how to play the keys and squeeze the box. 

Despite the fact that the music industry isn’t supporting the artists, the recordings will continue. Therefore, be a part of the industry yourself. While you can contribute monetarily, you can also get to know the musicians, and experience their lives and how they make music come alive. Most of all, it feels good to get something that will stay with you for a lifetime, and support talented artists. 

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band

Bhakti Yoga and The Power of Sound

Bhakti yoga and the tradition of chantingMusic or chanting is integral to all cultures. In traditional societies, chanting (like in Bhakti Yoga) is often a part of a healing ceremony. 

Yet, in today’s world, too few of us practice chanting. Fortunately, for those of us that do, we recognize its healing benefits. 

Sean Johnson is a yoga studio owner in New Orleans. He also has a rockin’ band that plays the New Orleans Jazz Festival every year. His Wild Lotus Band, is also one of my favorites to accompany my yoga classes, or when I chant by myself. Best of all, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear his band play, live, nearly a dozen times. The beats and vocals enter my bones…and my soul. This is part of the bhakti (devotional chanting) experience for me. Based on my yoga heritage, bhakti is one of the eight branches of yoga. At my teacher training camp, we had an in-house bhakti band. Furthermore, at all my ashram stays, we awoke to chanting, and chanted prior to bedtime. As a result, a day doesn’t pass, that bhakti yoga isn’t in my life, somehow. 

An altar is a mirror of the heart to see or reflect what’s inside of us. 

Sean Johnson leads a bhakti yoga intensive at Bhakti Fest MidwestSean, at this year’s Bhakti Fest Midwest, shed some light as to why bhakti yoga may be so powerful. He referred to chanting, or kirtan, as “vocal vinyasa.” He explained that each of the traditional sounds (almost like a Sanskrit Do-Re-Mi) from Sargam is associated with a chakra. In other words, you’re tuning your body and soul when you chant. Additionally, the drone, the recurring  sound underlying much of kirtan, represents the primordial sound of Om. “Our scientists have discovered that most solid matters vibrate to the Om. Bones. Buildings. It’s a never ending canvas of sound. The yoga of sound is the most underrated,” Sean told us Bhaktas at a full-day intensive at Bhakti Fest.

sound therapy and bhakti yogaIn fact, sound is used in surgery to break up kidney stones. So, does it seem far fetched that it can break up your emotional blockages too? 

“When there are disappointments, suffering, we can protect ourselves with sound,” adds Sean. It’s like a mask.  He suggests yogis ”awaken the sense of playfulness” during their practice. By adding the element of bhakti, you can transform the asana (physical postural) practice to a spiritual one. “What I like to emphasize in asana practice is imagination. Try to transform our movement into meaning making motions,” he says. 

Hopefully, his teachings have passed on to me. I make concerted — and instinctual— efforts, to merge body with sound in my classes. For my personal practice, it’s a pure jam. I let it all hang out, and see the beauty of the practice unravel. Even if I’m counting a dozen rounds of surya namaskar, I let the music and the mood mold my movements. No two are identical. I never know what to expect on the mat. I surrender to my spirit soul.

My students know I don’t choreograph my classes, either. Plus, I don’t follow a pattern. That’s too dull, plus, I respond to the energy in the room. 

Bhakti Yoga is to wake up the heat.

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus BandSean’s explanation makes sense to me. “Bhakti yoga comes from a rebellion against dogma — against a priest, and ruling class. The Bhaktas said ‘we know how to get to God. We don’t need the priests or the castes.”  That’s my kind of talk. I love that. I just read a passage to my students, from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” Your daily life is your temple and your religion

Sean gives historical data to paint his picture.  He tells us that it was the British missionaries that brought the harmonium to India. That squeezable keyboard is a principle drone maker. But, the Indians didn’t welcome the European instrument at first. So, they chopped off the legs, and created a hybrid version. What we know now as the Indian harmonium is a beautiful reflection of the creativity that emerged when the west invaded the east with their culture. The harmonium, is a “hybrid, like us. The harmonium represents that integration,” says Sean.

The sun salutations are examples of East meets West. Same with bhakti on the mat. Sean describes that as an experience of bringing two strings of yoga together. With the yogasana physical practice, we stretch our bodies and our breath. In bhakti, we stretch our heart and our emotions. 

“Bhakti is just a word from the yoga tradition that names something universal. There are so many ways to fire up the heart. One of the best ways to stretch the heart is through art,” Sean explains. Music. Poetry. Culinary arts. Storytelling. Dance. He says instead of doing these arts as enjoyment, we should invoke intentions to serve. Share. Expand an asana practice into an offering. 

Meditation comes naturally to us as human beings. 

Sean Johnson leads a bhakti yoga class at Bhakti Fest MidwestIn meditation, you clear your mind. In bhakti yoga, the mind becomes clear. 

Sean is passionate about finding cross cultural threads.  “One of the things I love about bhakti is it’s an opportunity to let go of dogma and judgement that’s often a part of our culture.” As an example, he says most of us are self-conscious. We may sing In the shower or in our car, or to our children. But, we enclose ourselves in a wall when we are around others. “We are neurotic about our voices,” he says. “A Sufi teacher says the voice is the barometer of the spirit. But, we can also sing to shift our mood.”

Johnson is a master storyteller, who oftentimes meshes East and West, past and present. Finally, he says stories are valuable as they have archetypes. Hence, they create space for us to connect on our own journey. Same as every yoga practice. On, or off, the mat. In other word, we connect our bodies with our souls.

ISKCON Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 2*

For a kid from the Chicago suburbs, Radhanath Swami followed a non-traditional life as part of his journey within (read previous post). Today, as a spiritual leader, he is a primary force behind a charity hospital and roving eye camp. He inspired a program that feeds 500,000 school kids daily. Moreover, he is at the helm of an award-winning Eco village, a women’s empowerment initiative and financial literacy programs, all in India.

The soft-spoken swami still finds time to share his words of wisdom via books and workshops. Herein, are remarks made at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest, particularly relevant given our current political atmosphere. 

Unity in diversity is at the heart of Bhakti — Radhanath Swami

“Like a flower garland, the diversity makes it beautiful,” he said referring to the strands of colorful buds that are placed around people’s necks to display respect and reverence. To extinguish diversity is regrettable, he says.

“True wisdom is to see everyone with equal vision. Whether it’s a human or a cat, wherever there is life, it is sacrRadhanath Swami:The Journey Withined. Spiritual people have been in so many places and languages trying to give humanity this teaching.”

That philosophy is part of the concept of the first yogi commandment: ahimsa. When we talk about ahimsa (non-violence) we don’t just say, do no harm to your loved ones. Rather, we are inclusive. In other words, do no harm to any living being.

“There so much conflict in the world,” he says. To paint the picture, he gives an example of someone suffering from a blood disease. You can’t use a band-aid approach to address the symptoms. Rather, you must go to the root of the matter. Determine what is causing the disease. “The same with politics.” Therefore, with societal woes, we can’t just resolve them with tax breaks or other panaceas. We must zoom in on what plagues our society at its core. 

Radhanath Swami sees a lack of spirituality as a festering problem.

“Spirituality is that science that deals with the core problem of conflict. When there’s greed, arrogance, anger, it (conflict) comes out.  These qualities can become monstrous. Somehow or other, the false ego is obsessed.”

“The law of karma is a scientific analysis of how the world works. As you sow, so shall you reap. What goes around comes around. Like the law of gravity. Whatever we believe, whatever goes up must come down. It’s not that we can always see the results. If you plant a nice flower, it takes a long time for the flower to bloom. It takes its time. Karma is like that. Sometimes there’s immediate reaction. Other times not until another life. But in due course it will blossom.” 

The greatest value of life is compassion — Radhanath Swami

coexistWe’ve all seen those bumper stickers that say COEXIST. But, unfortunately, there are too many us-versus-them mindsets in our population. People that believe, “We are superior to others. My race… my religion… my beauty… my education. We look for ways to be superior to others. If others outshine us, we are vulnerable to depression or envy. If we outshine others we are vulnerable to condescension.”

“Victims make other people victims. The oppressed, when given power, become oppressors. Real greatness is overcoming that ego. Unless we understand who we are we can’t understand our unity with others.”  That’s why the journey within is so important. 

At the core of Bhakti yoga is mantra meditation. Radhanath Swami explains, “This chanting of mantras is an ancient eternal way in which is love is awakened from within our hearts. Only to love and be loved can give pleasure to the heart.”

Most forms of yoga help us to go within. The aim is to quiet our monkey mind. Bhakti is one way to keep the mind from jumping which “can really get us in trouble.” Inner peace, love and bliss are within reach when we still the mind.

According to Radhanath Swami, in the Bhakti tradition, it’s not about whether we have a lot or a little. Nor, does it matter whether one is a surgeon, or a garbage man.  Selfless love is the greatest thing we can pass on to our children, he teaches.

He told a story about a CEO from Chicago that he met in London.  The CEO traveled on a private jet. Radhanath Swami hitchhiked there. The CEO was on the verge of being a billionaire. Radhanath hasn’t had a checking account since 1969. Despite their differences, they are in the same place. 

Does it really make a difference what one thinks he or she owns? In the shared yogic and ISKCON beliefs, we don’t really own anything. Thus, the universe is the true owner.

Everything comes from the same source — Radhanath Swami

 love, compassion and humility“The difference between spiritual life is not just interacting with the world, but how we interact. From a Bhakti perspective, I’m a caretaker of god’s property. Not the proprietor. But, if we forget the origins, it becomes material versus spiritual.”

Prestige. Possessions. Abilities. Those things are unimportant. Rather, we should seek inner peace. Compassion. Love for God. 

The first principle taught in the Bhagavad Gita is that we are the life that animates this body, Radhanath explains. “The souls can never die. This body is like a car. If there’s not a driver in the car, what can the car do? When the body dies, the soul travels on. When we awaken, our true consciousnesses discover we are all from the same source.”

“What does it mean to be humble? It’s such a profound and deep subject. We are not the controller, or the owner. I didn’t make the sun. All the organs of my body are gifts given to me.”

“We have our choices. We always have free will. Whether in pleasant times…or in hard times. We can make choices to live with integrity. This is what life is about. But how many things in the universe can we not control?  It’s limitless. That should humble us.” 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on a workshop Radhanath Swami gave in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. This was one of many workshops I have attended with him, over the years, at Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use the search engine on www.TheNamasteCounsel.com/yoga-blog

India

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 1*

“When you expect things, you are never happy,” says Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within.

Yoga teaches us to live in the present. Don’t worry about the future, or dwell on the past. Be content.

Why is there so much arrogance and hate…in the name of religion?— Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami  was raised in an affluent spirituality and the journey withinChicago suburb.  He went to Deerfield High School, where pretty much everyone back in the 60s was college bound. The now spiritual leader got a different type of education. He found answers on the journey within.

Growing up, he felt he didn’t fit in. When he was just a young kid, his father filed bankruptcy. As a result, Radhanath worked at a car wash. There, most all his work mates were African-Americans who had witnessed poverty. 

“They all had no way out,” Radhanath Swami told a group of yogis at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest 2016. “I really loved them. I remember thinking, ‘why is it they had no opportunities?’ A lot of things didn’t make sense.”

Richard, as he was called, considered himself part of the counter culture. Early on the journey within, he had long hair, and wore one set of clothes. “I ended up at Grant Park during the Democratic convention, and I am proud to say I got tear gassed by the Chicago Police.” 

He chose to be the change.

“I started doing some yoga and meditation and read different scriptures.  I came to a crossroads.”

He was in a desperate quest to find himself, and the meaning of life. On summer break, he went to Europe. Atop a mountain in Crete, he received a message. Head to India. 

I was homeless but felt so much at home. — Radhanath Swami 

India

“When I arrived at the border it took six months. Now it takes eight hours on British Airways. But it’s not as scenic or life changing. I was emaciated when I arrived. I had 26 cents in five currencies.”

What’s more, he was denied entry to India. He was in a desolate area. There were problems between Pakistan and India. The border agent told him, “We have enough beggars in India.” 

Meanwhile, he pleaded. Begged. Got philosophical. “For six hours I sat under a tree and tried again. Finally, they put their guns in my face and said, ‘If you come back we will kill you.’” 

Those escapades and more make his first autobiography, “The Journey Home,” read like an adventure novel. 

Apparently, this kid from Chicago’s quest for knowledge wasn’t satisfied with school books. The journey within took him through much solitude.

He lived in caves. Under trees. In forests. “There was one baba and he used to sleep under trees too. And there’s a certain collegiate connection between people that live under trees,” he says. 

We lose ourself … with materialism and goals.— Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within, and The Journey Home

ISKCON Radhanath SwamiHe kept searching for answers. He came upon many so-called gurus. Finally, in Vrindavan, he found what seemed like the real source.  The journey within led him to Bhakti (devotion) and Srila Prabhupad of ISKCON. “I found a place I never wanted to leave. After about a year, it was discovered that my visa had expired. I was a fugitive and this agent was obsessed with finding me.”

His stories get crazier and crazier. Yet, they’re true.

One day, an animal pulled him into a sewer.  He got rabies. While that’s typically a nightmare, the series of shots required him to be under medical care. As a result, he was given legal medical papers. Especially relevant, he got his visa. 

Despite all his hurdles, he recounts them all with laughter.  Just after he returned back to Chicago, he learned he missed George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the ashram.  

“When I finally did come home (after several years), I was a hard core ascetic. They (his parents) were confused.” By then, his traditional Jewish parents would have been happy if he had married a Muslim or African-American, he said. It wasn’t until many years later, with their son going back to India, that the gleaned the values of his newfound life. “Finally in 1989, they came to India for the first time and were totally transformed. They loved everything.”

Things can never give fulfillment to the heart — Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within“The nature of life is a series of choices and every choice we make affects our destiny. In whatever situation we are in, we always have a choice of how we respond,” he says. His guru, Srila Prabhupad taught that a person’s greatness is not measured by wealth, land, beauty or athletic ability. Rather, greatness is measured by how one responds to challenging situations. 

“In all the great spiritual traditions, the real wealth is in our state of mind,” Radhanath Swami says.  You can tell how rich you are by counting how many things you have that money cannot buy. Peace. Love. These things bring purpose to life.”

In conclusion, we can all have what we need. It’s a state of mind. Hence, the journey within. 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on one of Radhanath Swami’s workshops in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. For the past four years, I’ve attended multiple workshops with him at each Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use this blog’s search engine.