Now, a spiritual leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Radhanath Swami will be back home in Chicago this weekend speaking at Bhakti Fest.
Most of us will never find enlightenment. Many of us will continue along the path of maya and blindly follow what society expects of us. For others, as they reach middle age they may question, and take a turn on, the path they’ve traveled. Radhanath Swami found his true home and heart, before the age of 20, on a long and treacherous journey. Everyone has their own journey, and I will be sharing stories of some of my favorite people in the yoga world, in multiple articles.
Ragani’s Journey Home
Ragani is Milwaukee’s finest…Kirtan musician that is. She’s set to lead Kirtan at Bhakti Fest, after Radhanath Swami’s workshop. Looking back on her personal journey home, she recognizes that from the age of two, she wasn’t like all the other toddlers on the block.
A South Bend, Indiana native, Ragani (who was called Julie as a child), was raised in a household that valued spirituality during an era when alternative lifestyles were not understood by mainstream America. When she was six, her mother took her to a movie. She was stricken with a scene. It was as if she had been there in another life. She asked her mother where it was. The response was an unknown name and place: India. “My heart just leapt. I was coming home,” she says. “The word India stuck in my mind. It felt familiar.”
Ragani’s mother practiced yoga. But, her calling was homeopathy. She studied with Rudolph Ballentine. Ballentine was an MD, psychiatrist, homeopath, Ayurvedic practitioner, and herbalist. He opened his first holistic health clinic in 1974. Ballentine was trained by Sri Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy.
One night, the family drove to East West Books in Chicago to hear a lecture by the Swami. Kids weren’t allowed, so eight-year-old Ragani stayed upstairs with her sister. Ragani wanted to meet the Swami. Even though it was dark and empty upstairs, as he stepped into the bookstore, he acknowledged the young girl. No words were exchanged, yet the child knew in her heart that this was a special moment. Returning back home with her parents that night, she knew she wanted to study with someone like Swami Rama one day. “I felt that that was a significant moment for me.”
Finding Her Guru
Shortly after that experience, Ragani’s mom was gone for a week attending a meditation and yoga program. When she returned, Ragani noticed her mother had transformed. “I wanted some of that … the calmness. That was a powerful beginning for me. I said to myself, there’s something here.”
When other adolescents and pre-teens in those days were venturing into sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll, Ragani gave in to her inner callings. Deep at her core, she knew mainstream was not right for her. For eleven years, she periodically traveled to Pennsylvania to study with Swami Rama.
“It was following what felt like a pull or calling from my heart and spirit.” About her non-traditional life, she says, “I felt like an outsider. People would tease me in high school that I was going off to join a nunnery. I didn’t know where my people were. I ate bean sandwiches when I was a kid, and got used to knowing I was different. If they really knew what I was getting, they’d drop everything and come with me.”
It wasn’t just her Swamiji that had a special attraction to her. She wanted to weep when she read Yogananda’s story. There were many things in the book to which the teen could relate. It was as if Yogananda was retelling what was happening in her life. It was otherworldly.
“Reading ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ was like coming home for me. I remember times when I was alone, and things around me gave me answers (epiphanies). I didn’t share it with other people.”
Ragani continued to develop her interest in yoga, meditation, classical Indian vocals, and music. In 2001, Ragani started a band called Kirtan with Ragani in Milwaukee. Now, she has a big following. Kirtan with Ragani is one of the largest independent and ongoing Kirtan scenes in the U.S. with 300-400 people at her events and more than a dozen music placements on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Kirtan in Milwaukee
“When I first started doing Kirtan in Milwaukee, I made a pact with my teacher. If they don’t come at all, that’s fine, but I’m going to do it. Whoever comes is supposed to come. I still honor my agreement. Anything in front of that stage is all upon the masters. I’m not in charge of what they experience with me. I’m not vested in what it is that they will experience. It’s freeing that way.”
She’s writing a song now about “going home.” Her advice for others to find their journey home? Meditate. Meditate. Meditate. She says that every sacred tradition has similar threads about being still. “Sitting in silence. Moments of prayer. Bringing us back to that center. That home.”
“When you really start to quiet things down, you go within and the journey begins in a powerful way. In my office, I tell people to follow what they really love. Practice mindfulness, and hold the attention where you want it to be. Then we can fulfill all of our dreams. It’s easiest to do it if you start with what you love.”