I used to think yoga was a white woman sport, characterized by down dog stretches, fashionable lululemon tank tops, and strangely erotic poses that seemed rather uncomfortable. But according to Wikipedia, yoga is “a generic term for the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace.” The recent explosion of Hatha Yoga (or yoga as a physical exercise) in the Western world stresses mental and physical health but often overlooks the traditional purpose of developing one’s “spiritual discipline.” Wanting to learn more about yoga as a method of understanding the world, I approached the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Rogers Park for a bit of insight. ISKCON practices bhakti yoga, “a [Hindu-based] spiritual path…for fostering love, utter faith and surrender to God” (Wiki). Based on the doctrine “Love is God and God is Love,” bhakti yoga stresses the importance of transcendence, in which food, sex, sleep, and material attachments are meaningless.
Invited to their weekend Love Feast (by monk Luke Vanderlinden) for dancing, music, and an evening of fantastic spiritual debauchery, I arrive at their temple and find it surprisingly packed and noisy. It certainly didn’t fit my traditional temple archetype, with pristine marble floors, hunched monks ambling about in religious humility, the smell of incense wafting through the air. In fact, the room smelled like samosas, which temple volunteers were selling next to the gift shop. And there were kids—I mean, a LOT of kids, squealing and running throughout the temple. I take off my shoes and wander into a giant worshiping auditorium, where a class is taking place. Unfortunately, I arrive just in time for the end of the lecture, so I wander downstairs into the kitchen.
The ISKCON monks are preparing the Love Feast meal, a starchy vegetarian medley of: Kheer (rice pudding with raisins), Raita (spiced yogurt) ontop a mixed vegetable salad, oenne pasta in a tomato sauce with diced olives, Sabji (mixed vegetables in a spicy Indian curry), Dhaal makhini (a buttery lentil & kidney bean soup with paneer) and white basmati rice, Puris (fried flatbread), and Potato pakoras (potato slices covered in gram flour batter and deep fried).
Prepared for mass consumption, the food is delivered upstairs to a large gathering hall where temple-goers and visitors can enjoy a delicious, hot meal for free.
I munch on a corn cob, a bowl of mixed fruit, and some curried butternut squash as I wait for the final kirtan of the night, a congregational singing of the Hare Krsna mantra with music, dancing, and jumping.
As the the monks diligently tidy up the kitchen after cooking for hundreds of people, I chat with Luke about the life of a monk. Contrary to my misconceptions, monks of bhakti yoga can be female and marry if they so desire. They live at the temple and devote their entire day for worship. In fact, Luke’s friend Madhavendra Puri provides a detailed account of his day (which I shortened):
A typical day in the life of a serious practitioner of bhakti yoga begins at 4:00 a.m. by rising and taking a shower. The first meditation, called Mangala Arotika, begins at 4:30 a.m. and lasts until 5:00 a.m…then we glorify Tulasi devi, who specifically grants us access to the highest region of transcendence, Goloka Vrindavana. From 5:15 to 7:00 a.m. we chant the maha-mantra…the result of chanting the name Rama is that one experiences transcendental pleasure, even in the beginning of one’s practice of bhakti yoga.
At 7:00 a.m. we greet the Deities, offer individual prayers, and then worship Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada…At 7:30 a.m. we study Srimad Bhagavatam, and at 9:00 a.m. we honor Krishna prasadam, vegetarian food that has been first offered to Krishna for His satisfaction…After breakfast some of us go out to various parts of the city to perform kirtan and distribute books about Krishna, while others prepare Krishna’s lunch, which is offered to Him at 11:30 a.m. We eat lunch at 1pm and then continue to perform various services for Krishna until 6:00 p.m. when we assemble together for the evening meditation, Gaura Arotika…At 7:15pm we take a light dinner. (The Deities are offered dinner at 5:30pm). We retire around 10:00 p.m. and wake up around 4:00 a.m. By doing this program every day we directly experience the awakening and increasing of ecstatic love for Krishna.
Although I weep in horror at the idea of waking up at 4 every morning, Luke says his new life as a monk provides a profound sense of happiness that he never experienced as a graduate student sloshing through life’s drudgery. He says the ultimate goal of bhakti-yoga is to reawaken and directly experience one’s loving relationship with Krishna. Detachment from the “worldly” concerns (including material possessions and other people’s opinions and judgments) and realizing one’s identity as distinct from the physical body are preliminary steps toward that final goal. Luke shows me an interview with Srila Prabhupada, a spiritual teacher who led bhakti-yoga out of India in the late 60s, and I find some insights rather thought-provoking:
A poverty-stricken man may be materialistic, and a wealthy man may be very spiritual. Spiritual life does not depend on either poverty or wealth. Spiritual life is transcendental.
Because someone accidentally gets an American body, he thinks, “I am an American.” This is just like thinking, “I am a red shirt,” just because you are wearing a red shirt. You are not a red shirt; you are a human being. [And cue hugging a tree!]
Spiritual life means voluntarily accepting some austerities for the sake of God realization. That is why we insist on no illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling, or intoxication for our initiated students. Without these restrictions, any “yoga meditation” or so-called spiritual discipline cannot be genuine. It is simply a business deal between the cheaters and the cheated. [No meat-eating? I dunno…]
Although I find the yoga jargon (hell, I didn’t even know who Krishna was), Hindu references, and orgasmic spiritual philosophies rather mind-numbing, I do appreciate the core values and beliefs that bhakti yoga holds. For instance, I admire the concept of transcendence as a key to happiness—shit, we’d all be happier if we cared less about what people thought of us. The monks’ level of humility and enjoyment of basic pleasures also merit praise—if we all took the time to nurture life’s smaller gifts, I think we’d realize how little we need to be truly happy.
As people finish their meals and return to the main worship hall, I follow the crowd back to experience the final kirtan. People are already dancing and praising the statues of the deities, but being in my usual food coma, I settle down on the ground (with the other women; the room is divided by gender) and clap my hands to the rhythmic chanting. I strike a conversation with a nearby fellow student, who tells me that many people participate in temple events for a sense of culture and community rather than for pure religious purposes.
Although no one will ever catch me worshiping anything in ecstatic praise (besides a delicious bowl of pasta), it’s incredible to observe a religion so marked by general unadulterated happiness—a dramatic departure from the staid Sunday sermons I used to attend with my Christian friends as a young child. Although I will never completely grasp the spiritual or physical aspects of yoga (especially the physical), I’m taking tentative but confident steps towards enlightening myself about a world completely unknown.