I recently composed a podcast and am including the transcript from the episode below.
Listen to the podcast here: https://nativeyogacenter.buzzsprout.com/950785/11044963-yoga-yarns-connecting-with-krishna
Welcome to Native Yoga Toddcast. My name is Todd McLaughlin. I typically conduct interviews and conversations for this channel. However, in this episode, I want to do something a little bit different. I would like to share a story from my past that has helped to shape who I am.
One of my favorite parts about studying and practicing with my yoga teacher, Tim Miller, was listening to his storytelling. I have fond memories of being in his studio, at the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, CA and listening to Tim share his experiences of practicing yoga and his travels through India.
I found it incredibly entertaining to hear him tell stories about his experience finding yoga, and hearing stories about what it was like for him to practice with his teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him talk about some of the epic texts like the Mahabharata, and Bhagavad Gita, and the Ramayana. I loved hearing him convey stories about the heroes of these epics like Hanuman, Rama and Sita.
I feel that the storytelling component has played a really important part in helping me appreciate yoga, and its’ history. I also find that by listening to and hearing stories from either our guests here on the show, or from different people I get the opportunity to speak with helps me to deepen my relationship with yoga. I find that listening to other practitioners’ stories about their journey into yoga brings a clearer picture about what yoga is, and what it can be for me. Learning from the anecdotes of others helps me appreciate and deepen my awareness of how extremely beneficial yoga practice can be. It is really fascinating to me how finding connection through story opens new doors of understanding. So with that being said, I want to tell you a story.
When I was 18 I graduated from Jupiter High School in North Palm Beach county in Florida. Upon completion I reluctantly went to University of Florida in Gainesville. I say reluctantly because at that time I was unsure if college was the best option for me. I had made a promise to at least give it a try. Therefore I decided to give it a go and I enrolled in classes during the summer right after my high school graduation.
I believe that part of my reluctance stemmed in part by the fact that just a year earlier I was lucky enough to spend a couple weeks on the island of Maui, Hawaii. During one of my adventures while there I came across a book called Be Here Now by Ram Das. I’m guessing you’re probably already familiar with this book. If you’re not, please pick up a copy of Be Here Now by Ram Das. It is an extremely interesting book. It has all these really psychedelic illustrations combined with stream of consciousness style writing in a form that is uniquely Ram Das. Dasi, who his close friends often refer to him as, was a pioneer in the field of consciousness expansion. In his book, Be Here Now, Ram Das shares his experience of going to India and meeting his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. The book highlights how he was introduced to yoga and the path that it took him on. When I first saw the book, my mind was opened, and my interest was immediately piqued. Up until then, I hadn’t really come across any sort of book like this.
At this point in my life, I was really seeking stability, focus and direction. Be Here Now, as random and chaotic it seemed on the surface, pointed me in the direction of the teachings of India.
I am guessing that it depends on how old you are as to whether you can relate to this or not, but probably, you can remember back to when you were a teenager, and in high school, and planning and thinking about what you’re going to do after and what your ambitions are? For some people, knowing what you are going to do for your career is really easy to figure out. For others of us, it’s a really confusing and difficult time. I remember very clearly being in that stage of my life, you know, junior and senior in high school and having no real clear or even vague idea of what in the world I was going to end up doing as a career path and what the future would hold.
In some ways, it was incredibly exciting and in other ways, it was incredibly nerve racking for me. I craved direction and some insight as to how I could find happiness and freedom through a career path. The more I tried to search my soul for direction I couldn’t help but feel a pull to learn yoga the way Ram Das spoke of in his book. I remember clearly thinking that what I really, really wanted was to learn about yoga in an in depth way like he had.
The other strong impulse I had was that all I wanted to do was travel the world and experience cultures far from the one I had grown accustomed to here in Florida. When I read about Ram Das’ adventures in India I had the feeling that my greatest achievement in life would be to some day go to India. I wanted so badly to travel the world. I wanted to go to as many countries as possible and I wanted to study and learn in foreign lands. It was that summer in Hawaii that the travel bug seed was sown.
So when I arrived at the University of Florida in Gainesville, just to paint the scene a bit here I felt like a major fish out of water. When I saw the picture of Bhagavan Das with his long unruly hair and massive beard in Ram Das’ book I somehow thought that wild and unkempt appearance would bring me closer to my goal of the freedom that yoga extolls. I had let my long hair turn to dreadlocks and I let my beard grow outside the boundaries of typical control. Now while Gainesville is known for its hippie population, and I wasn’t completely outside it’s elements, I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb on the campus. At least that was how I felt. Funnily enough “we do it to ourselves we do.” Yet I’ll try not to judge my own folly of youthful angst as I relay this story to you.
As I look back I think an important detail to add here is that I was struggling pretty seriously with depression. While at home and through my junior and senior year of high school I had a very strong bout of deep depression. I couldn’t see any purpose to life. It had gotten bad enough that my parents encouraged me to seek help in which I was prescribed anti depression medication. I was so against taking medication for depression. I had this feeling that I wanted to be able to overcome what I was going through naturally. I didn’t want to take a pharmaceutical to help the situation. I wanted to find a natural cure. Yet it had gotten bad enough that I succumbed to the help of modern science to see if it could indeed help.
I want to mention this here because as I now look back at this particular time in my life it makes perfect sense to me why I was seeking yoga. I also want to bring light to the fact that part of the danger of yoga is that when we are struggling through a major life upheaval that it can seem like yoga will offer a form of escape. I wanted to escape and the idea of finding a group of people or finding a community of support I could escape into seemed really appealing. On that note let me continue with this story.
So…..Gainesville truly is and was a really beautiful town. It is located in the rolling hills of central northern Florida. It is about an hour’s drive from the historic coastal town of St. Augustine. The campus and countryside has long sloping hills, green pastures, beautiful forests and tall oak trees with long strands of moss that hang and set the stage for the beauty that the south is known for.
Gainesville was a very small town in 1992. Gainesville has grown tremendously since then, but in ’92, it was a really small town and pretty much the university is what made Gainesville what it was.
Another interesting tidbit about Gainesville is that it is where the legendary Tom Petty is from. I love TP and his musical style so much that for me that meant Gainesville must be an amazing place. But nonetheless, when I got to Gainesville it was a very exciting time for me. I WAS FREE! I was out of my childhood home and I felt the excitement of having an endless world of opportunity at my fingertips. At the same time had this horrifying feeling of having no idea how I could pull off any of the dreams I had brewing in my body and mind.
So when I arrived in Gainesville I started to explore my surroundings. I was walking through this park in the middle of the campus and I saw food was being distributed. It was free food on top of that, and as a poor college student, I found this fact doubly attractive. On top of that the food was being distributed by people wearing orange robes and the men had shaved heads with ponytails at the top and back of their head, which was a very unusual haircut that I had not seen before. So being a dreadlocked hippie looking guy I figured I wouldn’t be judged to harshly by these equally unique looking individuals.
They were decked out in tulsi bead ornaments and japa malas worn around either their neck, wrists and/or both. When I discovered they were serving vegetarian food, which at the time, I was really into veganism and practicing that style of diet, I felt right at home. I was intrigued by the fact that the food tasted so good. The fact that it was being handed out for free and that there was a very non judgmental atmosphere about the experience made me feel right at home.
As I devoured my delicious curry, I began to ask questions about what this was all about and I learned that they were Hare Krishna devotees and a part of ISKCON, which is the International Society of Krishna Consciousness aka The Hare Krishna Movement. This was the closest I had come to finding something in the realm of yoga and the ideas that were spoken of in Be Here Now by Ram Das.
Needless to say I was really intrigued. I was getting my first look into a yoga culture and I embraced it. I was so interested and excited to learn from the Hare Krishna devotees. So I started to hang out with the devotees that I was meeting in the park. In the attempt to respect the folks I met I will change the names of everyone that I use during this storytelling session so that I can respect their privacy.
One of the devotees that I met that who was willing to try to answer all my questions was James. We were both about the same age and I couldn’t believe that he was living like a monk and had taken the vows of a Krishna devotee. I was 18 at the time and he was just a year older than me which did get me thinking that this could be a possibility for me. Again I can’t help but reminisce about the peculiarity I felt officially being an “adult” at 18 but so not really sure how to wield this responsibility. What an amazing and overwhelming time in life I must say.
Anyhow, James was living as a monk in the Krishna community. He had shaved his head (accept for the tuft of hair left on top), he given up all his belongings, and he was living as a renunciant. This really seemed like a good idea to me at the time. I mean, the part of this that I found interesting is that, you know, if I’m looking for what I’m going to do in the world, and I look at how I’m going to survive in the world, this prospect seemed incredibly overwhelming. Becoming a devotee almost seemed like a get out of jail free opportunity that I began to entertain. I know you are thinking the same thing I am right now, if only it was that simple? I mean, at that time I was trying to figure out and asking myself the question the question….what should I do? And then I come across a tradition or culture or group of people that have found a way to not have not work. I couldn’t help but think that this might be a possibility for me.
There’s more to this as we go deeper, but, you know, living the life of a monk, where you now are giving up ambition, material accumulation, and letting go the goal of striving to achieve and to accumulate wealth seemed appealing.
Whenever I contemplated a monk sitting in meditation without any care for what others thought I saw I felt there must be something to this. Now looking back I am fully aware that nothing is truly as simple as it seems. Yet I have to admit, a part of me was at that time in life was thinking…..maybe I should become a monk. Maybe if I could just let go of all of this trying to figure out what the heck I’m gonna do, and just live the life of an ascetic this would be the solution to all my problems.
I decided to spend more time hanging out with the Krishna devotees to see if this really was something I wanted to take seriously. It was through this process that I feel like I took my first baby steps toward walking along the yoga path.
As I started to hang out with the Krishna devotees more I began to see that there was a lot more to this style of commitment than perhaps I first thought. One of the highlights of this path I found most inspirational was I started to read the Bhagavad Gita. If you’re listening to this yoga podcast, there’s a really good chance you already know what the Bhagavad Gita is. If you are unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita, when you go to purchase Be Here Now by Ram Das, please also purchase a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and begin to read it.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most famous texts in India and has one of the most fantastic and incredible storylines. The long story short is Krishna, who is God as man, an incarnation of God on earth, has an interaction with a warrior named Arjuna. Arjuna is on a battlefield and he is faced with with one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He has to determine if he should go to battle. If he goes to battle, the people that he’s battling are his friends and/or distant relatives, or people that he has respect for like old teachers that he used to study with. So it’s a metaphor, in my opinion, for daily life and the challenges that we face constantly. in terms of decision making, and how to act in the world and/or how to pull back from the world and practice renunciation.
So the Bhagavad Gita is a fascinating story. It is extremely rich in inspiration and thought provoking inquiry. It is in my opinion a well crafted myth that extolls the highest virtues that storytelling can convey. It is one of those books that’s worth reading over and over again throughout a lifetime.
So as I started reading the Bhagavad Gita, and going to kirtans I began to cultivate my bhakti yoga practice. The word kirtan is derived from a Sanskrit root meaning to call, recite, praise, or glorify. To put it in simple form, kirtan is the act of praising and glorifying some form of divinity. In bhakti yoga glorification can be expressed in a multitude of ways, including through poetry, drama, dance, or any form of oral recitation. Kirtan, in its most popular form, is the call and response singing of a mantra that usually focuses on Radha, Krishna, Sita, and Rama.
I began to learn that yoga is incredibly diverse in the types of approaches available for us to begin practice with. Yoga can include multiple approaches of which the most famous forms are Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga & Karma Yoga.
Hatha Yoga, which you are most likely familiar with is the posture and breathing aspects of yoga and/or the approach that emphasizes the attempt at finding balance amoung the opposition of forces inherent in existence.
Raja Yoga, or commonly known as the Royal path, is primarily a contemplative practice with emphasis on the cultivation of self realization through a meditation practice.
Bhakti yoga as I mentioned is the method that uses devotional practices to help liberate our senses.
We have Jana yoga which is considered a very challenging method of yoga, which uses our ability to reason as a tool for achieving liberation. It involves the cultivation of our higher discriminative awareness which can help us come into contact with reality and limit delusional obsessions.
Karma Yoga is the simple recognition that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And typically, Karma Yoga involves selfless action. That is the intention of helping others with the hope of creating a happier and healthier planet and experience for humanity and all living creatures.
The Hare Krishna movement utilizes the path of bhakti yoga and devotion, of which one of the primary methods of practice is singing and chanting. Kirtan with a group of passionate Krishna devotees is one of the most fun and liberating experiences I had come across while I was at university.
I am a huge fan of music. One of my favorite experiences is to be at a huge concert and have the entire audience sing along with the artist on stage and feeling the harmony that comes from thousands of people together in unison.
Kirtans are intimate musical experiences where we have the opportunity to join together in song and often emotion can just come pouring out. While I admit I was very timid in this environment and it felt so foreign to me at first. As I began to build relationships in the community I felt more inclined to just let go and join in the excitement of belting out choruses with the ecstatic devotees.
Kirtans are often driven by the use of harmoniums and drums. The words are often really simple to learn like Ram and Hare Krishna. There’s a whole bunch of different chants that are used in bhakti yoga. So within the Hare Krishna tradition and practice a mantra called the Maha Mantra which is the Krishna mantra is used which is very simple.
It goes like this, Hari Krishna Hari Krishna, Krishna, Krishna hari, hari, Hari Ram, Hari Ram, Rama Rama, Hari Hari. The mantra is repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
For those of you that are fans of The Beatles, George Harrison was a Krishna devotee. Upon investigation of some of his lyrics and songwriting, you can see it’s quite evident. In his song My Sweet Lord he sings….Now, I really want to see you (Hare Rama) Really want to be with you (Hare Rama) Really want to see you, Lord (Ah, ah) But it takes so long, my Lord (Ah, ah, hallelujah). We can credit George Harrison for really bringing the Hare Krishna mantra to the forefront of the western culture through his appreciation and love of the Krishna movement. Without going too far down this other subject though the Beatles in general brought yoga in large force to the ears of us westerners and admittedly until now I had sung those lyrics in my youth yet I was unaware of what they meant.
If we ask the question, “what is the purpose of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra?” The purpose of chanting mantras over and over and over again, is that it is a profound technique and a tool for calming the mind and bringing our attention into the present moment. Another aspect of the Krishna mantra, the Maha Mantra, is the expression of immersive devotion. From the bhakti yoga perspective, which by the way is distinctly a theistic tradition, meaning there is a strong belief that a higher power exists.
So the practice of a bhakti yogi goes like: I bow and I prostrate at the feet of Krishna, and I cultivate a sense that Krishna is so great, Krishna is so powerful, and so much bigger than myself, that I could never really fully understand the dynamic power of Krishna. So I am a humble servant, and I am not striving to ever achieve Krishna like status because how could I? My only goal is to remain a humble servant, that I just want to remain a servant. I have no ambition of becoming anything remotely close to that resembling a master. So I just want to worship and I just want to pray and I just want to chant.
The word Hare means “to take away” and in essence chanting the mantra Hare Krishna, in a sense it’s like a pleading and or a wish and a call to Krishna to say, please take away my suffering and take me away.
I just want to add here that I wrestle sometimes with this concept. One thing that I observed as a child growing up in a religious household was that sometimes people acted really irresponsibly and then they would pray for god to fix their problems. It seemed to me that if they just changed their behavior then they wouldn’t need to dump their potentially controllable personal responsibility on an invisible force. In other words, and to try to put it simply, hypocrisy really annoys me.
Here was where I always had this push pull with religion and the concept of God or Krishna. The challenge of knowing how much to just surrender and how much to exert hard work and not just throw in the towel of personal responsibility.
Here began my questioning process regarding my involvement with the Hare Krishna community. I have full respect for those that are able to relinquish autonomy to a higher authority because that in itself is an incredible challenge. For some it is the easiest thing to do but for me it is one of the most difficult. That is why to this day it still remains an ongoing investigation and practice that I am always open to exploring further.
When I think about this concept of wanting god to take away my suffering it reminds me as well that what is inherent in all deep investigation of the mind is that there are always many angles for which to practice these concepts. Ram Das makes mention that Neem Karoli Baba used to say that “suffering and pain brigs me closer to god.” So there is this intense cry out to god to please take my suffering away and at the same time there is cultivation of appreciating pain and suffering because if we can see that pain and suffering is also god then experiencing it brings us fully into the appreciation that all is god. The entire universe of material existence is just an expression of this realization therefore pain and suffering also is god. Here in lays the duality. Please take suffering away, please let me feel suffering so I can get closer to you. I find this paradox super interesting.
In relaying this story to you I am fully aware that these concepts may or may not resonate with you. So I do appreciate you being patient and being open to listening. My philosophy is that when searching for understanding and hope in life, that I have to give an honest look and an inspection into a specific idea or philosophy that comes with the tradition and just be open and listen. I need to develop an eager and inquisitive outlook. I just want to continue to try these various philosophies and continuously view the world through unique and changing eyes. Ideas help me so if I can get a little closer to feeling peace and tranquility and a sense of purpose in life.
All of these questions and answers were circulating for me at the time when I was hanging out with the Krishna devotees and so I would go with them in the morning and before the sunrise and walk through the forest and we’d use japa malas which have 108 beads on them. I would chant Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Then move my fingers to the next bead and Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare and try to chant at least 108 times the Hare Krishna mantra. Some of us would chant really slow you know you like Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare or I can chant really fast Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. The main idea though is fast or slow, it doesn’t matter the end.
The other element to this that is really interesting is the Krishna devotees believe that if at the time of death I’m chanting Hare Krishna, at the time of passing I automatically get a free pass into Krishna loka. Krishna loka amongst Krishna devotees is believed to be the best, highest, most pure, sacred space that we can land or arrive into at the time of passing. So it’s very similar concept and most religions have of a heaven or a sphere that after death that we will, you know, move into, directly in communion with Krishna.
So, I would hang out and chant Hare Krishna in the morning with the devotees. I would go to the Krishna temple and offer service and help clean in the kitchen. I would go to out to Alachua where there was a Krishna temple and listen to Bhagavad Gita readings and talks and participate in the kirtans. I just got really involved in the culture and community.
I also continued with my studies at University of Florida. My curiosity spilled over into my elective course choices. Because I wanted to fulfill my dream of one day traveling to Africa I took a Swahili language class. I had this dream of going to Africa, I really wanted to travel to Africa. I’ve always been so fascinated by African culture, and I just had this passion and drive to do everything I could to increase my odds of making this happen. Studying Swahili seemed like the closest I could get to African travel here in Florida so I went for it. Most people in the class seemed to be looking at me, like, “What in the world are you doing in this classroom?” My parents were like, “What in the world are you doing taking Swahili?” I just think they were flabbergasted by my choices at the time. To be honest being a parent myself I can now fully appreciate just how challenging it was to raise me. Based on some of the choices I made, you know, I can understand now how difficult that might have been for them to watch me pursue my path. Yet, what I love about them is they really kept loving me even though I took a completely non traditional learning path. I only hope I can show the same love to my own kids as they go out into the world on their own.
I remember want to to get out of university so bad and just start traveling and seeing the world that I was busting at my seems of containment. I just had this like really strong feeling that I I just needed to see something bigger than what I was used to. My dreams didn’t really fit or coincide with the typical educational and career path building goals inherent in our American culture. This really came to a breaking point crux where I realized that I needed to put my university studies on hold. I completed a summer semester and then a fall semester and I gave it a year’s trial.
My parents had always told me, “you know, Todd, you gotta go to college. If you don’t go to college, you know, you’re going to limit your chances of having a good career.” Looking back this was sound advise that I will offer my children as well. The path I took was not the easy path.
In many ways I have had to work harder because of my rebellious nature and the choices I made. In part, the decision to leave University was very difficult because I was a really good student. I had made straight A’s when I was in high school and I had a really strong work ethic regarding study and learning. The problem was I just was not connecting with university life. I wanted so desperately to travel. I wanted to get out on the road so bad that I just felt like I was wasting my parents money. I felt like I was wasting my time I and, you know, in relation to what I was experiencing with hanging out with the Krishna devotees and really getting into bhakti yoga, I came to a major crossroads.
There’s several things that happened though that helped me to realize that most definitely, I was not going to be a monk. In some ways I was at a point where I had three directions I could go. I could stay and study at University, I could drop out and become a Hare Krishna devotee, or I could go toward the unknown and leave the comfort of my current existence and start to travel although I had no financial means to pull this off.
A few things transpired that helped me to rule out the devotee path. One of things that helped me to make up my mind was a fellow monk who was in his 40s had asked me if he could borrow $5 so he could purchase a birthday card for his mom. Something about that simple request in the moment really had impact on me. Because I had this feeling of like, “what if I can’t just simply send a card to my mom for her birthday?” That left me a sense of heartbreak. My parents where so important to me that the thought of really needing to leave them behind to join fully into this, please excuse my expression, cult, left me feeling a sense of emptiness that I couldn’t shake. Like, you know, if I take the path of a monk, and I give all my belongings up to this organization, and really, just, basically renounce the world, renounce money, renounce career, renounce family, renounce engagement with material life, renounce having children, renounce all of the things that come with being a householder, will that bring me peace? I just wasn’t convinced this could be true.
What’s really fascinating about the Bhagavad Gita is that this is one of the big questions that Arjuna has to face on the battlefield, which is really fascinating, you know, where Krishna instructs Arjuna that spiritual aspirants need to be active in the world. Excepting our fate as working individuals is our dharma, or life path. Arjuna doesn’t want to go to battle yet this is the journey that you’re in, and you got to just get into it and go for it and be involved. Even though you don’t want to be on the battlefield you have to embrace the battlefield. At least this is the way that I interpreted the story at the time because I was watching the aesthetics and the monks around me and I thought it looked so appealing, because I could stop studying, I could stop trying, I’d stop having to work, so to speak.
Yet the devotees reminded me that being a monk may look like one has dropped out, the reality is that it is the same amount of work. There is no escaping the battlefield. So now the choice is just what does our battle armor look like? Do we put on a suit and tie and dig in or do we wear a robe and shave our heads and meditate. One way or another there is no escaping so I just had to figure out which way to go.
I respect everyone’s path because now I can see we are all on the same path no matter how we dress or disguise this reality. Renunciation is a really incredible path, which I have a lot of respect for. Putting on a suit and tie and playing the business game is a really incredible path that I have equal respect for. In part I think that is why I have tried, and in my opinion succeeded, at blending the tow together. The art of being a yogi and making it a profession.
So please understand that my choices aren’t any sort of reflection on what I think anyone should or shouldn’t do with their life. The process of finding happiness in life seems to ultimately depend on our level of care that we extend toward one another. I believe that if we stop thinking about how we will protect ourselves and focus on how we can protect one another then this will help solve our dilemma regarding dissolving the anger, fear and hate in the world.
These experiences I encountered with the Krishna devotees and the challenge I felt navigating depression and my purpose in the world really made me think and dig deep to think to figure out what I wanted and what path I wanted to take. Decision making is the testing ground for creative expression and character development.
I started to wonder if it would be possible to utilize the yoga techniques I was learning and apply them in daily life as opposed to committing fully to a life of renunciation. I wanted to take what I’d learned from hanging out with the Krishna devotees and put it to the practice test. I really put my attention in continuing to chant the Hare Krishna mantra and use the mantra practice as a way to help me feel connection and to help me calm my mind. When I would start to freak out and worry about things. I came back to my mantra and tried to bring my attention back to something that bigger than me and help me to get that sense of that I’m just a drop in the ocean. In appreciating how small I am in the big picture I wanted to attempt to try to merge with the larger ocean of existence.
I aspire to feel the essence of the experience of being human and connect to something larger and bigger than my ego. I feel like I learned so much by spending quality time with this particular tradition and culture. It also gave me a measuring stick for which to gauge my interpretation of what I experienced and help me decide what was going to be good for me in my own life.
As I investigated the Hare Krishna movement further and spent more time in the community I met people that had been Krishna devotees, and then they decided to leave the path of renunciation. The renunciate served as the core of the movement and they seemed to be surrounded by a community of lay practitioners that were either like me, genuinely interested, and those that wanted the freedom to earn money and have a spouse and family. As I spent more time with the people on the outskirts of the renunciate core, I was made privy to gossip and disgruntled conversations about personality conflicts within the community.
I started hearing more of the stories about what happened while they were monks and some of the challenges that came up within that whole structure of practice. In many ways hearing about personal accounts of being a devotee of the past was like having the curtain pulled back and the man controlling the strings revealed. This exposure definitely informed my experience and decision making regarding what I planned to do for the future. This also paved the way for countless situations I’d encounter where the same dynamic exists.
From afar the group looks perfect and up close it has all the same flaws we personally exhibit. At the heart of the matter it stems from the axiom, where ever you go, there you are.
A third realization that really got me thinking about the role of renunciation and its close connection to resignation was when I had met one of the monks who was experiencing some health issues. One of the main initial attractors for me into Krishna culture was the food. I had begun to volunteer working in the kitchen. In Krishna culture vegetarianism is at the center of the philosophy as non violence is seen as the pinnacle of the golden rule. I was already practicing vegetarianism so this seemed to align and support my diet choices. For those of you that have never had Krishna food, if you ever come across the Krishna temple, where they’re offering food you have to stop in and have a meal. It is so delicious. It is astonishingly sweet and the aromatic Indian spice that is used for flavor combined with the creaminess of the milk used it out of this world. It’s like eating curry as a desert.
The food served at the Krishna temple is called prasadam. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word “prasadam” is mercy. So when we say “Krishna prasadam” we are referring to Krishna’s mercy. the basic idea is that we often think that we own our food or that we deserve our food. Krishna is the creator of our food and we survive on this nourishment. When the food is prepared it is offered up to Krishna as a devotional representation of our appreciation for the sustenance that Krishna provides. In short it is creating deep reverence and appreciation for the life that we have.
The closest equivalent we have in our western culture and tradition to this ritual is saying grace. Just before a meal we can bow our heads and bring our appreciation for the food on our table and create thanks for its life giving nutrition. The offering of the food as prasadam is an elaborate ritual that involves placing a portion of the food at the feet of a Krishna statue. So while the ritual differs the intent remains much the same. I found this fascinating because it gave me the feeling that even though I was in my home state of Florida it felt like I began to travel to a foreign land. I loved this part of my experience here.
Traveling internationally requires opening up to multitude of differences in approach to life. This experience with the Krishna community helped me to further cultivate respect and appreciation for the diversity of humanity. I began to look at these different ways of treating food and caring for ourselves as expressions of gratitude for our existence. I helped me to see that life truly is a celebration even though we are sometimes in the face of suffering. The color and contrast of humanity can ultimately lead to the connection we all have together and resolve what seems as difference.
So, as I was working in the kitchen, I learned that the way the Krishna devotees were able to give away the food for free is that the ingredients were government subsidies of massive bags of sugar, and powdered milk. Krishna food, in part tastes so good, because it has so much sugar in it. I’ll admit that at the time when I realized that because they were a non – profit religious organization they didn’t have the same tax structure as businesses which allowed them to apply for food subsidies did make my head spin a bit. You know how sometimes things are reasoned out so that it does make sense but something inside makes you wonder at the style of reason used to justify the means?
Yet perhaps I will leave that subject aside and get back to the fact that Krishna food tastes really, really good. Yet, is it healthy was an even larger question? Again, who’s to say, but I’ve met people along the way, who will claim the food that they serve isn’t really all that great for you. It tastes amazing, but from health and nutrition perspective, well you know, it raises a few questions.
So back to the monk that was experiencing health issues. There was almost a debate amongst the community. The dispute was like, “Alright, look, you know, I’m not worried about my body, I don’t care about my body, I’m going to just, you know, eat and do what I want, let my body go.” There’s this contention about whether the body is the temple or is it ephemeral and therefore how we treat it is inconsequential. And if the body is created by God, and I love God, then I’m going to treat my body as if it is God, and therefore, how I treat my body is a reflection of how I worship. The other side is that, okay, this is all temporary, the body is just a vehicle for my soul to inhabit, during its experience of incarnation on the planet during this life. Therefore, my body, you know, whatever I try to do to keep my body going is pointless, because it’s so fleeting, it’s so ephemeral, it’s so temporary. Therefore, I’m just going to focus my attention on connection to something higher than me and if, when, if and when my body goes, so be it. “So what’s the purpose?”
There were these debates going on about the big questions, like, “why am I here?” What is my purpose? What is the ultimate goal of the human? Why are we here? What are we here for? The bhakti culture, the Krishna culture, is quite philosophical at the core. While we would be in the kitchen preparing the meals, we would all get into these deep philosophical discussions.
As I started to mull and turn all these different ideas over one of my main take aways was I knew I wanted to try take care of myself. I want to try the best that I can to maintain my over all health given the understanding that there are so many opportunities for unforeseen circumstances to change my ability to do so. I’m going to put the effort in as much as possible to not be a burden on my friends, family and society and do everything I can to try to take care of myself.
So, while I don’t think that since I decided I wanted to focus on maintaining a healthy body necessarily implies that I could not be a good monk. I just think that in some ways I interpreted my own journey as a monk would imply I would be giving up on taking care of myself some level or another.
These three incidents though seem to me the pivotal points from which I started to come to a decision. The birthday card borrowing money situation. Hearing the stories about the behind the scenes drama that existed among the community. The debate about whether to take care of the body or to leave it to chance. As well I knew that being on anti depressant medication was giving me a brief reprisal from the depths of despair I had been feeling but that it couldn’t be the path I would stay on forever. At least I really didn’t want it to be that way. All this brought me to terms with my decision to not become a monk in the ISKCON organization.
Standing at the junction of this particular fork in the road of trying to figure if I want to be a monk or if I want to be active in the world was a decision that took immense introspection for me at the time. It was an experience for which I am so grateful. Having the ability to reflect on this time in my life gives me the feeling that no matter what decision I made, even though it could have changed my trajectory dramatically, I would have been okay.
Having 30 years of hindsight has taught me that no matter how challenging a situation may seem. No matter how desperate and dark reality might feel. It will change for the better. I truly believe that no matter the path I would have chosen a that time that somehow I would still be here now. Actually, now that I am not gripped by the throws of depression, and I will explain more about this in future yoga yarns, that my willpower to grow and learn in some ways has made this decision making process seem so trivial looking back. Yet at the time it was monumental.
Exploring the decision of whether to walk the path of the householder or a renunciate is one that set the stage for everything that was to come in my life. The thoughts around about the whole culture of taking care of ourselves versus being reliant on the organization really is at the crux of so many of my decisions that I make on a daily basis. Should I rely on my own efforts or should I rely on the community…or both for that matter. It is a question that is worth investigating on a regular basis. Now looking back my decision to keep on the move seems so obvious now that I wonder how I even had such a dilemma deciding.
In almost all contemplative traditions, once a decision is made to be a go down the renunciant path, it is required that our commitment is rock solid with no wavering is allowed. It’s not like you become a monk and then you become a householder, then you go back to being a monk, and then you come back to being a householder. It’s frowned upon. If you’re often given this chance, it’s a one time shot. It’s looked down upon that you would make that decision lightly. It’s encouraged that, if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to commit, you’ve got to put your whole effort, attention and energy into it.
So I was not there. I was no where near that level of commitment to the renunciate path. That was not where I was. I was a teenager with no idea what in the world I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be involved with yoga somehow. At this point in my life, I had no inkling or understanding that I would be involved in yoga as a career path. Absolutely not. That thought had that never crossed my mind at all, especially because within this culture, it wasn’t like, you know, go and hang out with Krishna devotees and take a Krishna yoga teacher training and then open up a Krishna yoga studio. You know what I mean? There was no sense that yoga could be a career path. That just didn’t even exist for me at all in that in that realm. What seemed apparent was that if I wanted to “make a living as a yoga teacher” it required being a monk and removing all connection to financial earning and spending.
While I was in the countryside of Alachua, I had also began to explore the wider window of yoga. I took my first hatha yoga class. It was out in the forest, and in a really beautiful structure built of wood and glass. It was a really beautiful setting and I will never forget the first time seeing yoga blocks, straps and bolsters. Right away the yoga room made me feel like it was a place that I would like to spend time and I wanted to hang out. Yet to be honest I don’t think I was ready to take up a hatha yoga practice. That came much later. It could have been the teacher or perhaps the style of practice but I don’t remember being fully hooked the way I am now.
This is what’s really fascinating about yoga, in my opinion, that there’s so much to it. Just within the hatha yoga tradition alone. There’s so many different approaches. There are so many ways to go about yoga practice that when one is curious about yoga, it’s really important in my opinion, to move into a technique or a specific school and stay there for a while, to take as many classes as possible and be as inquisitive as possible. I believe that listening deeply to the questions arise and seeking answers is a big part of the path of yoga. I believe practice is personal and taking the approach of a scientist is critical. I always ask myself how do I feel? Is this something I am resonating with at this time? Do I feel excited about this? Am I doing this because I think other people want me to do this, or am I doing this because this is really truly what I want? When I start asking all these questions, I just try to stay open to receiving an answer.
When the question arises as to whether should I stay or should I go don’t be I believe it is important to not be afraid to explore and try different things. At some point, if I keep searching and keep looking, something starts to resonate. It’s an incredible process. It’s an inspiration journey to traverse.
If I investigate where I am right now, and I feel like I are intrigued, I feel practice is working for my betterment. If I am working for my practice in a way that I feel this deep connection, and I feel deep appreciation for it, then for me, this indicates to me in my own practice that I’m on the right path.
What’s really interesting here is that when I recognize I am on a yoga path, and the samskaras, which are deeply ingrained habit patterns, come up in me. I am learning to accept my resistance, I’m coming to terms with the process of loving my own reservations. When friction heats up my surface I know now the solution is to stay with yoga practice. I know the friction is partly because I don’t want to look at what is at the core of my irritation, and therefore it’s uncomfortable.
Sometimes this overwhelming feeling like I’ve just have to bail on this whole yoga thing seems the only option. This is where sometimes the yoga practice and these yoga traditions are saying, well, this is when it’s the most important time to not fall. To stay true to my practice and to stay with it and confront what it is that is challenging me and double down on the effort.
This is why I wanted to tell you this story today. I want to share how my struggle ultimately led me to yoga and how yoga is leading me toward inner peace. I just want to tell my story to remind myself to continue to practice. I believe it’s really important to face my fears. I also believe that ultimately, I want to love myself and softening my intensity to try to figure out the essence of life is a paradox.
I don’t want to be afraid to explore. I don’t want to be afraid to go outside of my comfort zone. I honor my truth and respect what it is that you I am truly seeking and looking for.
So hopefully you enjoy a little storytelling. I will continue these yoga yarns and continue to be inspired by the amazing guests that are so kind to appear on this forum. If you have any thoughts, questions or comments on anything that I brought up, please send them my way. I wish you happy yoga and deep journeys in your practice. Love is the only way. Thank you. Namaste
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