By Sita-pati das
Here is an article that I recently prepared for the ISKCON Congregational Preaching Journal about the outreach work that we’ve been doing over the last decade or so that involves hatha yoga. From the articles and comments that I’ve read on Dandavats, and from doing some research and talking to devotees around the world, I’ve come to the realization that there is simultaneously interest in this style of preaching, and a lack of a systematic, easy to read overview that explains how it is being done. So I wrote this article to provide that. Almost unanimously the Loft staff that I’ve spoken to agree that the best way to learn the mood and method of Loft preaching is to get a staff member from an existing Loft center, or send someone to join a staff for some time. In the absence of this, I hope that this article will help to give an overview of the principles involved.
desiring to be a servant of the Vaisnavas, Sita-pati das
“How to stimulate valid innovation while preserving our core values? A look at one way that ISKCON members have been using “novel ways and means” to introduce people to Krishna Consciousness.”
== A Preacher’s Dilemma ==
There is a growing sense of unease about the effectiveness of our current preaching paradigms in Western cities. The rising number of ads calling for pujaris, cooks, and preachers to reinforce existing ISKCON temples is a visible indicator that recruitment from the general public has slowed down drastically.
Some say that the slowdown is due to mechanically doing “more of the same” when times have moved on; we no longer live in the world of the
60s and 70s, in which Srila Prabhupada weaved his way expertly through the cultural environment. “Srila Prabhupada’s own example is one of sensitive and intelligent adaptation. We need to find the appropriate ways and means to stay relevant to a changing culture!”
Others counter that it is exactly this push to “change things” that is sapping the life out of the movement; that it represents a loss of faith in the process that Srila Prabhupada gave us. “There is no need for something new. What we need is a return to purity and the basics - the Prabhupada program. This talk of doing something “different” is a symptom of the very problem!”
Temple managers, faced with the day to day practicalities of managing with decreasing resources, would be happy to see rhetoric replaced by results, by any of the parties. It seems that demand for “innovative approaches” is on the rise.
At the same time there is the very real concern of maintaining ISKCON’s philosophical purity, and not deviating from Srila Prabhupada’s program.
While I can’t pretend to have all the answers to this, I do have a contribution to make to the ongoing dialog from my personal experience. To my mind it suggests that the resolution to this dilemma may be found not in either one of the two, but in the appropriate combination of both.
== Introducing the Loft ==
Over the last ten years a number of centers have sprung up utilizing what is referred to as the “Loft preaching” paradigm. “Loft preaching” is named after Srila Prabhupada’s programs held in artists’ lofts in Manhattan, and was the name of the first of these centers, opened in
1994. These centers work in coordination with ISKCON’s temples as a distinct, additional program. Think of it as an on ramp to the transcendental highway.
Present day Loft centers such as the Loft and Gaura Yoga in New Zealand, and Atma Yoga and Urban Yoga in Australia currently offer “a yoga class and dinner for one great price!”. Contrary to a superficial examination these centers are not the latest development in hatha yoga, however, but in “intentional relational networking” - a time, place, and people sensitive manifestation of sadhu-sanga.
== Bhakti Comes From Bhakti ==
Srila Rupa Goswami explains that sadhu-sanga comes on the basis of sraddha. At the same time Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura explains that sraddha is obtained through sadhu-sanga. Bhakti comes from bhakti. Loft preaching tackles this chicken and egg problem by reaching out to those who are not yet interested directly in Krishna Consciousness, in addition to those rare fortunate persons who are, in order to cast as wide a net as possible.
At these hip inner city centers (above street level to reduce overheads), center staff provide the excuse that people need in order to justify to themselves coming along several times a week. Don’t underestimate the benefits of offering people a “credible alibi” for spending time with devotees, to help ease them over their initial lack of sraddha.
“By associating with devotees, such people give up the mumuksu principle and render devotional service. The real cause for this change is the association of devotees. The Krsna consciousness movement is meant to attract all types of men, even those who desire things other than the Lord’s devotional service. Through the association of devotees, they gradually begin to render devotional service.”
Bhaktivedanta purport to Sri Caitanya-caritamrita Madhya-lila 24.124
“I was fully satisfied. My impression was “these people are very nice. At the same time they are not geeks. And their food rocks the house…” The atmosphere was very homely and it felt like my place. The devotees there treated me very nicely, inquiring what I wanted to do in life, etc… It was a very natural progression. I was drawn in by natural attraction.”
-Ramdas das became a brahmacari and remains a member of the New Zealand Travelling Sankirtan Party 9 years later
== Origins and Early History ==
His Holiness Devamrita Swami is the original inspiration and guiding hand behind the current crop of Loft preaching centers. On sankirtan in the central square of a European city, observing the flow of people passing by him, he thought to himself: “Why can’t we have a center where we can have a flow of all kinds of people like this, that we can spend time with and distribute books, including full sets, to?”
This thought germinated and sprouted when the first Loft was opened in New Zealand in 1994. Initially the offerings were Ayurvedic seminars lead by Dr Liladhar Gupta, classes in Sanskrit, and a discussion night on “The Celestine Prophecy” a popular new age book of the time. People would come and say what they thought about it. The devotee leading the discussion would listen to them all, then say what they thought about it, injecting their Krishna Consciousness. The guests would listen respectfully, having had their time to talk, and then (on to the real program) they would take prasadam and chat with their genial hosts, the center staff, over dinner. As well as these nights, there was a Bhagavad-gita discussion on Friday night, and a “Krishnafest” on Sunday nights.
Three years after the first center opened, a hatha yoga class was added among the other offerings. In 1998, as the popularity of hatha yoga in this part of the world continued to rise, the centers’ offerings evolved into a menu of contemporary “yoga-themed” offerings: hatha yoga classes, lifestyle seminars presented in a “yoga lifestyle” context, alongside the Bhagavad-gita discussions and “Krishnafest” program.
I think that many of you here, considering a Krishna consciousness lifestyle, you can see here that it is possible. Here everyone is living peacefully, there is cameraderie, and also everyone has a bit of space to sort themselves out. Support is very important these days. Use the experience of the devotee community here to enrichen your life, and see how it is possible to apply Bhagavad Gita in the contemporary context.
== Direct or Indirect? - or How About “Both”? ==
The program at the center is constructed in such a way that it dispenses with the question of whether to do “direct” or “indirect” preaching, by doing both. Some people choose to come on the indirect nights and attend a hatha yoga class or lifestyle seminar, take prasadam and mix with the center staff, some (those on the fast track) choose to come on a direct preaching night, often called Krishnafest, where the same familiar center staff reappear flying the Hare Krishna flag.
On the indirect nights we offer something that people are interested in and that doesn’t compromise our principles. We give them what they want
(or think they want) us to give them: a hatha yoga class, cooking class, or whatever our staff can credibly present. Along with that we also give them what we want to give them - prasadam and association. And they love it. What can top the experience of Krishna prasadam and sadhu-sanga?
They were already my valued friends whose influence I had welcomed into my life when I came to understand they were part of a worldwide religious cult! And by that stage I did not much care - I had already decided that I wanted to be like them in outlook and heart - I wanted to be a devotee”
- Tri Yuga das now lives in ISKCON’s Melbourne Mahaprabhu Mandir and manages the Urban Yoga center.
Sannyasis and brahmacaris from a local temple also preach in Loft centers, coming in to present seminars and workshops as part of the ‘direct preaching’, which Loft center staff also do, in addition to the indirect preaching. The formal renunciates remain detached from the day-to-day operations, however, and leave this to the Loft staff.
In the last few years Loft centers have developed sufficient facilities and staff to do two programs on the same night - one direct, one indirect, with the two sets of guests converging on the dinner table.
Doing both direct and indirect preaching (for fun and profit) in the one place on different nights fulfils a number of purposes:
- It allows you to appeal to and serve a wide variety of people. Far wider than you could if you were to choose one or the other.
- It allows you to go beyond “all or nothing” by empowering the guests to choose their level of immersion, and gradually increase it as they are ready to.
- It allows you to maximize your use of the center, and make it financially self-sustaining, rather than having it empty some nights of the week.
- It allows for the guests who are not yet inclined to hear about Krishna directly to subsidize those who are, through paying for classes and seminars.
For a preacher you couldn’t get a better facility for encouraging new people. Super nice environment with enthusiastic and sensitive devotee staff members. That’s half the battled solved. Prasadam after the program is always first class, the environment becomes ecstatic. Our group meets with the yoga class which finishes at the same time. Everyone takes prasadam together, it’s quite an experience. It’s a combination of warmth and efficiency.
- Dhruva das brahmacari has been distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books for 13 years from ISKCON’s temple in Brisbane, Australia. He hosts a weekly program using the Bhaktivriksha course materials at the local Loft preaching center.
Loft centers do both direct and indirect preaching: The “indirect” programs help to financially maintain the center, and provide a comfortable introductory opportunity for people to experience association with devotees and prasadam, at this center based on Loft preaching principles in Australia.
== Books Are Still the Basis ==
In these centers staff focus on cultivating relationships with the guests, and introducing Srila Prabhupada’s books in that context. We find that as people come to like the staff, they want to become more like them. A natural attraction for the things that attract the staff arises. Full time Loft center staff read Srila Prabhupada’s books two hours a day, in addition to their other duties. By maintaining a personal focus on reading Srila Prabhupada’s books it becomes a natural “next step” for interested guests to purchase their set of Srimad Bhagavatam.
Rather than having a book shop the center has a book shelf, and staff read and discuss the books with the guests personally and in discussion and seminar workshops. After some time a person naturally inquires: “How can I get a copy of this book?”
An important element in Loft preaching is the “next step”…. Finding out where the person is at in their spiritual progress, and meeting them there on that level. Then finding out what is the “next step” that is within their capacity to take, introducing them to that next step, and helping them to take that next step. The two important things to understand are that the details are different in every case, and each person needs to be dealt with individually… and that ultimately we have to lead everyone to the same place: they’ve got to start chanting, and they have to read the Bhagavatam.
-Vraja Dhama das, like many, went from Loft guest to staff, and after a three year leave from Loft preaching as a full-time ISKCON missionary in South America, is now part of ISKCON Brisbane’s “Hare Krishna Food” catering team by day, and a Loft preacher by night.
== Purity is Still the Force ==
The staff are practicing devotees who live simply, maintaining themselves and preaching in the evenings. The best staff for a center such as this are: ex-sankirtan devotees, who can clearly understand the difference between “the cover of the book” and the “content” and not confuse the essential focus of the center and the details; and devotees who have themselves come to Krishna Consciousness through a center such as this. Effective Loft preachers are those who have a strong philosophical basis and simultaneously understand the necessity of relationships in preaching.
We’ve found that when staff become confused between the details and the essential goals of the center, or when persons with ulterior motives are involved, the center loses its special “bhakti-infused” appeal and outreach becomes ineffective. It’s not the hatha yoga or whatever else that is attractive, that’s just there to give people a justification to come in the beginning. The attractiveness of devotional service is what brings them back again and again, and changes their heart.
Loft preaching is all about sadhu-sanga, and that takes sadhus. It requires healthy sadhana, personal discipline, and a compassionate heart, combined with a certain spirit of selflessness and sacrifice to be effective in Loft preaching. Additionally, it requires maturity, and a willingness to accept guidance, in order to maintain a balance. Staff members are guided and counselled by senior devotees in order to achieve this.
Loft preachers are “innovative in presentation, orthodox in practice”. During the week they follow the ISKCON temple program, adjusted to take into account the evening preaching and the fact that a number will be working day jobs. In the weekends if there is a temple in their city they generally attend the program there.
Purity is Still the Force: Loft center staff must read Srila Prabhupada’s books two hours a day in addition to their other duties. Here a Loft staff member and a regular guest read Srila Prabhupada’s books while waiting for a flight. As people come to like you, they want to become like you.
Purity is Still the Force: Loft preachers live simply and follow the ISKCON temple morning program at home, modified to take into account the evening preaching and the fact that some are working day jobs.
== “Contemporary Vedic Ashram” ==
Rather than passing interested people immediately to a temple, we’ve found it more beneficial to spend some time with them helping to restabilize them before entry into the movement. Today’s candidate for Krishna consciousness in a Western city is reeling at the very least from intoxication, illicit sexual relationships, and terrible patterns of behaviour and diet, all started at an increasingly young age. In addition, an increasing number of persons coming to us have suffered abuse and other traumas which affect them emotionally and psychologically.
It can take up to two or three years for them to gain enough stability and clarity to be a fully functioning, productive volunteer in the movement. In order to help them reach this stage we have developed what we call the “Contemporary Vedic Ashram”, a situation where refugees from modern Western urban culture live with staff members of the center and others who are “coming in for a landing”, developing a Krishna Conscious lifestyle while going on working and supporting themselves. These are generally all-ladies or all-men’s ashrams, or else a grhasta couple who take responsibility for helping men or ladies.
After their time in the Contemporary Vedic Ashram candidates have had a few years of solid reading and chanting, have developed good habits to replace the bad, have had a chance to deal with the major physical and mental effects of their previous lifestyle, and now have enough sense of themselves and the wider situation that they have entered into to make informed and conscious decisions about their spiritual career path in ISKCON.
Graduates of New Zealand Contemporary Vedic Ashrams have gone on to serve in temples in the U.S., England, Australia, and South America, as well as New Zealand.
“Devamrita Swami suggested I do it when he met me at Bhaktivedanta Manor. I thought: “I’ll try it for 3 months, get my health together and can always go back and get a job, if I need to.” I was expecting it to be like a temple, but everything was a lot more “small time” than I was expecting. No big temple. No big devotees. No big egos. The devotees were very strict about male / female interaction. Much more so than anywhere else I had previously seen. There was a strong focus on sadhana. I initially did not like, agree with, or understand the strict male / female separation (because of excessive attachment to the opposite sex). It took a long time to get over that misgiving. Westerners have a lot of “issues” to work through before they can become effective devotees.”
-Candidasa das is now studying toward a PhD at the University of Manchester, where he runs the VedicSoc program, offering a hatha yoga class followed by chanting of the Maha-mantra, a discussion, and prasadam.
Contemporary Vedic Ashram: With the loving guidance and association of senior devotees those “coming in for a landing” live with Loft center staff members. The mood is one of “camaraderie in fighting illusion”.
- Download the prospectus for the Param Karuna Ashram, a Contemporary Vedic Ashram in Wellington, New Zealand where single men who come through the Loft preaching center there can live with veteran Loft preaching couple Mahavan das and Khadiravan devi dasi.
== Relationship to ISKCON ==
A Loft center is part of ISKCON and separate from it at the same time. To borrow an analogy from the secular business world: just as Toyota have the alternate brand “Lexus” in order to appeal to a different market segment, similarly the ISKCON and Loft brands (whatever name is being used for the Loft center) are two separate brands, designed to have a combined appeal to a wider market than either one alone.
Just as Toyota never mentions “Toyota” and “Lexus” in the same breath, similarly we need to be clear in our messaging to not dilute the two brands by mixing them. Doing this reduces the effectiveness of the strategy, and risks creating confusion about the nature of ISKCON.
There are different ways to start a Loft center. I have been involved in starting some that used resources exclusively from the staff, and some that have been financially assisted in the start up by an ISKCON temple. I have seen Loft centers that are financially integrated with ISKCON and Loft centers that are financially independent.
A Loft center, in any case, is not an ISKCON temple trying to pretend that it’s not ISKCON. It is a center run by ISKCON members as a way for them to reach out to people and share their experience of Krishna Consciousness with them.
My personal realization is that the ISKCON temple functions to provide Vaisnava brahminical culture, and the Loft center functions to bring people to the point where they can recognise, appreciate, and take advantage of that culture. The essential relationship between Loft and ISKCON is not a question of management or finance, it is a question of brahminical influence.
The Loft staff are themselves individually members of ISKCON and model taking advantage of, and contributing to its Vaisnava brahminical culture; and remember that as people come to like you, they want to become like you. Thus their entry into ISKCON becomes a natural, gradual, and organic process. Many people have become purified and passed over the ocean of material existence into an ISKCON temple staff in this way.
I was studying management at university when I met the Loft devotees at a program there. I bought a cook book, and then started to do yoga at the Loft. I started to help wash the dishes. I kept on hanging out at the ashram and going to the programs. I was thinking: “they’re having so much fun here and I want to be part of it all.” There was a spare room and I really wanted to shift in so I showed some interest, hoping to be invited in and they did invite me. I never noticed how rapidly my life was changing, to the point where 5 years later I am now assisting in managing the largest temple in Australasia and all I can think is - how did that happen?”
- Gopal Guru das is General Manager of ISKCON’s Melbourne temple
Relationship to ISKCON: Loft preachers are ordinary ISKCON members who contribute to and participate in ISKCON’s Vaisnava brahminical culture, and simultaneously reach out to people to share their experience of Krishna Consciousness using the Loft preaching paradigm.
== The Future ==
Many Loft preaching centers currently offer hatha yoga classes, but it wasn’t always this way, nor will it always be this way. Since the wave of the day is hatha yoga Loft preachers are riding it. At the moment there is collaborative work going on between different centers, whose teachers received their yoga teacher training outside, to develop “in-house” yoga teacher training. To become a credible and effective teacher of anything takes some time. To develop teacher training longer.
At the end of the day though, when the fickle winds of taste change, hatha yoga will go its way; but sadhu-sanga, the essential dynamic of Loft preaching, will remain.
== Further Information ==
This article is an introductory overview to the Loft preaching paradigm and some of the centers based on it. It covers only a few of the main points. For further, more detailed information, I strongly recommend listening to the comprehensive Contemporary Urban Preaching Seminars delivered in Mayapura and Radhadesh by His Holiness Devamrita Swami.
The most recent version of this article, incorporating later revisions and additions, can be viewed on the web here.
Author info: One day, some months after Sita-pati das stumbled off the street and up the stairs to a Loft, he woke up and looked at the Bhagavatam set on the shelf and realized that he had become a Hare Krishna. A disciple of His Holiness Devamrita Swami, he currently finds himself living in Brisbane, Australia with his wife, Param Satya devi dasi and their son Prahlad, helping to introduce others to ISKCON through a Loft preaching center.