Atma Yoga: the full picture
By Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi
Atma Yoga began as the dream of Atmananda when he was still Bhakta Dirk.
His desire was to create a bridge to bhakti that would serve the burgeoning hatha yoga community. While accepting Srila Prabhupada’s declaration that mechanical yoga (hatha yoga, raja yoga, Kundalini yoga, etc…) will not lead to liberation, he considered that the many persons getting involved in yoga nowadays might not accept that declaration quite so readily.
What these ambitious yoga participants would need is something that would give them a positive and healthy yoga experience and at the same time an opportunity to experience the potential of Krsna Consciousness.
The goal was to give people a transformative experience with mechanical yoga while slowly and lovingly cultivate in them an appreciation for the beauty and magic of bhakti.
Atmananda gradually began to work in different attractive components of Srila Prabhupada’s pure teachings into the dialogue he had used for years to teach hatha yoga. One example of this was the recitation and memorization of the siksatstika prayers by the students. Another was introducing them to Krsna prasadam.
To Atmananda’s surprise his yoga system (comprised of different aspects of mystical traditions) combined with small potent doses of pure bhakti, appealed to the students in unexpected ways. Not only was it an alternative to the existing impersonalist yoga schools, it also appeared to be significantly more effective than mere hatha yoga lessons.
With hopes for his new program to bring would be yogis closer to Krsna and the possibility of transforming them into bhaktis, he presented his experiments to HH Bhakti Tirtha Swami. Maharaja enthusiastically endorsed the program which Bhakta Dirk had named Atma Yoga (from a comment made by Prabhupada in the Srimad Bhagavatam.) Shortly there after he was initiated by Bhakti Tirtha Swami. In an even more resounding sanction Bhakti Tirtha Swami named him after the program. In front of Sri-Sri Radha Damodara and a large audience of devotees he gave the newly named Atmananda Dasa a specific three part mission:
1) become a scholar,
2) train yoga teachers all over the world, and
3) work with the rich and famous.
Atmananda says he could not imagine how he would fulfill even one of these three directives. Nonetheless, in the last three years he has taken some good steady steps toward doing so.
He has traveled extensively and trained yoga teachers all over the world. Currently there are Atma Yoga teachers in nearly twenty countries. Many of these teachers are very enthusiastic about the results they are getting from their Atma Yoga outreach. Additionally, the students of these new teachers are reporting encouraging experiences. Atmananda feels that this is because Atma Yoga addresses the needs, interests, and concerns of the professional and busy people that are attracted to taking Yoga classes.
Comments from Atma Yoga teachers and students and seminar participants
Your presentation in Goloka Dhama was very effective. We are now here at the Veden Akademie and have a very productive meeting about applying your Atma-yoga ideas to our preaching here in Germany. We feel very inspired and have the feeling that Krsna sent you at the right time with the right concept.
– Sacinandana Swami
Thank you for your inspiring association. I really appreciated your seminar and your service. That was one of the highlights of my summer. I wish I could spend more time with you in the future. Hopefully we will be able to implement some of your ideas in Moscow and maybe in the future you will come to us to.
– Bhakti Vijnana Goswami
Dear Atmananda. Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us. You have been an inspiration and a help for our spiritual journey.
– Krishna Priya dasi (North Carolina)
I have just come back from the yoga retreat in Radhadesh and I have to say that I was very impressed with Atmananda’s expertise at teaching and also all that knowledge that he has to share with us. He is such a character! Yes, I think this Atma Yoga is the most appropriate for devotees and the best way of preaching for everyone else.
– Ekacakra (dd) LNS (Brighton – UK)
I wanted to thank you so much for teaching me such valuable skills in orderto try and do my service the best way possible. After the course in December, I had gained a lot of tools to work with and develop.. so when I started teaching again at Gaura yoga it was easy to recall presentation skills for confidence and actually so much so that a few guests were commenting on how they could spot a change in terms of my confidence.
– Syama gauri D.D. (New Zealand)
I think your training program was systematic and well-organized, and I really liked the way you teach and present bhakti-yoga, it’s very scientific and universal. I’ve learned a lot form that; and I think there are many devotees out there who could learn a lot about preaching form you.
– Anuragi D.D. (Hungary)
The retreat was great – I went expecting purely physical benefits, but think I reaped a whole heap more mentally. I learnt a lot about the whole Krishna movement which I was previously almost completely ignorant to, met some very nice people, learnt some great yoga and calmed my mind. Atmananda is a great teacher as well – his relaxed, confident style is compelling. The whole experience has definitely raised a lot of questions for me personally, which is great, if not slightly unsettling.
– Tim Wright (Surrey, U.K.)
I just wanted to let you know that I am teaching already 7 classes a week in different places. They pay me $ 30 a class. My husband is also interested in the course. Our plan is to open our own yoga place where we can organize yoga retreats and hopefully you can come and teach here a teacher training course for 6 weeks? The yoga training has helped me very much personally and people around me notice a big change in me. I thank you so much for that and I want to give this gift to others as well.
– Anandini dd (Greensborough N.C.)
I attended most of the 5 days you did at the recent Radhadesh Seminars. I’m writing because I was most inspired by your innovative packaging of Krishna Consciousness for the public. I don’t come across too many devotees prepared to understand the actual language of the public, and certain crowds, such as the new age – yoga – people.
I appreciated very much your explanation of the Bhagavad-gita verses(12.6-12) you quoted for creating a Krishna Conscious community. These are very helpful in understanding how others can be engaged on the bona-fide path of devotional service, and help me to feel confident that I can come to the standard by taking the path laid out by Krishna;
– Bhakta Matt (London)
Support from within ISKCON
Atma Yoga blossomed as a direct order to Atmananda Das from HH Bhakti Tirtha Swam. In addition, many of BT Swami’s God brothers and peers have also been supportive. Of the many ISKCON Gurus, Sannyasis, GBC representatives, and Temple presidents a partial list of advisors, supporters and well wishers includes: HH Radanatha Maharaja, HH Jayapataka Maharaja, HH Sacinandana Swami, HH Devamrita Swami, HH Bhakti Marga Swami, HH Bhaktivijna Goswami, HH Caundramali Swami, HH Kavicandra Swami, HH Hrdayananda Goswami, HH Bir Krishna Goswami, HH Bhakticharu Swami, HH Jayadvaita Swami, HH Praladananda Swami, HG Rabindra Svarupa Prabhu, HG Druta Karma Prabhu, HG Krisna Ksetra Prabhu, HG Braja Bihari Prabhu, HG Annuttama Prabhu, HG Saunaka Rsi Prabhu, HG Svavasa Prabhu, HG Hrdaya Caitanya Prabhu, HG Yadunandana Prabhu…
Atma Yoga remains a separate and distinct entity from ISKCON. Its primary objective, nonetheless, is to serve ISKCON by creating a new class of individuals predisposed to Devotees and Krishna Consciousness. >From this pool it is the programs humble hope that first class devotees could emerge. In the words of HH Jayadvaita Swami, “We will measure the effectives of these indirect preaching efforts by their fruit.”
Interview with Dhanya Devi Dasi – sankirtan devotee
How did you come to Krishna consciousness?
I had taken some interest in Yoga my mom was very interested in it as well, [She had taken Atma yoga courses previously] so I agreed to do the Atma Yoga training. We were learning a lot about yoga but also at the at same time we were talking about the nature of universe, what is reality? The nature of the spirit soul… this was all completely new to me and I was just trying to soak it up.
And it was through the association of the Atma yogis that I got into Bhakti yoga because I was getting both at the same time and they both seemed really cool so I was just like yes, all right I wanted to take it all in.
Then I started spending time with my friend Lee who was an Atma Yoga teacher and we would go to the temple for the morning program and I really liked chanting and hearing class. I came every Sunday to hear Prabhupada and I really liked that; I thought, ‘Yea, I want to become a devotee!’
What service do you do now?
A couple days a week I work as a cashier at Govinda’s Restaurant and a couple days a week I am a cashier at the boutique and a couple days a week I do sankirtan at the airport or go on hari nama sankirtan at UCLA; I also make garlands for the Deities and help with food offerings as well as put away deity clothes.
Where do you live?
I am staying at the New Dvaraka ladies ashram and it is really nice… Being here feels like being part of something big.
What are your service plans for the future?
I want to go to the Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh because that will help me train to be a leader and eventually I want to start a preaching center somewhere in the U.S because there are still many states that do not have temple.
(Dhanya D.D. continues her services at New Dvaraka where she deeply enjoyed her first year of Christmas Marathon book distribution…)
Atmananda was initiated into the Sankacarya-Bharati lineage at age 11 when he was growing up in Minnesota. His mother, Ileana Degeyndt, a yoga teacher for 35 years, took yoga classes at a YMCA in the late 60’s and then began studying Raja Yoga at the Mediation Center in Southeast Minneapolis established by HH swami Rama of the Himalayas. Shortly after that she began bringing her then 10 year old son to children’s hatha yoga classes, where the young Atmananda met his first Guru, Yogi Atchala, a disciple of HH Swami Rama. In this way He grew under the tutelage and supervision of Swamis. Pandits, and Yogis.
“I took my impersonalist teachers very seriously, feeling a deep connection as if I somehow knew them before. They felt like my reunited family… but just because that is my history, it doesn’t mean I can’t move on,” said Atmananda.
Impersonalists dedicate their thinking to the idea of monism, or oneness with God. They believe that the individual soul has no distinct individual personality, and God is the sum total of all souls. Their goal is for the soul to merge with God. Personalists, on the other hand, decry the loss of individuality for the sake of a spiritual merging which denies the separate existence of the Personality of Godhead. Spirit souls remain unique identities as friends and servants of the Godhead.
Atmananda dasa was the founder of the popular Yoga Mandir studio of Santa Monica, California. As the director of Yoga studio offering many styles of yoga as well as promoting kirtan events he began to associate with the devotees at the Los Angeles temple.
“He was headed for personalism,” says Jagadisananda Dasa, a long time temple manager and Prabhupada disciple. “Atmananda is a very personal man who cares about seeking authentic spiritual experience and helping others to do so. He is a great asset to the spiritual community.”
In the three years that Atmananda taught impersonal yoga in Santa Monica Yoga Mandir the program grew to 40 classes a week with thousands of registered students. Eventually the owner of the building decided to sell the building and the lease was finished.
“At that time I was fortunate to be living exclusively on a diet of Sri Krsna prasadam, food offered on an altar in the Krishna temple,” said Atmananda.
“People talk about the yoga of devotion, well I became a total convert to that amazing food, and by studying Srimad-Bhagavatam. I had become dissatisfied with the philosophy of advaita vednata, and was looking for something more complete. I had begun studying the vashita-advaita of Ramanuja, but when I read the “the Teaching’s of Lord Caitanya’ I was sold on acinta-bhedabheda tattva the inconceivable yet unitive philosophy of simultaneous oneness and difference.”
History of Impersonal yoga and Bhakti
While we talked Atmananda cited some examples of died in the wool imperonalists who were able to set aside their training on that path in favor of bhakti. There is the example of the four Kumaras, famous child yogis, who did impersonal yoga with such powerful mind and sense control that they were able to select new bodies of their own choice! They took on the bodies of four year old naked boys in order to move about the universe freely, maintaining complete childish innocence although great sages.
In their many travels, they came to the gate of Vaikuntha, the home of Lord Visnu. When Lord Visnu personally attended to them at the gate, they chanced to smell the very sweet aroma of the Tulasi leaves that the Lord was wearing. Their child like hearts melted in rapture. They realized Visnu to be their Supreme Father and the Lord of all. Presto! impersonalism defeated by the Lord’s bodily fragrance. They could no longer consider themselves equal partners with their beloved newfound Lord.
Another example Atmananda gives is that of Nimbarka Acarya. He was a “Mayavadi,” a person who has dedicated his mind to God’s energy but neglected to accept Him in His personal feature. Nimbarka was a very powerful ascetic. He could meditate for years without food or water. His meditation attracted Lord Siva to appear before him. But Siva directed him to the four Kumaras, the converted bhakti yogis, who gave him a twelve syllable Radha-Krishna mantra, the same mantra chanted by Lord Brahma.
Having chanted this mantra with sincere attention, Nimbarka achieved the darshan of Radha-Krishna, the divine couple of Vraja, the Godhead in male and female form. Never had he seen such beautiful feminine and masculine features! With certainty he now knew that God has personal form.
He then cited a third example. There was the devotee Sarvabauma Bhattacarya, a staunch mayavadi who ran a school in Orissa to train others in his type of scholastic, literary study of impersonal philosophy and meditation. Lord Caitanya, a great personalist saint, came to his town and became popular due to teaching the kirtan, (loud congregational chanting and dancing,) of the holy name of Krishna. The Bhattacarya decided he wanted to save Lord Caitanya from this kirtan, which he called sentimental singing and dancing. He considered it unfit for an ascetic sannyasi.
Caitanya consented to listen to the Bhattacarya’s teach him lessons for seven days. On the eighth day, when asked why He remained so silent, Caitanya said that He was unable to appreciate or even decipher any thing the Bhattacraya had taught him. After some debate, the Bhattacarya was eventually defeated and Caitanya revealed to him His actual identity as Krsna. Sarvabauma Bhattacarya became a bhakti-yogi and many other learned scholars of his time followed him.
Atma explains that modern yoga, though very socially acceptable and safe, has a tendency to come from lifetimes of considerations based on fear and envy of the self. While it maintains a rigor and standard of self-realization that is spiritual, it fails to include the vast experience of “rasa,” relationship between the soul and the Supreme Person. Actually anyone who has no faith in a Supreme Person is infected with impersonalistic tendencies. Even those who have some minimal belief in a personal God tend to go on, life after life, limiting their potential to know Him in any one of the five rasas, or mellows of devotional service and reciprocation with Him.
Persons who doubt the authenticity of the scriptures of India, the Vedas, to be able to deliver God as the Supreme Personality in all five rasas should note that this personalist tradition has recognized scholars such as Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and Bhaktisidanta Swami, who have explained it thoroughly and scientifically.
The personalist path, or Vaisnava path, has the highest standard and is the most scientific because of a system of checks and balances. The criterion for acceptance of any given information is subject to the review of three agencies, 1. Guru, the bone-fide teacher following correctly in disciplic sucession. 2. Sastra, references from scripture. 3. Sadhu, devotees of similar purity and adhesion to the Sanskrit text must concur.
“At some point I had to admit,” said Atmananda, “that all the Sankacarya schools, the Buddhist, as well as any of the New Age Cultist groups, simply don’t meet this type of criteria.”
In his Yoga Mandir practice Atmananda has kept all that was special and useful to him in hatha yoga techniques, asana, pranyama, mudra, bhanda, mantra. “Everyone respects those,” says Atmananda, “so we have maintained all of those but simply established them where they belong, on a more complete Vedic philosophy. It is ‘Astanga Bhakti Misra’, because the yoga I now teach reflects the natural conclusion of the Vedas as they are.”
A very interesting question is why did India turn toward impersonlism to begin with? Over the last 1200 years impersonalist interpretation has become popular due to many influences. Sankaracarya and Buddha had their different motives for covering over the original intention of Vishnu worship in the Vedas. In modern times we saw that well intentioned Indians who needed a way to deal the British in India watered down the Vedas to protect their own interests.
When the Vedas came to the west with RamaKrishna and Vivekananda all that got here was a generic version that would not offend westerners who are frightened by Deity worship and God’s personal aspect.
Why all this shrouding of the Vedas when personalism is the preferred belief system on the planet? After all, both Christianity and Hinduism put faith in a personal God. The shrouding was to cover what was at first glance seen as mythology and idol worship. They needed to make a clean initial presentation of the Vedas which would not dissuade any westerner from his first baby steps in self-realization.
Most yoga systems currently being practiced in the United States stem from these purposely truncated philosophies. The reemergence of pure and complete spiritual knowledge depends on following a bone fide teacher who is presenting the Vedas as they were originally presented.
Interview with Lee Levitt- Atma yogi
“My journey through this process with Atmananda has been for me one of the most profound and life-altering experiences in my life,” says Bhaktin Lee, who graduated from teacher training with the first class of Atma Yoga teachers.
“We started with bhangra yoga, a system of yoga that is very aerobic, like Kundalini shakti, a lot of energy to it,” said Lee. “It did a lot of work on my nervous system, and it made me a stronger person. But when Atmananda started to teach bhakti yoga we didn’t have any idea, what is this? I mean, o.k, we tried bhangra, and that was pretty different, but what could bhakti be about? So we all started going to bhakti yoga classes and it was just sitting in the Yoga Mandir, reading a Bhagavad-Gita! We each got a mantra. And then there was a little contest about who could get the maha-mantra. There was maha-mantra sweepstakes each week!
“So it progressed from just a core group of about 6 of us but then there was this huge constant flow of people who would be coming in an out. Then it became two nights a week we were learning bhakti-yoga. Atma taught us how to cook gourmet vegetarian food for Krsna, how to sing bhajans for Krsna, how to offer a variety of kinds of prayers. Then he brought this over to his new location near the temple and began to develop all this in a much deeper, solid way.”
(Bhaktin Lee is an executive assistant living in Los Angels and doing part time service for the temple. She is an aspiring disciple of HH Hrdayananda Goswami.)
“Añöäìga-yoga is therefore part of Vaiñëava practice because its ultimate goal is realization of Viñëu.” Purport to S.B. 3.28.1
Yoga’s historical role in Krsna Consciousness
>From as long ago as the days of Lord Kapila the goal of mystic yoga and bhakti yoga were meant to me the same. Consequently the possibility of using hatha/raja/pranayama yoga a possible means of reaching out to the public has always existed.
This possibility can be seen in the Gaudia Vaiñëava tradition in the work of Bhaktivinode Thakura. His Book Prema Pradipa- about a devotee/yogi who agrees to teach mechanical yoga to a demanding public in hopes of infecting them with an interest in bhakti- is an excellent example of yoga as outreach.
Srila Prabhupada also wrote in a letter to his disciple Satsvarupa Maharaja that hatha yoga could be taught at the temple as a means of outreach. “So if they come to know about hatha yoga you can show them in the authoritative scriptures how it cannot be successfully practiced in this present age of kali.” This according to Atmananda is the mood of the Atma Yoga program.
In the present day Yoga preaching has been a very effective tool by great ISKCON leaders such as Tamal Krishna Goswami (who opened the first Yoga school in Hong Kong.) HH Devamrita Swam (GBC for preaching) has also used Yoga for outreach very successfully in New Zealand and Australia.
Atmananda simply wishes to follow in the footsteps of these great devotees as well as fulfill the direct order of his guru maharaja.
Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi is an initiated devotee since 1979 and senior member of the New Dvaraka temple community. She is also a contributing writer for Back to Godhead Magazine.