A 200-hour full immersion Yoga Teacher Training Program concluded a few days ago at New Vrindaban taught by Gopi Manjari Devi Dasi. After an intense 18 days of training, six students went away with not only their well-deserved yoga instructor certificates but also a powerful introduction to Krishna consciousness, a heartfelt connection with Srila Prabhupada, and a memorable experience of bhakti.
Gopi Manjari is a seasoned yoga teacher who runs her own studio called “Bhakti Yoga DC” in the heart of the nation’s capital just five blocks from the White House. As a young woman, she had approached yoga to overcome depression and trauma and felt that yoga saved her life. Since then, it has been her mission to share yoga with others. Having learned from the best teachers, her classes are always filled to capacity with a regular clientele including high level federal government employees, professionals, students, and entrepreneurs.
Her teacher training programs are recognized by the Yoga Alliance and highly acclaimed. For her 200-hour immersion courses, she usually takes her students to distant, exotic places like Govardhana Eco-village in India, or Colombia or Brazil. But due to Covid, she needed to keep it relatively local and decided on New Vrindaban as the venue. Since New Vrindaban had also been hit hard by the pandemic and had been looking for new events, the management happily agreed to host the retreat.
This turned out to be the perfect venue since Gopi Manjari is not just any yogi – she is a bhakti-yogi. In fact, her parents and older siblings personally met Srila Prabhupada. Her brother was given a spiritual name by Srila Prabhupada as a young boy, and her mother currently lives in Seva-kunja, Vrindavan, India. Gopi Manjari herself was initiated by Satsvarupa Maharaja more than 35 years ago and has served in Ireland and England. Now she lives in Washington DC with her two children – Madhava, age 17, and Vishnu Priya, age 11. So, as a serious practitioner of bhakti-yoga, Gopi Manjari is very committed to making people understand the actual meaning of yoga, that it is not just about asanas and breath work, but about how these mechanical aspects of yoga assist us in linking to the Supreme. She makes it clear that the goal of all yoga is to help us come closer to Krishna.
The class for the training program consisted of six students coming from different walks of life, including an actor, a public health worker, an occupational therapist, and a PhD student. These were joined by two New Vrindaban residents, Anuradha Dasi and Bhaktin Sarah, who also completed the entire training course.
The daily schedule for retreat attendees was fully engaging. The group would meet daily at 6:00am and start the day with a Bhagavad-gita reading, followed by a little kirtan and japa. Then, 6:30 to 8:15 was vinyasa yoga practice followed by breakfast at 8:30. The main yoga teacher training ran from 9:30-1:00. During this time, for the first seven days, Braja Kishori taught a human anatomy course where the students learned about muscles, tissues, tendons, and the dynamics of flexion and extension in the different planes of the body - anterior, posterior, frontal, etc, so they could scientifically understand what the body is doing in each of the yoga asanas. After the first week, students were called upon to use what they had learned by doing “postural analyses” of the asanas where they would distinguish which muscles are used, the placement of the feet, and all the technical details of each posture.
From 1:30-3:30pm they would all break for lunch and resume at 3:30 for another 3 hours of training. The evening session was dedicated to the philosophy of yoga in which they studied and discussed two books – Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is and Wise Love by Pranada Devi Dasi. In this way, the day started and ended with the Bhagavad-gita, framing the yoga training in the broader context of bhakti. This philosophical component was an essential feature of the course and was reflected in the final exam.
Since yoga can only be fully understood in the context of the culture it originated from, various elements of traditional Vedic culture were integrated into the training. One aspect of this was cow protection. In the ancient Vedic culture, and still in much of India today, cows are sacred and cow products like ghee, yogurt, cow urine, and cow dung are essential ingredients for ceremonies, temple worship services, and Ayurvedic medicine. To better appreciate the sacredness of cows, part of the yoga immersion experience was to spend time with Krishna’s cows, learn how to milk them, brush them, and understand not only philosophically, but viscerally, why vegetarianism is essential for any true yoga practice.
There was also a cooking class led by Anuradha Dasi in which students learned the science of balancing nutritional needs in a vegetarian diet and the importance of maintaining the high standards of kitchen cleanliness outlined in the Hari Bhakti Vilasa. They gained practical experience of how to cook some of the all-time favorite Hare Krishna recipes like kitchari, coriander chutney, and halava, and learned how and why devotees offer food to Krishna.
Like the original Vrindavan in India of which it is a replica, New Vrindaban is replete with its own holy places of pilgrimage which provided the yoga students with plenty of sacred hiking experiences. They made the trek to Old Vrindaban to visit the original farmhouse where Srila Prabhupada stayed for 30 days translating his books. Jaya Krsna Das accompanied the group and shared with them the history of this important but rarely visited site.
They also visited Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, and as the students marveled at the stunning architectural craftsmanship of this historical monument, Gopi Manjari explained yama and niyama yoga principles using Srila Prabhupada as the perfect embodiment of each and every quality. After this inspiring session, each student was gifted with a copy of the single volume biography of Srila Prabhupada.
Returning to Srila Prabhupada’s Palace on another evening, the group took part in a two-hour kirtan which they thoroughly enjoyed. At one time, they were fortunate to meet Malati Prabhu who shared with them stories of her experiences with Srila Prabhupada. Malati had such a pleasant time with them that she invited them to come to her cabin on another day for a dinner of pasta and salad that she cooked herself. The students eagerly accepted the invitation, brought presents for Malati, and ended up spending hours in her association.
As far as their meals were concerned, they sometimes enjoyed the typical ISKCON fare of rice, dal, paneer and vegetable subjis and chapatis, and mostly were treated by Madri Prabhu or Ananga Manjari Prabhus with home-cooked yoga-inspired meals.
At the end of the course, each student had to teach a yoga class by themselves, and on the last day, there was a graduation ceremony which took place in the temple room. At this incredible ceremony, Gopi Manjari spoke gravely about what it means to graduate as a certified yoga teacher. She explained how she hoped that each student would step into the world as a new person with newfound values based on the principles of Bhagavad-gita and the life of Srila Prabhupada.
She told the students that they now have a choice to open one of two doors. One door leads to the dark room of their ego where they practice and teach yoga in an egoistic way concentrating on the physical asanas only. This room, she said, is a confined space with no channel to higher connections. Or, they could open the door to the illuminated room that is Srila Prabhupada’s room, and if they open that door and open their hearts and minds to learn from Srila Prabhupada, then Srila Prabhupada opens another door to the room of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, and he opens another door to the room of Srila Gaurakisora das Babaji, and so on, up the whole parampara (succession of spiritual teachers) to Krishna. And when the door to Krishna is open, then the light shines through all the open doors, making the whole journey illuminated, blessed, and perfect.
For the last 18 days, they had been daily reciting the mangalacarana mantra - om ajnana-timirandhasya jnananjana-salakaya caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri-gurave namah– “I was born in the darkest ignorance, and my spiritual master opened my eyes with the torch of knowledge. I offer my respectful obeisances unto him.” Now at the end, with this analogy of the rooms and the doors, they were able to understand the meaning of this mantra.
After her uplifting talk, Gopi Manjari handed out the certificates. As each student stepped forward to receive the certificate, a complete Hare Krishna maha-mantra was chanted as a way of extending blessings to that person. Then a mangalacarana homa was performed in front of Lord Nrsimhadeva. All the students, dressed in traditional Vaisnava attire and decorated with tilaka, sat around the yajna arena. Lilasuka and Bhaktin Osea led kirtan while grains and ghee were offered into the sacred fire. Then, as Temple President Jaya Krsna Prabhu made the last offering at the request of the officiating priest, Amita Das, his wife Anuradha Dasi touched his right hand signifying that she was making the offering along with him. Seeing this symbolic act, one of the yoga students spontaneously touched Anuradha’s hand, and another touched that student’s hand, and another that student’s hand, etc., so that everyone was connected to the offering process in a beautiful transcendental chain. It was an act of spontaneous heartfelt devotion, a mystical and magical experience.
Following the yajna, they all partook in the fruit prasadam in a joyful mood and then walked back to the Yogashala, taking pictures of New Vrindaban’s beautiful scenery on the way. Arriving at the Yogashala, Gopi Manjari was surprised to see a trail of paper cards cut in the shape of hearts and water droplets with messages written on each one expressing gratitude and praise for all the knowledge, training and love she and her assistant Lori had given the students over the past 18 days. In exuberant appreciation, all the students shouted in unison “Showers of love!” and their gratitude reverberated throughout the Yogashala.
Then they created a closing circle where each student was given the chance to share their reflections and realizations from the course while a slideshow of pictures taken by various students during the retreat was shown on the screen. After this, each student was asked to take a turn sitting in the middle of the circle keeping their eyes closed while each of the other students gifted them an anonymous note or a word or phrase of kindred appreciation. As a parting memento, everyone received a surprise print of a beautiful group picture that was taken in Old Vrindaban in front of the farmhouse where Srila Prabhupada first stayed. This closing event was followed by a fabulous feast. Then everyone packed up and left with beautiful memories.
One of the students, Hazim Abdullah-Smith
, a quiet, grounded, PhD student, who had no prior knowledge of bhakti before this retreat, was inspired to write a poem which he recited on the last day. In his poem, which is included below, he expressed his thoughts about the holy name, Srila Prabhupada, and the transformative power of bhakti-yoga, which he had personally experienced during the retreat.
In this age of darkness we have been brought to the light,
Climbing mountains and reaching new heights.
We rise above the mode of ignorance to soak in his divine grace.
We lead with love and serve with a warm embrace.
The gifts bestowed upon us we nurture and protect,
So we can create justice and unity no matter what creed nor sect.
Voice and purpose connect in beautiful harmony in tune,
And with glorious playfulness like when Krishna plays the flute.
We use our voice
To shout shout shout his holy name from the mountaintop to the corner store.
We use our voice
To sing from the heart a sound so pure no one can ignore.
We use our voice
To ease the pain of our suffering from shore to shore.
We use our voice
To abolish the demonic forces that have been institutionalized in society’s core.
We use our voice
To deliver the message of universal consciousness with an unapologetic roar.
As evidenced by Hazim’s beautiful realizations, Gopi Manjari is clearly expert at guiding her students into bhakti yoga in way that is relatable, concise, and powerful. To avoid confusion from the outstart, she had humbly requested the New Vrindaban devotees to be friendly but not to preach to her students. At the same time, she had selected a few senior disciples of Srila Prabhupada to come and share their experiences of Srila Prabhupada with the group. By the end of the retreat, seeing Gopi Manjari’s dynamic way of teaching Krishna consciousness, some New Vrindaban devotees were inspired themselves and full of admiration.
All in all, Gopi Manjari and her students had an amazing time at New Vrindaban. They loved the open, natural setting which gave them the chance to go for long walks and open their hearts and minds to the experience, to let go of the normal barriers which can block ascension to higher consciousness. They were free to laugh, to cry, to inquire, and to connect what they were learning and feeling to the deepest part of themselves. They appreciated the temple, the restaurant, and the senior devotees of the community with whom many were able to forge meaningful relationships.
We hope that other yoga teachers will be inspired to come to New Vrindaban for their retreats and events. Gopi Manjari plans to return to do similar yoga courses each year. Incidentally, Gopi Manjari was recently nominated as a candidate in the “Yoga Warrior” competition. The winner of this online competition will receive worldwide recognition in the Yoga Journal which is one of the largest yoga publications in the world and will also receive a cash prize of $10,000 and the title of Yoga Warrior 2021. Winning this title would be a great aid in spreading the glories of Srila Prabhupada and the process of bhakti-yoga as the topmost yoga system. So, if anyone feels inspired to make this happen, please go to iamayogawarrior.com and cast your vote. Let’s all support each other in nourishing body, mind, and soul in the loving devotional service to Krishna which is the essence of bhakti-yoga.