The Bhakti Center in New York City’s Lower East Side has had an impressive 2019, laying the foundation for its community to have an extremely transformative year in 2020.
The Center’s annual report (https://issuu.com/bhakticenter/docs/journeyofselftransformation), released this January, highlights many exciting achievements, led by devotees paying off their mortgage in full to outright own the 25 First Avenue building.
Two major fundraisers in December 2018 and June 2019 helped make this possible. The June fundraiser “Devotion in Motion,” a ballroom gala-style event held at a showroom in Tribeca, featured music by Jahnavi Harrison, an inspirational talk by Radhanath Swami, and a presentation by Executive Director Virabhadra Tansey. Drawing 100 people, it raised $200,000.
Also behind the historic achievement was Finance Director Sundarnath Das, who brought the Bhakti Center out of debt and into financial sustainability; and of course the continual support of the community for over a decade.
During a ceremony on December 16th, Radhanath Swami offered a copy of the deed to Sri Sri Radha-Muralidhara and Srila Prabhupada, along with kirtan by devotees from the Bhakti Center, ISKCON Brooklyn, New Vrindaban and Cleveland, Ohio, many of whom had a historic connection to the Center and its presiding deities.
Radhanath Swami offers the copy of the deed of the building to Srila Prabhupada and Sri Sri Radha Muralidhara and Gaurachandra while devotees join together in kirtan
In a moving talk, Radhanath Swami said “To own this building seemed like a far away dream,” and told the devotees that they had a collective responsibility to take care of this precious asset of Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON.
The achievement is particularly monumental when viewed through the lens of ISKCON history. In 1975, devotees purchased a multi-storey building on 340 West 55th Street in the heart of Manhattan, which Srila Prabhupada was exceedingly proud of, and which saw the movement thrive. However, after Prabhupada’s departure, management sold the building, which GBC Praghosa Das recently called “one of the greatest blunders in the history of our movement.”
“So to finally own a six-storey building in Manhattan, one block away from 26 2nd Avenue, is a huge deal for the devotees,” says Bhakti Center art director and marketer Rukmini Priya Poddar. “We see it as a really big accomplishment.”
Devotees have also begun investing in improvements on the Bhakti Center building, spending $100,000 to completely renovate the second floor into a top-of-the-line yoga and meditation studio that will attract an upper class New York audience.
Across four months from August to November 2019, two interior designers from Sydney, Australia – Lalita Priya Dasi (co-director of the film Hare Krishna!) and her mother – worked with contractors including Radha Madhava Dasi from New York to transform the space.
Students practicing yoga in the newly renovated yoga studio
“The ceiling had collapsed because one of our pipes broke, and the whole place looked dark and dingy,” says Rukmini. “So we put in high quality, beautiful wood floors, made the walls brighter, and added a feature wall with a beautiful stone murti of Krishna.We also have plants, a hanging ghee lamp, a brand new sound system and lighting, and new yoga mats, cushions, and bench seating. It’s quite aesthetically gorgeous.”
The floor also includes a smaller meditation studio/classroom for kirtan classes and more, as well as a holistic lifestyle boutique store. The store sells everything New Yorkers need to start on their Bhakti path, such as mridangas, harmoniums and kartals for those taking kirtan classes; introductory books like the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Sacinandana Swami’s The Living Name and Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Home; deities and deity paraphernalia for those who want to learn how to worship the Lord; and Ayurvedic products.
It also sells kichari packs containing rice and moong dahl, a spice kit and instruction manual for those who want to start cooking prasadam; and sustainable fashions by Rasika Gopi.
“Rasika works with village women in India to create beautiful block print clothing that is fair wage,” says Rukmini. “All the products in our shop have a story – we can say, this was made by this woman, in this village, and we’re paying her properly. Because more and more people in New York are very conscious, and they want to know who’s making their items.”
The store is just as aesthetically pleasing as the yoga studio, with stylish cabinetry, brick walls, wood floors and new glass doors letting in streams of sunlight.
The holistic lifestyle boutique, which includes items people need to start their Bhakti Journey
“When we first opened it and people walked through, they were like, “Is this really the Bhakti Center?” Rukmini laughs. “This year we want to attract a lot of people to events and classes on the second floor, and eventually we want to have the whole Bhakti Center renovated to the same quality.”
Two major new programs will be offered this Spring in the newly renovated space. The first, a 100-hour Meditation Teacher Training, will be taught over four weekends between February 21st and March 29th and is aimed at yoga students looking to deepen their meditation practice or teachers who want to add it to their classes.
Taught by world-renowned Yogi Charu (Charu Chandra Das), it is based on the classical techniques found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, Gerand Samhita and the Bhagavad-gita; and includes Japa Yoga – mantra chanting on malas (beads); Ajapa Japa – effortless mantra chanting; Kaya Sthairyam – steadiness of the body (sitting still); Samaveta Pranayama – even breathing; and much more.
The second program is Explorations of Kirtan – an Immersive Training in the Art of Sacred Song. Taught by Doyal Gauranga and Kishor Chandra, who head up the Bhakti Center’s Kirtan School, it will also run over four weekends, between February 22nd and April 12th. As well as teaching instruments and techniques of kirtan, it will cover the culture, mood, history and meaning of kirtan according to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings.
The Bhakti Center, of course, also has many ongoing daily yoga and meditation classes, as well as weekly programs like Tuesday and Thursday night kirtans, and study programs like Gita Life and Bhagavat Sravana.
The meditation room, where kirtan classes are held
Among its most life-changing programs are Community Groups. Over a four-month semester, people meet every week at member’s homes, to study Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita or other spiritual books like Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s ‘From Lust to Love.’An experienced devotee facilitator answers questions, and there are several levels of groups, such as Beginning Bhakti, Growing Bhakti, and Deepening Bhakti.
“Four months is a commitment, but there is a very high retention rate,” says Rukmini. “Around seventy percent of people who join a community group stay. And that’s the place where we create a really strong sanga of friends.”
The Bhakti Center’s community is what its team are most proud of, fostering incredible transformation. Its latest report, for instance, shares several “Bhakti Journey” stories from everyday New Yorkers who were searching for something more, showing their step-by-step progress.
Many first attended a yoga workshop or teacher training at the Bhakti Center, then participated in a Bhakti Immersion Retreat or began to read and discuss the Bhagavad-gita in a community group. From there, some began to study Ayurveda, went on pilgrimage to India, or began teaching yoga classes or facilitating community groups themselves. Others then took on the practice of bhakti, began doing selfless service, or even became initiated devotees.
“New York is known for having all the people in the world, yet feeling the most lonely,” says Rukmini. “So many people are looking for warm, friendly, loving community. And I think they’ve found it at the Bhakti Center – along with genuine authentic tradition, deeply rooted in Srila Prabhupada’s teachings.”
“I moved from confusion to clarity,” writes one community member, Roya P, in the Bhakti Center’s annual report. “I walked through these doors not knowing what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. This path and community has removed the dust from the mirrors of my eyes so I can truly see. I feel safe to claim my power and gifts and encouraged to help others do the same.”
Sri Sri Radha Muralidhara
“You can see that their lives have transformed,” says Rukmini. “They’ve given up bad habits, they’re living their values, their lifestyle is more healthy, they’re doing meditation practices, they’re connected to a loving community, and they have a relationship with God that they feel has really enriched their lives.”
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Read the Bhakti Center’s Annual Report here: https://issuu.com/bhakticenter/docs/journeyofselftransformation
Sign up for Explorations of Kirtan here:
Sign up for 100-hour Meditation Teacher Training here:
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