The Gita Nagari farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania has launched the Bhakti Immersion Experience, a Krishna conscious residency for new and experienced bhakti practitioners aged 18 to 28 with three, six or nine-month options.
The program is tailored towards both second generation devotees looking to get some formalized ashram training and experience in full-time temple/farm service, and young people who are relatively new to bhakti and would like to learn more.
“It’s a finite amount of time, so it’s not so intimidating, yet it's a very full and complete experience,” says Champakalata-sakhi Devi Dasi, co-facilitor of outreach and education with Vinoda Kovida Das.
Alongside the several-month-long Bhakti Immersion Experience, there are also Bhakti Yoga Weekends for those who already have some foundation in bhakti practice, and would like to learn about the lifestyle of a bhakti yoga practitioner, but have a busy schedule and can only get away for a weekend or a week at a time.
Finally, there are Weekend Yoga and Meditation Retreats for complete newcomers to bhakti.
Participants stay at comfortable accommodations with single or double room options on the 420-acre Gita Nagari farm. Established in 1974, the farm is home to the beautiful Sri Sri Radha Damodara, 80 cows, one of only two certified Ahimsa slaughter-free dairies in the U.S., a functioning vegetable garden and a CSA.
Covid-19 safety protocols are in place for the safety of participants – all overnight guests are vaccinated, while daytime guests are required to wear masks and social distance.
“As a farm project, Gita Nagari has an opportunity for people to get an experience of the lifestyle that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to live, which is simple living, high thinking,” says Vinoda Kovida Das. “We’re trying to develop that as much as possible here. So we find that it’s very attractive for people to come and see us growing food, taking care of cows and the land, and simultaneously doing deity worship and outreach in the nearby city. It’s a very complete experience for participants – no matter what their interests are, they can be engaged here.”
For the Bhakti Immersion Experience, enrollment is open, so candidates can join at any time and choose the three, six or nine month program. While in Gita Nagari, they develop a morning sadhana (spiritual practice); partake in delicious prasadam and milk products from Gita Nagari’s protected cows; and learn many different types of services such as gardening, cooking, working with the cows and creamery, tending to Tulasi Devi, making flower garlands, cleaning the temple and other spaces, and facilitating guests.
They also participate in outreach programs at local universities, attend retreats hosted by Gita Nagari, have community kirtans and festivals, take yoga asana classes, and receive a career aptitude workshop and one-on-one guidance through a mentorship program. To rejuvenate, there are recreational activities in nature, and one day off per week. Participants also make lifelong friends and get to hear from the wider community of learned senior devotees.
Meanwhile there are systematic study programs depending on how long an experience one chooses. The three-month program includes courses on all eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad-gita, two cantos of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Vaishnava Etiquette, and a Kirtan course on kirtan philosophy and mood, as well as how to play instruments and lead kirtan.
The six-month program includes everything in the three-month program plus a Nectar of Devotion course, ongoing kirtan course, Gaudiya Vaishnava History and lessons from Sri-Caitanya-caritamrita.
Finally the nine-month program includes everything in the six-month program plus courses on the Nectar of Instruction, Sri Isopanisad, and Bhakti and Sustainability.
Those who are not in a phase of their life when they can commit to living in a temple for several months but still want the bhakti experience, and already have some training in sadhana and bhakti yoga, can attend Bhakti Yoga Weekends. These experiences, which can last a weekend, multiple weekends or a full week depending on the candidate’s preference, include participation in the daily morning program at the temple, yoga classes, a guided farm tour, community kirtan, Bhagavad-gita classes, prasadam meals, unlimited therapeutic time with the cows, forest walks, talks on sustainable living, and service opportunities.
“This is a great program for people who want to understand what it’s like to live in a temple, while still maintaining their job and family, etc,” Champakalata-sakhi says.
The Weekend Yoga and Meditation Retreats, meanwhile, offer similar experiences as the Bhakti Yoga Weekends, only tailored to complete newcomers.
Speaking about the benefits he hopes to see from Gita Nagari’s Bhakti Immersion Experience, Vinoda Kovida says he would like to see participants get “a wholesome experience of bhakti – practicing it, living it, learning the philosophy and offering service.” On a national level, he adds, “We would like to see this program create more strategic cooperation amongst ISKCON centers in the U.S., where individuals come to Gita Nagari to receive training and inspiration in their bhakti practice, and then return, enlivened, to offer service at their centers.”
Champakalata-sakhi emphasizes that the purpose of Bhakti Immersion is not to have members of other centers stay at Gita Nagari long-term, but to provide a service to those temples and communities who may not have the facility by giving their members the ashram experience, and then sending them back to participate to an even greater extent in their own communities.
“We see a difference in devotees who have had an ashram experience and those who have not,” she explains. “People who never have that experience may be coming to programs for years but may not know how to offer their food, establish a morning sadhana practice, or do practical services, and may not ever get to systematically study the scriptures. Even if they understand about chanting sixteen rounds and following the four regulative principles, but haven’t had an ashram experience, some don't make it long-term – they may practice for a few years, and then their fire may burn out. But I see that when people have an ashram experience, and they go really, really deep, it gives them the tools and the foundation that they need for a lifetime of service in Srila Prabhupada’s movement. And it doesn't mean they're going to be a temple devotee for the rest of their life. But they've had that temple experience, which gives them the strength to have a job and a family while making their home a temple. So we want to give people that kind of experience.”
To apply for the Bhakti Immersion Experience, please visit: https://www.iskcongitanagari.org/kc-gap-year/[ education ] [ farm ] [ gita-nagari ] [ retreat ]