Members of the Kirtana Festival Bus Tour through Mexico and Guatemala, and members of Bhagavat Life met at a retreat center in Guatemala for the first Japa Retreat held exclusively for youth. The twenty-two participants had two full, and two half-days of workshops designed to help them develop a stronger connection with japa. Practical instruction was combined with time for sharing and reflection, and culminated in a day set aside for chanting sixty-four rounds under a vow of silence.
Taking a respite from their travels, the youth worked on basics such as pronunciation and posture, as well as attentive hearing and techniques for dealing with the mind. They were encouraged to reflect deeply upon what encouraged them in their japa as well as what discouraged them. They also thought a lot about the role japa plays in their lives currently, and tried to envision how they would like it to be in the future. Particularly useful were sessions where participants shared their thoughts and experiences, either in pairs or with the entire group.
Inspired by their experience at a Bhagavat Life Japa Retreat in October, Manu and Jaya Radhe, (founders of ISKCON Youth Ministry), were eager to find ways to provide a similar experience to other youth. With this in mind, they conceived of adding a Japa Retreat to the planned bus tour through Mexico and Guatemala and contacted Bhagavat Life, asking them to facilitate.
As with other retreats, this one led up to the challenging “sixty-four rounds” day. On the evening before, a call for a show of hands showed a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Some even raised their hands twice to show that they were both eager and anxious! Despite any misgivings, there was a strong early morning turnout and Manu Prabhu was greeted by some empty rooms, complete with already made beds, when he made his rounds to give his wake-up call at 4:30 am.
Hrishikesha recalls, “To be honest, when I first heard about the Japa Retreat, and what we were all supposed to do, I wasn’t looking forward to it. The most rounds I had chanted in my lifetime was twenty, and that wasn’t even chanted with sincerity—what to speak of sixty-four. When the day finally approached, I decided to take it seriously, since I realized that being in an environment where everyone was trying to devote their pure energy to Krishna in paradise, was probably a once in a lifetime thing. While it was a chore at first, I soon began to appreciate the intensity of chanting. I focused on Krishna, and let everything else material fade away. I chanted forty-six rounds, and was satisfied with that. I didn’t receive immediate enlightenment like everyone wanted, but I was content. The generous seminar given to us by Giri Govardhana Prabhu, Purusha Sukta Prabhu, and his wife Divyambara Mataji, was very beneficial to my spiritual advancement.”
While many reported that their best rounds were in the early morning session, several were able to complete a full sixty-four, and nearly everyone chanted more, (usually many more), rounds than they had ever before. Some participants remarked that sixteen rounds no longer seemed like so many. Most agreed that the vow of silence was actually the greater challenge!
The retreat concluded with a sharing of experiences. Some shared how they had gained strength and encouragement from others in their pursuit of sixty-four rounds. Some had experienced sudden attacks of doubts, or felt that they hadn’t had the kind of ecstatic experience for which they were hoping. One remarked that, though he had chanted often in the past, he felt that this was the first time that he had “really” chanted, and that he had experienced the chanting as being a conversation with Krishna. Some shared that having the retreat in a tropical paradise was a bit distracting! One kind soul thanked the facilitators for coming, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t really felt ready for the”sixty-four rounds” day.
“The Japa Retreat [in Guatemala], was a wonderful experience for me. It made me see how important japa is. Specifically, it made me realize that the way we pronounce each holy name makes all the difference in the overall flow of the mantra. It also gave me useful tips on what to think about while chanting. I definitely recommend this retreat to everyone, and I hope to continue with Japa Retreats in the future.” shared Pritha Goldman.
There are already plans to make a Japa Retreat a part of next summer’s Youth Bus Tour, with this first retreat being a great learning experience helping to make future retreats even better.