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Breathing Deep in South Austin

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Open your heart at a local ashram.

By Nick Barancyk, Photos courtesy of Vrinda Didi and Nick Barancyk

Tucked away in Southwest Austin, an ivory and gold spire rises from the hills like a lotus bud. The tower, or shikhara, is the focal point for the Radha Madhav Dham, one of the largest Hindu temples in the U.S. Sprawling more than 200 acres, the temple grounds are a place of reverence, a tranquil haven. The quiet walks and meditation ponds provide the perfect backdrop for a spiritual retreat.

Harmony, in a nutshell

At daybreak, the twittering of songbirds and louder, trumpeting calls of peacocks fill the air. One by one, devotees emerge from their rooms, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and stretching. Silently, they amble toward the spire for morning satsang and arti.

Inside, most sit on the carpet, but a few elders sit on chairs to the side. Daily chant-meditation sheets are passed out. They’re written in traditional Sanskrit, but phonetic and direct English translations are just below. The Radha Madhav Dham Temple emphasizes tradition, but it also highlights the inclusion and education of Westerners new to Hinduism. Vrinda Didi, the senior chanter at the temple, even offers classes on the fundamentals of Vedic teachings.

There is a patter of drums and undulating notes from Indian flutes. Didi leads the chant through a microphone and the room joins. Although the words are foreign, their connotation is clear. It’s a chant of love and devotion and joy that reaches into the soul, calming busy waters. Staying separate from the experience is like struggling against a gentle current.

Chants are followed by arti, or divine offerings. Incense is ignited and devotees gather around statues of Hindu deities. But these gods may not be your gods. Being interfaith to some degree, the temple welcomes those with any religion or background. Even atheists have joined for daily prayer. The chanting, offerings and heart-opening meditation are all devotional practices meant to spiritually connect participants with their interpretation of the divine.

The morning services are followed by breakfast. Three vegetarian meals a day are included at the ashram, and meals are great times to meet fellow devotees. Between services and meals, time can be spent among the grounds. There are numerous places to sit, ponder and reflect. If participants are joined by family, this time can be taken to reconnect and strengthen familial bonds.

The essence of the ashram at Radha Madhav Dham is spiritual reconnection and a devotion to God—whatever that may mean to participants. Didi notes the retreat is not a frenetic experience, but that it serves a different function.

“It’s not like Disneyland here,” Didi says. “It serves a deeper purpose than stimulating the senses.”

Breathing deeply

Whereas the temple focuses on one’s mental and spiritual health, the Ancient Yoga Center next door incorporates the physical. Though it doesn’t offer programming of its own, visitors can sign up for one of the yoga retreats that utilize the building. The center is rented out frequently, which stands as a testament to the quality of the space itself.

All events at the center are accented by home-cooked vegetarian meals and comfortable lounges for reading, writing and relaxing. When classes aren’t in session, the temple grounds are open for exploration. The serene nature of the area is an ideal complement to any asana.

Good vibrations

Didi describes the temple and its surrounding area as possessing a certain vibration. It’s this vibration that seems to permeate the life in these hills, escaping through bubbles in the ponds and the respiration of tree leaves. It drifts into the breath and, like some divine oxygen, the frequency is recycled, the process repeated.

Whether this vibration occurs on the physical or spiritual plane, its presence can be felt. It’s one of warmth and recentered purpose, an uplifting feeling that carries visitors from the temple gates to the outside world. It’s a compassionate hand and a moment of peace.

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