Philadelphia is the launch pad for a spiritual group's new attempt to link meditation-seeking city dwellers with replenishment in a rural setting.
"The purpose of the urban-rural farm connection is to demonstrate sustainable living and spiritual thinking," said traveling monk Devamrita Swami. "We strongly advocate the combination of both."
Swami, 66, is a Bhakti yoga practitioner who is partly based in New Zealand. But he has played a leading role at both Mantra Lounge, in Fishtown, and Gita Nagari, a 350-acre farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, which he described as the "only certified cruelty-free dairy farm in the USA."
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Mantra Lounge opened in 2015 and offers regular workshops on meditation, yoga and philosophy to groups of 10 to 40 guests at a time. Gita Nagari opened in 1974 and attracts some 5,000 visitors a year.
"It [the farm] has been around for a long time," Swami explained. "What is news is our realization that there must be an urban connection."
What currently exists is a "symbiotic" relationship between farm and the lounge, Swami said, with a regular exchange of staff and visitors between each space, while the farm is also used to host retreats and other events. The farm also serves to raise visitors' awareness of the ecologically balanced life that the spiritual practice of bhakti yoga calls for, he said.
"We're in a very serious situation, as the only species that has destroyed its own habitat, and we need to understand that without a connection to the land – and all that that connection entails in terms of a balanced lifestyle – there’ll be no major solution," Swami said. "The question is, how many urbanites want to invest in a rural connection, if not moving to a rural area, at least developing an active reciprocal relationship?"
Swami, many of whose talks can be seen on YouTube, was educated at Yale and has been traveling the world as a monk and teacher for four decades. But back in the '60s, he was living in West Philadelphia with his mother, at 53rd and Catherine streets, while attending Central High School.
"Philadelphia to me represents the sophistication of the Northeast, combined with the down-to-earth-ness of the Midwest," he said. "As I'm speaking at universities in the Philadelphia area, I've seen that students are hungry for this urban-rural farm project connection. … Honestly, I'm surprised at the yearning of students for something that will make a difference, something that will make environmental sense."
Swami said the lounge and farm are affiliated with ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which is sometimes referred to as the Hare Krishna movement. But they are more specifically aligned with the Bhakti yoga practice, he said, which includes a focus on Krishna meditation and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
"The real environmental problem has to do with toxic consciousness. So unless we have a program for refining and distilling what is within, we’ll continue to have problems without," Swami said. "There's desperation in society today. People need to see a different way of living."