TAMPA – Outside the white building of the Jain Temple, a gentle breeze stirs a few leaves across the pavement and grass, and sounds a deep-throated wind chime off in the distance.
A late-afternoon hush fills the extended 10-acre grounds, which is home for the Jain Temple, the Hindu Temple of Florida, and the Vishnu Mandir, along with the India Cultural Center, in this suburban neighborhood northwest of downtown Tampa.
Men and women wearing colorful salwar kameez clothing of loose-fitting trousers and tunic-like tops common in India start to gather at the Jain Temple, which features an exterior of decorative arches and a balustrade concrete porch under a flat roof with domed peaks, or shikhar.
Inside are the temple and adjacent temple hall made of white marble. The people leave their sandals outside on the concrete porch before entering the temple hall and begin to help line its marble floors with cushioned mats, while a man sets up a sound system and drums at the front in a corner.
“I knew I had to get myself out of the house to come here,” says Anjali Pant, as she settles in comfortably on a mat near the raised platform at the front of the room.
Pant, a social services program specialist who lives an hour’s drive away in a suburb east of Tampa, grew up in India – the subcontinent that gave birth to the life-practice of yoga several thousand years ago.
Pant usually practices yoga in her house, but on this day, she is seeking to be recharged in the way yoga stemmed from her birthplace, something well beyond strenuous exercises often associated with yoga in the West.
The weekend workshop is just one of many yoga events held throughout the year at Tampa Bay’s numerous Indian temples, featuring prominent gurus and swamis who are from India or who were trained in India. The events, like this one, are often free and open to the public.
When spiritual leader H.H. Yogiraj Omprakash Ji Maharaj enters the room, several of the four dozen, mostly Indian-American, members of the audience place their palms together at their heart, bowing their heads once in respect and say, “Namaste.” It is a greeting in the ancient Sanskrit language of India that means that the life or soul in me honors the life or soul in you.
Yogiraj ji Maharaj, the founder of meditation and yoga ashram in India, is dressed in a white dhoti, or unstitched cloth, worn around his waist and legs. A thick black beard reaches below his neck, and his long, black locks are held back in a ponytail. His eyes have a warm and playful expression. He invites everyone to the front to begin with a prayer at the lighting of a lamp, over which he struggles to light a match prompting teasing and his joke that he’s never had a cup of tea in his life let alone practice lighting a match for a cigarette.
During the next two to three hours from his position on the platform, he directs the group, sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English, through postures designed to alleviate stiff joints, arthritis, low-energy, digestive problems and depression.
“This is good for diabetes,” he says, coaching the group into a pose known as janusirshasna, a seated position with one leg straight out, pressing out through the heel, and the other leg bent with the sole of the foot placed against the opposite thigh – with the torso, lengthened and not bent, slowly lowered or folded over the extended leg. One of the benefits of the pose is thought to be a massage to the internal organs, including the kidneys.
“Ready for next,” he calls between changes. “Smile on the face,” he encourages.
In between the physical poses, he incorporates breath work to the sound of the drums, balancing poses, and then swaying movements for the spine, to traditional Indian music. He leads the group in song as well as chanting to accompany the concentration on each of the seven chakras – or energy nodes in the body thought to run up and down the spinal column, from the tail bone to the crown of the head.
Pant and many others in the group follow along smoothly, brought up in the full tradition of yoga that does not isolate the physical postures alone. Instead it combines the physical postures – known as asanas, which Westerners are most accustomed to learning in a yoga class – with meditation, chanting, mantras, and breathing practices.
The purpose of the approach, which includes ethical living, healthy diets and intense states of meditation and concentration, is to awaken in humans a union between the body and a higher consciousness that is considered a natural part of every person – a state thought to be lulled into dormancy by obsessive thinking and associations with the past, future, material possessions and appearances.
One of the outcomes of this full practice is witnessed in a rare and special moment that occurs at the end of the class. Yogiraj ji Maharaj guides the group into a seated lotus position – legs bent and crossed with ankles on opposite knees, or something close depending on what their legs and hips will allow. He settles them into a deep meditation. The room is silent, full of a calm energy for a long time. Suddenly a rattling noise emanates from the platform, a vibration of sorts.
Pant and several others peek through opened eyelids to see the source of the noise. Yogiraj ji Maharaj’s torso is vibrating vigorously up and down, rising and falling rapidly and repeatedly on its own from the platform. Later they attribute this to what is known as a spontaneous release of highly concentrated energy known as kundalini shakti.
“I have never seen that before,” Aruna Mehta says afterward. She and her husband helped organize the weekend-long workshop and coordinate the visits by lecturers and gurus every summer and once a month throughout the year at the Jain Temple. She has also traveled to ashrams in India on multiple occasions.
A visit to a guru or spiritual teacher who has devoted his or her whole life to spiritual teachings and enlightenment helps someone reach a level of spiritual development that they wouldn’t obtain on their own, she says. That’s why she and her husband work so hard to bring spiritual leaders here, because many people don’t always have the ability to travel to India.
“We here in the Western world, we don’t have time to go out and search for a guru,” she says. “When a guru comes to visit us, we should take advantage of this opportunity for our spiritual development.”
If you go…
The Jain Temple is located at 5511/A Lynn Road, Tampa, Florida, 33624.
To learn about yoga events and lectures at the Jain Temple, call (813) 786-1756 or visit: www.jainsocietytampabay.org/.
For information about regular yoga events and lectures at the adjacent Hindu Temple of Florida, call (813) 962-6890 or visit: www.htflt.org/.
For more information about yoga events at the various other Indian temples throughout Tampa Bay, contact the India Cultural Center at (813) 264-4638 or call the offices of Khaas Baat, the monthly newspaper dedicated to news about the Indian American community in Florida at (813) 758-0518 or visit www.khaasbaat.com