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BELIEFS

L.A. convocation honors the world's great religions

Visitors to the weeklong gathering of the Self-Realization Fellowship practice yoga and meditation while honoring the underlying principles of different faiths.

August 10, 2009|Duke Helfand

As the lights dimmed over a hotel ballroom in downtown Los Angeles, 2,000 people closed their eyes and commenced their morning kirtan, or devotional chanting.

"Oh, God beautiful, at thy feet, oh I do bow," they sang as monks played tiny cymbals and other instruments. "To the yogi, thou art bliss."

The visitors were attempting to establish a spiritual tone for the weeklong world convocation of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a religious and spiritual organization whose devotees practice yoga and meditation while honoring underlying principles of truth in the world's great religions.

The convocation, which ended Saturday, attracted nearly 4,000 disciples of the late Indian swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who established the fellowship in 1920 and opened its international headquarters five years later in Mount Washington, near downtown Los Angeles. The fellowship now has more than 600 temples, meditation centers and retreats in more than 60 countries.

Yogananda, who died in 1952, is often credited with introducing Western audiences to yoga.

His followers say he sought to bridge Eastern and Western traditions by identifying the spiritual and metaphysical links between Christianity and yoga. One book based on his speeches and writings, published by the fellowship half a century after his death, offered a detailed interpretation of the New Testament's four Gospels.

The book, "The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You," postulates that the three Wise Men who came to worship Jesus hailed from India, and that Jesus traveled to the subcontinent during his "lost years," practicing yoga meditation during his stay.

The fellowship's recognition of other faiths is evident in its practices: Disciples open their prayers with an invocation that mentions not only their line of gurus but also Jesus and the "saints and sages of all religions." The fellowship's Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades also has a "Court of Religions," with monuments to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

"We must recognize the unity of mankind, remembering that we are all made in the image of God," Yogananda said during the Lake Shrine's opening ceremony in 1950, according to an account provided by the fellowship.

The swami's presence permeated much of last week's convocation at the Westin-Bonaventure Hotel. His image -- brown eyes and serene expression framed by flowing black hair -- appeared on hundreds of books, pictures, videos and compact discs available there.

"Let's visualize the Guru in the spiritual eye," Brother Devananda, a monk, instructed the crowd during a morning chant. "Imagine yourself at his feet completely receptive to his teaching and his love."

The assembly featured meditation and chanting sessions, and "how-to-live classes" with such titles as "Removing Mental Ruts With New Ways of Living," and "Making the Right Moral and Spiritual Choices in Life."

Visitors also toured several local landmarks for the fellowship, including the Mother Center international headquarters in Mount Washington, the Lake Shrine and Yogananda's crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.

Many participants said they felt spiritually fortified by Yogananda's Kriya yoga meditation techniques, which they say allow practitioners to quiet the body and mind, withdrawing from the turbulence of thoughts and emotions to experience deep inner stillness that brings "attunement with oneself and with God."

"It's like spiritual medicine," said Laura Katsanis, 58, a homemaker from San Diego. "I'm connecting with my inner self."

Arrigo Renoldi, who traveled from Italy, said his experience in Los Angeles reinforced one of Yogananda's most essential lessons, one that Renoldi will take with him back to his job at an industrial parts company.

"It's important to balance," said Renoldi, 46, who was attending his fourth convocation. "If I work too much, it's very difficult to be quiet and find a state of calmness."

Patricia Anderson, meanwhile, came away from her first convocation feeling a psychic buzz.

"I have gotten grounded, calm and happy to be around a lot of people who know they're on a path," said Anderson, 61, of Anchorage. During the how-to-live class on moral choices, another monk, Brother Achalananda, lamented that spiritual growth had failed to keep up with the spread of material wealth, but he predicted that the world was at the beginning of a new age of greater knowledge.

He urged devotees to follow the yoga system of Pantanjali known as the "Eightfold Path." It calls for practitioners to be truthful, content and self-disciplined as they concentrate and meditate to reach the final goal of "absoluteness," or realizing truth beyond all intellectual understanding.

"Meditate. Love God. Serve others," he told the gathering. "Do the best you can, and you'll get there. God bless."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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