The Lotus Garden Meditation Center

A quaint yoga-retreat center in Carmichael moves our writer into an altered state

Uddhava Harvey makes some mood music at the Lotus Garden Meditation Center in Carmichael.

Uddhava Harvey makes some mood music at the Lotus Garden Meditation Center in Carmichael.

Photo By Anne Stokes

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There’s a theory that music and dance evolved as a way of bringing people closer together. Followers of bhakti yoga take this a step further: Singing and dancing can bring us closer to God.

The Lotus Garden Meditation Center, set back on a quiet street in Carmichael, looked deserted. The peaceful trees decorate the grounds as you approach the main building, where two young people sat on the porch. The girl, who introduced herself as Chanel, popped up to show me around.

On Sunday evenings the Lotus Garden hosts kirtan, a group meditation with chanting and music, with the added bonus of a vegetarian feast and self-realization class. As Chanel walked through the organic gardens, she explained that she was a “WWOOFer”—a volunteer with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an international exchange program that promotes more sustainable living. In addition to WWOOFers like Chanel, Lotus Garden is home to a small ashram community of bhakti yoga practitioners. Bhakti is a yoga path of pure spiritual devotion to God, which includes singing and chanting God’s names as a means of achieving enlightenment. The Lotus Garden offers yoga, tai chi and chi kung classes throughout the week, as well as free meditation programs.

Chanel walked through the main house, which was decked out with sacred Hindu symbols and paintings of Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. Upstairs in the spacious meditation room, two men and a young boy were jamming on guitars, a young mother shepherding her delighted little boy around the room as he danced, banged drumsticks and climbed on pillows. More people trickled in, each immediately bowing prostrate toward the center of the room. As everyone began chanting, a woman from the kitchen handed a sheet of paper printed with the words of the chants and an explanation of kirtan, or mantra meditation, or “a transcendental sound vibration that draws the mind away from the material world.”

A drummer joined the musicians, and one of the men on guitar led call-and-response chanting. The music drifted from one mantra to another, lilting at first, then gradually building to an energetic crescendo. People continued to stream in: 20-something men and women with happy hippie vibes, a Joni Mitchell look-alike, kids holding hands, older men in beads. After about 40 minutes, the chanting stopped and we watched a half-hour video lecture by the group’s spiritual master. As soon as he came on-screen, everyone in the room bowed down. The master, sporting a colorful lei around his neck, looked and talked like a surfer bro. He spoke on the difference between compassion and lamentation, teaching from the Bhagavad-Gita.

Dinner was near a koi pond with a friendly woman named Dawn, who explained that the man on the video was Jagad Guru Chris Butler, a living yoga master who founded the Science of Identity Foundation. After peeking into the yoga studio—a converted barn featuring a vivid mural of Krishna—many returned upstairs for the final kirtan session.

“This is when it gets really lively,” Dawn explained. Another woman, above the chanting, said, “Don’t be afraid to get up and twirl your skirt!”

As the music got louder and faster and more ecstatic, a surge of energy, the words “Hare Krishna” flowed easily from the lips. Mothers danced wildly with their kids, women young and old bounced and sang, and guys closed their eyes and smiled blissfully. The music showed no signs of letting up, but it was time to leave—down the stairs and past the dark driveway. It was like being in an altered state, the pulse of the drumbeat and the whirling rhythm of “Hare Krishna” present all the way home.