Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dharma Yoga Across the US

Q & A with Dharma Yoga teachers in the US...

This week: 
Gopi Om (Nicole Sopko) in Chicago, Illinois 

Where do you live?

I live in Chicago with my partner Dan, and our rescued dogs. I have an affinity for rescued pit bull type dogs especially since they need loving homes. Though I am not a Chicago native and I grew up outside of Detroit, this city is definitely where my heart is.

Which LOAY trainings have you completed? How did you come to do those trainings?
I lived in Philadelphia when I first heard of Sri Dharma’s teachings from others. I dedicated a day to taking the train up for the noon Master Class and my heart instantly knew that Sri Dharma-ji was the teacher for me. Following many years of self doubt and a move to Chicago, I got on a plane for each of the four sessions of the 500-hour and the intensive 800-hour training. It was a test of dedication, not to Sri Dharma-ji to whom I already felt very dedicated, but to embracing my own worthiness.

The 500-hour training took place in the winter of 2009/2010 and I had several life events take place during that time that would be considered a little catastrophic. These events were the pieces of my life that were not me falling away to make room for the things that are more in line with my goals. Being in Sri Dharma-ji’s presence and the presence of so many other aspiring yogis, I felt at peace with the changes and natural in my surrender to the will of the Divine.

When I heard about the first ever 800-hour training I knew that I could not miss it. My personal life was more stable than it had been during the previous training and as a result my mind was freer to submerse myself in the deep teachings that Sri Dharma-ji was offering. The experience was like nothing else and I still struggle to explain what I’ve taken away, but it has been absolutely life-changing.

What would you say about the people who you met during your trainings? How have they inspired you?
The people I met during the trainings inspire me endlessly! Many people I see infrequently but still feel incredibly close to. I keep up with many of them on Facebook, which is an easy tool for that kind of transmission. 

I am constantly awe-struck by the magnitude of what my fellow Dharma Yoga teachers are accomplishing. Of course, I believe it is all a result of “giving up the fruits.”

What is one practice that you do every day?
I try to offer kindness to myself, to others and to the world. I make mistakes, but I constantly practice being kind. I also practice Psychic Development regularly.

What are you currently working on?
I currently make my living in a variety of ways! I am the Vice President of Upton’s Naturals, an exclusively-vegan natural foods company owned by my partner, Dan. Upton’s primarily makes seitan, a compassionate alternative to meat. We just moved into a new production facility in Chicago that we’ve constructed to house that business and which also incorporates a small vegan cafĂ© called Upton’s Breakroom

Dan and I both live and work together to operate these businesses, to which we’ve dedicated much of our lives. The new space has been designed from the ground up limited only by our imaginations and more realistically, our budget. It is a beautiful space for our employees, guests, and students to enjoy and I hope it adds something beautiful and of value to the city that we’ve made our home.

I am also regularly teaching yoga. The top floor of the seitan factory has a small by-donation yoga center called Maha Dharma. I also recently became the caretaker/owner of a second yoga center, Yoga Trek Center, in nearby Oak Park, IL. 

Both spaces offer yoga classes as well as host community events. I aim for them to both be multi-use spaces, while still keeping our intention of creating a devotional space for studying the science of yoga.

Why are these projects a priority?
I think that the main purpose of my previous “profession” was to make enough money to afford the 500-hour training and once that was secured, that job fell away naturally. 

For the first time in my life, I feel competent at what I am doing, which I think is a result of my passion for this work. Now, I just want to keep moving forward; offering whatever I have towards making the world a more compassionate place - whether that is by making vegan options more available and maybe more palatable or by offering spiritual teachings. I try to meet every situation in the way that I am most needed.

How has your experience in the Dharma Yoga LOAY program affected your life outside of training?
The experience has helped me tremendously in developing my drive, as well as to eliminate my fears of success and of failure. As long as I am offering up the fruits of this work, I know that whatever I accomplish will not hold me back from the real reason that I am here, the realization of the Supreme Self.

Can you share a little about your current teaching schedule?
I currently teach at Yoga Trek and Maha Dharma each a few times a week, as well as retreats and workshops throughout the year wherever I am drawn.

What books are you currently reading or studying?
I am currently reading Yoga and Yogic Powers by Yogi Gupta and reading it very slowly and deliberately as I try to soak in as much as I can from this text. I also always re-read the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras and attempt to “check it out for myself,” as Dharma-ji advises.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What is a Mantra?

By Alan C. Haras

©Natasha Phillips

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, many spiritual seekers left Europe and traveled to the Egyptian deserts to approach wise men and women who had been living prayerful lives looking for God.  When they finally arrived at the cell of these wise men and woman (abba or amma), tradition says that these seekers would ask: “Abba, speak to me a word, by which I might have life.” They might then receive a “prayer-word” or some brief instruction.  The pilgrim would take this “word” back with them to their home country and build their spiritual life around this one “word.” 

In the yogic tradition, these “words of power” are called mantras, and they are traditionally whispered into the ear of the disciple by a guru.  The guru is someone who has realized the essence of a mantra.  The Sanskrit word guru actually means “weighty one”.  These gurus have gravitas, and their words carry a lot of weight.  Because the guru has yoked their mind and heart with Truth, when they are approached by a seeker who is humble and sincere, the Truth emerges from them as the perfect thing the student needs to hear to continue their journey.  Indeed, such words give life to the soul who is thirsty for God.

Traditionally, at the time of initiation one receives a mantra, a mala (rosary) and a spiritual name.  The ceremony marks a new birth for that individual into their spiritual family.  But in order to realize the full benefit of the mantra it should be “awakened and put into action.” 

©Jeffrey Vock

Along with receiving the mantra comes both the permission to us it, as well as transference of psychic power from the master.  The mantra contains within it the enlightened wisdom of the spiritual preceptor, and like a zip file, must be unpacked through continued repetition to reveal its full meaning and power.   

 The word mantra comes from two Sanskrit roots – man or manas which refer to the mind/heart, and tra which means “to protect”.  The root tra also means “to cross over” and comes into English words such as “travel” and “traverse”. 

The practice of mantra protects the mind and heart from distraction, and helps us to cross over the discursive mind.

There are many types of mantras.  Some are used to produce specific results - to overcome illness or to achieve worldly success - while others are employed solely for the purpose of Self-realization.

©Jeffrey Vock

Mantras sung in the spirit of devotion, with melody and rhythm, are known as kirtan – the foundational practice of bhakti yoga.  Other mantras are performed silently, like the Hamsa/Soham mantra which is produced effortlessly by the sound of the incoming and outgoing breath.  But the Guru Mantra is given special importance in the world of mantras. 

The mantra given by one’s guru at the time of initiation provides invisible protection for the disciple, and acts like the “red phone” at the White House during the Cold War – it is a direct line to the Supreme. 

Swami Satyasanghananda says that “the mantra is a link between you and the cosmos, between you and the deeper mysteries of the universe.” The specific number of the syllables in the mantra given by the guru is designed to make up for any deficiencies in the disciple’s aura or energetic body.  The more one recites the mantra, the more one gains spiritual wealth.

By establishing the psychic link with the guru through recitation of the mantra, one becomes receptive to spiritual guidance across all planes of existence, and is able to stir the spiritual awareness which resides in one’s spiritual heart.

As Sri Dharma Mittra says, the outer guru shows you how to find the inner guru, situated in the right side of the heart, in the center of the chest.  The practice of mantra is one proven method for gaining access to this sacred chamber of the heart - the goal of all spiritual disciplines.

1.     Yogi Gupta, Yoga and Yogic Powers (New York, Yogi Gupta, 1958), 52 - 62
2.     Swami Satyasanghananda Sarasvati, Light on the Guru and Disciple Relationship, 101
3.     Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, (Paraclete Press) quote taken from Introduction.
4.     Maha Sadhana bySri Dharma Mittra (DVD) – Spiritual Discourses, The Importance of a Teacher


Alan Haras (Bhaktadas Om) is the owner of Hamsa Yoga in Lake Orion, Michigan.  He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Michigan State University, is finishing up a two-year training in Spiritual Direction from the Manresa Jesuit Retreat House, and is pursuing his Masters in Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.  He has been blessed to spend three years studying Advaita Vedanta with Dr. John Grimes, ten years studying the Jivamukti Yoga method, as well as having spent time in India with the late kirtan-wala and bhakti yogi Shyamdas.  In 2012-13, Alan completed the 200, 500 and 800-hour Dharma Yoga Life of a Yogi Teacher Trainings with Sri Dharma Mittra, made a 12-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  As a teacher, he is deeply grateful for the opportunity to offer "the greatest charity of all" - sharing and promoting spiritual knowledge.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

3 Ways To Cultivate Compassion In Your Life

By David Jozefczyk 

Ahimsa (non-violence/non-killing or compassion), the ethical guideline that stands in the forefront from the others, is life’s law of non-harming

Once this ethical guideline is mastered, all other ethical guidelines fall into place. Also true, is that the more compassion is studied, the more layers of understanding appear.

Most people understand Ahimsa in regards to non-killing or not causing physical pain to other human beings or pets.  But Ahimsa goes beyond that. Prior to learning about Ahimsa, I fell into this category.  The first time that I had the honor to receive Sri Dharma Mittra’s teachings regarding Ahimsa, it changed my life.  This intricate ethical guideline (Yama) was explained to me with such simplicity and in such a compassionate manner that it brought tears to my eyes and struck a chord deep within me

A vegetarian lifestyle is a great way to practice Ahimsa as it covers three areas - through thought, word and deed. 

1.    Thoughts
With thoughts, for example, when eating with friends and family who are not educated in Ahimsa, my thoughts do not judge or think bad of them.  I have realized their true Self does not mean to harm, it’s just their physical mind is not ready at this point in their evolution and so I feel compassion for them.

Ahimsa of thoughts not only applies towards others, but towards the self as well.  Negative thoughts can manifest themselves, so any negativity or harm towards yourself (as well as others) should be avoided.  A good amount of bad karma can be accumulated in this regard and no one wants that!

2.    Deeds
In regards to deed, leading by example and consistently living as a vegetarian is a very powerful way to influence and it may eventually change another person’s outlook on diet.  

3.    Words
Lastly, being vegetarian and practicing Ahimsa in regards to word, conversation arises from time to time and I am asked “what made you become vegetarian?”  I always choose my words carefully, as some friends and family members love to play devils advocate by mentioning plants.  I answer that it is impossible for most people to be completely non-harming due to the physical body needing sustenance, so I chose what I feel to be the lesser of two evils.  This type of conversation has the ability to transform others not aware of Ahimsa.

Words can be very powerful and life changing in both a positive and negative way.  Even a simple “hello” with the right intention to someone passing by can brighten his or her day! 

I feel it is a good practice to keep your words to a minimum and positive and uplifting in nature.  Many yogi masters teach that if you do not have anything good to say then this is a good time to practice silence or Mouna, which Swami Sivananda describes as “Tapas of speech.”

I am still learning from the masters to eradicate negative traits and to bring more compassion into my life by practicing Ahimsa.  Through a steady and consistent practice this can be mastered and then applied towards all Yamas and Niyamas!


Dave Jozefczyk began practicing yoga in 2006 by taking class with his wife ‘chelle in his basement.  Having a consistent flow of friends who attended three days per week made it an official class.  The next chapter in Dave's spiritual journey was experiencing a long weekend immersion with Sri Dharma Mittra at Kripalu in 2008 with his wife.  Since that transformative weekend, he has been faithfully practicing Dharma Yoga.  During these five plus years of practice and observing his wife's transformation after completing her 500-hour LOAY Teacher Training, Dave realized that he also had the ability to help others and serve in so many different ways. In June of 2013, Dave was very humbled to experience the 200-hour LOAY TT at the Dharma Yoga Center in NYC.  He is currently teaching at the CNY Yoga Center (Dharma Yoga Syracuse) to fulfill his internship credentials.  It brings him such joy to be able to share the Dharma Yoga teachings, which he continues to learn from Sri Dharma and the Dharma family.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

When You Hear the Truth, You Have To Take Action...

By Barb Cooper

©Jeffrey Vock

Before I left for my LOAY Teacher Training in February 2013, I snapped a quick photo of myself and posted it on Facebook.  “I'm about to leave for my yoga teacher training adventure. I took a picture just in case I come back completely changed,” I joked.

Little did I know that the person coming home from the training would be changed in every imaginable way EXCEPT visibly. (Well, okay, I even changed a little outwardly if you count the three pounds I lost.)

It is oddly difficult to describe the experience. I find myself speaking in terms of what it wasn’t.  It wasn’t bootcamp for yogis.  It wasn’t a cult indoctrination. It wasn’t me and a bunch of Cirque de Soleil performers. My fellow trainees were as varied as our number, all of us there for different reasons.  All of us at different stages on our paths. And all of us, every one, there because we had glimpsed something in Sri Dharma Mittra that we hoped to find for ourselves.

©Jeffrey Vock

What I end up telling people who ask about the training is this: Imagine yourself in a completely positive environment for ten straight days.  How many of us get that chance?  How many of us are surrounded by nothing but unbroken love and nurture and kindness and the best wishes for our development for even ONE day out of our lives, let alone ten days from before dawn until bedtime?

It was amazing to be surrounded by like-minded people.  To be able to ask deeply spiritual questions and be completely understood. To be in the presence of someone whose understanding of true Yoga far surpassed any living being I’d ever met. To find my spiritual home.

Yes, it was hard—but not in the way I thought it would be.  Although my body was pushed to its limit (I had to skip an asana practice one day because my back was on the fringes,) it was my mind and my spirit that had the biggest workout.  I came home utterly cracked wide open—with a new connection to the Earth, to my fellow humans, to the spirit world.

©Jeffrey Vock

The biggest challenges for me involved NOT moving—finding a comfortable position to sit and meditate, or finding a comfortable position to lie down in for the deep relaxation sessions.  It’s amazing how much I wanted to shift and move as soon as I knew I shouldn’t. I came to recognize this as my mind and body distracting me from my true work.

Many years ago, a friend of mind—a wise-cracking, sarcastic, realist –abruptly converted to Catholicism.  I was, frankly, shocked, knowing what I knew of her.  I asked her about it and she struggled for words.  “It’s…It’s just the TRUTH,” she said.  “When I heard it, I had to take action.”

That’s how I feel about the Yoga that Sri Dharma Mittra teaches—all aspects of it.  I’m still a neophyte on the path.  But it’s just the Truth.  And when you hear the Truth, you have to take action.


Barb Cooper, 48, is a mother, a well-socialized introvert, a Texas-to-New York transplant, and a writer by nature and training. She considers herself a grateful observer, a recovering perfectionist, and no longer shy. Barb graduated from the Dharma Yoga Life of a Yogi Teacher Training in June 2013. She is beginning to become the person her pets think she is.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Contentment – Discovered in a Bad Yoga Class

by Melody Abella

“By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”  sutra 2.42

Santosha is the Sanskrit word for contentment.  It’s first mentioned in The Yoga Sutras among the list of five niyamas. 

·        Side note:  My take on the niyamas is they guide our internal compass.  They’re ethical principles (or observances) that strengthen our character and guide us to live life in the best, most purest way possible.  As a result, they help us shine in a way that inspires others to live richer lives.  Richer meaning all the wealth we truly need is deep within, and not found held in a bank account.

©Jeffrey Vock

Back to santosha/contentment:

In my yoga studies, I’ve seen many deep definitions on contentment.  From a simple idea like contentment is being able to appreciate and live in the present moment to a more thought-provoking description of “Contentment is perfected in the absence of cravings.  It is the experience that nothing is lacking, that everything happens is an integral part of a Divine Plan.” (Inside the Yoga Sutras by Jaganath Carrera)

It’s often said that we already have everything we need.  Or as Sri Dharma Mittra says “all is within.” 

Our culture wants us to believe we need “things” or other people to make us happy.  The “things” list is long but a few examples:  new toys (cars, bikes, clothes, accessories), fancy restaurants, botox, a different boyfriend/husband/family.  You get the drift. 

The path of yoga leads us in the opposite direction…let go of external desires and internal contentment will be discovered.  The process of discovering contentment requires a huge mound of trust, courage and attention though. 

©Jeffrey Vock

It takes a lot of trust to follow a notion, such as the niyama contentment, when no one is there to hold your hand and lead you through the dark moments of life.  It also takes a lot of courage to fully step in and feel life as it is happening – feeling the awesome, okay, bad, scary and all the sensations in between that show up.  It takes a lot of paying attention to the present experience – being in it, as it is and not mentally jumping ahead to what’s happening 5 hours later the day.

Total confession here…I took a not so great yoga class recently in DC and it was there that I experienced santosha in a new way. 

So I signed up for what was listed as a vinyasa yoga /intermediate level class.  Let’s just say after starting in a restorative pose for ten plus minutes and not getting into my first Downward Facing Dog until twenty minutes into class, I was not content…

Thanks to my Grandmother’s constant words of wisdom, I reminded myself that there is always something new to learn in every situation in life.  Though I continued to find myself way too often checking the clock, realizing I had no idea the end time for the class and feeling I was stuck there.  Then I thought “I’m stuck here for a reason”.  That’s when I settled in and tried to make the best of it.

I can’t say I learned anything “new” from the teacher but I had a total realization that my life could be way worse.  Here I was on a Sunday morning surrounded by 40 or so others in a yoga class, bending and stretching in ways that many people aren’t able to do.  I have a healthy body and a great life.  The sun was coming out and I had a full day off ahead.  Life could be so much worse.  It was there and then I reminded myself of santosha.


Passionate about sharing the power of yoga & its transformational benefits, Melody Abella founded a mobile yoga business in 2006. abellaYoga travels to corporate and private clients in Washington, D.C., Alexandria and Arlington, VA to teach yoga in homes, offices, hotels, and conference centers. Grateful for experiences gained in the telecom/tech corporate world, this ex-marketing yoga-chick is happy to share all she knows about yoga. Believing through discipline and devotion we have the power within to make positive changes in our bodies, lives and this world, Melody teaches her students “anything is possible”. Or as Sri Dharma Mittra says you must have “angry determination.” Melody received her 500-hour Dharma Yoga Teacher certification in May 2012. She continues to hop the train from DC to NYC monthly to practice with Sri Dharma Mittra at the Dharma Yoga New York Center.