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You may have heard one of Chandra Om’s songs playing during a hatha yoga class. Perhaps you have seen her name associated with her guru Sri Dharma Mittra—she was his personal assistant for many years and is his senior disciple. Maybe you know her from one of the many articles, books, or meditation and music CDs she has produced. Chandra Om has been an important part of yoga in the United States since the 1990s.
Chandra Om is a yogi, vocalist, author, yoga teacher and director of Shanti Niketan Ashram in North Carolina. She wears many hats and goes by many names. Her disciples call her “Mother,” “Guruji,” and “Chandraji.” Most of the people with whom she works and interacts daily, however, simply know her as Chandra.
Many traditional yoga teachings have been watered down in the West. Chandra Om’s life is dedicated to preserving classical yoga as it was taught to her by her guru and transmitted over thousands of years. While she is a yoga purist, she has no ill will towards the commercialization of yoga. She says there will be those that have their arms up in the air about such things but that it is important to see the good in it.
Tina loos caught up with Chandra Om at the Shanti Niketan Ashram to discuss raising children, the role of the holy science of yoga in the modern era and the ashram she founded. She is a yogi you should know.
Tina Loos for Yogi Times: You are a yogi, a yoga teacher, an author, you produce CDs, but for those people who might not know you, who is Chandra Om?
Chandra Om: A child of God. A disciple of Dharma Mittra.
TL: You are the director of Shanti Niketan Ashram outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. A lot of people were involved in the creation of the ashram, but you are the visionary behind it. Could you please tell us about the origin of that vision and what was involved in manifesting the ashram?
Chandra Om: The vision really started with my Guru and his instruction to me to teach and to continue to share what I’d been taught and given. The school, which was opened in 2001 was a manifestation of that and as the school evolved, there was a continually growing number of very serious students who wanted more and more depth of their own sadhana. So it became apparent over many years that there really needed to be a home for sadhakas that felt that they needed to go into retreat for a period of time- maybe permanently- maybe giving their lives wholly to God- leading a very monastic life. And others that maybe necessarily didn’t want to go to such extremes but still wanted a retreat of some sort. Then some students who didn’t know what they wanted but a retreat might be a nice place to try to figure it out. So it really just evolved based on the needs of the students that had been there for years and years. Then when we began to speak about an ashram, there was a great deal of enthusiasm so it seemed like it was truly desired by most of the students at the school.
TL: Is the ashram only for super serious students of yoga?
Chandra Om: Well that would presuppose that everyone here is extremely serious.
TL: But maybe some people think of an ashram and they think of someone in an orange robe and with a shaved head.
Chandra Om: Well there aren’t any orange robes here and I have yet to see anyone with a shaved head so I’m not sure what peoples’ ideas of an ashram is. But this is a yoga center that was founded in honor of my Guru and in honor of all of the yoga masters that came before as a place to preserve the teachings. It is a place of refuge and a place of unconditional love, where we will not abide any division of any kind- no gossip, no slander, no false misperceptions of “them” and “us”. That’s not to make it sound as though it’s a Pollyanna existence. It can be quite difficult when you are working on a project with someone and there might be a personality conflict of some sort. Maybe one person is a little bit more domineering or someone says something offhand that maybe they shouldn’t and someone’s ego gets bruised a little bit. It’s not always easy to love unconditionally or not become identified with personality. But the collective commitment of everyone that comes to the ashram, not just the residents, but the people that come here on a daily basis, you truly do get swept up in that wave, that commitment of unconditional love, that commitment of refusal to allow the ego to create a false misperception of division. That you see the Self in yourself and in every being- in every animal on the property, in every individual that comes here, in every age, in every race, in every sex, in every nationality, in people that come here that are extremely loving and kind and in people that come here that are not as loving yet.
TL: It was about serious students of yoga, but I think if there aren’t any divisions all people are welcome to your... Is that true?
Chandra Om: All people are welcome at the ashram. But it sounded as though you were going to say are all people welcome at “my” ashram. And it’s not my ashram. It is your ashram. It’s everyone’s ashram. It’s a home for God. God to me is my Guru, so it’s a home dedicated to my Guru. But not everyone that comes here is a devotee of my Guru, so for those that are not, it’s a home for God. To me they are one and the same.
TL: What would you like for those who visit the ashram, whether it be for years or even just for a few hours, to take with them from the experience?
Chandra Om: Kindness. A deeper sense of unity with everything and everyone around them. A deeper sense of anger dissipating, ego dissipating, and a deepening of kindness, love and compassion in a very literal sense. There is something truly magical that happens here at the ashram and people do feel it and they are transformed. So the key is: can you keep that going when you leave the confines of the ashram? So that would be my prayer for anyone- as you said, that comes for years or a few hours. I would really above everything hope that they took kindness with them. To be kinder to their fellow brothers and sisters and friends on the planet, animals included.
TL: Shanti Niketan Ashram seems to be very unique. How you would compare it with other ashrams, either in India or in the West?
Chandra Om: Well I would have to first know what you mean by unique. What you would consider the signposts of the ashram’s uniqueness to be?
TL: For example, that it is run by you and in the world of duality you are a woman in yoga which, although most people who practice hatha yoga in the United States are women, most of the people of the world who run ashrams are men. And it is an ashram for women. So it seems to be different than other ashrams just from those perspectives, but I suspect also the intimacy- I haven’t visited any other ashram except for this one, but it seems to be more intimate, smaller, there is a lot of love given to each person who comes here, as opposed to an ashram with 200 people. Things like that.
Chandra Om: It’s true, most ashrams are run by men, anywhere around the world- India, Latin America, Europe, and here in America. So in that respect it is unique.
TL: How you would compare it with other ashrams?
Chandra Om: Oh, I wouldn’t compare it. I wouldn’t even know where to start. The only ashrams I’ve ever been to were in India and that was just visiting as a guest, not visiting as a devotee or staying overnight. So I couldn’t even begin to tell you, it would just be conjecture.
TL: Society seems to be changing quite a lot and at quite a rapid pace, even just speaking culturally and technologically. What do you think the role is of a 5,000 year old science such as yoga in a society such as ours?
Chandra Om: Same as it’s always been- to bring peace. First and foremost peace to the consciousness of the practitioner and then hopefully that peace begins to radiate out into the choices that that individual makes. It begins to permeate into their home, into their immediate family and friends, and then into the community, and then into the county and the state and the country. A removal of the false misperceptions of duality, and that can only be realized in a mind that is peaceful. So everything begins with becoming peaceful. One finds a sense of quietude beyond the senses, beyond the ego and the false senses of identity, but I am certain that that’s the same purpose as it was 5,000 years ago.
TL: So do you think it’s needed more in this day and age or is it equally needed?
Chandra Om: I would say that it depends on who is practicing it. Some people need it much more than others. What it’s really dependent on is not so much on the time in which we’re living or the place in which we’re living, but on how much suffering that individual mind is experiencing. If that mind could be the middle of a war zone but be established in the Self then even though externals would indicate that they probably need some yoga or some peace or something that would give them some solace, they might not need it at all because they may have already found the keys to the kingdom. It may have been through the practice of Islam, it may have been through the Bible, it may have been through the Torah, it may have been through yoga, but if they’ve found the keys to the kingdom that yoga promises and delivers on, then it’s not as needed. But someone could be living a very seemingly simplistic life, a life that might even be indicative of what life 5,000 years ago was like, and all the externals might say to someone, “You shouldn’t have a care in the world. Your life is so simple. Must be wonderful to live with such minimalism and such simplicity and you must be able to sleep so well at night or have such ease of mind,” but they could be tormented because the externals really don’t matter. If you’re at war with yourself, you’ll be at war with everyone.
TL: If you were raising a child today, what would you hope to teach him or her? How would you raise that child?
Chandra Om: To be kind, compassionate. Not to gossip or slander others. Every child should be reared vegetarian because it changes the consciousness of the child when they are not subjected to the very subtle violence involved with animal flesh and eggs and such. Their consciousness changes. I’ve seen it over and over again. When the parents really make a very solid change and convert the children to vegetarianism, all of the negative tendencies almost always dissipate if they aren’t eliminated completely.
So vegetarianism would be a given. And you’ve got to live what it is that you want. If you want a loving child, you’ve got to be loving, you can’t be at home in the kitchen gossiping. If you want a child that is non-violent, then you have to embody non-violence within yourself- both the mother and the father, because that’s the greatest example that they see, what is going on around them. The family must also pray together. Whatever your faith, it’s imperative that the family sit down or kneel down to pray together at least once a day if not more.
TL: How you would raise them?
Chandra Om: Well, beyond the basics of love, truth and kindness, I would want them raised around my Guru. If I had a child, I would want them to be in the presence of sainthood constantly.
TL: If you were sitting with a dying person and that person said, “Oh I hear you’re a yogi, please help me.” What would you say or do?
Chandra Om: It would depend on the individual, their level of faith, their level of spiritual practice. If it was someone that had a very strong spiritual practice, I would probably go into meditation with them and be silent and begin to work on the psychic level. If it was someone that didn’t have much of a spiritual practice or was in the throes of turmoil or upset, it would depend on what I felt was appropriate at that moment.
TL: How do you think society is going to change over the next several decades and do you see the changes that are coming as society evolving for the better or maybe not so much?
Chandra Om: Sure, why not? Evolving for the better! Why not be optimistic? Why not see it that way? Because you know it’s like with the popularization and commercialization of yoga. You can use that as an example. There’ll always be a camp that says, “It’s terrible. It’s the demise of yoga. It’s branding and high prices and the prostitution of yoga. The clothes and the magazines and all this that has nothing to do with yoga.” And then there will be the camp that says, “It’s exposing yoga to a much wider audience because not everyone is going to be ready to sit down for meditation for three hours at a stretch. And some people may not want that.” Some people may come to yoga, millions of people have come to yoga solely for the health benefits of it and maybe even millions of people solely for the vanity of it - to look at celebrities or to look at famous yoga teachers and think, “Well I’ve heard they do yoga I’d love to have a body like that.” Or, “I’ve heard they do yoga, I’d love to achieve whatever they’ve achieved.” “Look at that posture, I’d love to do it.” “I’d like to become famous as a yoga teacher.” Or, “I’d like to accomplish this yoga feat that I read about.” But even if that’s what brings you to yoga, yoga has a magical way of bringing you deeper in. It’s always much better to view things in a positive light.
So when you ask about the future and where is society going, I would view it from a positive standpoint using yoga simply as one example of how there will always be those that have their arms up in the air, that are kvetching about why things are falling apart. Why society is doomed to destruction. And then there will be those who just accept that life is change and society will evolve and some of it may be seemingly for the better and some of it may be seemingly for the worst, but in the end it’s going to change anyway so why not be happy about it? Why not find the good in it? Why not be optimistic about it? That’s the approach one should take for all things.