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HomenewsI Went to the World’s Largest Meditation Center

I Went to the World’s Largest Meditation Center

Unlike the hustle and bustle of Delhi — where cars, trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and the occasional cow share the streets in semi-controlled chaos sure to provoke anxiety in a first-time visitor — Kanha Shanti Vanam is like a quiet oasis. A spiritual retreat just outside the South Indian city of Hyderabad, it’s a self-contained community where the speed limit is 20 kilometers per hour, honking is punishable by a fine, and people can safely amble among the gardens and greenery that characterize the world headquarters of the Heartfulness Movement, a century-old system of meditation.

Practiced around the world, Heartfulness is rooted in ancient Raja yoga and brings practitioners through 16 stages of spiritual growth. Where mindfulness meditation tends to focus on the breath or other moment-to-moment sensations, Heartfulness guides practitioners to rest their attention on their hearts and imagine a “source of divine light” within it. It’s an approach that facilitates a personal experience of transcendence, according to Heartfulness leader and Kanha Shanti Vanam founder Kamlesh D. Patel.

kamlesh d patel

Kanha Shanti Vanam

Kamlesh D. Patel

“It’s a spiritual journey for normal people,” says Patel, known to followers as Daaji, which means “elder brother” in Hindi. “A spiritual life is possible while leading a day-to-day life.”

As appealing as this sounds, it’s not what drew me to Kanha Shanti Vanam, which started in 2017 on a plot of barren land. As a novice meditator who has spent the past few years cultivating a brief, daily mindfulness practice, I was intrigued by the chance to experience a group meditation in Kanha’s massive meditation hall, the world’s largest, with a capacity for 100,000 people. Could sitting with so many seekers elevate my consciousness? Transform me into a less anxious, more peaceful person? Perhaps evoke that sense of mystical oneness spiritual people often talk about?

I first learned about Heartfulness and Kanha in late 2023 when publicists sent me a copy of Patel’s latest book, Spiritual Anatomy: Meditation, Chakras, and the Journey to the Center, because I write about well-being. I was immediately interested in the accessibility of the practice. So many wellness modalities are pricey to the point of exclusivity — yoga classes can cost $20 or more for a single session; meditation courses are often even more expensive — yet most Heartfulness offerings are free. It’s a nonprofit organization supported by donations and volunteers, with free classes online and a free app that connects users to meditators and guides all over the world in real time. Even a weeklong stay at the Kanha Shanti Vanam ashram — including meals, accommodations, meditation, and yoga — costs nothing if you can get yourself to India.

Kanha’s grounds are massive. Five thousand people live on what looks like a sprawling university campus — 1,400 acres with tree-lined streets, multiple buildings, a hotel, apartments, a giant cafeteria, a bookstore, a market, a K-12 school, and the signature meditation hall. I could have gotten a great workout jogging around the place if I had the energy, but jet lag and a busy schedule of press tours prevented it. Kanha representatives were eager to show off the components of this self-sustaining little village. We saw coconut palms, passion fruit trees, and elderberry bushes — some of the many edible plants grown on the grounds to feed residents and guests. We visited a plant where they press their own cooking oils and essential oils, next door to where they make milk, cheese, and chocolate. (The cows are kept on an adjacent property.) Kanha produces its own biochar to support the diverse plant ecosystem that transformed the once-dusty landscape into a lush, green one. It was all so eco-friendly and thoughtful — the result of heightened consciousness? Or just considerate planning? It was so dreamy as to be almost weird.

the full ground of kanha shanti vanam

Kanha Shanti Vanam.

The full ground of Kanha Shanti Vanam.

“Don’t join a cult,” my friends told me before my ashram adventure.

While people do show reverence to Patel, 67, the Kanha founder seems to regard himself lightly, regaling me with stories of the pharmacy business he used to run in New York City before he became Heartfulness’ spiritual leader, fourth in its lineage, in 2014. At one point during our interview, he coughed and reached for his homemade throat spray — a combination of elderberry and honey he said was high in vitamin C and fermented to contain a touch of alcohol. I almost asked him for a spritz, as there’s no booze available on the property. An American woman I met during my stay who’d been at Kanha for three months confessed that she longed for a glass of wine.

Patel started meditating in the Heartfulness style in 1976. He was inspired to establish Kanha to fulfill the dream of his original teacher, who envisioned creating a nature-rich meditation retreat. Patel lives on the property with his wife and joins group meditations weekly in the giant meditation hall.

Before attending one of those group gatherings, though, all newcomers to Heartfulness practice must receive at least three sessions of personal instruction in the method from a trained preceptor. My guide was a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman with glowing skin who had been practicing for more than 35 years.

During our first “sitting,” held on a couple of sofas inside Kanha’s Pearl hotel — where guests can pay to stay in private rooms rather than sleep for free in the shared dorms — she guided me through a full-body relaxation not unlike the body-scan meditation I’d learned a few years earlier during an introductory class at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. I was told to imagine the healing energy of Mother Nature coming into my feet, up my legs, and into my torso, arms, neck, and head. “Your whole body is completely relaxed,” she said as we completed this process, and she was right.

This was the moment I’d been waiting for.

Then, the meditation began. I tried to focus on my heart as I was told. I also followed my breath, as I do with mindfulness. When my mind wandered, I brought my attention back to my heart. Nothing magical happened, but years of mindfulness practice allowed me to at least sit still with myself during the 20-minute session.

Besides the tours and meditation sessions, I experienced three Ayurvedic treatments at Kanha’s Wellness Center. The center is staffed by Ayurvedic doctors who practice the traditional Indian healing system, and any visitor to Kanha can be treated there (for a fee). The doctor begins by determining a patient’s constitution, noting their skin appearance and hair texture, and taking their pulse. He diagnosed me as an anxious, excitable type (no surprise) and prescribed a series of herbal body treatments. I was given a pair of disposable underpants and lay on a carved wooden table while two therapists, working in unison, proffered treatments ranging from the familiar (oil massage) to the unusual (having herbal tea drizzled over my body; inhaling a bundle of burning leaves through one nostril and blowing the smoke out of my mouth). I don’t know if my constitution was balanced as a result, but I came away feeling pampered and relaxed.

Finally, after my third sitting with the meditation guide, I was able to fulfill the reason I’d come: I would join thousands of others in the meditation hall at the heart of Kanha for a Sunday session. After breakfast, I found myself walking alongside hundreds of people — some in saris and other traditional Indian dress, others in Western clothes — toward the hall, which has a sloping white roof that reminded me of Inglewood, California’s SoFi Stadium. Most of the meditators were Indian, with a few foreigners sprinkled in, including the British woman I’d met a few days earlier, who came to Kanha from Scotland with her husband and their 29-year-old daughter for a weeklong retreat. Everyone entering the space had to take off their shoes, leaving the racks outside the multiple entrances crammed with hundreds of pairs. I strategically placed my sneakers behind rack eight and snapped a picture with my phone so I could find them later.

a rack of shoes outside the kanha shanti vanam meditation hall

Sandy Cohen

I made my way inside and sat on an old plastic chair near the center of the room, which was split by gender. Some people appeared to already be in a state of deep repose. Meanwhile, I was excited. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.

Patel was seated in a chair in the center of the stage at the front of the hall, his image broadcast on big screens on either side. The woman who’d guided my one-on-one sessions stood at a podium with a microphone. She told us to put our attention on our hearts. Then, she and I and more than 8,000 others closed our eyes and started meditating.

Have you ever been in a sports arena when a moment of silence was observed, and it got so quiet that you could almost feel it on your skin? This was like that, except it lasted for more than 20 minutes. The only sounds were birdsong, a few random coughs, and the occasional chirp of a cell phone someone forgot to turn off.

Our guide closed the meditation with the words “That’s all.” We then witnessed three weddings, which lasted less than a minute each. The couples weren’t introduced. Each simply stepped onstage dressed in formal Indian attire, exchanged marigold garlands and rings, fed each other a tiny morsel that I later learned was a cashew, and shook hands. Patel presided over the ceremonies, but only the newlyweds could hear what he said.

After that, there was some shuffling and a little chatter. Some people got up to leave; others stayed put and wrote in their journals. I spotted a group of fabulously dressed women in red and green jeweled saris dancing together on the side of the room. They invited me to join them and pose for pictures together — a highlight of my experience, as I felt an instant, warm connection with this group of happy ladies from Rajasthan. Then, I located my shoes and made my way back to my room.

Alas, I did not emerge perceptibly transformed. I still felt anxious as I packed my bags and prepared for the 21 hours of plane travel back to Los Angeles. But as someone who typically meditates alone in my bedroom, sitting in silence with so many other seekers was somehow edifying, like we were all trying to get to the same place, alone but together.

Sandy Cohen is a writer, health and wellness coach, and host of the Inner Peace to Go podcast. Follow her on Instagram @YouKnowSandy.

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