One recent Sunday evening, the ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was filled with about 3,000 people in quiet meditation.
It was the end of the first day of the weeklong annual gathering of followers of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a 94-year-old global organization that teaches meditation and other spiritual practices in 500 centers in 46 countries.
The SRF World Convocation is the largest gathering of members of the fellowship, which was begun in 1920 by Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda; his "Autobiography of a Yogi" is one of the bestselling spiritual books of all time. The 4,500 or so people milling about the hotel for the week conferred with monks and nuns swathed in ocher and amber robes, attending lectures, participating in evenings of devotional music and of course, getting in some meditation.
"I cleared my schedule for the week," said Roy Vongtama, a Los Angeles-based radiation oncologist. "It's rare to have a couple of thousand people doing a long meditation at the same time. It's pretty special."
Thousands of people lined up to hear the keynote address, delivered by a monk from the fellowship, Brother Jayananda, who has been part of the organization for more than 35 years. His talk, "Living a Spiritually Balanced Life in Today's Complex World," was based on the teachings of Yogananda but also quoted Arianna Huffington, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Shakespeare.
"The teachings are still extremely relevant," said Jayananda. "Yogananda came to the West from India and translated both the New Testament and [the Hindu scriptures] the Bhagavad Gita. Passages from both can be incorporated into our daily lives and form the foundation of the teachings."
At the heart of the Self-Realization Fellowship is what the organization describes as "the science of meditation": training the mind to be still, to focus on breathing, to, in the words of Yogananda, "reveal thyself."
"Meditation teaches you how to calm yourself, to be more centered, more peaceful, to bring your stress levels down," said Jayananda. "In the beginning, everybody has trouble concentrating. But it's like learning the piano. It's a matter of starting, and then practicing, and then being better at it. But really, nowadays, who really sits down and practices silence? We are used to having our senses stimulated, not learning how to be still and quiet."
In the last several years, meditation has become widely popular, used by public schools, corporations, even military organizations to increase concentration and calmness. There are meditation centers and schools everywhere and online programs to guide people in meditation.
Meena Makhijani, a Woodland Hills doctor specializing in geriatric medicine who came to the convocation, said that although she has been a follower for 20 years, she still reads the lessons at home and takes part in regular group meditations.
"The teachings help me understand how to maintain balance in my life in terms of my work life, spiritual development, family life and music," she said. "They allow me to separate what is actually important to me from what is not."
Vongtama, who was born to a Buddhist family and went to Catholic school, said he was drawn to the Self-Realization movement because "it's not a religion, it's scientific."
"It's about a practice, and learning it on your own," he said. "Meditation is one of those things that if you practice it, it has results. I have introduced it to my patients. Ninety minutes a week is all you need to show biological changes, it improves your white blood cell count, lowers levels of stress and corrects depression."
Jayananda says that the effects of meditation are apparent to anyone coming to the convocation, even for the first time.
"You walk into a place filled with 4,000 happy people," he said. "Who wouldn't like that?"
Self-Realization Fellowship info
The Self-Realization Fellowship, whose headquarters are in Los Angeles' Mount Washington area and which operates several local temples including in Pacific Palisades and Encinitas, is open to anyone, and offers meditation classes. Payment is by donation.
People who are interested in guru Paramahansa Yogananda's teachings can sign up to receive lessons: $20 for 30 lessons, plus an $8 enrollment fee. Lessons are sent by regular post.
There are many other centers around Los Angeles offering meditation classes at varying costs. They include the Shambhala centers in Eagle Rock, the Westside and Orange County; InsightLA, in Santa Monica, Malibu and Long Beach; and the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Center in Pasadena.