Where all roads lead to om

DesMoines Register/October 5, 2002
By Mike Kilen

Vedic City, Iowa -- The Wacknov family lives in Vedic City, which helps explain its morning routine.

There's a sesame oil self-massage, followed by a meat-free, non-genetically engineered organic breakfast, meditation, stretching and yoga. The family does all that while drinking herbal concoctions in a home designed with planetary alignment in mind.

"Hopefully, we won't look too crazy," says Gary Wacknov, leaning over a fence measured to utilize cosmic forces.

Depends on your idea of crazy.

The idea of starting a city, Iowa's first new one in 20 years, is far-out enough. Rural Iowa has long suffered decline, especially where Vedic City sits in the southeastern part of the state.

Yet since the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi first stepped from his pink airplane some 28 years ago and announced that "We are in Fairfield, and what we find is a fair field," residents say they are increasingly accepting the ideas of the nearly 3,000 followers of his Transcendental Meditation movement who live in the area.

Creating a meditation city with a subtitle ("Center for Perfect Health and World Peace") is simply the latest curiosity of a group known for its entrepreneurial savvy.

Vedic City marked its first anniversary in July. Some label it a modern-day Utopian experiment in the rich Iowa tradition of such plans, from the Icarians in the mid-1800s to the Old Order Amish.

What's a day like in Utopia?

One must clear the mind.

Meet the family

The Wacknovs - husband Gary, 49, wife B.J., 48, and daughter Kenzie, 10 live in Vedic City in a home built in accord with design rules called sthapatya veda. Ancient texts, resurrected by Maharishi, detailed the need for buildings with east-facing entrances, proportions based on cosmic models and an area on the ground floor called a brahmasthan, basically an open atrium to the roof.

A fence of precise proportions surrounds each of the development's homes, which are topped with a kalash that looks like a swirl of soft-serve ice cream.

The city is designed around these principles, with 10 circular sub-developments around a center square. A few dozen homes, three hotels and a spa have been built on three of the 10 projected areas that will cover 1,100 acres. The population has grown to 187 people, headed toward a goal of 8,000-10,000.

Inside one of these sun-drenched homes, the Wacknov family rises about 5:30 a.m.

Gary sits on a towel on the bathroom floor with his legs crossed. He rubs sesame-seed oil over his skin, messaging his legs and arms, feet and head, over and over.

"It presses out toxins in your body," he says. The sweet aroma of the special oil (this one specifically made for men) fills the room. "It's a real graceful way of coming out of the fatigue of sleep. It has a settling effect."

It's early, but he is already several steps into the morning's prescribed "Maharishi Ayurveda Daily Routine":

Arise early in the morning.

Evacuate bowels and bladder.

Clean teeth. Clean tongue.

Ayurvedic oil massage.

Gargling with sesame oil is followed by meditation.

B.J. is downstairs mixing herbal water to guzzle down during the day to help hydrate her, which aids in healthy skin.

She talks on about bone density, "diagnosal" physiology, the need for vitamin B12 and the legions of Maharishi Ayurveda products sold at stores in nearby Fairfield, which cater to meditators. "I don't tell Gary how much they cost," she says.

The organic dried cereal has been consumed, the stewed apples and the tea, and she hands Gary his herbal drink in a thermos. The self-employed real estate investor is off to the Maharishi University of Management's golden dome, a round structure in which hundreds sit on a padded floor in the morning and evening to meditate, which they call "rounding." Others may take part in levitation, described by those who have witnessed it as a seated hop.

Gary looks as if he's off to the plant with his thermos and ball cap but is instead attending a class at the dome involving nearly four hours of deep meditation. His investment success has allowed him such freedom.

Yet life appears orderly.

Ironically, many meditators were hippies in the 1960s who rebelled against figureheads, suburban conformity and materialism.

Gary says that in the late 1960s, he was searching for the meaning of life in an East Coast college, his parents back in Kansas City always wondering what he was up to.

B.J.'s parents, also in Kansas City, were in the same boat. She had already discovered the Maharishi movement and was off getting training, eventually graduating in 1977 from a now-defunct Maharishi college in California.

B.J. says, "In the 1970s, we called it TM in the a.m. and p.m.," meaning that morning and evening meditation constituted much of the involvement in the movement.

"Today, everywhere you turn here is somehow linked to the movement. Now that Maharishi has brought us more knowledge, it's become a lifestyle."

How do they reconcile their former nonconformity and search for themselves with Vedic City regimens? Maharishi says you can give 200 percent, Gary says. One hundred to inner work. One hundred to outer.

The inner growth, the meaning in life, doesn't have to be in conflict with the outer, which creates financial success.

"You didn't have to be in rebellion," he says.

Not your average school

B.J. does her yoga positions in the light of the morning sun slanting through the east-facing door.

Daughter Kenzie is upstairs in her bedroom, listening to 'N Sync on the stereo. Television is discouraged during the week in this and many other Vedic homes.

Kenzie will join her fourth-grade class shortly in a meditation session in the Hall of Bliss at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, a private school for kindergarten through grade 12.

Afterward, students gather in classrooms separated by gender.

Today's task in Kenzie's room is to film a television commercial with the inventions that the girls created for a science project. Kenzie has made a book-size cardboard box wrapped in tie-dye cloth with adjustable shelves that fits neatly into a desk. She calls it the "Groovy Organ-izer."

Is creating a marketing scheme for the project part of the entrepreneurial philosophy considered a strength of the Maharishi? Teacher Kate Vetter said the class is simply merging two subjects. Core concepts of the Maharishi are used in each subject.

Creativity, adaptability and resourcefulness are obviously key to the commercial.

Kenzie, a lanky girl with straight brown hair and an easy smile, looks into the camera and says confidently: "So, how do I order it?"

She loudly chirps the answer with her co-star: "Call 1-800-GROOVY."

The girls clap.

School officials often point to high test scores and achievements in extracurricular activities, such as their champion-heavy tennis team, as proof that the meditation school is working.

Meditators see many of the principles of Maharishi as a scientific discipline rather than a religion, a set of guidelines that nourish mind and body and even can promote global peace.

Others disagree. A longtime critic of the organization is Frank Trumpy, a Des Moines Area Community College physics professor who has researched the group's claims of scientific effects, such as astrology, creating world peace through meditation and the ability to use the mind to physically fly.

"I think it's nonsense," Mr. Trumpy says. "It's religion masquerading as science. They are selling the program because they make money off it."

There are few critics of their family-friendly lifestyle, however.

Price of enlightenment

Gary picks up Kenzie for lunch with her family, a daily practice. B.J. has returned from a group yoga class and sets the kichari (rice and legumes), yogurt milk and other Indian dishes on the table.

Holding hands around the table, they pray first in Hebrew because they are Jewish. Then again in Sanskrit, official language of Vedic City.

"Let us speak together, let us eat together, let us be vital together, let us be radiating truth."

After lunch, Gary flicks on the TV to a Maharishi channel, the only station that they occasionally watch on weekdays. The program airing is in a language that they can't understand. It is televised from Vedic City and costs an extra fee on their satellite dish network.

Just how much this lifestyle costs, meditators are reluctant to divulge.

B.J. says her personal care products such as oils and skin creams with the Maharishi label are more expensive than others. Food from the organic grocery in Fairfield also costs more.

The couple's meditating membership to the dome runs roughly $150 a month. Classes cost extra. Kenzie's school tuition runs about $10,000 per year. And to build this home in the principles of sthapatya veda design was costly, Gary says.

The minimum retainer for their home is $7,500 for architectural consultation by Maharishi Global Construction. A 3 percent royalty is due at the end of construction. Most homes here sell for $200,000 to $800,000, city officials say.

The Wacknovs pay most of their bills in U.S. currency, although Vedic City has created its own currency, the Raam, which can be exchanged for goods and services but is primarily seen as a novelty item for tourism.

Bring on the tourists!

B.J. clears the dishes and gets ready for a 3 p.m. mediation at the dome, and Gary makes investment calls, as visitors are hours into deep massage at the Raj spa. Next door, the Vedic City Council gathers.

On the agenda are the continuing issues of building a city, which fit in with the plans of the council and mayor, all developers.

"We are trying to develop a tourist attraction here," says Mayor Bob Wynne, a large, affable man in a suit and tie, who is in his stocking feet at the meeting. "The whole goal is to expand rapidly," creating attractions that will sustain a growing population of meditators.

The short-term goal is to have 1,200 residents by the year 2010, with later expansion to 8,000. That many people meditating in one place, they believe, would further world peace.

As the first item of business, Councilman Chris Johnson requests approval to build low-cost condominiums in the city. He has built Vedic homes and the Rukmapura Park Hotel.

"From the city's point of view, well, we don't have any ordinances against it," the mayor says with a smile. "We can give our blessing, if that's what you want."

There is some gentle rumbling that maybe there should be some ordinances, but buildings already must conform to Maharishi design by city code.

"Well, I make a motion," the mayor says. "Sounds good to us!"

Vedic City already has changed its name to Maharishi Vedic City, which isn't official with the state yet, and annexed 144 acres since its incorporation with a goal to buy more land to the south and west. A theme park, golf course and botanical gardens are in the planning stages. A Vedic observatory is undergoing improvements.

Jim Flinspach, whose farm borders Vedic City, isn't worried about the city's growth.

"We're trying to get along down here," he says, "but there is such a drastic difference in the way people live that it's a battle, more emotional than anything."

Gary Wacknov doesn't question his lifestyle. He is getting ready for his 5 p.m. meditation, which will bring his total to 5 ½ hours for the day.

One more day, he says, of inner peace, focus and, as meditators in this young city are inclined to say, "total enlightenment."

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