Visit to Ananda: Believers say Church Misunderstood

The Westerly Sun/May 23, 2004
By Ryan McBride

Hopkinton -- They don bangles of silver, copper, and gold around their upper arms, they're devoted to the teachings of a long-haired Indian guru who stressed finding the God within, and the worshipers at Ananda Church of Self-Realization and Retreat Center say they are misunderstood by their critics who call them a cult.

It was a typical Saturday at the rural retreat at 312 Tomaquag Road.

Under the canopy of a green canvas yurt - an insulated, domed tent - 15 devotees, led by visiting Minister Mary Kretzmann, held up their hands during a lesson in meditative healing techniques.

"We have a very spiritual path, and the teachings can be presented in a very ecumenical way," said Kretzmann, who lives at Ananda world headquarters in Nevada City, Calif. Like the majority of people at the session, she was raised Christian but decided to change religious paths to follow the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.

A yoga master, Yogananda brought his spiritual teachings from India to the U.S. in the 1920s and stayed until his death in 1952. One of his students, J. Donald Walters, founded Ananda in 1968.

Since, Walters - whose religious name is Swami Kriyananda - and his students have built ministries throughout the country, and expanded to Europe in 1984 to build a center in Assisi, Italy, that opened in 1986. Ananda has gained a worldwide following of some 2,500 people, 1,000 of them residing at its seven communities.

Back at the yurt in Hopkinton, as is done at all Ananda churches, the worshipers practiced Kriya Yoga - much different from the headstands and other nimble feats of Hatha Yoga.

"Yoga is not just about touching your toes," said John "Jaya" Helin, 57, the director of the retreat center, "It's about how the soul ultimately makes a union with God."

"The primary purpose of religion," says Helin, "is to give each person a personal experience with God."

A shrine standing inside the yurt features framed portraits of five Indian yoga masters and one of Jesus Christ. Helin says Christ is part of the Ananda lineage because he once spoke to an 18th century Indian Yogi (yoga master), and urged him to reinvigorate his forgotten lessons in the West. Yogananda's journey to the U.S. in the 1920s, according to Helin, embodied Christ's request.

In 1999, on a wooded 40-acre tract that he inherited from his parents, Larry Rider launched plans to bring Ananda to his bucolic hometown, Hopkinton, Rhode Island. Having moved to the original Ananda village in Nevada City in the late 1970s, and remaining devoted to Yogananda's teachings thereafter, Rider and wife Karen set out to establish a place of worship for Ananda followers in New England.

However, Rider and the church have been feuding with some neighbors over the project since it began. Some charge that Rider - because he collects a fee for weekend retreats - is illegally running a business in a residential district.

Neighbor Richard Coppa, a contractor who lives at 279 Tomaquag Road, recently circulated a flier to residents that said the Ananda religion is a "cult." The flier also highlighted Ananda founder Walters' past indiscretions.

A civil court in California has awarded damages to an estranged female member from the Nevada City ministry who filed suit against Walters and a church minister for sexual misconduct in 1994, according to Ananda. Helin, a pupil of Walters' since 1968, says that Walters vigorously denies having inappropriate relations with any women.

Ananda attributes public scrutiny of the organization to attacks from Self-Realization Fellowship, of Los Angeles, a rival faction of Yogananada disciples. The SFR - which ousted Walters from its ranks in the late 1960s - has tried and failed to sue Ananda for exclusive rights to publishing Yogananda's teachings and using the term "self-realization," according to Ananda.

"We're doing something different ... There's a certain amount of fear and distrust of things that are different," said Rider, 54, of his detractors' criticisms.

"The people that come to Ananda are strong willed people that are not gullible ... they're looking to add something to their lives," he added, on the topic of his neighbor's accusations that the church is a cult.

"You know at the time you're doing it you feel God's presence flowing through you," said Kaye Gordon, 65, of Lynfield, Mass. She began practicing Ananda meditation techniques in 1987, and she says it helped relieve anxieties from her stressful career as a court reporter.

"It works," she said, "I know it works because I practice it. What I've found is it enhances every area of your life ... It goes beyond the dogma of religion," added the former Catholic.

According to Helin, the church has a core membership of 200 people from throughout the Northeast. However, Sunday masses usually attract about 25 people, he said.

About half of the church's income comes from donations from members, Helin says, and the other half comes from its retreat center - a point of contention among critics who say that Ananda holds itself out as a religious group when it's actually a business.

A converted barn, with a statuette of the Virgin Mother near the front steps, serves as a four-room boarding house that sleeps up to eight overnight guests, who pay up to $350 for weekend retreats. Helin said they host 16 to 20 retreats every year. A recent retreat offered its guests lessons from experts in the fields of creative writing and natural wellness.

Rider says that - among other avenues of life beyond religious dogma - the church stresses the importance of diet.

After Minister Kretzmann's hour-long meditation lesson in the yurt, the devotees met in the retreat central meeting room in the Rider's house for a vegetarian lunch. The meal consisted of a scoop of white rice topped with potatoes and peas in a yellow curry sauce, a dollop of plain yogurt, and a side of raw carrot sticks and pealed cucumber wedges.

"I've found the place to be a great resource," said Ed Hathaway, 56, of 317 Tomaquag Road, who moved from Warwick to a house across the street from the retreat last year. He says that the Riders lent him use of their truck, and helped him plant fruit trees in his yard.

Hathaway disagrees with his neighbors who continue to blast the church.

"(Ananda members) are good, honest people," he said, "and I think that anyone who comes here will find that out."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.