In the heart of Palo Alto sits the Ananda Church, an oasis of tranquility amid the bustle of the city.
As the sun set on a cool Friday evening, Ananda church community member, Rose Atwell laughs as she watches the kids of Ananda’s church daycare center rolling around in the sand box of the church’s playground. She actively works with children of the daycare center, a small service that’s part of the church’s offerings.
“The purpose of Ananda Church of Self-Realization is to [help you] realize within your own self the divine and that ever-closeness of spirit that exists within everyone,” Atwell says.
The members of the Ananda church don’t seek relationships with a higher power, but instead with spirituality. The Ananda community acknowledges both the difficulty in taking the individualistic spiritual journey and the benefit of a supportive community to help overcome obstacles that may get in the way of self-realization, or realizing within your own self the divine.
Despite the serenity advocated by Ananda, the church has faced conflict in the past after facing accusations of being a cult and sexual assault case against church leader Swami Kriyananda.
However, the messages of the Ananda church continue to spread as one of its Living Wisdom high schools is set to open in the fall at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto.
The Ananda Church
The Ananda Church of Self Realization is a spiritual community with its values centered around the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, a yogi who brought yoga and meditation to America in the 1920s. Yogananda propagated the belief that spirituality and a higher power exist within each person.
Started by Yogananda’s disciple Swami Kriyananda in 1968, Ananda Village, also known as one of the World Brotherhood Colonies, is located in Nevada City, Calif. In addition to housing a Living Wisdom High School, the village is composed of gardens, businesses, monasteries and family residences.
“He [Yogananda] was interested in bringing places where people … and things could get together [and] inspire [the community] based on principles of unity and kindness and respect,” Atwell says. “[So they] live together in a supportive, harmonious way that is also sustainable for our environment,”
Atwell, a former Living Wisdom high school student and a current yoga instructor at the Ananda Church and teacher at Ananda’s Kindergarten through Grade 8 school, was introduced to Ananda through her family and fell in love with Yogananda’s philosophy. After attending the Living Wisdom high school, she learned not about a religion, but about a shift in mindset that continues to help her feel more confident and calm in her daily life.
“There’s nothing to me more important than being able to experience joy — a joy that is independent of outer circumstances.”
— Rose Atwell, Ananda community member
“It [the Ananda education] was constantly about what’s best for my next step as a person, as a whole person — happiness as more of a holistic approach,” Atwell says.
Atwell attributes her current happiness to the mindfulness and introspective practices of Yogananda that she studied at the Living Wisdom school, as well as to Ananda’s community in Palo Alto, where she resides.
“I think knowing that there’s a love and a joy within my own self that I can tap into no matter what is happening in my life is completely priceless,” Atwell says. “There’s nothing to me more important than being able to experience joy — a joy that is independent of outer circumstances.”
A mother of two former Paly students, Esther Corona has widely experimented with faith and spirituality. She was raised a Catholic in southern Spain, but felt that religion was largely something she practiced to fit into her community.
“I went to Catholic schools all through eighth grade but I was never really in tune,” Corona says. “We went to church because that was what people did in Spain.”
Since then, Corona has widely experimented with faith and spirituality. As a young child, she was intrigued by Hinduism, which eventually led to her lifelong passion for yoga. Shortly after, in college, she developed an interest in Islam after taking a class on Arab Studies, a subject she then decided to major in. After traveling to Tunisia and Jordan as an exchange student, Corona fell in love with Sufism, a smaller sect of Islam known for its mysticism, poetry, art and music.
It was back in the U.S. that Corona began to lose touch with the religion she had been so entranced by back in the Middle East.
“Slowly, I lost all kind of spirituality and religion and became out of tune with anything spiritual,” Corona says.
In 2014, Corona’s mother began attending meditation and yoga classes at the Ananda Church in Palo Alto and shared her experiences with Corona. After hearing her mother describe the welcoming atmosphere of the church in Palo Alto, Corona proceeded to visit the village in Nevada City in 2014, which piqued a sense of interest similar to what she had previously felt with other religions. Corona attributes this connection to the church’s tranquility and integration of people of all spiritual beliefs and backgrounds.
“Meditation brought me a lot of peace and calmness,” Corona says. “It was changing my health and my mind and was an endless source of getting better and better that gave me a sense of unity and oneness with the world. It [meditation] became not just something that I read but a practice in my heart.”
In the summer of 2016, Corona sent her two daughters and former Paly students, Ayah Chakmakchi, 17, and Asia Chakmakchi, 15, to a summer camp at the Ananda Village in Nevada City. Exhausted by the high-pressure atmosphere in Palo Alto, Ayah and Asia fell in love with the relaxing, accepting and diverse atmosphere in the village.
“I really didn’t want to go at first,” Asia says. “But they integrated the yoga and meditation in a way that we actually understood why we were doing it.”
They liked it so much, in fact, that they decided together to leave Paly and complete high school at the Living Wisdom high school in Nevada City.
Ayah attended Paly her freshman year, transferred to Notre Dame High School in San Jose for her sophomore year, returned to Paly for the beginning of her junior year and then attended middle college for the remainder of the year. Ayah now believes that she has found the perfect learning environment at Living Wisdom.
SISTERS TOGETHER Asia Chakmakchi, 15, (left) and Ayah Chakmakchi, 17, (right) pose together in their home in Palo Alto before leaving for the Living Wisdom school in 2016. “At this school [in Nevada City], teachers teach about life and how to be a good person, which teachers at Paly don’t do,” Ayah Chakmakchi said. Photo by Esther Corona.
“Teachers have background in … being present and expanding love to everyone which makes you feel more secure that you’re dealing with people whose values you know.” Ayah says.
For Ayah, the spirituality and values taught at Living Wisdom are what differentiate it from Paly.
“In Palo Alto, every kid is different,” Ayah says. “You might get spirituality from your home, but it’s not part of your everyday life. There, [in Palo Alto] I had spiritual life and school separate, and it was hard to integrate those. Here it is unified and everyone is on the same page.”
Both girls have also benefitted academically from the individualized curriculum and close relationships with teachers. The curriculum is student-led, meaning that the school creates classes for students based on what they want to learn.
“Teachers aren’t constantly using state curriculum that have certain standards and strict deadlines,” Asia says. “Here, if the classroom shows interest in a specific topic, the teacher can spend time on it, even if it’s not explicitly in curriculum.”
Because her daughters attend the Living Wisdom high school, Corona has become closer to them. While they may not always see to eye to eye, being part of the Ananda community has opened up a connection the three of them have never had before.
“We now have something in common,” Corona says. “Before there was no conversation available in that matter of religion and spirituality, but now we are able to discuss these things.”
Corona is currently training to become a yoga teacher and has also begun an online Ananda ministry for Spanish speakers.
“I was deeply touched by the tranquility and it’s like filling a cup that was empty with calmness,” Corona says. “Everything has become a self realization.”
Spirituality at PALY
Photo by Riya Matta.
Similar to followers of the Ananda Church, Paly junior Rafi Moskowitz does not necessarily believe in God, but instead focuses on the spiritual aspect of the values and lessons that he has learned through his study of the Torah [Jewish text] and his participation in the Jewish community.
“I follow Judaism because of the community that it surrounds me with and the values that it instills in me.” Moskowitz says. “Judaism is a very widespread religion; people follow it for all different reasons and some people believe in God but some don’t.”
For Moskowitz, the concept of God is one with which he has grappled extensively, and says that his current feelings on God are largely due to a conversation he had with a counselor at the Jewish summer camp, Camp Ramah.
“I definitely don’t believe that God is a big guy in the sky puppeteering everyone,” Moskowitz says. “But I think you can define God as whatever you want …“It [Judaism] is a just a good general outline to live life by.”
Spirituality, however, manifests itself in a variety of ways among Paly students.
Though not a member of the Ananda Church, Paly senior Matt Aiu takes part in the practices of meditation. Aiu meditates as a means to help him combat his sleep issues, but enjoys other benefits from it as well.
“It gives me time to analyze and review the day, because when you meditate, it’s very introspective.” Aiu says. “You get to look at it from an outside point of view while still being in your emotional state.”
In some of his classes at Paly, Aiu says that teachers have implemented time for meditation at the beginning of the period, an action that focused the class and made for a better learning experience overall.
“It [meditation] really helps stabilize your emotions,” Aiu says. “If you had a tough day, or if there was a day where you just weren’t feeling right, it helps balance you out a little bit. It helps provide an anchor to help you orient yourself.”