The Unconditioned Reality Of The Self

LA-Based Johanna Bennett couldn’t reconcile the West’s āsana-centric approach to yoga with how she experienced spirituality when she travelled to India, until she started studying Vedānta and reciting Veda. After that, there was only clarity. 

By Sophia French


“I live in California and most of my students are American college students. So when I introduce them to Indic knowledge traditions, I make it a point to inform them about the history and roots of these spiritual practices. I also make sure that they understand the cultural context of these practices and where it comes from,” says Yoga Teacher, Ayurvedic Counsellor and Veda Recitation Teacher, Johanna Bennett.” I began this interview with the LA-based teacher asking her about how she teaches Indic knowledge systems to the West without taking away from the authenticity of its Indian and Hindu roots. When I talk to teachers in the West, especially experienced teachers like Johanna, who made the effort to study both theory and practice, I’m curious to understand how they impart Indian knowledge to the West without taking away from its Indian-ness.

What works in Johanna’s favour is also the fact that she has been visiting India and has been studying these practices before they became a global phenomenon and before yoga started becoming associated with which style, which yoga mat or which outfit one wears while practising. Johanna’s spiritual journey began when as a teenager she visited  a Buddhist Centre with her mother.  “I was 27 at the time and was at the peak of my Bohemian phase (laughs). I wanted to travel and explore the world so I sold everything I had and decided to head East to see where life will take me. I was travelling with a friend and we went to Thailand and China and then arrived in India. This was in the early 90s and we spent around three months in Bombay and Goa. I didn’t go to India as a yoga practitioner. I actually found Yoga in LA when I had just become a new mum and I was a single mum. I was going to the YMCA and they offered Yoga classes so I signed up for an  āsana class. I’ve always been athletic and I enjoyed the physicality of the  āsana practice but there was also this philosophical message attached to the practice and that’s what drew me. As I explored more of the practice, I fell in love with it and that love has been with me for over 25 years.”

Along the way, Johanna started exploring Vedānta as well and that inspired her to pursue a degree in religious studies with a focus on Indic knowledge. “In the West, there is a very āsana-centric approach to yoga but when I travelled through India, I had seen a very different approach to yoga, āsana and spirituality. I had met sādhus and visited so many holy places and there was no drama or vanity attached to Indian spirituality at the root level. I couldn’t reconcile what I experienced in India with what I experienced in the West so I took the academic route to investigate and gain more clarity on what all of this means. I attended a yoga and Ayurveda programme and that actually was the thing that took my practice from practise to sādhanā. I learned about the cultural context through the scriptures and that answered a lot of my questions. I started to connect the dots and it all started making sense. At the end of it, I had a degree in Religious Studies and then did a Masters in Yoga Studies. So I took years to study and understand the yoga traditions. But through all of it, I maintained my practice,” says Johanna. 

Finding Veda

Even though āsana is just one limb of yoga, many students and teachers take years to realise the entirety of yoga and what it means and only then do they start to distinguish between practising one limb and practising all eight limbs of yoga. You can’t practise one limb and call that yoga. The experienced know this. Even though Johanna, like so many of us, started with āsana, her study of the scriptures and especially Vedānta, led her to study Sanskrit and through Sanskrit, she discovered the subtle practice of chanting which further led her to the subtlest practice and experience of Veda recitation.  

I asked Johanna how reciting Veda has affected her spiritual progress and she says that, “Like all spiritual practices, chanting is not something you can learn without a teacher and that is why I am so grateful for Veda Studies and Shantala. Before that I was chanting but without structure. Veda Studies gave that practice structure and I now know the correct phonetics and why that is so important. Veda recitation has affected my spiritual practices in a profound way. Ever since I started practice years ago, I was drawn to the habit of initiating and ending my yoga practice with the recitation of mantra. This practice gave the yoga practice and subsequently all the learning and practices that I was led into in the realms of jñāna, bhakti, rāja , nāda and karma yoga a sense of completion and honour. My spiritual, emotional, mental and psychological landscapes were pacified from all the rajas and tamas that surrounded most of my life.  Veda recitation brought an access to a collection of practices that carry a legacy of human interaction, appreciation, devotion and precision that has been passed down generation after generation. This aspect carries for me special value because this gives me a sense of commonality and companionship in the solitude that occurs at times in spiritual practice.”

The Value of Parampara

Johanna understands the value of a living lineage and in addition to the benefits this gave her practice, she also sees the value of chanting according to a tradition in her students. “My students have been surprisingly open to reciting Veda. They can sense the profound energy brought forth by the sounds and specificity of reciting Veda in the Mysore tradition. They find a deep sense of peace once they go past the initial sense of shyness and perceived complexity of the tongue twisting. My students are mostly American college students, and for them, the tongue placements are at once interesting and challenging. I find that they sense an openness to using the voice for methods of navigating and calming their nervous systems and settling into a spiritual centre, which is something they seem to seek. I make it a point to teach my students the meaning and context of every mantra as well. These are primordial sounds and represent the Self before we came into the conditioned reality of what we are in terms of what body we were born in or to what culture, language, gender, etc. So these sounds existed before the conditioning by which we identify ourselves. It is the Self stripped of the conditioning and the masks that we wear. It takes us to our pure essence. I explain what Sanskrit is and how it is the language that is indigenous to yoga and that is why we recite in this language. Sanskrit is a scientific language and it has been designed to generate specific types of vibrations, and my students get that and it adds so much more value and meaning to their practice.”

Studying and Teaching Veda

While every mantra in Veda is designed to draw you in completely, and those who practise will vouch for this, there are some sounds that resonate more than others. When I interview students and teachers of Veda for Veda Studies, I always ask which mantras resonate with them most, and every woman I interviewed inevitably feels drawn to the Devī mantras. This only convinces me more about the role of feminine energy in Veda —  the mantras of the Veda were revealed to Ṛṣi-s and Ṛṣikā-s (seers) in deep states of meditation — these sounds are not restricted by gender. Johanna feels immersed in every mantra she learns especially after learning its meaning. “I think that once Shantala explains the meaning and the intention of each mantra, I am completely immersed in the one at hand. I am a person that tends to like variety, so when we learn a new Veda mantra, I become excited around the specific intent of the piece that I am learning. With that said, I am generally drawn to many of the Devī recitations. Whenever the Devī is invoked, I feel her guidance, strength, nourishment and power. Devī  Sūktam, Durgā Sūktam, Śraddhā Sūktam… are ones that resonate with me most,” says Johanna. 

After practising with Shantalaji for a while, Johanna signed up for the first Indica Veda Studies Teacher Training Programme that was held in 2023, and she feels that the TTC was a “gift that has afforded me the confidence to share Veda recitation in a trustworthy manner. The TTC first lent me a qualification that I was seeking in order to authentically convey the spiritual teachings and practice in the larger realm of Indian spiritual and knowledge systems. I have considered recitation a pivotal and foundational part of my personal spiritual practice and the TTC has enhanced my skills as a teacher of spiritual practice. In addition, my own consistent practice of Veda recitation has awarded me the cultivation of devotion within this unique form of spiritual expression.”

To find out more about Johanna’s work, email her at