OK, well let me be the first to add a post to this new forum.
It's supposed to be about the practical and inspiring, OK, here goes.
From first coming into contact with Vaisnavism and Vaisnavas I felt that it was important to understand it (and them) in it's original cultural context ie India. So as soon as I could I left the west and went to India. Temples and devotional communities in the west do have some of the flavor of the culture but to actually live and interact with Vaisnavas in India is certainly something different.
Many devotees now regularly visit India but they also bring with them western ideas, attitudes and ways of doing things. They mostly remain in the company of westerners or associate with a limitied number of Indians specifically if they have found an Indian Guru and/or Math to belong to.
Right from my first visit to Vrndavan and Mayapur it became obvious to me that there was a multitude of different sects with different traditions, practices and beliefs. Travelling to other parts of India especially South India made me realize there was even more variety of traditon.
I guess what I was looking for was cultural as well as philosophical authenticity. I looked at different traditions and saw that they seemed to build on basic ideas that had been propounded by others from earlier traditions. This is not to say that the fine tuning of the later traditions didn't also interest me. But I was drawn to the origins of Vaisnava and Bhakti thought and practice.
Soon after I joined ISKCON I decided that I wanted a role in that society that would afford me a lifestyle that was culturally appropriate and conducive to Vaisnavism. So I became a pujari. I had also been attracted to the rituals early on as it seemed to be the one practical aspect of devotional service about which people knew the least.
When I visited and later lived in India I lost no opportunity to investigate the origins of devotional acts especially those related to Vaisnava worship. This became part of a larger research into the lifestyles of different Vaisnavas (and others). Each time I encountered something that the practictioners of one group did but didn't really know why, I would trace it to an older tradition in order to get more understanding of it.
Thus I quickly went in succession from asking questions to senior members of ISKCON to the GM and other Gaudiya Vaisnavas, and then beyond them to other groups such as the Sri Vaisnavas, Madhvas and even Smartas. This has given me an interesting and broad perspective. I am able to see the things that are there in a tradition which are simply cultural and not specifically important to it's basic philosophical outlook and also appreciate these aspects. At the same time I was able to see where I felt that my own ideas and lifestyle could fit in.
Now I lead a dual life. In the west it is very much of a compromise. Similar to what Indians go through when having to live and work in the west. You would like to live a more orthodox life. But where is the time? So you have to fit in those basic devotional activities into the framework of a modern workday and perhaps extend them a little on your days off. I always try to go to India every year for a couple of months at least just to recharge myself and try to live a more authentic Vaisnava lifestyle. Even then I do not consider the life I live in the west to be un-Vaisnavic. Vaisnava lifestyle in the west is an evolving thing. People have to come to terms with how to keep it all together. I think that this is also very important. This is specifically important to the majority of us who are grhastas and not renunciates. We more than the others have to live in the world.