Remarkable vacations at ashrams clustered near both coasts
I am not a Yogi. And considering my feverish lifestyle, horrendous eating habits, and stubborn rationalism, that's the understatement of the year.But Yogi or not, some of my happiest holidays have been spent at yoga retreats.
When it comes to inducing sheer serenity, restoring vigor, flushing toxins from both mind and body, nothing beats these mystical ashrams (schools, places of learning) with their vegetarian meals and quiet hillside settings, their twice-daily asanas (languid stretching exercises) and moments of meditation, their gentle people.
And when it comes to cost, nothing else in the vacation field even remotely compares. At a score of residential, countryside ashrams clustered near both coasts, the charge for room and all three meals amounts--if you can believe it--from $45 a day.
Why so cheap? Because the meals are vegetarian, the sites are often donated, and the staff works for free, performing karma yoga (selfless service).
Why, then, aren't they inundated with guests? Because the public, in general, recoils from Eastern thought, equating all such teachings with those of Sun Myung Moon, assuming dreadful acts of brainwashing or abandoned conduct, as at the turbulent Rajneeshpuram in Oregon or the doomed Guyanese community of mad Jim Jones.
As applied to the yoga movement, nothing could be further from the truth. A philosophy of life, not a religion; a questing science, not a dogma--yoga is the most tolerant of creeds, its practitioners good-humored, broad-minded, and modest, non authoritarian. At the U.S. ashrams, nothing is mandatory other than attendance at the asanas (physical exercises or postures) and silent meditations--and that, only to screen out persons who are simply seeking a cheap crashpad for their vacations.
Apart from those two limited daily sessions, no one cares what you do or where you go, or whether you even attend lectures of the guru. He or she is regarded with affection, called guruji or swamiji (dear little guru, dear little swami), but treated as fallible, and certainly not as a Godhead. Some instructors at the ashrams--even a director or two--will stress their distance from Hindu theology and their pursuit of yoga primarily for its physical and calming benefits.
Though the residential ashrams in North America number far more than a score, not all have guaranteed staying power. Those that do, include:
The Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat
On Paradise Island, the Bahamas: You've heard of Club Med, now meet Club Meditation (at a fifth the price). The ashram that's a 150-bed tropical resort, it sits next to sugary-white sands, across the bay from Nassau on four beachfront acres donated to the Sivananda Vedanta movement by an admirer; the popular, otherworldly complex has now been in operation for over 30 years. You arise at dawn to meditate on the beach, proceed immediately (and before breakfast) to a two-hour exercise class (asana), partake at last of a mammoth vegetarian brunch, and are then allowed to do nothing at all (except swim, snorkel, and sun) until 4 p.m., when a second round of meditation and asanas is followed by supper at 6 p.m., meditation at sunset, and bed. Accommodations range from airy dorms in a colonial building ($59 per person per night, including meals and exercise classes) to double rooms in modern cabins ($$69 to $79, to campsites ($50) overlooking the sea. Contact Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, P.O. Box N7550, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas (phone 800/873-YOGA), or e-mail Nassau@sivanda.org. Web site: sivananda.org/nassau.
Near Lenox, Massachusetts: In the many wings and 450 rooms of a former Jesuit monastery, on a hillside overlooking Lake Mahkeenac in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, Kripalu is one of the largest of all ashrams, with one of the most varied programs--its brochure resembles a college catalog crammed with courses and options. Soothed by the ministrations of a largely unpaid staff of volunteers, you exercise, meditate, wander, and soak; attend seminars; dine in complete silence at breakfast but converse at dinner. Accommodations are comfortable, in spacious dorms (6 to 22 people) of wide-frame, wooden double-deckers, or in pleasant private rooms, and yet the all-inclusive charge--for housing and all three meals, exercise classes, and most other activities--is a reasonable $106 to $120 per person in the dormitories, $176 to $225 per person in a standard double room. Write or phone Kripalu Center, P.O. Box 793, West St., Route 183, Lenox, MA 01240 (phone 800/741-7353 or 413/448-3152 (within state), or visit its Web site at kripalu.org/).