Yoga Retreats

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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.

Kripalu Center
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/).

Two in New York State

The Yoga Ranch, at Woodbourne, New York: About two hours by bus from New York City, it occupies a stunning setting atop a wooded hill, looking down into a valley and up onto another hill, the mountains of the Catskills receding into the distance. Dotted about are open areas devoted to organic farming or used by grazing deer. On the extensive grounds, a one-acre pond is deep enough for swimming, while nearby stands a stone-faced sauna, wood fired, rock-heated, and steamed by pure, mountain spring water--one-of-a-kind. "You'll be doing good for a lot of people if you recommend us," said the co-director at the end of our talk. "They come here with jangled nerves, and then leave completely restored." The charge for that revival is an astonishing $60 per person on weekdays, $55 on weekends, $15 more for an apartment with a private bath (half price for children ages 5-12, free for children under 5), including yoga asanas (exercises), meditation, accommodation in twin or triple rooms, and two vegetarian meals. Write or phone Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, P.O. Box 195, Budd Road, Woodbourne, NY 12788 (phone 845/436-6492, or visit the Web site at sivananda.org/ranch.htm).

Ananda Ashram, in Monroe, New York: Despite its daily teachings of such classic yoga regiments as hatha yoga (stretching) and pranayama ( breath control), the 41-year-old Ananda Ashram has a far less pronounced Eastern orientation than some others: it schedules meditation for as late as 9 a.m. on weekends, invites guest teachers from all religious disciplines, and presents classes in creative music, drama, dance, holistic healing, and visual arts. Less than 90 minutes by bus from New York City, at the base of the Catskill Mountains, it occupies 85 wooded acres, including a private lake, and houses 405visitors in three main guesthouses, for an all-inclusive room, meals, and tuition charge (on seven-night stays) of $280 to $400 per week (dorm vs. private double). Discounts are available for couples, students, seniors, and youths under 18. Contact the Ananda Ashram, 13 Sapphire Road, Monroe, NY 10950 (phone 845/782-5575 or visit the Web site at anandaashram.org/).

Four in CaliforniaThe Yoga Farm, at Grass Valley, California: Cheapest of the residential ashrams--$45 per person in a tent, $55 per person in triple rooms, $65 (double) and $115 (single) in several others, including vegetarian meals and two yoga classes--but the smallest also, with space for just 40 guests, the farm was the personal favorite of the late Swami Vishnu Devananda, founder of the Sivananda movement. Like thousands of others over the years who have driven up the 50 or so miles from Sacramento and then followed dirt roads to the isolated setting, he valued the special simplicity and quiet of this rustic, three-building resort, with its changeless routine of meditation/exercises/free time on weekdays, its weekend seminars on yoga philosophies and practices like vegetarian cooking, Ayurveda, and panca karma (an ancient method of flushing toxins from the body). In the free-time period, as you hike to the top of an adjoining hill and lie daydreaming on its crest, you see the majestic Sierras spread out before you. A very special place. Write or phone Sivananda Ashram Vrindavan Yoga Farm, 14651 Ballantree Lane, Grass Valley, CA 95949 (phone 800/469-9642, or visit the Web site at sivananda.org/farm).

TheWhite Lotus Foundation, in elegant Santa Barbara, California: Some 1,800 feet up the mountains just behind the city, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands, and founded in 1967 White Lotus is currently directed by Tracey Rich and Ganga White, author of the book Double Yoga. Its principal emphasis is on yoga and related disciplines (bodywork, shiatsu, acupuncture, acupressure), conveyed to guests through workshops, seminars, and classes throughout the year. A 5,000-square-foot central building provides some of the accommodations, but most guests stay in three- to four-person yurts scattered about the 40 acres of grounds. Personal retreats and classes in yoga can be pursued at any time of the year, at a $85-per-day charge, which does not include meals (participants buy and cook their own food in a central kitchen), but more elaborate one-week and 16-day "intensives" are scheduled at frequent intervals throughout the spring, summer, and fall, and these include meals prepared by a noted vegetarian chef, Beatrix Rohlson, as well as morning-till-night classes (in-depth yoga training). Since the weather of Santa Barbara is mild even in the winter (daytime temperatures in the upper 60s or low 70s), yoga-inclined travelers might schedule a personal visit at that time of year, at the daily tariff. To reach this contemporary, eclectic yoga center, contact: The White Lotus Foundation, 2500 San Marcos Pass, Santa Barbara, CA 93105 (phone 805/964-1944, or visit its Web site at whitelotus.org/).

Ananda, The Expanding Light, near Nevada City, California: A strange amalgam of faiths, this is the yoga ashram located on the grounds of a larger utopian community known as the Ananda World Brotherhood Village. The "town," 1,000 acres in size, was formed in 1967 by practitioners of yoga from varied religious backgrounds, who regard yoga as complementary to other faiths. Today, at the retreat center, 200 visitors can engage in a retreat of classic yoga practices--early-morning and late-afternoon asanas and sadhanas (guided yoga meditation)-- supplemented by classes and workshops on yogic and meditational themes. The daily charge starts at $37 for campers bringing their own tents, $59 per person in a double room, $120 for a delux private single room, including all three vegetarian meals and classes. Ananda is 15 miles from Nevada City, the latter is 70 miles north of Sacramento. Contact The Expanding Light, 14618 Tyler Foote Rd., Nevada City, CA 95959 (phone 800/346-5350, or visit its Web site at expandinglight.org/). 

In the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, overlooking Monterrey Bay--you can't imagine a more enthralling location--is another leading retreat facility, founded by the followers of Baba Hari Dass. Thousands head there each year for long weekends or week-long vacations that combine hiking in the redwood forests and cavorting in the open air, with attendance at classical ashtanga yoga classes (of the type described over 2,000 years ago by Patanji in the "Yoga Sutras"). Though the emphasis is on postures and meditation, the center offers a number of classes that could fall into the realm of "karma yoga" which is the ideal of selfless service. To that end, the center explores topics of healing (with classes on Ayurveda and Chinese medicine), organic gardening and peaceful living ("Zen and Yoga," "The Heart of Compassion"). Room and two vegetarian meals daily, supplemented by snacks, ranges from $46 per person (in a tent supplied with mattress; $32 if you bring your own tent), $54 (in dorms housing four to seven), $61 (in a triple room), to $69 per person (in a double), $92 in a single, per day, to which you add an average of $190 per weekend for tuition relating to the courses or seminars you've chosen. All this is but an hour from San Jose Airport, an hour and a half from San Francisco Airport. Contact Mt.MadonnaCenter, 445 Summit Road, Watsonville, CA 95076 (phone 408/847-0406 or Web site: mountmadonna.org/).

Still other possibilitiesThe large, 34-year-old Himalayan Institute of Pennsylvania is yet is yet another major center of yoga practice and studies, yet so diverse in its programs that it is practically impossible to describe. A 24-page catalog lists all its weekend, weeklong, 10-day, and month-long investigations throughout the year into every aspect and theory -- sometimes conflicting -- of the yoga literature; it is for serious students of the art, and beginners may feel in over their heads! Figure $65 a day for a double, $75 for a single, all inclusive (with dorm accommodations), for most weeklong and longer programs, which do include beginners' classes in hatha yoga (physical exercises) and meditation, of which those for beginners in meditation are especially popular. If you do attend, you'll be housed on a 422-acre campus in the hills of the Pocono Mountains region of northeastern Pennsylvania, six miles north of the town of Honesdale, overlooking spectacular wooded hills and valleys. Contact The Himalayan Institute, 952 Bethany Turnpike, Honesdale, PA 18431 (phone toll free 800/822-4547 or visit its Web site at himalayaninstitute.org/).

In the Laurentian Mountains, an hour north of Montreal is one of the largest and most spectacular of the Sivinanda Ashrams, Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp. There guests can add canoeing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, rock climbing and rafting to their yogic fare. Beds in shared rooms with showers cost $80 CDN a day, $510 CDN a week; tent camping (you must provide your own tent) is $45 CDN daily, $285 CDN weekly. Classes, meals, use of the sauna, pool, and skiing are included. Contact Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp, 673 Eighth Avenue, Val Morin, Quebec J0T 2R0 Canada (phone 800/263-9642, or visit the Web site at www.sivananda.org/camp).

People come from all over the world to live and study at Satchidananda Ashram, founded by the renowned Swami of the same name in 1979 as a model of how people of various faiths and backgrounds can live in harmony. About an hour south of Charlottesville, it's in a magnificent locale--750 acres of secluded woodland along the James River in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The "Welcome Weekend" program offers deep relaxation upon arrival, a tour, hatha yoga classes for beginners, guided meditation, a talk on integral yoga, and an evening session with the swami when he's in residence (usually summer). The food, which includes three vegetarian meals, is excellent and the digs--ranging from dormitory bunks to semi-private to private rooms--are air-conditioned, modern and pleasant. Rates: $60 weekdays, $75 Friday to Saturday in dormitory; $75 Sunday to Thursday, $85 Friday and Saturday in a semi-private room. Camp space is $40 on weekdays, $60 on weekends. Contact Satchidananda Ashram, Route 1, Box 1720, Buckingham, VA 23921 (phone 800/858-9642 or 434/969-3121, or visit the Web site at yogaville.org/).

I have not described the important 2,000-bed Muktananda Center(the "Syda Foundation") in South Fallsburg, New York (phone 914/434-2000), because of its heavy (and somewhat atypical) theological emphasis, which stresses chanting and meditation to a far greater extent than hatha (physical) yoga and exercises. The Syda Foundation discourages casual visitors but is happy to accept potential acolytes.

And in gratitude, I press my hands together beneath my lips, and intone: "Jai Bhagwan" ("I honor the spirit within you").

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