This post is #1 in a 2 part series, in which I and contributing author, Tami Shaloum, each describe our experiences at separate weekend yoga retreats at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch.
Author for this post: WGINY
I recently decided to get away from the hustle and bustle of New York City for a few days by taking a Shortline Bus up to Woodbourne, New York, for a weekend yoga retreat at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch. The ashram was suggested to me by my good friend and contributing author for this post, Tami Shaloum. I was told that my 72-hr (give or take) spiritual journey would mean waking up at 5:30a.m. to a bell or gong, chanting and praying in the ancient language of Sanskrit twice a day, intense, long yoga classes focused on asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing) and relaxation, and two daily all-vegetarian meals, and, as long as none of that turned me off, I should give it a try. Despite knowing that it would be an intense experience, I decided to book my retreat.
Riding the bus up to Woodbourne, where ashram staff would pick me up, I was feeling both nervous and excited. I am fairly new to the practice of yoga and, even considering Tami's recommendation, this was kind of an impulse decision. Not only that, but I had decided to visit the ashram on my own, without the usual gaggle of friends I tend to find I need surrounding me in my daily NYC life. However, as son as we pulled up to the 77-acre ranch nestled among the Catskill Mountains, I knew I had made a good decision. The sun was about to set just as I arrived and something about breathing in the cool mountain air just brought a peace to my body before I even entered the main building.
I am just in time for dinner and the calming scent of nature immediately transforms into a pleasing aroma of fresh herbs and spices that reminds my stomach that I am quite famished. I am taken aback as I am whisked into the kitchen area where the rest of the group has already gathered, and is holding hands around the serving table and giving thanks for our food (I think), in Sanskrit. I am reminded of long-ago meals at Jewish summer camp, and I smile, truly thankful for the meal and the opportunity to be in the company of the strangers surrounding me.
Sometime during our delicious buffet-style vegetarian dinner, I make the decision to take my watch off, for the weekend. I have already decided that this will be a technology-free weekend, no cell phones or computers (okay, well a DVD on the bus-ride, and an emergency phone call to a friend in need, but other than that, radiowave silence...), but I didn't contemplate the idea of throwing out my sense of time until I got to the ashram and realized I did not want to be a slave to the band around my arm. This was ironic, considering the strict ashram schedule --
5:30am Wake Up; 6:00 a.m. Satsang (silent meditation, chanting and talk); 8:00 a.m. Yoga Class (asanas and pranayama); 10:00 a.m. Brunch; 11:00 a.m. Karma Yoga (helping with ashram chores); 1:00 p.m. Raja Yoga Workshop (each weekend workshop or event varies); 4:00 p.m. Yoga Class; 6:00 p.m. Dinner; 8:00 p.m. Satsang; 10:00 p.m. Lights Out.
Yet, with the schedule so strictly set and everyone else following it, it was nearly impossible to fall out of sync. The only trouble I had was that we could not hear the morning bell in our room on Saturday morning so, luckily, we had set an alarm clock. There was no trouble on Sunday, however, as ashram staff personally walked the grounds banging a gong.
The ashram was not very crowded. I understand it is still the off-season, and during the summer months it can be hard to even get a reservation. I chose to lodge in dorm-style housing (there were various, modestly priced, single and shared accommodation options). Although I expected to find mostly middle-aged guru-trained, hippie-era, new-age types there, my stereotype was way off base. The majority of weekend visitors were young professionals, just like me, and a few had even traveled by themselves, on the Shortline Bus from the city. My two roommates were chic yet laid-back, and we found ourselves swapping books suggestions and discussing the crises in the Middle East. I did feel a bit embarrassed that my retreat reading choice was Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity", while the other girls had chosen more appropriate books for a weekend in which the goal was to focus our minds and our bodies, and find unity and divinity within us, such as Thich Nhat Hanh's "Being Peace", or Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea".
I was anxious about participating in the two-hour-long yoga classes, but I found them to be both rejuvenating and relaxing. The Sivananda staff were also extremely helpful in demonstrating the proper way to get into and hold each pose. Among the various yoga classes I have taken in NYC studios and gyms, it has been very rare that an instructor has taken the time to really instruct, rather than just jumping right into each move, and expecting me to do the same. I believe that I came out of these classes with a better understanding of not only how to form each pose and, to some extent, begin to learn to control my breathing while doing so, but also with the comprehension that the teaching of yoga is not just an exercise, it is, for people who practice daily, a way of life.
At Sivananda in particular, that way of life is a religious one, following the philosophy of Vedanta, which focuses on learning to love your neighbor and finding peace within yourself. There was a lot of polytheistic praise during our devotional Satsang sessions (which once again brought me back to old days of davening...), and during a workshop over the weekend I asked whether one who is an atheist or agnostic would be able to really immerse themselves in Sivananda's ways, as an important belief of Vedanta is in the existence of a greater power. I was told, with complete genuineness and sincerity, that Vedanta is about acceptance and unity, and that the most important goal, the way to really reach "Enlightenment," was to find God within oneself, rather than focusing on whether there is an actual being in the sky controlling it all. It was an interesting concept that certainly had me introspecting. (I especially loved the Sanskrit songs we chanted and purchased a book, not because this one weekend convinced me to suddenly begin practicing or even studying Vedanta, but I just found the songs to be so beautiful, I wanted a memory of them).
The hardest part of the entire weekend for me, besides just being perpetually tired (because I probably have not been awake this early since grade-school), was the silent meditation. We spent a lot of time during the weekend trying to learn how to clear our minds and just meditate, let all thoughts go and surrender to ourselves. This is not something I have ever been very good at. My mind wanders constantly, around and around and around and... I just have never learned how to make it stop. I learned some good pointers this weekend though, about breathing and mantras and posture. Throughout four satsang sessions, I was never once able to meditate for the entire twenty minutes without my mind trailing off. So, this is something to work on.
As the weekend came to a close, I could truly feel that my entire body was smiling just a bit more than it had been when I arrived. Before I leave I take a last walk around the grounds and once again admire the beauty, majesty and serenity of the mountainous outdoors. I breathe deeply and I feel a still peace.
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch is located at 33 Yoga Road in Woodbourne, NY. To plan a retreat for a weekend, a week, a month or longer (work/study programs and teacher training options are also available), call (845) 436-6492. Overnight accommodations run between $55 and $95 per night.