Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Affordable Weekend of Meditation, Yoga and Relaxation, Close to NYC.

This post is #2 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: Tami Shaloum

I came to Sivananda Yoga Ranch not really knowing what to expect. Admittedly, my vision of an ashram up to that point came mostly from the book Eat, Pray, Love. I had read about Sivananda, and other similar retreats along the Hudson Valley, in a New York Times article written a year earlier. The article talked about professionals from New York City coming up to these ashrams as a weekend getaway, not so much a vacation in the traditional sense, but a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, a way to reconnect and unwind, and a place to get away from the stronghold of technology. It was an intriguing concept. I saved the article.

Despite practicing yoga on and off for 12 years, I had not really delved into the spiritual aspect of yoga. I had recently started taking a yoga class that incorporated meditation and was finding it difficult to sit still and focus. I decided to take myself to one of those yoga retreats I had read about as a birthday present to myself. So that’s how, one chilly evening in mid-November, I found myself being driven up a dark, winding hill toward the Sivananda Yoga Ranch. I chose that particular weekend because it included a hike in the nearby Shawangunks, a mountain ridge jutting out from the Catskills. I wanted to do yoga but the added bonus of hiking in this stunning area also drew me.

I was greeted warmly by the receptionist, who gave me the ashram’s schedule and invited me for dinner in a half hour, just enough time to find my room, place my meager luggage down, and get my bearings. I had booked a dorm but was pleased to see that I was given a double. My roommate came in from the shared bathroom across the hall and I immediately felt her friendliness and warmth as she introduced herself. A 30-something mother of two originally from New York City but now living in the New Paltz area, she would prove to be an excellent roommate and friend.

I felt a little shy at first as I wandered through the kitchen/dining area helping myself to the vegetarian buffet and finding a spot to sit and eat. But the setting was so casual, almost as though you were at a potluck at a friend’s house where everybody is just lounging about, that I just plopped myself down next to two young women who were chatting with each other. They seemed happy to have the company and included me in their conversation. It turned out they also had never been to an ashram before. In fact, one of them was new to yoga. I relaxed considerably. There happened to be only about 15 guests, a fact that surprised me. Add to that the 15 or so regulars (people who live there full time) and the setting was fairly intimate. Some had been to Sivananda before, some had been to other ashrams and some, like me, had never been to an ashram before.

After dinner was satsang. This would become both my favorite and least favorite parts of the weekend. We sat through satsang twice a day, at 6 am and 8 pm, for about an hour and a half. The first 20 minutes are spent in silent meditation. Twenty minutes never felt so long. My back would start to ache, then my feet would fall asleep and I would be subject to pins and needles. I often had trouble emptying my mind and opened my eyes a couple of times to gaze out the window. I would try to overcome this by focusing on my breathing, adjusting my posture, thinking positive thoughts about my loved ones and returning my gaze to my third eye, a spot in between the eyes on the bridge of the nose. I tried to remember mantras that I learned over the course of the weekend but usually I just sat and acknowledged the discomfort, waiting for the signal for the meditation to end. Not very enlightened, I know, but it really is very hard. I noticed some other guests squirming in discomfort as well, so I know I wasn’t alone.

Then the best part of the satsang began: the kirtan, or call and response chanting. Someone passed around various percussive instruments and I tentatively chose a tambourine. It didn’t take long for me to lose my reserved shyness when everyone started singing and playing instruments together. It was so beautiful and uplifting hearing the unity of voices during the chanting of Sanskrit mantras and hymns. For a half hour, everyone in the room lost him or herself in devotional worship, including me, someone whose belief system is skeptical at best.

After the kirtan, there was always a lecture/discussion but, to be honest, I don’t remember much about them. Someone would suggest a theme and we would discuss it a bit, asking questions. I know at one point someone asked how to get over the discomfort of sitting in meditation and I think the general response was to learn what posture works best for you.

My first yoga class of the weekend was on Saturday morning, after the 6 am satsang (we were woken at 5:30 am by a gong each morning). Speaking to some of the other guests, I learned that Sivananda yoga is a very specific style of Hatha yoga that is the same every time, wherever you happen to practice it in the world. I was very intrigued and a little anxious because I had never done 2 straight hours of yoga before, much less twice a day. My concerns were assuaged once the class began. The pacing was just right and felt relaxing, but also challenging. The class began with a series of pranayama, or yogic breathing. Then there was a succession of vigorous sun salutations and another hour or so of various asanas. In between each asana was a relaxation pose. It ended with a nice long savasana. 

After that was brunch, then free time and karma yoga, one of the concepts I admire most in Vedantic philosophy. Karma yoga is a form of yoga based in action, performing selfless acts to humanity. At Sivananda, this manifested itself in an hour’s worth of chores around the ashram each day. For example, my karma yoga involved helping harvest some greens for our dinner that night. That kind of involvement really helped me appreciate the harmony of the ashram and led to a richer experience, especially when eating a meal partially made from the fruits of my karma yoga.

I did not participate in the day’s workshop, a hands-on instruction of inverted poses, which was something I could have really used help with. But I had a killer headache from a combination of trying a headstand and crunching my neck a little, sitting in the sauna too long and probably a little caffeine withdrawal (caffeine, garlic and other spicy foods are not allowed). I took a nap instead.
By the time we shared the evening meal and satsang, most of us guests had become friendly and there was a nice camaraderie. Everyone was really interesting and conversations ranged from relationships to religion to cats. I still felt a little out of my element but that was kind of the point. I had come to Sivananda to experience something different. I truly felt I had explored another side of yoga that kept me wanting to know more.

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