Last week, I spent four days at the Sivanandana Yoga Ranch Ashram in Woodbourne, NY, at the foot of the Catskills. I’ve never been on a yoga retreat and have been to only a handful of yoga classes in the past five years. Needless to say, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Short version: It was great.
1. Good vegetarian food is good. I was worried about being hungry. They only serve two meals a day—brunch and dinner—and they are all vegetarian. As a low-carb eater, I feared facing brunches of French toast and pancakes, and dinners of pasta in various forms, probably with a lot of eggplant (a vegetable with which I have a love/hate relationship).
My fear was wasted. The food was excellent, with rarely a carb or an eggplant in sight. Vegetables abounded and there was plenty of protein from beans and lentils. The dishes varied, with no repeats. I arrived on Mexican night and Thursday was Southern night. I would order almost everything served here in a restaurant (there was one pot of soup that didn’t make the cut for me and many others, but one miss in eight meals is a good track record). Good inspiration for my resolution to try new, healthy recipes.
I only delved into the supply of protein bars I had smuggled in during my last afternoon. After a few bites, I realized that (1) I wasn’t really hungry, just thirsty, and was not sure what to do with three hours of free time, and (2) it didn’t taste that good, so I pitched it. The rest of the bars I brought with me returned to DC, where I’m sure they will taste good on another day.
2. Practice does make perfect (or at least improvement). There were two yoga sessions a day, each lasting two hours. Although there was a different teacher each time, we spent 90% of each class practicing the same asanas (poses) in the same order. I had the chance to really learn what we were doing and see signs of improvement in technique and flexibility. During the penultimate class, my feet touched the floor in plow pose and I got my toes off the mat in crow pose. Never expected either of those to happen, even in the moments before they did.
3. Meditating is HARD. Twice a day is satsang (translated as “a gathering of the wise” or “gathering together for the truth”), which is the gateway to inner peace. I was looking forward to inner peace. Satsang starts with 20-25 minutes of meditation. During this time, I was supposed to concentrate by:
a. sitting cross-legged with my spine straight,
b. remaining still,
c. breathing rhythmically and relaxedly,
d. repeating a mantra, and
e. focusing on the point between my eyebrows or at my heart center.
Of these, I had a really hard time with a, b, c, d and e. Inevitably my left foot fell asleep, which would cause me to shift around and lose concentration. It all went downhill from there. I would start thinking random things and when I would try to return to a mantra, I often would end up singing parts of songs (but never a whole song) instead. I didn’t find much inner peace, but am going to keep working at it.
4. Chanting in a small room full of people feels good. Literally. I could feel the sounds and vibrations. The second part of satsang is chanting prayers and mantras. Most are call-and-repeat, so the fact that I don’t speak Sanskrit wasn’t a problem (also, there was a songbook and some songs in English). After a few sessions, I knew enough to sign along comfortably.
This part of satsang reminded me of song sessions at camp after dinner. The whole dining hall would be up clapping and singing and most nights, you could just feel the joy in the room. Using song to create that feeling of being part of something bigger, of participating in a community for a little while, is a technique found in many religions and spiritual practices. I totally understand why.
5. It’s hard to have a bad day in beautiful surroundings. Just look at this photo and the ones below. Enough said.
6. I enjoy helping others. Those who know me probably are saying, “Duh.” It was good to rediscover that I enjoy being helpful just because I can, as opposed to doing so because it is my job.
7. There are multiple paths of yoga. This ashram follows the teachings of Swami Vishnu-Devananda*. Instead of the Gideon Bible, every guest room has a copy of Meditation and Mantras, in which he describes the four paths—Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
I could get on board with Karma Yoga, selfless action (see #6 above). I appreciated Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion (see #4 above), but I’m not looking for a new religion.
I went to the ashram seeking Raja Yoga, although I didn’t to call it that at the time. Raja Yoga is about mental control, and includes asanas (see #2 above), meditation (see #3 above) and relaxation. I don’t expect my life ever will include Jnana Yoga, self-realization. I’m ok with that.
*The ashram I visited follows the teachings of Swami Sivananda, who sent his student, Swami Vishnu to the West to introduce yoga in 1957. Clearly he was successful since yoga mats now are ubiquitous. The Beatles are sometimes credited with popularizing yoga in the West. Guess who introduced it to them? Swami Vishnu-Devananda, when he met them in the Bahamas in 1965.
A few photos (10/7/2014-10/11/2014):