Find in­ner en­light­en­ment at Ya­sod­hara Ashram

Med­i­ta­tion, nat­u­ral beauty of Koote­nays a win­ning combo

The Province - - TRAVEL - JOANNE SASVARI — Daniel Seguin

I ar­rived at the Ya­sod­hara Ashram a skep­tic, but I fig­ured a three-day yoga re­treat in the Koote­nay Rock­ies might prove restora­tive.

It turns out that I was in for a real awak­en­ing.

Ya­sod­hara is a yoga re­treat and study cen­tre founded by the Swami Si­vananda Radha Saraswati, a Ger­man woman who trav­elled to In­dia back in the 1950s in search of en­light­en­ment. She found it at the ashram of the guru Si­vananda, who in­structed her to go back to the west, open her own ashram and trans­late his teach­ings for a western mind.

Even­tu­ally, Swami Radha found her­self in this re­mote, moun­tain­ous and slightly off­beat re­gion. About 20 yo­gis live at the ashram full time, and an ever-chang­ing num­ber of guests ar­rive for week­end re­treats and yoga cour­ses rang­ing from 10 days to sev­eral months. (The ashram’s yo­gis also teach all over the world, from Banff to Bar­ba­dos to Bu­dapest.)

Ya­sod­hara is among the oldest ashrams in Canada, es­tab­lished first in Burn­aby back in 1963, then here on Koote­nay Lake’s rocky shore in 1969.

Most guests, says yogi Gauri, are search­ing for heal­ing, strug­gling with a ma­jor tran­si­tion in their lives or yearn­ing for self-aware­ness and un­der­stand­ing.

“What sets us apart from other yoga cen­tres is our fo­cus on re­flec­tion,” she says.

Swami Sukhananda is play­ing the har­mo­nium, its plain­tive drone fill­ing the room as 11 of us file into the Awak­en­ing Won­der work­shop. Some have trav­elled here from Toronto, oth­ers from Ten­nessee and New Zealand — 10 women and one grumpy man all at vary­ing stages on our life’s jour­ney.

As we take our seats, Sukhananda be­gins by hav­ing us chant “om,” the mys­tic syl­la­ble that is con­sid­ered the most sa­cred mantra in Hin­duism and Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

“Na­maste,” she says and in­tro­duces the theme of our week­end:

“Awak­en­ing is about be­ing aware.”

Over the next two days, we start each morn­ing with an hour of hatha yoga, ev­ery asana a med­i­ta­tion pose.

“Learn­ing to be still in a pose is a big part of what we’re teach­ing,” ex­plains Sukhananda.

Then we spend the rest of the day prac­tis­ing mind­ful­ness, med­i­tat­ing and jour­nal­ing, ex­plor­ing the grounds, and shar­ing our in­sights with the group.

There is no al­co­hol, no drugs, no talk­ing at the (de­li­cious) meals. Silent meals of­fer space “to be able to con­cen­trate and be present with your food,” Sukhananda says.

Each day ends with sat­sang, when all res­i­dents and guests gather in the ashram’s serene Tem­ple of Light to give thanks for the day with singing and chant­ing.

“The chant­ing is the mantra part,” Gauri tells us later. “It’s to con­nect with that power within our­selves.”

The Tem­ple of Light is an ethe­real white dome de­signed to look like a lo­tus flower, its petals un­furl­ing amid the woods above Koote­nay Lake. Van­cou­ver’s Patkau Ar­chi­tects cre­ated it to re­place a tem­ple de­stroyed by fire in 2014. It is beau­ti­ful and func­tional. Light streams from a sky­light and win­dows over­look­ing the lake; per­fect acous­tics en­sure no one ever need speak above a gen­tle mur­mur.

Aside from the tem­ple, the ashram’s 115 acres are dot­ted with more than 20 sus­tain­ably pow­ered build­ings in­clud­ing prayer cab­ins, res­i­dences and the main fa­cil­ity that houses the gift shop, café and yoga stu­dios/class­rooms. There is also a vast veg­etable gar­den, which pro­duces about a third of the food served here (an­other third comes from lo­cal farm­ers), and dozens of fruit trees, many dat­ing back to the early 20th cen­tury when this was a re­mote home­stead.

An ashram, Swami Si­vananda tells us, is “ba­si­cally a spir­i­tual home formed around a teacher, in this case, Swami Radha. The thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates this ashram is it was founded by a west­erner and a woman.”

Her teach­ings have roots in Hin­duism and Bud­dhism, he ex­plains, adding this is a karma yoga ashram that hon­ours self­less ser­vice and is a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity, not a re­li­gious one, where all be­lief sys­tems are ac­knowl­edged.

“Mostly it is ask­ing ques­tions. What do you think the pur­pose of your life is? What makes your life worth liv­ing? These kinds of ques­tions are asked at the be­gin­ning and then we’re asked to find our way from there,” Si­vananda says. “Here you are chal­lenged to find your own an­swers, and that’s the strength of the place.”

If you ask me, the strength

of the place is sleep.

It’s not just that the nights here are vel­vety with soft, dark, pine-scented si­lence. It’s that all the med­i­ta­tion and self-re­flec­tion calms the mind, emp­ty­ing it of the end­lessly re­lent­less minu­tiae of daily life.

“I think the thing that re­ally hap­pens here is that peo­ple have a chance to set­tle, and have the op­por­tu­nity to let the on­go­ing­ness of daily life pause, and be open to new

magic,” says Swami Lal­i­tananda, the ashram’s spir­i­tual and ad­min­is­tra­tive leader. “It’s more like giv­ing peo­ple a chance to rec­og­nize their own in­ner knowl­edge.”

That’s es­pe­cially true for women, who make up the ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents and guests, and of­ten ar­rive here strug­gling to bal­ance fam­ily and work and dreams. Swami Radha, “wanted women to ac­knowl­edge their own power,” Lal­i­tananda says.

The Tem­ple of Light at the Ya­sod­hara Ashram, at Koote­nay Lake, was de­signed in the shape of un­furl­ing lo­tus flower petals.

An in­te­rior view of the Tem­ple of Light. This ethe­real white dome re­placed a tem­ple that was de­stroyed in a 2014 fire.

This veg­etable gar­den pro­duces nearly a third of the food served at the ashram.

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