Find inner enlightenment at Yasodhara Ashram
Meditation, natural beauty of the Kootenays a winning combo
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 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.