What’s happening to me? I’m out in, like, nature. I’ve found that if I’m outside in the late Fall heading into winter, there are fewer bugs. Except for the almost moth attack when I did that workshop upstate, I’ve been pretty a-okay with nature. So on a weekend in November, I took myself up into the Catskills to Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch.
The Catskills? Isn’t that where all those resorts are? Yes, it was exactly like Dirty Dancing except more in the middle of nowhere on a higher further mountain without dancing dirtily and with more vegan options, though Dirty Dancing did have watermelon, and the ashram did not.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ashram was offering a workshop on santosha, which is contentment. I’ve been wanting to continue my education in yoga philosophy, and I also wanted to go somewhere. Perfect fit.
I drove up on a Friday. It was sunny. There were snow squalls in the air that didn’t touch the ground. I was happy I’d worn my big red coat.
Side note: I have a NEW big red coat! It’s much like the last one only the hood has a faux-fur rim and is removable. Who would remove such a fashionista accessory?
I checked in at the main building where there was a very happy statue of Swami Vishnudevananda sitting outside with a pumpkin. This was a good sign. Also a good sign were the heated floors. In a place where you have to take your shoes off, heated floors are everything.
Guided by someone on staff, took my several bags for a two and a half day stay up a very steep hill to find my mini apartment. These digs were nice! I’m maybe mid-maintanence. Hence, the several bags whereas I’m sure other people brought a backpack. However, this apartment was nicer than I thought. It had two chairs, a kitchenette, a bedroom with two fluffy beds, and a bathroom. The shower was small for even me, but I didn’t care because this was modern living and there were no bugs. There were probably bugs in the summer. November is where it’s at! Or when it’s at, I suppose. Also where it’s at is baseboard heating. Mine was cranked up when I got there, and what a blessing for later on when the sun would go down.
From my front porch, I could see mountains rolling and rolling. After settling in my stuff and eating some snacks I’d packed (one of the several bags!), I took a walk all over the grounds. In my big red coat and snow boots, I stayed mostly warm hiking all up and around the hills and paths. There was a rather steep path down into the woods that I found following a sign for a temple, but I backed away. I didn’t want to die alone in the woods on my first day at the ashram.
Life at the ashram is regimented but also relaxed. I’d gotten there in time to walk around and then change in time for afternoon yoga. I settled in with my mat and found that they begin in savasana. I can get behind that. I lied down and let the relaxation begin. Then I heard the instructor say we’d be going through breathing and movements for the next two hours. Two hours? That’s part of the regimen. Two hours of yoga in the afternoon followed by dinner. Ah, okay, so it’s like to get to dinner, we get through two whole hours of yoga. Got it. I could do that.
The yoga they do at the ranch is not the kind of yoga that I particularly like. It’s a lot of the same pose held over and over again. Each asana is separated by a savasana. I’m used to the flowy kind of yoga. Which means this yoga was the yoga I needed, so I did it, and I found myself liking it. Sometimes not liking it. Then liking it again. They do headstands and other inversions as part of every practice. I don’t do headstands because of fear of everything, so I didn’t do them, but I did the prep for them. The instructor was really encouraging. The prep steps to headstand are very specific, and with the first four, he was like, We can all do this. He was right, so I did those first prep moves for that practice session and for all the others the rest of the weekend, and I got better at them each time. That’s what happens when you have yoga twice a day for two hours each. Yes, that’s right, four hours of yoga daily. Who’s in heaven now? Or nirvana? Or, well, you know.
So after that we had dinner, and meals turned out to be my favorite part of the weekend. I know, me and food, yes, I eat five times a day. I take that for granted, yo. Over at the ranch, they eat twice. That’s it. Two times a day. They have a brunch and a dinner. And that’s why I bring snacks everywhere. However, that’s not what was my favorite part. My favorite part was before every meal, everyone stands around the food holding hands in a circle and we all sing Hare Krishna and then they ask these questions to which everyone responds jai and then they say something else and the only word I understand is “cooks” and we all clap and then everyone gets to eat. This description does not do it any justice. It’s the most joyous ritual, and I kind of want to do it every time I eat now, but again, the five times a day, that’s time consuming.
The food was delicious and mostly vegan. There was soup with every meal. There was a lot of greens. Tea for every meal. Vegetables and a salad for every meal. Just delicious. Delicious. Delicious.
After dinner, anyone who was new to the ashram could go to the orientation. First, we learned that ashram means house in the woods. This made complete sense. Then we learned about the legacy of Swami Vishnudevananda and his teacher Swami Sivananda. I got some of this, but by this time, I was nearing tired, so a lot of it went over my head. We then learned about the schedule. Our days would be regimented, but also relaxed. Again, it’s a difficult concept to explain, but it works.
After that was evening satsang. Satsang is meditation, chanting, singing, and listening to a talk. Swami Satyapremananda was there to give the talk the next day, so she discussed santosha a little bit during this session, too.
By the way, everyone there had a name like this. Not Swami, but the other very long name. They would say their names as if they were understandable and repeatable. The staff wears yellow, so if you can’t call out a name, you can at least tug on a yellow shirt for help. Also, fun fact, they are all volunteer, offering themselves up to karma yoga. What a life, for real.
Walking up the hill in the cold at night after satsang was exhilarating. I stopped at the top and stared at the stars. There are so many stars. So many. I went inside after a short while because it was, like 17 degrees out. I crawled under two blankets in my baseboard heated bedroom, read a little bit (still working on that Kerouac book), and fell asleep.
I woke up too early in the 4 AM hour. I was giddy, and I never sleep very well the first night I’m in a new place. I showered. I stretched. I had a little bit to eat, knowing I wouldn’t be eating until 10 AM. Then the bell outside gonged. It was finally 5:30. Time to head down the hill in the still very cold for morning satsang. Yeah, that’s right, we do that twice a day, too.
This weekend was special because it was the anniversary of Swami Vishnudevananda leaving his body. That meant that there would be a special ceremony during this morning’s satsang. How fortunate for me to be able to experience this. There was much of the same silent meditation and then chanting and singing. Then there were offerings. One of the staff members was carrying one of those industrial sized metal salad bowls around and handing out what I truly thought was salad. I mean, it was greens in a salad bowl. Turns out, it was flowers. Close enough. We all offered these flowers to the altar. Then there was a milk offering. Then there was another offering, and I don’t remember exactly what it was. All I know is that the ceremony went a bit long for my taste, but still, I’m happy to have experienced it. At the end, we were offered the leftovers from the offering, and they were, of course, delicious. This little morsel would tide me over until brunch.
Because first, yoga! Pranayama (breathing). Asana (poses). Savasana (resting). Two hours.
Then Hare Krishna Hare Rama jai jai thank you cooks, let’s eat!
I wound up writing a lot. I carried around a snack and my book wherever I went. This was partially so I would remember everything, but it was also because here I was, me, alone, not knowing anyone, in a very tight knit social situation. Yikes. Who even am I?
There was a nature walk at noon, so I took it. The walk included the very steep hill down into the woods that I’d skipped the day before. This was also a walk through real nature. there weren’t paths. There were markers nailed to trees and some planks for crossing treacherous places, but no real clearing of brush. This was nature nature. The staff guy said a few times, It’ll be a little muddy. To which someone answered, We’re yogis, it’s fine.
Flashback to Yoga Times Square when the dragon fly was flitting about and all the yogis were in awe, trying to take pictures of it, and I was dying inside, knowing that if it came near me, it would die outside, like a real death. So “We’re yogis” isn’t exactly a universal definition of being okay with nature.
However, there wasn’t a lot of mud. There was a lot of iced over leaves, which looked pretty cool. Some spots of large puddles. Mostly moss and woodsy-ness.
Then, because we’d gone down a hill, we were going to go up a hill. This hill was vertical. I shit you not. I found myself leaning forward for fear of falling backwards. Some people stopped along the way, and I knew if I stopped, I wouldn’t start again. So I got up that hill in one shot, one booted foot clambering over the next until the ground evened out. And when I was at the top, I moved over to the side, unzipped my big red coat because I was now sweating (if this surprises you, then you know nothing about me, for shame), and I kind of leaned forward to collapse my lungs so they could breath easier. I look up and saw another woman doing almost the same thing. She saw me and said, Oh thank God it’s not just me. And as I watched everyone ahead of us not stopping, I answered, I work out every day, and I have no idea how any of them are still going. She was like, this is nuts. I was like, that was completely vertical. We agreed, gathered some oxygen, and then headed on the path to catch up.
We saw two temples in the course of the walk, and they were both gorgeous. We came out on top of and behind where the apartments and dorms were. I walked down to the main house to get water, and then I walked back up because there were 45 minutes before the santosha talk, and I needed to change because I was soaked. Worth every bead of sweat, for sure.
The talk on contentment continued where satsang left off. Swami Satyapremananda has this subtle kind of energy that melted into some funny moments and a lot of wisdom. One big takeaway was: Everyday do one thing you don’t want to do, and acknowledge its benefits; everyday don’t do one thing you do want to do, and acknowledge its drawbacks. Eventually, this leads to realizing that contentment is not based on satisfaction of the external world but being satisfied internally, and that leads to santosha. You’re welcome.
Then yoga time. Then eating time. Then bedtime.
No joke, by the time we finished with dinner, I was like, I need a rest. So I went up to my room, thinking I’d rest for half an hour and then come back down for satsang. The first part of that plan happened. Then instead of going back down, I showered so I wouldn’t have to shower in the morning and also because I’d sweat so much before and then did yoga on top of it, and so that wasn’t making for very aromatic armpits despite any kind of deodorant attempts. Then I climbed into my jammies and climbed under the covers and read the same sentence in my book over and over until I decided I needed to go to sleep for real instead of pretending to not be tired.
Sunday morning I felt like a million bucks! I got up before the bell gonged. I stretched, changed, packed a little, and then at the sound of the bell, I headed down to satsang. At the bottom of the hill, I got into a standoff with a cat. It wanted to go inside. It wasn’t supposed to go inside. I was trying to go inside without it following me, and that wasn’t working. My pleads of, No Kitty you can’t come in, fell on neglecting cat ears. Then I decided to try to trick it. I walked towards the front of the building, and the cat followed. Then I made a quick dash towards the back. Cats are fast. It literally got to the door right before I did. So then I did what any rational adult would do–I stood there and waited for the cat to become someone else’s problem. Sure enough, someone came down the hill and let the cat in. I followed and heard someone talking about taking the cat outside, and that’s what happened. Several times, the cat came in, and several times the cat was ushered back out.
Then it was satsang beginning with a very quiet meditation. I’ve been going to meditation sessions here and there, and several times, I’ve been meditating for a while and suddenly, I get one of those sleep jerks, only I’m awake. It’s been very trippy. I almost had that happen that morning, but meditation ended right before that. It was back to regular satsang, complete with a talk on santosha that involved the story of Elizabeth Taylor and that guy she married twice. It was a great story. We got a strawberry on the way out to yoga.
After yoga was breakfast where I chatted with two very lovely people. Then after breakfast, I went up the hill to get my bags, which I carried down the hill to my car. Then back up the hill to bring the linens back down to the main building. Then, quite content, it was time to go. I drove home with a full heart, and it still feels that way. Knowing that people devote their lives to work that will make the world a better place makes me content, for sure.