As we set out for Yasodhara Ashram on a slushy, snowy Highway 3A on Nov. 23, 2019, we were not without trepidation.
The road was safe enough and we were not in a rush, but we were venturing toward an unfamiliar experience. For six months we had known we would be spending a month as karma yogis this fiercely non-religious, uniquely female-run yoga centre. Applications, references and interviews long completed, the time had arrived. At last.
What is a karma yogi? Someone who is “interested in living in a spiritual community to explore work, develop self-knowledge and gain skills,” according to the ashram website. For us, it seemed like an opportunity to do a reset as we enter a (mostly) retired phase of our lives. Work (or “selfless service” as we would soon learn to call it) would come to mean whatever needs to be done to keep the 50-year-old ashram in operation.
For the first several days, we and our nine fellow “one monthers”, or OMs, were trained in the various areas of service — hospitality, grounds, housekeeping, food production and the like. Soon our daily service schedule, posted daily, had us cleaning bathrooms, making beds, mopping floors and vacuuming, doing dishes and putting away food leftovers, pulling weeds, harvesting kale, slicing fruit and vegetables for drying or freezing, splitting and stacking firewood, and so on. We worked in pairs or larger groups as the job demanded.
But selfless service is only part of the OM routine. We started our days with a Hatha yoga class at 6:50 a.m., then went straight to breakfast. A meeting of all karma yogis — OMs and long-stay volunteers — followed. Our teachers would confirm the day’s activities, make announcements, suggest a subject to reflect on during the day and then lead us in a song or chant.
Then it was a morning of work until lunch, after which we returned to a different area of service for the afternoon. Another karma yogi meeting usually ended the work day, and we would often discuss our thoughts in smaller groups.
Dinner was at 6 p.m. All meals, planned and prepared by a rotating group of chefs, were nothing short of fantastic. Mostly, but not exclusively vegetarian, the meals offered lots of choice and were creative, visually appealing and oh-so-tasty. I lost several pounds over the month without ever having felt hungry.
Our daily schedule ended with satsang, an evening service (held in the multi-award-winning Temple of Light) that included chanting, singing, a talk by a swami or experienced teacher, and the sharing of a sweet, which was typically a few dried fruit slices made in the Ashram kitchen.
The routine is not strictly regimented. Sprinkled among the days were classes in Kundalini yoga, the hidden language of yoga and dream yoga, all of which are a focus of this particular ashram. On some evenings we had a movie night, complete with popcorn.
As seniors, Angela and I were nearly double the age of our fellow OMs, but it didn’t seem to make the slightest difference. It was energizing and educational to spend so much time in the company of young people, several of whom were from abroad. As we prepared to depart, we learned that the Ashram will now encourage more seniors to participate in the program.
I was initially drawn to Yasodhara Ashram because of its uniquely female-dominated leadership and its unwaveringly non-denominational teachings (most of the ashram’s “teachings” come in the form of questions). For someone looking to understand his own spirituality, the environment is ideal. We were constantly reminded that it was our responsibility to find our own meaning in ashram teachings, meanings that worked for us as individuals. The lack of dogma was refreshing and uplifting.
The month sped by and, as we readied ourselves to head back home to Creston, I was surprised to be surrounded by swamis and karma yogis alike. Hugs and good wishes had me near tears as we finally got out the door.
Often, as I sat in the dining room that offers a spectacular view of Kootenay Lake and the North Shore, with mountains as a backdrop, I was filled with wonder. It is still hard to imagine that Swami Sivananda Radha, more than 60 years ago, had returned from a six-month stay in India with instructions from her teacher, Gurudev Shivananda, to bring the teachings of his ashram to North America. Adapt these teachings so that they work for North Americans, she was told. Now, all these many years later, with Swami Lalitinanda serving as the Yasodhara Ashram board of directors president, the influence of Radha and her interpretations of traditional teachings is global.
We could have elected to travel to India or any of many other countries to get a karma yoga experience, but there was a special joy in taking a month away so close to our own backyard. I was determined to enter the OM program with an open heart and open mind, and the rewards were immeasurable. Some of the practices, chanting and dancing, for instance, are things I would have shied away from in my usual environment. Classes that included drawing and discussions about dreams would not normally have held any appeal for me. I am grateful for having had the experience of taking some small risks, which led to surprisingly large rewards.
For more information about Yasodhara Ashram and its many programs, visit www.yasodhara.org.