By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Silencing the mind is sometimes impossible in the midst of metropolitan life. Our brains are like labyrinths: winding circles of anxiety, insecurity, and fear. Often we mull over tomorrow's to-dos before we've even finished today's. Seeking a cure for a clogged mind, I explored four yoga retreat centersall less than five hours from Manhattan.
The ANANDA ASHRAM in Monroe, New York, an hour by bus from Port Authority, sprawls across 80 acres and is both an educational center and a spiritual retreat. Yoga master Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati founded it in 1964. "Our guru wanted us to use the arts as a means of connecting with a higher consciousness," says Ullamaija, who lives at the ashram year-round; she's one of many residents participating in Ananda's philosophy of karma service, which involves bartering work for free board and access to the center's activities. Guests who want to expand their spiritual practice can join a similar work-study program with a contribution ranging from $18 to $240, depending on the length of stay. Those looking for a less intensive experience can come for the weekend and pay the regular $60-per-night fee, which includes a shared bath.
Either way, Ananda provides an inexpensive education in Indian dance and music and various Eastern philosophies. The rich cultural calendar offers courses ranging from tabla to north Indian classical music. Artists like musician Krishna Das and Cirque du Soleil dancer Bhavani support the center with regular performances.
Chanting, meditation, Sanskrit, and low-intensity hatha yoga are a part of everyday life at Ananda. I tried a Sanskrit class and made a sincere but futile attempt to master the alphabet of timeless yogic texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. Bharati Devi taught this classical Indian languageotherwise known as "the science of vibration"through rhythm and chanting. "It's not the traditional method, but we believe in incorporating melody into the analytical aspects of grammar. It aims for a balanced development of both sides of the brain," says Devi, head of the Sanskrit school.
Kamaniya, another resident, says of the Ashram, "You can either participate in these classes or lock yourself in your room and sleep for three days. That's the beauty of it."
I sat in the backseat of Darnita LeSure's Jeep Cherokee with her Turkish partner, Kadir Yucel, heading to her mountain retreat, UJJAYI, 40 minutes outside Woodstock. "This retreat is much more ma-and-pa than other places, but we like it that way," said Darnita, as we wound up dark mountain paths toward Margaretville, New York. Ujjayi, meaning "victorious" in Sanskrit, is as much about its visionary directors as about the stunning Catskill landscape. "We want a collective, community feel for people to practice yoga and enjoy nature," said Darnita.
This three-year-old enterprise feels like a yoga bed-and-breakfast. For privacy-deprived New Yorkers, it's a welcome respite, accommodating a maximum of 15. Guests can sleep in one of two 12-by-18 trailer "cottages," each with four simple, quiet, and cozy bed spaces but no plumbing, or stay in the main house: a toilet-furnished loft-like building with two fireplaces where guests convene in a casual, family-type setting to eat healthy, organic meals.
Ujjayi's rhythm is laissez-faire. Visitors can either take Darnita's Ashtanga-Iyengar-Ananda yoga classes or leave the retreat to ski, hike, or antique shop. I chose the former, staring blissfully through a glass wall at the Catskill Mountains while I did sun salutations and tree poses, part of a moderately paced class. While Ujjayi doesn't have the wealth of cultural assets available at the Ananda Ashram, people can take comfort in the $125 two-person weekend deal, which includes access to the spa and sauna, a continental breakfast, and yoga classes.
At the KRIPALU CENTER FOR YOGA & HEALTH, I feasted on roasted nuts, dried cranberries, oatmeal, bananas, and apples. Cradled in the Berkshires four hours away by bus, it's a Harvard of the spirit. Yoga teachers, ayurvedic therapists, and artists work together in a colossal, dorm-like building, where guests choose from a host of soul-nurturing classes. The place has an otherworldly feel. People leave their doors open, eat breakfast in silence, walk labyrinth trails, and meditate in Hindu-inspired but non-denominational chapels. But alas, like all first-rate universities, Kripaluif you want the privacy of your own bed and bathcharges weekend rates in the middle three figures. For this reason, participants are typically in their mid thirties or older.
Kripalu's programs address particular issues. Though a large majority of attendants are white, the "Retreat for Women of Color" discusses unique challenges facing African American women. Some workshops, like "Sharing Circle Time," sound pretty schmaltzy. Still, these targeted groups bring together communities of people with similar experiences, which can be a blessing. One such workshop, "Yoga and the Grieving Heart," begins in early March. Eileen Quinn, inspired to lead this group after her husband died of melanoma, says, "I realized how powerful yoga was for the purpose of going through grief instead of going around it, which so many of us do."
I enrolled in a $140 program called "Transform Stress," essentially a crash course on pranayama breathing techniques, meditation, massage, and the practice of metta, or loving-kindness. Did I feel transformed? Yes. My mind was calm. I lost track of time. My energies were balanced. Most telling: When people got in my way at Grand Central, I bore them no violent thoughts.