I went on a 4 day personal retreat at the Satchidananda Ashram (aka Yogaville) in Buckingham, VA. It was 4 days of meditation, yoga, vegetarian eating, no caffeine, hiking, and self reflection. These are the diary entries I wrote during my time there. I have removed some personal insights that I achieved during the retreat to maintain my own personal experience. Enjoy!
Day 1 (Tuesday, September 29, 2009)
I arrived yesterday and am finally sitting down to chronicle Day 1 and Day 2 so far. First, the drive down here was so beautiful. For a great deal of the drive through Virginia, I was driving in line with the Shenandoah Mountains. I couldn’t help but keep looking over to my left to see these gorgeous tree-covered behemoths guiding my way toward the ashram. Once I got into Buckingham, it became pretty much a one horse town. It seems to be a somewhat poorer area of Virginia, but seemingly happily poor. I have gotten the sense that a lot of residents here are somehow related to the ashram in work or at least in interest.
Once I got on the main road to Yogaville, I could not believe how beautiful it was. The road wound around curve after curve, even falling off on either side as if the road itself was built elevated to signify the importance of the work done here at the ashram. Trees covered both sides of the road and the leaves, just beginning to turn, were boasting beautiful autumnal reds and golds in the midst of a still persistent green.
The ashram itself is modest. It was started in 1966, according to the brochures, so the buildings simply look like houses of that era. There is a main hall where the meals take place, a library, a building solely for meditation, a building that serves as a teaching institute, 2 buildings that house dorm rooms, administrative offices, and yoga studios, and a 3 building guest house. All but the guest houses surround a quad and all buildings are pretty much less than a minute’s walk from one another. My room is in the newest guest house, set a bit behind the quad and at the edge of a camping ground. There are tents set up and some of the retreaters choose to camp. I chose a bed and my own bathroom. I chose to get in touch with myself and leave the creepy crawlies to their own devices. I can commune with them at a distance. Speaking of, the first time I left my room to go for a walk yesterday, I noticed a very small grasshopper sitting peacefully outside my door. I knelt down for a closer look and it gently hopped away. Given all the movie references to students of life being “grasshoppers,” it made me smile a bit.
When I checked in, I was given an “orientation.” A very nice, very old lady, who referred to herself as Swami Longnameididntreallycatch, walked me through the various maps and rules and regulations for the ashram. You are not allowed to bring non-vegetarian foods, alcohol, or recreational drugs. No problem. You must always remove your shoes when you come indoors, so in your dorm room you have to keep your shoes behind the door. OK, that takes some getting used to, especially when you walk into the dining hall barefoot. It just feels funny but everyone else is either in socks or barefoot so you quickly realize it’s just the normality of the environment and move on. Swami Longname also went into great detail about the Pujas at the shrines. A Puja is basically when a Pujaperson (Pujaist? I forget what she said) basically invokes god into an object. In the case of one of the shrines, it is a stone. So, while god (the spirit, the guru, life energy, etc) is all around us, it is basically a way to say “ok, god is in that stone right now, so I am going to focus on the beauty, light, and sanctity of that stone.” She said, in her cute swami old lady ways, that she calls it “a tea party with god.” I missed the Puja yesterday and apparently they are not doing Puja today so I will have to find out tomorrow. Speaking of tea… there are no caffeinated beverages in the dining hall. No coffee and they serve Ginger tea for breakfast. There is a Tea Shoppe attached to one of the guest houses in case people get withdrawal headaches, but I am going to try to abstain for the duration. What else? The orientation did not really include any helpful instruction for the meditations or the yoga classes, so you’re kind of on your own there.
After I got settled into my room, I got to go meet with my mentor, Swami Gurucharanananda, a.k.a. Mataji. Mataji is a very motherly figure with a warm smile and soft brown eyes. We go into a private room and sit on the floor. Well, she asked me if I could sit on the floor, which I found amusing since she is probably in her 70’s (knowing how these swami’s are though, she could be 90 for all I know). She holds my hand, chants some OMs, says a prayer in Sanskrit and English, and releases my hands. I have heard this prayer several times already and am thinking I need to learn it since it opens and closes everything here – meals, meditations, yoga, etc. She has me lead off our meeting and I explain to her about turning 30, quitting smoking, quitting drinking, working towards living the life I want to leave and, my newest analogy, how I’m laying off the devil on my shoulder and giving all advisory rights to the angel. She tells me its fine to call it the devil, but it is more accurate to say the ego. Damn, no wonder this woman is a Swami/Guru/Mentor. Our meeting proceeds pretty well and I receive very good advice from her. It is awkward, though, since I didn’t really know what to expect out of it and she kind of was urging me to lead the meeting. But, she talked about a lot of different things that clicked with me.
Rather than give attention to the negative (I am going to quit drinking), create a positive (I am cleansing the body). This is something I am going to have to work on because it is so easy to work on the negative. Even the positive of quitting something is a negative because quit is a negative word. So, it’s an adjustment.
Another suggestion was that I should not try to push away thoughts during meditation, but focus on one thought. Meditate on that thought. It could be as simple as “the breath flowing in and out of me is the life force, god, the guru, the spirit.” This was an incredible realization for me since the other meditation work I’ve been using suggests focusing on the darkness behind your eyelids and the space between the breath and pushing thoughts away. That’s fine if you just want to focus on nothing, but what about real self work? If I can meditate on a thought and develop from that… well, that is a step ahead. I was excited.
After leaving Mataji, I have some free time before my first yoga class. I decide to see if I can find the trail to the LOTUS (Light Of Truth Universal Shrine), just to see how long it will take. I finally find the trail which is, in actuality, a very narrow line on the ground where some people have walked before. You really have to look for it. I hiked down the hill, following the trail, and found myself in a valley with a small stream of water running through the bottom of it. I thought it was so beautiful. I hike up the other side and make my way through the woods. A bit winded, I finally find the paved road that takes you up to the shrine. After looking at the map and looking at my watch, I realize that I do not have time to make it all the way up to the shrine and back before yoga. No problem, I found the trail and that was the goal. On the way back, I encountered someone coming from a different leg of the trail and I let her go ahead. This gave me good reason to slow down a bit and let her have her privacy and allow me mine. When I got to the bottom of the valley again, I was awestruck. I stopped and looked around very deliberately. This was it, I realized. This was my happy place. Every time I am led in a guided imagery exercise and am to envision my happy place, I flip flop between the beach and some made up forest scene that is hard to keep firm in my head. Now, it will be neither. It is that valley. Trees on either side, leaves on the ground, water running low and gently, and patches of greenery along the water. It is perfect.
On Tuesdays they have a special class that is restorative Hatha yoga, which I took. Oh that was great. For an hour and a half we did like 3 poses surrounded by straps, bolsters, blankets, and pillows, then a deep meditation, then a little bit of breathing. It was better than a massage. I felt alive… mind, body, and spirit. It was gorgeous.
After yoga, it was suppertime. I made it to the hall just as they were reciting the meal prayer. The words were framed on a wall but I was a little far away so I just listened. So, like a lot of things here, the meal layout is not really intuitive. I didn’t realize there was a whole bunch of food in hotel pans in the kitchen because everyone started with the soup that was out in the dining area. So, I had potato soup into which I threw some tofu for protein. It was pretty good. It had potatoes, onion, corn, broth (thickened by the starch from the potatoes and corn). Then I had a salad which was good as well. By the time I figured out the hidden food in the kitchen trick, it was all gone. Next meal, kitchen first – duly noted! I figured out where to put dishes finally and left dinner without talking to anyone. They all seem to know each other pretty well and I’m the odd one out (not the only one, mind you) and that is ok. I’m not here to make friends, really. Not true – I’m here to reacquaint myself with myself.
After dinner there is a different evening program every night. Tuesday night it was Kirtan, or chanting. It’s actually more of a sing-along. There are different songs with limited lyrics and it’s usually a call and answer scenario. Most people sang with their eyes closed and swayed to the music. After each song we sat in silence for a moment. It’s mostly in Sanskrit so the vibrations of the words really move you. At first it was kind of strange, but I got into it and I really enjoyed it. Sometimes there were harmonies and people clapped and played tambourines. It was quite an experience. I might see if there is a Kirtan anywhere up home.
They have an optional meditation with no leader at 9pm every night, but the Kirtan didn’t end until just after 9 and I didn’t think I could walk into the meditation room late, so I didn’t go. It would have been my first technical meditation while here, but I figured the 5am one would kick it off just fine. I got into bed, read for a couple minutes, and turned out the light by 10pm.