Late last month I took a couple of days off to spend a long weekend learning about and practicing Integral Yoga at the Satchidananda Ashram, against the lovely backdrop of Central Virginia in the fall. October was quite a month for me - professionally busy and overbooked, as well as personally and emotionally taxing. I was in need of a little me time, and decided a peaceful ashram where I could both relax and re-energize through the practice and study of yoga was the perfect place to take it.
The Satchidananda Ashram - Yogaville was created by Sri Swami Satchidananda as a place to teach and live the principles of Integral Yoga, a lineage that stems from Sivananda Yoga and is based on integrating six branches of yoga that, when practiced all together, lead the practitioner to a peaceful and useful life (for more on the six branches, visit the Ashram's Integral Yoga page). The Ashram is housed on over 600 acres of land in Buckingham, VA. Upon arrival, it actually seems like quite the bustling village after the many miles driven as the solitary car on the long, windy, two-lane roads that lead to the Ashram. But of course, once you settle in, the innate quietness of the place sinks in.
In addition to the Integral Yoga teacher trainings and workshops, the Ashram offers a number of planned daily activities for guests who are not participating in a specific program. The daily itinerary includes guided and regular meditation sessions, lectures on Integral Yoga and incorporating yoga philosophy into daily life, Ashram tours, and two Hatha classes in addition to a Yoga Nidra class. If you so choose, you can partake in a planned group activity from 6:00AM through supper. Of course, I arrived on Thursday afternoon with the same mind frame I adopt for professional conferences, which is " Go to everything! Learn all the things!" By Friday morning, the quiet and iPhone-free environment had settled over me, and I started to feel as serene as the place itself. (Full disclosure: I did break the no iPhone rule to take pictures. And maybe I instragrammed a few. . .) While I still attended most of the lectures as well as Hatha and meditation sessions, I also took time to spend on my own. And I'm so glad I did because sitting on the lawn, either re-reading the Sutras or just taking in my surroundings, and wandering through the Ashram's hiking trails meditating in nature were some of the most centering and energizing experiences I had that weekend.
There is a sense of calm in Yogaville that made it much easier to do the things I ask my students to do in every class - things like leaving the to-do list at the door, focusing on the breath and being both mentally and physically present. We're all familiar with the old you are no better than the company you keep/birds of a feather adage, and it turns out it's true for our physical surroundings as well as the humans who surround us. If we live our lives in a hectic environment with overflowing shelves and overbooked calendars, surrounding ourselves with the noise of negativity - the opinions of others, friends/family/acquaintances that don't serve us, destructive habits, whatever that noise consists of for you - why are we so surprised when we sit down to meditate and the mind isn't still?
"Here, in Yogaville, all are in good company: the company of like-minded people seeking to live easeful, peaceful, and useful lives. If you are in this kind of good company, your mind is more calm. When your mind is more calm, you experience your own inner Self. It’s as simple as that. Those who find it difficult to follow any spiritual practices will find an immediate benefit by living in such an environment. They will get great benefit just by leaving the bad company behind, just by changing the environment, and by finding the good company." - Sri Swami Satchidananda
We often talk about the asana practice being created to condition and prepare the body to sit still and meditate for long periods of time.
But then most of the complaints we hear from would-be meditators comprise of things like "my mind is just too noisy - I can't turn it off!" We need both pieces - the conditioned body that won't cramp up after sitting still for a few minutes, and a still mind that can focus on one thought or concept and let go of the millions of other thoughts vying for its attention.
I don't have a very advanced meditation practice, usually sitting down for maybe 10 minutes at a time here and there throughout the week, and I often feel my shoulders and hips talking to me after just that short amount of time despite having a regular asana practice. The difference between my home meditation and a group meditation in the Ashram's Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) was palpable. Surrounded by other yogis and yoginis in such a beautiful, peaceful environment, I was able to still both body and mind for much longer than usual. That's not to say it was without challenges - I still had to switch the cross in my legs and bring my focus back to the breath during the 30 minute sessions, but the time in between those adjustments grew longer. And when the sessions ended and I emerged from the dark meditation space in the top of the LOTUS to greet the sun again, I felt renewed and accomplished - rare feelings for me post-meditation.
I had a beautiful experience in Yogaville, and could easily write solely on the concepts of Integral Yoga, or the way in which the Integral Hatha classes are sequenced, but the Ashram's calming effect on both my mind and body was the biggest takeaway. The holy shrines - LOTUS, Chidambaram (where Sri Gurudev's body is entombed), and Kailash - all provide wonderful places for meditation, as do the trails and grounds. Eventually, we all hope to be able to achieve stillness amidst the craziness of our daily lives. But, in the meantime, finding a peaceful place like this to escape that craziness can be key to deepening a meditation practice and connecting with the self. So find a park or a trail, shut off your smartphone, and practice sitting. If you are in the DC Metro area, consider making the three hour trip down to Yogaville! Your mind will thank you.