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WEEKEND ESCAPE: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

A Place to Stretch Body and Soul

A Grass Valley yoga retreat recharges the spirit with a rigorous regimen

May 28, 2000|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Lucretia Bingham is a freelance writer formerly of Los Angeles, now based in Old Lyme, Conn

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — The bell pierced my sleep. I groaned and opened my eyes. It was not yet dawn, and it was cold.

Our cabin, with all of its windows, was more exposed to the elements than a tent. It was 5:30 a.m., and my niece, Jalena, and I were expected in the meditation room by 6. On a Saturday.

We asked for this.

We had come to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm about 45 miles northeast of Sacramento for a weekend of classes in September, including four hours of silent meditation and chanting, plus four hours of yoga.

I had practiced yoga for more than 10 years but never had learned much about its meditative, more spiritual side. Sivananda Ashram seemed like a good place to delve into that. The yogis here are serious about their practice, reflected in the list of things not allowed on the property: loud music, alcohol, meat, caffeine, even garlic and onions, which are considered stimulants with negative energy. (On the way in, we giggled as we hid the bag left over from our fast-food lunch.)

To maintain the respectful atmosphere of the place, attendance was mandatory at the meditations and yoga classes--including the 6 a.m. one.

The beginning of the weekend, thankfully, wasn't quite as jarring. I drove from Los Angeles and picked up Jalena at her home in Sacramento. We arrived an hour later at Sivananda Ashram.

As we bumped down the last mile of country road toward the ashram (the word means a secluded place where Hindus can lead a simple life), a beautiful golden valley studded with giant oaks opened below us. Light filtered through the trees as we checked in at the office, a small, rustic building surrounded by rock gardens, flowers and shrines.

"From that moment," Jalena said later, "I felt a peaceful energy to the place and a sense of joyfulness in a spiritual way."

The ashram lies on more than 84 acres, with shrines scattered at various spots of beauty. As we carried our bags across a small creek to our simple wooden cabin, a yoga class was in progress on a large platform under oak trees. I'm an intermediate yogi, and Jalena is a beginner, so I was relieved to see no advanced pretzel poses.

Our tiny cabin was clean and bright with two single platform beds, two bedside tables with reading lamps, a built-in desk, a set of drawers, hooks for clothes and, best of all, a porch with two chairs overlooking a pond. A flock of birds chattered above us; two woodpeckers kept up a syncopated rhythm. On the hill behind us, 10 more cabins lay among the trees.

Much to my delight, I found two 20-foot-long swings hanging from the high branches of the most venerable of oaks near the office. I started practicing my yoga breathing as I pumped back and forth, inhaling on the stretch, exhaling on the tuck. As I pumped, the tree branches slid back and forth above me like backdrops of a nickelodeon. A simple joy filled me.

That night, all the guests gathered for a vegetarian dinner served outside. Our dining companions were mostly clear-eyed men and women in their 20s, some returning after previous yoga training, others starting a monthlong program.

Swamisiva, our leader for the weekend, was a cheerful, middle-aged woman whose lilting voice led us in a chant before we ate. All of us had been encouraged to dress modestly, and Swamisiva was draped almost neck to toe in shades of orange.

The food, stewed and served in big pots, was simple but delicious. Carrots tasted of the earth. Lentils and spinach were fresh and wholesome. There was little fat and no sugar, even in the dessert: a succulent carob cake with apples.

As dusk fell, our two neighbors in the next cabin struck up their quartz singing bowls, beautifully carved instruments that sounded like chimes, but deeper. The music reverberated inside my chest and out over the whole valley.

At 8 p.m. the group met in front of the office and walked a half-mile into the hills toward the Durja Temple, one of four temples on the property. As the skies darkened, yips of a few coyotes drifted in the air, and the songs of crickets and frogs almost drowned out our footsteps.

The Durja Temple is a simple shrine built on a curved wooden platform overlooking the valley. Candlelight shone on the statues of several deities. Fire flared in a bowl. We dipped our hands into the smoke and moved them over our heads, a process that supposedly would deepen our chanting.

We silently meditated in a cross-legged position for half an hour, then chanted in ancient Sanskrit for an hour. Swamisiva handed books to us so we could chant along. The belief was that the chanting would give us energy, joy and power.

Swamisiva gave a brief talk, and we marched back downhill. After mandatory lights-out at 10:30, I had no problem falling asleep.

The first bell on Saturday, however, was a problem. Without hot coffee to jolt me awake, I felt cranky and achy at 6 a.m. in the meditation room. And the first meal of the day was still four hours away. (The other meal is at 6 p.m.)

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