Westerners have been fascinated with Indian culture since the time of Alexander the Great, who tried to convince a yogi to become his spiritual counselor. In the 1960s, the Beatles’ contact with meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar sparked an early wave of modern popular interest that has yet to crest. These days, it’s not unusual to find people who want to spend their precious vacation time deepening their spiritual practice—and what better place to do so than at an ashram?
Visiting an ashram is more doable than it was in years past, and the ashram s themselves have worked to make the experience more attractive, offering workshops, seminars, and special events. Indeed, many of these temples of devotion and asceticism have taken on a whole new aura as travel destinations.
If you’re considering an ashram stay, it’s worth noting that ashrams tend to have a distinctive rhythm and protocol. For one thing, while some have stricter rules than others, most still have mandatory daily schedules, often requiring you to rise before dawn. If you are fairly new to yoga, a day consisting of four compulsory yoga and meditation sessions could be overwhelming. Also, visitors are often asked to practice karma yoga (selfless service) by contributing to the upkeep of the facility—in the form of kitchen duties, gardening, cleaning, and other chores. In short, you should be comfortable with communal living to fully enjoy and benefit from the ashram experience.
A few tips: Most ashrams serve only vegetarian or vegan food; alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco are not permitted. Don’t try sneaking in a bottle of Chianti—you’ll be asked to leave if the contraband is discovered. Guests typically stay in dormitories with shared bathrooms. Modest dress is usually required at all times; shorts, short skirts, leggings, and sleeveless or sheer tops are not appropriate ashram attire. Instead, pack loose pants and a short-sleeved shirt for your practice.
The ashrams listed below are all in North America, and each has its own merits. To find the right one for you, be sure to visit each center’s Web site and study its daily schedule before you go.
Mount Madonna Center
The Mount Madonna Center is located on 355 acres of meadows and redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with views of Monterey Bay. It is inspired by the teachings of Baba Hari Dass and sponsored by the Hanuman Fellowship, a community “designed to nurture the creative arts and the health sciences within a context of personal and spiritual growth.” The primary goal here is to attain peace. Community life is guided by the spiritual discipline of Ashtanga Yoga and karma yoga. The center hosts both personal and group retreats; weekend programs with visiting teachers are offered throughout the year. When not in yoga class, guests can hike, swim, relax in a hot tub, and play tennis, volleyball, and basketball. The on-site Kaya Kalpa Wellness Center provides massage, Ayurvedic treatments, facials, and acupuncture.
Lowdown: The center hosts nearly a hundred workshops, seminars, and intensives each year, attracting top teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Reb Anderson, Judith Lasater, and James Baraz.
More Information: mountmadonna.org
Shoshoni Yoga Retreat
A residential ashram and spiritual retreat center, Shoshoni is 35 minutes west of Boulder. If you’re looking for high-country vistas, pure spring water, and fresh alpine air, this is the place for you. The lodge and cabins are surrounded by wildflowers in spring and summer. In colder months, you’ll more than likely spot deer and elk. Shoshoni’s founder is Sri Shambhavananda Yogi, a meditation master.
Daily classes include hatha yoga, Pranayama, meditation, and chanting. Weekend retreats include three meals daily, accommodations, two yoga classes, and two meditation sessions. Participation in the daily schedule is not mandatory, and guests can attend as many or as few classes as they like. Health therapies offered include massage, facials, and Ayurvedic treatments such as shirodhara, in which warm oil is continually poured onto the middle of the forehead to quiet the mind and soothe the senses.
Lowdown: Hiking trails pass right outside your front door and traverse forests of pine, aspen, and wildflowers.
More information: shoshoni.org
Monroe, New York
Although Ananda Ashram was founded in 1964 by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, teachers specializing in different styles of yoga have been holding retreats here since its inception. The ashram is on 85 acres of woods, orchards, and meadows in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, just over an hour from New York City.
Guests can take part in daily meditation programs and ongoing classes in hatha yoga, Sanskrit, and classical Indian dance, as well as weekend workshops, retreats, and cultural performances. A typical day includes three meals, three hours of yoga, and three meditation sessions. The facilities include accommodations for guests and residents, a vegetarian kitchen, classrooms, meditation rooms, a program hall, a book and gift shop, a natural healing center, a swimming pool, and a publication center. Three guest houses provide simple dormitories (six people per room) and semiprivate rooms (two people per room), for a total of 45 guests. All bathrooms are shared. Camping is available in season.
Lowdown: Each year, Manhattan’s Jivamukti Yoga Center hold an annual Thanksgiving weekend retreat here. Sign up to enjoy vegan food, vigorous Jivamukti classes, Sanskrit, and satsang.
More Information: anandaashram.org
This hindu temple and retreat center is on 200 acres of land 30 minutes southwest of downtown Austin. It is the main U.S. center devoted to the teachings of Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat and was established in 1990.
A tour of the grounds reveals vegetable and flower gardens, more than 25 resident peacocks, and walking trails. The food is vegetarian, and meals are balanced between American and traditional Indian fare. Participants have the option of dining outdoors, weather permitting, at picnic tables.
At various times throughout the year, Barsana Dham offers special weekend family retreats, mini intensives, and seva (service) weekends. In the past, these retreats and special programs have included Hindi and yoga classes and summer dance camp. Guests who are not attending a workshop are expected to attend twice-daily satsang, at 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Lowdown: Each fall, the Texas Yoga Retreat is held here. This is the perfect opportunity to experience ashram living with 250-plus other yoga enthusiasts. (Visit texasyoga.com for more information on this retreat.)
More Information: barsanadham.org
In 1979, Swami Satchidananda, the guru who opened the Woodstock festival by calling music “the celestial sound that controls the whole universe,” acquired 600 acres in Buckingham. He financed the purchase by selling a piece of land in Falls Village, Connecticut, that singer-songwriter Carole King, one of his disciples, had given him. Eventually, the ashram acquired more land, and today Satchidananda Ashram, also known as Yogaville, has almost 1,000 acres of woodlands.
A typical day begins at 5 a.m. with morning meditation, followed by 90 minutes of Integral Yoga, then breakfast. There is an opportunity to walk or relax before the next meditation session, followed by lunch. Dinner is followed by an evening program or satsang on Saturdays.
The system of Integral Yoga was created by Satchidananda. It integrates the various branches of yoga (hatha, raja, bhakti, jnana, karma, and japa) to “bring about a complete and harmonious development of the individual.”
Satchidananda, who died in August 2002, believed that “truth is one, paths are many.” He sponsored many interfaith symposiums, retreats, and worship services around the world. The Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS), dedicated to all faiths and to world peace, was opened in 1986 on the Yogaville grounds. Built in the shape of a lotus flower—the ancient symbol for the spiritual blossoming of the soul—the shrine is a sanctuary for silent meditation, contemplation, and prayer.
Lowdown: In keeping with Satchidananda’s philosophy, many interdisciplinary programs are offered here each year.
More Information: yogaville.org
The Salt Spring Centre of Yoga
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
On 70 acres off Canada’s western coast, the Salt Spring Centre was established in 1981 by the Dharmasara Satsang Society, a group guided by the common practice of classical Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Baba Hari Dass. The center holds yoga workshops and classes in the creative and healing arts, and offers Ayurvedic treatments, massage, and reflexology.
It’s also home to a small residential community and the Salt Spring Centre School. Although the majority of members and center residents are students of Dass, no commitment to a spiritual tradition or teacher is required to participate in any of the activities. Accommodations, however, are available only to those who are registered for a workshop. The public may attend daily yoga classes or book a health treatment at the Healing Arts Studio without being an overnight guest.
Lowdown: Unlike at most other ashrams, participation in the daily schedule is not mandatory, and a spa that offers massage and reflexology is located on-site.
More Information: saltspringcentre.com