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Conscious Community: Living in an Ashram

Living in a conscious community means sharing not only your values and dirty laundry but also your power. Is it for you?

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Three years ago the woman now known as Swami Ma Kripananda took her religious vows of monkhood and moved into Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, an ashram nestled in the Rocky Mountains above Boulder, Colorado. She had had a daily meditation practice since college and had always felt pulled toward a yogic life. But for many years she lived as most of us do: going to work, raising a child, and squeezing her practice into the hours before and after the more worldly aspects of her days.

“I was always looking for purpose in my life,” she says. “I’d been given so much—there’s so much abundance in our culture. I kept asking, what is the most I could do to give back?” As she reordered her life to put her spiritual practice at its center, she realized that helping others do the same—to devote themselves to their practice in whatever way was appropriate for them—would be the best gift she could offer. “That is what I want more than anything,” she says, “so I’m willing to sacrifice everything else I might do in the world.”

After packing her daughter off to college and separating amicably from her husband, Kripananda donned the orange robes of a swami and joined 20 other residents at the mountaintop ashram. Her day now begins at 5:30 a.m. with 90 minutes of chanting and meditation, followed by breakfast, then seva (selfless service) six days a week.

“We don’t grow spiritually only through meditation or doing hatha yoga,” she says, “but by using our mental and physical selves.” This means cooking, chopping wood, and maintaining the property for visiting yoga students, the ashram’s main source of income. At 6 each evening, she gathers with the other residents for an hour of kirtan (devotional chanting) and meditation, followed by dinner.

The winters are cold and long, the place is isolated, the conditions are rustic—Kripananda admits it’s not the easiest life. But by keeping the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat going through the year, she and her fellow ashramites are able to make a difference in the lives of the hundreds of practitioners who come for weekends or longer retreats. “We really do make a haven for people to come and immerse themselves in yoga for as long as they want. People are desperate for this—this quiet, this deep vibration that can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Of course, she still feels a pull to take care of things in the world, including her 20-year-old daughter. But she has no regrets about her choice to walk out of mainstream life and into a spiritual community. “Living here is a constant reminder of what really is the purpose of our lives. For me it’s to grow consciously. Living in an ashram I can grow faster. It’s a path that’s more direct.”

Fostering Spiritual Growth 

Swami Kripananda’s decision to leave the world most of us are used to for a life devoted to chanting, meditation, and seva may seem like a radical choice. But it is not as uncommon as you might think. More than 600 intentional communities exist in the United States. About half of them are centered around spiritual values, according to the directory published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a networking organization for communities in the U.S. and Canada. Such communities are incredibly varied—some operate like the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia, whose residents use no money and reject the trappings of a consumer-driven world. Others, like the group of well-to-do Transcendental Meditators who have converged on Fairfield, Iowa, encourage 21st-century entrepreneurs to seek “the best of both worlds: success on the inside and on the outside,” according to Steven Yellin, a spokesman for the town’s Maharishi University of Management.

Regardless of their style, most intentional communities coalesce around an overriding idea: to foster spiritual growth, to live as lightly as possible on the earth, or to cultivate a culture of sharing: sharing resources, responsibility, and power. The sanctuary and strength of purpose of a specific community can feel like the perfect answer to someone seeking to radically deepen a commitment to a spiritual path or a social ideal. Still, whether you ever consider such a step probably depends as much on your circumstances as on your desires. And though most people may never move into an ashram or join a commune, some communities, like increasingly popular “cohousing” developments, are making the decision easier by blending socially progressive values with architectural appeal.

A Community of Organic Farmers

Nine years ago Rachael Shapiro, a psychotherapist, moved with her husband and their kids from Berkeley, California, to the 160-person EcoVillage at Ithaca, a cohousing community in upstate New York, whose goal is to model possibilities for ecological and social sustainability. “We wanted a place where we knew our neighbors and where our kids would be safe,” Shapiro says. They got it: A trip from house to car can take an hour while Shapiro greets all of her neighbors, who live together in two tightly clustered housing developments. Her kids, now 12 and 9 years old, sometimes complain that with so many adults watching over them they hardly have a chance to goof off.

But Shapiro, 47, and her family are happy with their decision to live in a conscious community. They share several meals a week with fellow cohousers in the village’s Common House, where Shapiro also runs her therapy practice. And they work two to four hours weekly on upkeep. In exchange they get a built-in community, which means 30 adults show up for a neighborhood kids’ talent show, there’s always someone to lend a hand or an ear in times of crisis, and they are always reminded of their environmental ideals and encouraged to live up to them.

“Everyone wants a rich family life and more free time,” she says. “We’re striving for those things too, but with ecological sustainability. We look at what’s happening in the world with energy resources, pollution, and all of that—and we’re trying to make change.”

See also A Fun Guide to Family Yoga

Her family has responded directly to that challenge by paring down to one car. “One family in our community has decided to be carless,” she says, adding that they negotiate the morning bus rides with strollers. “It’s not something I’m ready to take on right now, but it’s still incredibly inspiring.” And that kind of inspiration is what living in a place like the EcoVillage is all about—for those who live there and the rest of us.

In a reversal of the trend to develop every available morsel of land, the community has reserved most of its 175 acres for organic farming and wildlands and has built housing on just seven acres. It’s now in the process of creating a root cellar so that fruits and vegetables grown on the land can be saved to eat throughout the winter. Some members are doing their best to buy everything in bulk using their own containers, so as to eliminate needless packaging.

“It’s not like we have all the answers,” Shapiro says, “but we’re attempting to show that you can make a change when you pool your intentions to live a life more ecologically, more mindfully.”

Om Sweet Om

Jim Belilove is another believer in changing the world, one neighborhood at a time. In 1973, Belilove, then 23, headed from Santa Barbara, California, to southeast Iowa to scout out an unusual piece of property: a million square feet of classrooms, dorms, and stately administration buildings (the leftovers of a failed liberal arts college). Belilove was part of a team of young practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, or TM, an “effortless” meditation technique created by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and he was charged with finding an instant school, beacon, and landmark for the movement.

Belilove quickly determined that Fairfield, Iowa, population 9,500, was perfect. “If we’d have done this in L.A. or Berkeley, it would’ve been lost among all the other scenes. There’d be no contrast.” The TM folk bought the campus and opened the Maharishi University of Management, a four-year academic institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees (including those in sustainable living and Vedic science) along with TM practice.

But the advent of the 750-student university was only the first step of a broader spiritual transition in this patch of prairie. The town now has a sister city, Maharishi Vedic City, which boasts a private TM school (kindergarten through grade 12), a city ordinance that requires fruits and vegetables to be organic, and elegant, palatial homes built according to principles of Vedic architecture. (Each has an east-facing entrance, a golden roof ornament called a kalash, and a central silent area called a brahmasthan.)

To visit Fairfield is to understand that intentional communities don’t have to look different from “normal” American towns. Almost one-third of Fairfield’s residents are TM practitioners, says Maharishi University spokesperson Yellin. The only clue is that every afternoon they can be seen making their way to two spacious, gold-roofed domes on the edge of town for meditation practice. Otherwise, Fairfield seems like a prototypical, if fairly privileged, American small town.

The land of absolute detachment from the material world, this is not. While giving a tour, Yellin points out all the Audis and Lexuses in a parking lot; entrepreneurs in Jefferson County—home to Fairfield and Maharishi Vedic City—receive 40 percent of all the venture capital invested in the state. Fairfield’s friendly and personable mayor, Ed Malloy, discusses his day job as an oil broker as easily as his experiences in “yogic flying” (levitation). At evening, a traditional brass band plays in the town square. The Golden Dome Organic Market and Café feels like the best of Berkeley, California, complete with excellent lattes. “Most of us came from metropolitan environments,” says Ginger Belilove, Jim’s wife, “and we want what we would have had in those environments.”

So why come? Why uproot yourself and move to Fairfield, a town that not too long ago was the kind of place you started out from but was definitely not where you ended up? Of course, a life oriented around daily meditation is the big draw—having community support in the form of an actual commitment to a time and place for daily meditation is huge. “If I don’t meditate,” says resident Ellen Muehlman, “I’m not connecting to my inner resources.” Other residents bask in the lack of stress in Fairfield, a calm that “makes people nicer and brings a deeper kind of intelligence,” says one. But that’s just part of it.

For TM practitioners, Fairfield is small enough to reach a tipping point of well-being. Yellin points to research “that shows that when people get together and meditate, they make positive change: reduced crime, hospital visits, accidents, and suicides.” If enough people in an environment meditate, they make a measurable difference in the quality of life, and this positive change can only radiate further out into the world, Yellin says. “People come here for the community, for their kids, but also they come here to make a difference. They have that in their hearts.”

See also 3 Steps to Building a Powerful Yoga Community

Reaching a Consensus with Strong Communication

Making positive change is what most intentional communities are all about—and yet, plenty of time is spent on what could be considered a more negative aspect of life: disagreement. One of the biggest challenges of living in a community is sharing the decision making, especially when the decisions directly affect your life.

Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community and a consultant to communities struggling with group dynamics—including communication breakdowns—recalls the time he considered blocking a decision: when the community he has lived in for 31 years was considering switching from firewood to propane gas. “Cutting firewood is a hell of a lot of work,” Schaub says. “But I thought, “Propane? We’re moving to a nonrenewable resource. We’re going backwards.'” The six other members of Sandhill Farm in northeast Missouri gave him space to talk through his anguish. Eventually, he conceded. “We took care not to go too fast,” he says. And then a new community opened down the road, which offered the services of several energetic woodcutters and so, Schaub says, “we still haven’t moved over to propane.”

Reaching consensus, so that all decisions are made unanimously, is the foundation of most secular communities. “When there’s a commitment to consensus decision making, you really get to work on conflict and communication,” says Shapiro of the EcoVillage at Ithaca. “Those are areas that most people have challenges with—and it’s not that we don’t. But we have a commitment to really examine our issues and work things out. We’re modeling it for each other, and we’re modeling it for our kids—the grownups are willing to work things out even if they don’t always get their way.”

A commitment to consensus means lots of talking. “Over and over, what people are most struck by is our group process,” says Lois Arkin, founder of the Los Angeles Eco-Village, the home of 38 “intentional neighbors” in two apartment buildings within two city blocks near downtown L.A. Members support themselves with regular jobs, and a garden committee works small organic gardens and an orchard. They also hold weekly potlucks. Half have given up their cars—not an inconsequential decision in Los Angeles. And they give a lot of their time to working out issues consensually.

“As Americans, we’ve been taught to be nice and turn our backs on conflict,” Arkin says. “But when you’re in a community,that affects the quality of life. You can’t just stop talking to someone.” In the Eco-Village, Arkin emphasizes “friendly” accountability and the principle that making a community function well is a constant undertaking.

Schaub says the hardest aspect of making life work in an intentional community is resolving conflicts among people strong-willed enough to move into one in the first place. “If you have a group that is tight socially, you can move mountains,” he says. “But if you don’t—and the more people you’ve got, the more dichotomies you deal with—I say to them, “Don’t tell me how you get along. Tell me about how you deal with differences.'”

When Schaub talks about his work with groups, it’s hard not to hear how applicable his messages are to relationships in general, far from the boundaries of intentional communities. “I insist on movement—don’t plow the same ground twice—and I insist on depth of discussion,” he says. “We’re not going to convince people to give up their house and move into a community so they can have endless conversations about how to do the dishes.”

Reworking the dynamic requires reconditioning, he says. “We come out of a competitive cultural context, and that explains a lot, for men especially. People have to develop the soft skills of self-awareness, self-analysis, and the ability to just hang in there with an issue and not give up.”

How to Address Conflict in a Community

That, says Valerie Renwick-Porter, a yoga teacher who has lived at the 100-person Twin Oaks cooperative farm in Virginia for 14 years, has been the hardest part of communal living. “To be more gentle with myself,” she says, and “to cooperatively work together to address conflict in a peaceful way—as a high-energy, driven personality type, those have been years-long lessons. I’m finally starting to get it!”

Yoga guides the way. Testing her physical limits helps Renwick-Porter stretch beyond “her own reality” in times of conflict. “It’s very helpful for people, especially living in such close quarters as we do, to be able to breathe through the tension and feel it release, like you do in yoga poses,” she says. “You soften and you move through it.”

See also Guided Meditation for Dealing With Conflict

Renwick-Porter joined the cooperative farm when she was in her early 20s. She found at Twin Oaks all the “things in life I thought were important: social justice, a sane way of relating to each other, personal growth, feminism, ecological living,” she says.

Based on the principles of nonviolence, cooperation, and sharing, Twin Oaks runs like a true commune: Decisions are made democratically, the farm’s work is done cooperatively, meals are shared, and the village provides all the basics—food, shelter, health care—in exchange for a 43-hour work week. Though money isn’t needed at Twin Oaks, farm members earn “an allowance” of $2 a day (for popcorn, ice cream, and movies) working one of the community’s 200 jobs, like beekeeping, tofu making, hammock weaving, or teaching classes on “how to design revolutions” to alternative high schools. Work isn’t assigned; people volunteer. (The only job the group has trouble filling, apparently, is dishwashing.) Like college dormitories, each of Twin Oak’s eight residences maintains its own level of cleanliness, from “tidy and neat” to “funky and lived in,” Renwick-Porter says. If eight people who share a building don’t mind a moldy bathroom, it may not get cleaned for a while. “There’s a cleaning system, but it’s a loose system. That’s how we are.”

To get around, Renwick-Porter can pick up any bike on the property and ride it. (The rule is simple: You don’t get to ride downhill if you didn’t bring a bike uphill.) And when her jeans wear out, she can “shop” for new ones at “Commie Clothes,” a thrift shop where everything is, not surprisingly, free.

“I was searching for a life situation that nourished my soul and that also appealed to that part of me that wanted to put my values into action,” says Renwick-Porter, who is now 38. Along the way, she’s learned how to teach yoga, make bread for a hundred people, operate a chainsaw, run a conference, weave hammocks, do accounting, and more. And she notes that while her friends often think she’s “brave” for the choice she made, she never considered it to be a hard decision. “Coming to Twin Oaks felt to me like slipping into a skin I was always meant to share.”

An Experience Designed for Letting Go

Only 10 percent of all intentional communities survive, according to Diana Leafe Christian’s book, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities. Intentions, like everything else, change. Questions get answered, partnerships falter, needs emerge and fade. At Twin Oaks, arguably one of the strongest and oldest intentional communities in the United States, someone leaves every couple of months.

“It forces you to detach and reflect on impermanence,” Renwick-Porter says. Intentional communities are themselves constantly growing or contracting. Participating in one is, like everything else in life, provisional. “This experience,” Renwick-Porter says, “is custom-designed to help you practice letting go.”

But leaving can mean a new beginning that reinvigorates the commitment to the ideals that brought folks to a communal living situation in the first place. After one community resident moved to Eugene, Oregon, she started a car cooperative that rotated three vehicles among a dozen people. “That was her way to clearly take the values she had learned here and transplant them,” Renwick-Porter says. And such acts are a way for all of us, regardless of our living situation, to share our ideals with the world around us.

See also Go Your Own Way

Austin Bunn is a writer living in Iowa City, Iowa.