Just Breathe

Peace and relaxation set in when you head for the hills and experience a weekend retreat at yogaville.

If the onslaught of tourist season in Hampton Roads—and all the vehicular immobilization that goes along with it—makes you want to go running for the hills, take heart. Our fair state happens to be home to some of the most beautiful hills in the country. If you’re a yoga fan in particular, an immersive, rejuvenating retreat to assuage mind, body and soul without breaking the bank is just a hop, skip and a downward dog away.

At the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, alongside the James River, there is a serene 600-acre wooded refuge called Satchidinanda Ashram, also known as Yogaville. I know, I know. The name sounds like a New Age theme park. The reaction I got from friends and family when I told them I’d scheduled a weekend trip there last year was bewilderment. One of my friends kept calling it “Yogurtville,” and another deemed it “Yogaritaville.”

I’d practiced yoga sporadically for years—mostly when and if my wallet allowed. I’d heard about Yogaville from friends, and a trip there seemed like just the right recipe for some physical and spiritual renewal after I joined the jobless masses along with many of my colleagues in the publishing world. Plus, it’s cheap. For around $300, you can stay (in a dormitory), attend a workshop and Hatha yoga classes and eat for a few days. It’s even less if you don’t participate in a workshop. Just right for an out-of-work writer—or anybody else—looking for a little karmic R&R.

Located in Buckingham County, a three- to four-hour drive from Hampton Roads and about 40 miles southwest of Charlottesville, Yogaville is part of a larger organization called Integral Yoga Institute, which also operates a school and vegetarian grocery store in Manhattan. Named for founder and guru Sri Swami Satchidinanda, the ashram is part college campus and part commune—home to approximately 300 permanent residents, including a handful of monastics who have devoted themselves to an ascetic lifestyle based on yogic principles. They’re the ones in the peach-colored robes. I learned that when I questioned an older gentleman with a long flowing white beard one night after a communal supper of traditional Indian Moong Dal and baked acorn squash.

The homemade vegetarian buffet-style meals are included, and summer and fall are wonderful times to visit since there is a small working farm on the ashram and all the just-picked goodness therein is used in the meal prep. There’s no smoking and no alcohol allowed on the property, and there are no caffeine products served as part of the meals, so if you’ve got a three-latte-a-day habit you may want to bring some instant to stave off the caffeine headache.

The lodgings are comfortable but spare; it is an ashram, not a luxury resort. I stayed in the shared dormitories, which have bunk beds and a shared bathroom down the hall. They also have private dormitories with shared baths, guest houses with private baths and space for tents and campers.

What most Westerners think of as yoga, that is the physical poses or “asanas,” represent only one element of traditional yoga practice. Among other quintessential elements are meditation and selfless service to one’s community. All of these are a part of life at Yogaville, but visitors are welcome to participate or not participate in whatever activities they choose.

The staff and residents at Yogaville are incredibly warm and welcoming. I was amazed to find one of my favorite aspects of the experience was the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call in the dorms. (I usually curse at my alarm when it goes off much later than that.) There’s something about an angelic voice chanting in Sanskrit—a live person does this throughout the hallways—that makes it all seem okay. Saturday guided mediation begins at 6 a.m. There are Hatha yoga classes (those are the physical classes) in the morning and the afternoon. Many visitors come for themed workshops that have their own schedules—everything from using yoga to manage anxiety to exploring yogic breathing techniques for “freer hips.” They also offer internationally recognized teacher training and certifications.

The natural surroundings are breathtaking. The weather was cold and rainy during my visit, so I didn’t get to do any hiking, but there are trails throughout the ashram.

The Blue Ridge Mountains and James River make a postcard backdrop for the crown jewel and centerpiece of Yogaville, the Light of Truth Universal Shrine or LOTUS, a dome-shaped structure fashioned to look like a giant pink and blue lotus flower. The upper level of LOTUS is a meditation chamber while the ground floor houses a circular display dedicated to all the major religions of the world, the idea being inclusiveness towards all faiths.

One aspect of the Yogaville experience that may be off-putting to those not familiar with the guru-disciple relationship common in Eastern spiritual practices is the fact that Yogaville founder Swami Satchidinanda’s image is plastered everywhere throughout the ashram. There’s even an incredibly lifelike statue of him in a shrine above LOTUS. Evening services feature videos of the elderly Indian swami, who died in 2002 but gained counterculture fame after offering the opening incantation at Woodstock, administering wisdom to his flock. His name is frequently invoked at the end of prayers and chants.

I admit I found his omnipresence a little weird, but my overall experience at Yogaville was overwhelmingly positive, and I was able to take away from it only what I needed and leave the rest. As most folks who have experienced it will tell you, the myriad benefits of yoga on any level are immeasurable, and the cultivation of an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life” is a goal towards which all of us can aspire. Whether you are hoping to deepen an existing yoga practice or begin a new one, a run for the hills of Yogaville may be just what you’re looking for.

For more information about Yogaville, visit www.yogaville.org or call 800-858-YOGA (9642).

Categories: Weekends