Back in 2019, a visit to an ashram wasn’t that high on my travel wish list. I mean, I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, so I get the appeal. But I’ve always thought that my mind is too busy, too distracted for me to manage an extended time in a space that’s all about self-reflection.
But sometimes you don’t know how much you need a space like Yasodhara Ashram until you’re in the middle of it. After a (much too short) long-weekend retreat, I came away from the experience feeling like I’d gained a better sense of self—and some stress management skills, too. (Even as I write this, I’ve remembered a meditation I picked up at Yasodhara that could be the perfect antidote for my present-day ball-of-stress self—and just now I stopped to do it.)
I had been lucky enough to be invited up to the retreat some time ago for non-traditional reasons: they’d just built an architecturally significant temple with legendary Canadian architects John and Patricia Patkau, and I had come to profile the new building for Western Living. By all accounts, their new Temple of Light is stunning: a lotus-like design in the middle of the woods. (And, boy, is it ever in the middle of the woods.)
And now, after the past couple of years of uncertainty and anxiety, I can’t imagine a more ideal place to escape to. Perched on a rocky outcrop of Kootenay Bay, Yasodhara Ashram takes a while to reach: from Nelson, B.C. (itself a 90-minute flight or eight-hour drive from Vancouver), you drive a half hour, then you take another half-hour ferry to arrive at the 85-acre property.
The ashram itself—which hosts both full-time residents and yoga students whose retreat times range from a few days to many months—was the brainchild of a German woman, Swami Radha, who studied under a guru in India in the late 1950s. That guru’s encouragement to bring yoga to the West evolved into the current women-led retreat and study centre that practices the spiritual tradition of the Divine Feminine, with a kind of we-produce-our-own-honey Kootenays vibe that’s almost instantly calming.
The pandemic was challenging for a retreat that’s designed to be an open-door teaching space, and so they pivoted to online courses for much of it, with some residential stays being permitted after a decently long quarantine. Now they’re back to offering in-person courses and restorative retreats that range from five days to three weeks, with a two-day indoor masking rule (and a two-negative-rapid-test requirement) at the onset.
Throughout the course of a given retreat, yoga is just a small part of what you’ll do. Depending on the program, you’ll be asked questions to reflect on, sometimes through writing, sometimes by drawing pictures. What is a single word that expresses relaxation? What do you need to let go of? Even yoga sessions are done with a notebook close by, for reflection on what comes up during certain poses. There’s karma yoga—the act of selfless service—that might involve pulling weeds in the kale patch or digging out invasive scotch broom in the orchard. Nourishment comes in a literal form, too: all meals are held silently and in reflection, and the ingredients are often grown right on the property. The summer I was there, one spread included bruschetta topped with garden tomatoes, garlic scapes and dill; rice-wrapped salad rolls with peanut sauce; rich yam and coconut soup drizzled with homemade pesto—plus homemade biscuits or, for those in need of it, gluten-free pumpkin-seed crackers, and an always-present garden salad topped with tahini lemon dressing.
And that stunning, architecturally significant temple from the Patkaus? It’s as breathtaking as you’d hope it would be. The structure is both spiritually significant to the local community—it’s designed with eight doors, signifying the eight major religions of the world, along with an aperture at its peak—and a truly stunning piece of architecture. Eight petals curve together to form one dome, and each petal is made of eight panels. That aperture at the top is dotted with hanging lights; you’ll feel the same hush coming into this space that you’d experience in centuries-old churches around the world.
Yasodhara is designed to help folks process whatever is going on within them at that moment—to help visitors work on those big-picture questions. As the organization’s president, Swami Lalitananda, told me back then, “We have tools to give people so they can find meaning—to take the time to pause and ask: Where am I? What do I want to do in my life?”
I can’t imagine a more perfect spot to process the last couple of years—and to plan for the great ones to come.
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