While in the strictest sense, the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania may not fulfill the strict definition of "ashram" (a Hindu religious retreat), many of the visitors, teachers and residents here refer to HI as "the ashram". It is a spiritually charged community of learning for students of all religions, backgrounds and experiences, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity and ability to drive 14 hours into the rolling Pocono Mountains to spend several days studying yoga and Ayurveda here.
HI is housed in a sprawling, brick building that used to be a seminary. Long halls are lined with small, simple rooms for guests. The spareness is so refreshing, coming from a home with a clutter table in the kitchen, books strewn about, all the messiness of an active family.
I’ve arrived on the hottest weekend of the year; of several years, actually. There is no air conditioning, except in the coffee/tea shop (yes, there is a coffee shop, and it’s a pretty hopping place). Each room has a fan, but the heat becomes oppressive in the rooms at night. I spoke with a woman this morning who suffered an anxiety attack in the stuffiness and almost packed up and left in the middle of the night. Luckily, the heat is more bearable today.
This particular ashram is located on abut 400 acres of beautiful fields and woods. On the property is an old dairy barn that now houses an herbal lab, an art/production studio (Hi publishes many books and publications, including Yoga International), and a warehouse. There is an organic vegetable garden as well as an herb garden, where medicinal herbs are grown. There are several houses where residents and families live.
In July, even in the heat, the outdoors here is energizing, full of Prana. Coming from the flatness of Illinois, one of my highlights was hiking through the woods to the waterfall. It was the most enjoyable cardiovascular thing I have done in a long time. While it takes great physical effort to walk the path on such a steep incline and decline (think staircase steep), the mental effort is practically nil; just put one foot in front of the other. No need to work harder; the incline gives you the effort.
Sattva is a quality of peaceful, balanced energy. It is focused. It is conducive to a healthy body and mind, and creates the optimal quality for meditation. The entire 400 acres, the space inside and out, is sattvic in quality.
The food is vegetarian, much from the gardens, very simple, chanted over by the cook staff, and designed to be sattvic as well. Oatmeal and fruit for breakfast (maybe my favorite, tofu scramble, yum!), rice, beans, vegetables for lunch and dinner, with non-heating spices. Salads and fruit. I have heard some comments that it’s a little repetitious. I won’t really argue. But, I’m never left hungry, and have no cravings, (except for a chai tea from the cafe, which is delicious). I feel satisfied.
One can be as social, or non-social, as you’d like; there is no judgement. There are hours of observed silence, and a table observing silence in the dining room. After evening classes and prayers, things become amazingly quiet.
I am here for a training; Yoga Ayurveda Specialist. Although we meet morning, afternoon, and evening for class, there are spaces of time. The 7 1/2 hours of learning does not encroach on that. Naturally, having meals prepared, and no real work other than to learn makes that easier.
Today, we participated in a Vedic fire ceremony, an offering to the transformative powers of fire, dedicated to the healing of our planet. Sandra Anderson began the chant as eight participants sat around the burning pit, (the rest of the group farther back awaiting their turn,) and at her cue tossed gifts of “food” into the fire. We rotated in at intervals. I listened to her chant on and on in sanskrit. There seemed to be no repetition in lines, and I was amazed she could memorize so much. As I rotated in closer to the pit, I saw she had a binder with pages in front of her. I thought “Well, that explains it!” and this made sense until I was just about to take my turn. I was close enough to see that the entire text was in the sanskrit alphabet, beautiful to look at, but as legible to my eye as a decorative wallpaper border. Sandy chanted for about an hour from this text.
It’s so easy to feel balanced and healthy in mind and body in this environment. There is none of the opulence and luxury you may find in a spa. Your feet feel firmly grounded in the earth. You feel cared for, but never pampered. The temptation to give into, well, temptation, just isn’t there; as a spiritual seeker you are supported on all levels.
I have visited here twice so far and each time feel the unloading of stresses, self-judgement, and mind-clutter that a good yoga class will provide, except on a prolonged and larger scale. And, of course, when I leave tomorrow, I will be heading back to many of the stresses, judgements and clutter that provide the challenges that we, as householder yogis, struggle with. The ashram teaches us skills then sends us home to practice, and maybe share these skills in the larger world. I have 14 hours on the road to look forward to, to integrate and revisit the ideas my teachers have been so generous to share. Then the work begins.