By Gabe Kastner
Day one of my yoga vacation in the Bahamas. I sit cross-legged, eyes-closed on a deck, a green-painted platform overseeing a bay that separates the city from the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat. Anchored sailing ships dot the water, and a fresh wind blows across my face. The teacher, an old brown-skinned woman with white hair tied in two long braids, instructs the class of about twenty in a calm, soothing manner. She gently reminds us to keep our backs straight, our hands resting on our knees our palms facing upwards.
“Inhale comfortably,” she says as we begin the breathing exercises. Her voice is airy and tuneful. “Empty your mind of all things. Forget yourself, forget your body.” Having just completed a series of exercises designed to clear the mind, I am indeed able to retreat into a relaxed mental state, my body hanging lightly below me. I guess this is what meditation feels like. I’ve done yoga since I was a kid, and I finally seem to be getting it right. Vague images, shapes and colours begin to take form in my mind, and then a far-off sound starts to tap out a faint rhythm. Suddenly I’m hearing voices, a group yelling quietly in the distance. The rhythm becomes gradually louder and more distinct, the voices increasing in volume along with it. Out of nowhere, a voice, louder than the rest, calls out, “Let me hear you say boo-ya!”. The crowd responds in turn: “Boo-ya!” I open my eyes. Plodding across the bay is a ‘Booze Cruise’, an all-you-can-drink, all-day boat party that promises “the best party time ever” in its brochure. The rhythm is clearer now; it’s the bass-heavy riff to the recent hip hop hit “Hot in Herre”. “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes,” begins rapper Nelly’s subtly sexual chorus, “I am getting so hot, I’m gonna take my clothes off!” The booze cruisers scream in approval, no doubt some of them taking the lyrics to heart.
In 1967, a swami named Vishnu-devananda opened the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island, just across the bay from Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas. His idea was to offer North Americans an alternative to the standard holiday vacation which satisfies every superficial pleasure but gives little rest to the body, mind, and senses. He called it a ‘Yoga Vacation’ and imagined stressed out folks coming to the Bahamas for two weeks, leaving physically rejuvenated and spiritually lifted.
The Paradise Island Yoga Retreat is just one branch of an organization called International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres – Vedanta being the underlying philosophy of Hinduism, Sivananda being the name of Vishnu-devananda’s teacher. Swami Sivananda was a guru in the North Indian town of Rishikesh, in the Himalayas. Vishnu-devananda, the son of an upper class family, went to visit the Rishikesh ashram (the Hindu equivalent of a monastery), and was soon convinced by Sivananda to stay. For 10 years he stuck around, learning the yogic lifestyle, a strict daily practice designed to strengthen the body through yoga and enlighten the mind through meditation and philosophy. Once he had become a master of the practices, Sivananda instructed him to go west where “people are waiting”, and in 1957 he left for the U.S.
With no real plan of action, 10 rupees in his pocket (the equivalent of one dollar), and having never been anywhere outside of India, he made his way. After arriving in the US and finding himself unable to legally immigrate, he headed for Canada, where citizenship was more easily obtained. In 1959 he opened the first Sivananda Yoga Centre on St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, where it still stands. The centre was established, according to its Web site, as a “non-profit organization whose purpose is to propagate the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta as a means of achieving physical, mental and spiritual well-being and Self-Realization.
Then, in 1962, Vishnu-devananda established an ashram modeled after the one in Rishikesh, in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec. Vishnu-devananda’s efforts are partly responsible for the rise in popularity of yoga and other eastern philosophies that coincided with the peace and love movement of the sixties. During this time he published books, including the popular ‘Complete Illustrated Guide to Yoga’, gave lectures and demonstrations, and even introduced yoga to the Beatles.
“This little yogi runs over to us,” said John Lennon in interview, describing the band’s brief but influential meeting with the swami. “We didn’t know what they were. He gives us a little book each, signed to us, and it was on yoga.”
The swami continued to travel the world, opening new locations wherever he could afford to. Today there are 20 centres and 8 ashrams composing the Sivananda organizations, including locations in California, Chicago, Austria, Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Paris, and right here in Toronto, in a house at 77 Harbord St.
The Paradise Island Retreat seems unlikely in a Bahamas filled with cheesy, expensive hotels, luxurious casinos, massive cruise boats, and more cheap souvenirs than grains of sand on the beach.
My twelve day stay at the ashram was an intense experience with lasting effects. Childhood getaways to Disneyland were fun, but aside from sprinting towards ice cream carts there wasn’t much exercise or enlightenment to be had. The yoga classes offered at the ashram promised to work every muscle in the body very gently, so as to avoid overexertion. When done right, the breathing exercises at the beginning of each class send a rush of energy through the body, enough to wake up even the most foggy-headed late sleeping student. The meditations sessions are calming, even if you don’t see a six-armed elephant god every time you do it. The Hindu chants sung twice daily in a small temple, are pleasing enough to hear, but if you’re not in the mood they are as easy to skip as a lecture class in A72.
The food is the scariest part – a vegetarian buffet for breakfast and dinner, but no lunch. The breakfasts tend to have porridge, fruits, and if you’re lucky, yeast-free pancakes, with rice and various types of vegetable mush for dinner. Spices and sweets are kept to a minimum to keep the mind calm, but the meals actually tend to taste alright. In fact, if you’re a vegetarian to start with, the meals are like heaven – tasty, healthy, and best of all they com fully prepared by someone else. Dishwashing, however, is your duty – everyone does their own.
The place is staffed mostly by volunteers who work up to 9 hours a day in exchange for lodging, food, and yoga. One of the main reasons people are drawn from all over the world to the ashram is the vibe. There is a strong, energized spirit of positivity to the place, especially among the people who have been there for long periods of time. All sorts of people stay there, from students to middle-aged people with kids, to widows in their golden years. I met people from New York, Vancouver, Australia, Switzerland, and London, and they all walked around with satisfied smiles on their faces, greeting one another cheerily when they crossed paths. Many people help out with chores – building cabins, preparing food, cleaning up – even if they’re paying for their stay. This charitable practice is called Karma Yoga, or selfless service, and it’s said to boost your karma points – kind of like frequent flyer miles, but for spiritual advancement instead of a free toaster.
If you’re in the mood, it’s easy to find someone to chat with, have a deep conversation with, or get advice from. Often you’ll end up getting more than you expected. One local Bahamian gave me a crash course in Tai Chi after hearing me complain about wrist pain. A girl from Baltimore figured out my astrological chart – lots of travelling, and good sex are apparently in the cards. And one couple, after hearing that I played guitar, asked me to perform at their wedding, which was to take place two days later on the beach.
The bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian, and they had met the previous Christmas at the yoga retreat, so all the religious and spiritual leaders on the ashram were asked to oversee the wedding. Just their luck, in town for the holidays was a wide array of spiritual authorities from various faiths. There was a Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, a Tibetan monk, a Buddhist monk, a Native Canadian Grandfather, and of course, a Hindu Swami. A song opened the ceremony, with me on guitar and the couple on lead vocals. Then, all six of the holy men proceeded to give short speeches and blessings in their various customs.
The unity of religions is another important aspect of the Sivananda organization. “Unity in Diversity” is one of their commonly preached mottos, expressing the idea of peacefully coexisting religions, each one helping the others with their unique understandings of life.
In 1970 Vishnu-devananda created a ‘Universal Passport’. He drew up and made copies of this passport, which stated that the holder was a ‘citizen of the world’. With it he would fly small planes illegally over troubled borders. He flew over Belfast, Jerusalem, the Berlin Wall, and other places in conflict, “bombing” them with flowers and flyers that promoted peace and yoga.
Next door to the ashram is a Club Med, an all-inclusive resort where every desire pleasure is indulged. The guests are treated like royalty, waited on hand and foot. Three massive buffets a day serving meats of all kinds, fried foods galore, and at least five types of dessert. Alcohol flows freely, and cigars are puffed with reckless abandon. Maids clean the guests’ rooms daily, a luxury those on the ashram do without. At the ashram, you’re sleeping on sand-infested, creased sheets in a dirty room unless you take the initiative to make your own bed and sweep up. Every night, the Club Med folks swarm the nightclub, partying till the early morning. In the ashram, Club Med’s music blares over the fence during evening meditation, and through bedtime – 10 or 11 o’clock for most.
Just down the beach from the ashram is a multi-million dollar hotel and casino extravaganza called Atlantis. At the base of its towering hotel rooms are huge swimming pools, strategically planted palm trees, and specially imported rocks. Around the pools sit hundreds of guests relaxing after a hard day of losing money at the casino – with their backs to the ocean. A hundred yards behind them, past the golf course, lies one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, clear turquoise water against a shore of yellow sand. On the ashram’s section of the beach, people lie on towels, soak up sun, swim in the saltwater ocean, build sandcastles, search for shells.
The contrast between the lifestyles at Atlantis and at the Yoga Retreat is stark. One is an artificial construction, with an overabundance of luxury and quick fixes, the other is stubbornly natural, back-to-basics, focused on long-lasting physical and mental well-being. Either one is paradise, depending who you ask.