5 Below and California
Have you ever been to Five Below? That store where everything is five dollars or less? When the kids were younger, we would give them five or ten dollars to spend there. They were amazed by all the trinkets, toys, art supplies and sporting goods. One time, while the kids were shopping, I wandered over to the book table and browsed. The book, "400 Writing Prompts", caught my eye. I picked it up and glanced through the pages, each page had one or two open ended questions for you to answer. That could be fun, I thought to myself. I bought it for five bucks, of course.
The book sat on my bookshelf for a long time. However, recently I've been using the book as a way to exercise my writing muscles. Several days a week, I open the book to whatever page presents itself to me, look at the prompts, pick one and write. This particular one took me to a beautiful place:
When you think of California, what comes to mind?
I read an article in National Geographic a long time ago, the writer wanted to learn how to do a headstand. He researched and decided to go the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala, South India. The article went on to describe his experience overcoming his fear and realizing a headstand. I thought to myself, "I've always wanted to learn to do a headstand too, maybe I should go there?" I did some of my own research and found that Sivananda operated an ashram in Grass Valley, California. It was a short flight, or long drive from my cabin in Utah. I set a date and made my plans.
My first trip to the ashram was in early December 2008. I followed the "How to Get Here" directions from the website and flew into Anaheim, California. From the airport, I taxied to the Greyhound station and hopped on a bus to Auburn. The directions said, "Have the bus drop you off at the Citgo gas station, and someone will pick you up there". Hanging out at the gas station, I waited and waited, I called the ashram, "He's on his way", they said. After an hour, a battered Subaru Outback wagon pulled up with an older man at the wheel. He looked right at me, held up a plain folder with the words "Yoga Ashram" handwritten on it. Relieved, I grabbed my suitcase and hopped in.
About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm. There didn't seem to be much farming going on, but a lot of beautiful green space with a pond and fountain in the middle of it. I went into the main building and checked in. I was assigned a cabin and went to settle in.
There were many cabins dotted on the hillside, small and rustic. Each of them had stairs that led to a front porch with a couple of chairs on it. I opened the door and was greeted by two sets of bunk beds, a small desk and a gas heater in between the two sets of beds. Although the cabin was intended to accommodate four people, it was only me. I unpacked a few things, got familiar with where the community bathroom was and realized it was dinner time.
Dinner was served buffet style, it was so good. No meat, eggs, onions, garlic, mushrooms, sugar or caffeine. I could not really identify the preparations by looking at them, but I took a bunch on my plate and headed to the dining area. There was a long jute mat laid out on the floor with placemats for each person. I picked a spot and sat down. It was intimate, there were about fifteen of us. Many of them lived at the ashram. They shared where they were from, how long they had been there and how long they intended to stay. They were from all over the world. I marveled how some of them had spiritual names and had no intention of leaving. They were like family, some of them even bickered at times. There was one other visitor, like me. His name was Nick, he was from Hawaii. He was staying in the cabin next to mine. We had many meaningful conversations. I fondly remember him saying, "There's no need to miss anyone, you always hold a piece of them in your heart."
After dinner, everyone helps clean up, then gathers for Satsang. Sivananda Satsang has 3 parts: thirty minutes of silent meditation, thirty minutes of chanting, then a talk by one of the resident swamis. I walked inside, grabbed a couple of cushions and took a seat. Swami Pranavananda led us into simple observation of breath followed by complete silence. I kept peeking at him while he meditated. He was wrapped in saffron robes and had a the most peaceful grin on his face. He seemed so happy, still and quiet. I smiled and faked my way through the meditation. After meditation, a woman got up and started handing out kirtan books. The books are filled with words to hundreds of chants, divided by intention and deity. Swami Pranavananda said, "Let's start with the daily chants on page eleven". He got behind his harmonium, began playing and chanting. I sang along and fumbled through the Sanskrit words. After the daily chants, he called out to one of the residents and had them lead a chant. Then, he read from one of Swami Sivananda or Swami Vishnudevananda's books and discussed a passage or concept.
After evening satsang, it was dark, really dark. I used my flashlight to navigate my way back to my cabin to sleep. Even thought I was in California, I underestimated how cold it got at night. I slept in my long underwear, hat and gloves. I took all the blankets from all the beds in the cabin and piled them on my bed. Ahh, finally warm and cozy.
Every morning, I was awakened by a bell at 5:45 for morning satsang. A couple of times, I found my Uggs frozen to the porch. A little wiggling and pulling freed them from the frost. I walked to the main building for most of my day. Satsang followed by yoga class then brunch. Sivananda practice is two hours. Lots of chanting by the teacher, long pranayama exercises and a series of asana. With classes being small, there was a lot of opportunity to play and explore variations of the basic twelve postures. Headstand is the second pose of the series. The first couple of days, fear took over and I was unable to lift my legs off the floor and balance. On the third day, I got there. With amazing instruction from Sankaracharya, a young male teacher that walked around in constant bliss. Seven years of steady yoga practice and finally, a headstand! The Sivananda method is the way I instruct headstand in classes to this day. Every time I do it, I am reminded of my time at the California ashram.
Every afternoon we engaged in Karma yoga. All of us pitched in and cleaned the common areas. Nick and I were assigned to clean the dining area each day. We would clean and roll up the jute mat, all the placemats, then get out the floor brooms and sweep away. One day, I got ambitious and moved the aquarium away from the wall and swept behind it. By the size of the dust bunnies I encountered, it had been a while. As I was doing this, Swami Pranavananda walked by, "I appreciate your efforts" he said. "Follow me upstairs, there's a hallway that could use your attention." I went upstairs with my broom to where the swamis lived and special guests stayed. I swept the hallway.
The accommodations were so simple, it reflected the atmosphere and lifestyle. I asked him about his journey to becoming a swami, he said "I just didn't fit in anywhere else. Sivananda saved me. I left my parents and siblings over 30 years ago, they wouldn't understand". I thought to myself, why doesn't everyone live like this? It's so beautiful and perfect. It's balanced, serene, structured yet free.
My days passed in a divine blur: satsang, asana, brunch, karma yoga, asana, dinner, satsang. I collapsed into bed each night and woke up energized as I settled into a rhythm. It felt so natural and complete, I was hooked. Before I knew it, and well before I wanted to, I was back in the Subaru wagon headed for the Citgo. "Back to civilization", I remember saying to my driver, his name was something Das. "If you want to call it that", he said.
When I got to my gate at the airport, the gate agent called my name over the loudspeaker. "Your flight is overbooked" she said, "Would you consider a night and meal at a hotel, a $400 voucher and a first class seat in the morning?" Of course I agreed. I figured the voucher would be enough to fly me back there in a couple of months. A taxi took me to a brand new hotel. I checked into my room, ordered pizza from room service and watched a little TV. It bored me quickly, so I opened some of my new books purchased from the ashram. I read until I fell asleep in an adequately heated room.
Just a couple of weeks after I returned from California, a pregnancy test confirmed that Iva was in my belly. Her first experiences inside my body were at the ashram. I went back a couple of months later, they welcomed me, and my expanding belly, with open arms.
Visiting ashrams has become a yearly ritual for me. Since moving to Georgia, I have visited ones in New York, Virginia and the Bahamas. My kids come with me, they know how I look forward to "ashraming". All they have to do is start chanting some of the Sivananda daily chants and it immediately lifts my mood. I wonder if they will get hooked too. It all started with one trip to California.