Swami Sivananda, contemplating the future (image via lightwaves.cc)

While visiting Yasodhara Ashram, a spiritual community on 120 acres of woodland resting on the shores of Kootenay Lake in southeastern BC, I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the leaders in the community and talk about transition, sustainability and renewal. What I’ve learned from my own yoga practice (on the mat, off the mat and through this blog) is that it’s a constant inquiry. At the root of my practice is the question, Who am I? The desire to find the answer to this question is what keeps me going, especially during times when I feel disconnected and alone.

So what does it mean when a whole community based on yogic principles and practices engages in a process of inquiry? I explored this with Swami Sivananda, a long-time ashram resident and teacher.

Let’s start with the basics. What happens in this community?

Our main idea is to provide a safe environment for people to get their foundation back under them, so they can start looking at things more deeply. There’s no dogma here. There’s an emphasis on spiritual values but not in a dogmatic way. But even if you don’t have that tradition within yourself, there has to be that respect for other people.

People come here and get themselves sorted out emotionally, drop emotional burdens from the past, memories, that kind of patterning that frustrates us. Then they just bloom on their own.

Yet we’re not a social service agency; we’re a spiritual community. We have a tradition, a body of teachings, and those teachings came from our guru. But we’ve broken the mold on the old guru-based community. It doesn’t need to be that stuffy and stiff as a lot of people think. Or as blindly surrendering. Surrender is a very important thing to learn, but it isn’t what most people think. The thing is, it requires super highly developed discrimination.

When I was living and working at the ashram six years ago, we made a commitment to stay onsite all the time. But I’ve noticed that things have become more porous: people live offsite and work in the ashram, people from the surrounding community are working at the ashram.

When the ashram started here in the 60s, ashrams were really weird places. The neighbouring community was suspicious and wanted to stay away. But now a lot of what the ashram is doing is becoming more commonly understood. When you get Yoga Journal talking about karma, mantra, yoga psychology, philosophy – the whole thing starts to settle into a broader base, where it isn’t isolated and attacked and it becomes more open.

It happens in the other direction too, as this community becomes more confident and stronger. As you know, we’ve gone through some very difficult times and we’ve become stronger because of it. It’s also made us realize that there are certain things we can’t compromise on. Like drugs. Forming romantic relationships. We encourage openness and intimacy, to feel we have the support of other people, to look deeply within our pain. But it’s not an invitation to take it in another direction. It can skew the community. We’ve learned that, and we’re better at articulating why that is, so it’s not judgmental.

It’s not a free for all. This is not a new age place where we’re trying out new things.

Right. There are still boundaries.

It’s a celibate community, a community focused on practices. It’s a community where people are encouraged to inquire. There’s no belief system, but there are lots of questions. Everything is a question.

That’s true! What are some of the questions that the ashram is asking right now, as a community?

What is the role of a set of teachings in today’s world? What is it that people need? The day has long gone by that people can do yoga the way it was originally envisaged. People just don’t have that kind of stamina, nor do they have the time to do that. That’s true for most of the practices. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable; they’re very valuable.

The practices the way Swami Radha has brought them forward for the western culture are even more relevant now than when she first started doing that in the 60s. We’ve started to see that we’re the custodians of this treasure chest of practices and teachings – how do we make it available to people now?

In this process of inquiry, I understand the ashram is looking at ways to renew, refresh and reimagine what the community is. Tell me more about what that means.

Well, this started quite a while ago, around 2008. We realized that in order to make it work, we had to build a community within the community and we had to build a community around the community. The ashram sits on the east shore of Kootenay Lake, so we had to become more intentional in our involvement with the local community, and we needed to build a stronger inner community. We need people who are committed in the longer term, in their own work, and we need people to take initiations. The lineage is based on initiations. It’s a substratum that runs through the whole tradition that we’re part of. People don’t have to become initiates, but they have to join in and make commitments.

We also realized that the words we use to describe what we do – the meaning of those words has become diluted, partly through the popularization of yoga. Yoga can mean anything to anybody. There’s couple’s yoga and nude yoga…

Dog yoga. Doga.

I didn’t know that. Anyway, when you say you’re an ashram based on yogic teachings, what does that mean? What is an ashram anyway? A year or two ago, we started thinking about what is it we actually do. What is the core value we want to maintain? How do we describe that? What are all the things that can emanate from that, so we can be more responsive to where people are now? A big difference I see is there are more career people in their 30s, 40s 50s, coming here because they’re just stressed out. There are people coming here because they’re sick, they have cancer. There are people with serious relationship problems of different kinds.

They need a place to come where they can feel safe to explore it on their own. We’re not therapists, but through the things that we do… breathe, start there. Get people into a good steady healthy regime. Sometimes it’s as simple as eating three really good meals a day and getting a good night’s sleep.

I know that the ashram is interested in sustainability not only on a personal level, but a global level as well. What are some of the sustainability projects happening here? I understand there’s a goal to be carbon neutral by 2013 – how is the community taking steps to work towards that?

We’ve taken the biggest ones, and now we’re into the small ones, and they’re really hard. Since the mid-90s, we’ve started recycling programs, made our buildings as efficient as we can, changed all the light bulbs, put in weather stripping, replaced windows and doors, reinsulated buildings… That was our first phase. We got everything as efficient as we could and then we started to take the next step, which was technology based. We started going towards solar hot water, geothermal systems. Our first geothermal system was pretty simple; our second is an integrated geothermal/solar system.

We recently took the last dramatic move, to get rid of our waste oil burner. It was inexpensive but the carbon emissions were terrible, so we decided to get rid of it and went to geothermal instead. It didn’t save us any money but it cut our carbon footprint by 80%. We’re cutting back on our propane use, which is the main fuel for our cook stove. We’re looking at a convection oven.

The biggest challenge is travel to the community – because we attract people from far away, we feel we should carry their carbon footprint. They wouldn’t come here if we weren’t here, so it’s our responsibility. We started a carbon tax on our registration program and we offset what people used. We track where people come from, how they got here. We encourage people to use rideshares and public transport.

Our goal is by 2013 to be legitimately carbon neutral. When people look at our 2010 report, they say we’re way above the standard. We consider everything: compost, propane, refrigerants. But we still have a ways to go.

So what is the relationship between the sustainability vision and yoga? How is it informed by yoga?

It starts with ahimsa, noninjury. I think that idea is the underpinning for most of it. I don’t know how you could pretend to live a thoughtful – to say nothing of a spiritual – life and trash the things that are around you. It’s just inconsiderate. It’s a serious lack of awareness.

Yoga is based on expanded awareness. As you start to think more broadly and deeply, you become aware of the consequences of your actions. Why wouldn’t we live simply? The younger people who come here are so into sustainability. It’s really encouraging. They want to learn how to grow food and take care of things that give us life. It’s an easy thing to support people as they try to find that in themselves.

2013 is the 50th anniversary of the ashram – what is your hope for the next 50 years?

My hope is that what we’re calling “spiritual life” in this community somehow shakes off that oppressive, restrictive connotation that people think goes with it. I know where it comes from. If people start to see that a spiritual life is incredibly freeing way to grow yourself and communities, that would be great.

I’m in my mid-60s, I’ve done a lot of things: been married, owned houses and cars, had a rewarding career. Having done all that, I don’t think you have to. What happens here is a response to what we’re part of in a bigger picture. Any kind of spiritual life has to nurture people in the way that they need it. The form might change, but the substance doesn’t.

There’s something I read by one of the traditional Indian gurus. After initiating a group of young men, he said when you become a renunciate, in the highest sense, “the earth sings because the burden has been lifted.” Inside that idea is what I’m talking about, what I hope. We don’t have to be this competitive, aggressive, demanding, greedy animal. By finding new ways of living, it’s way more interesting and far more rewarding.

Further ashram adventures: back to the garden with Paris Marshall Smith and the yoga of sustainability & resilience with Swami Radhananda.