The ashram garden (image via Yasodhara Ashram's Facebook page)

Food has a central role at Yasodhara Ashram. The daily work is structured around three meals, which are eaten in silence to encourage an atmosphere of contemplation and connection. Much of the food served from the ashram kitchen is grown in the abundant garden. In many ways, the garden is the heart of the community, and it also connects the ashram to the surrounding community.

I sat down with Paris Marshall Smith, an ashram staff member in her mid-30s who works as the food flow systems manager. She explained the role of the garden within the community, both literally and metaphorically.

How does the food move from the garden and the orchard to the kitchen and on to our plates?

We have this food flow. It actually is ideally a flow. In terms of areas, we have the garden, the orchard (which is in the garden but also on the periphery) and then there’s the summer kitchen. The food moves through here, to the kitchen.

When we hire people to work in the kitchen, we want them to have a strong ethic around local food. The kitchen builds the menus around what we’re producing in the garden and we encourage receptivity as much as possible. For example, we came in today with a bucket of turnips, so they’re making a turnip and radish cake. Who knew? We support them by planting things that are interesting and easy to use. And which people want to eat.

How much of the food in the kitchen comes from this land, if it’s possible to quantify?

According to the most recent figures, 17% of the food we consume is from the ashram proper, including our orchard and garden. An additional 17% comes from within 100 miles, for example the East Shore. That makes up about 35%. Another 40% comes from BC, and the rest is from elsewhere in the world. So 75% comes from within an 8 hour drive – and we serve about 25000 meals a year!

What is your role in this process? What do you do?

I manage the food flow system. I also work on the relationship building process that’s happening with extending out to the local food system, the surrounding communities of Kootenay Bay, Crawford Bay, Creston… It’s a unique experience because the ashram is a community that lives within a community of the East Shore.

As a community, we have a lot of leverage. We have many people who come here and we serve many meals. We have a lot of buying power, so our decisions can have an impact on people’s lives. We can make a significant difference to a farmer in the local community. It’s a neat place to be operating from, working within the internal community and working within the next ring out, the East Shore.

What kind of bridges have you made between this community and the East Shore community?

It’s an informal system. For example, let’s say there’s a store down the road that makes weekly runs to Creston and we know the same farmer. We’d suggest that we meet halfway, help to support each other on the distribution cost. It’s that kind of relationship. And it takes a lot of time to build.

Another example would be, there’s a new store in Crawford Bay and they want to offer local produce – how can we help them make connections with farmers? That’s what we do, help build those systems and put together those pieces to try and make those linkages between local businesses and farmers.

So it’s sharing resources, using less fossil fuel…

That’s a big one for us because we’re going carbon neutral in 2013, so reducing our carbon output is an underlying interest in our sustainability plan. We are sharing resources on all ends: people, material, information.

What kind of plans and projects do you have within the garden itself?

I’m trying to build a relationship with the garden that goes beyond a yearly basis. There wasn’t any continuity. We’re working on a seed saving project, and that takes years to develop. There will be a seed saving workshop in the fall, that’s something we’re bridging with the local community, and we’ll be donating a lot of seeds. Part of our interest in being resilient as a community and as a region is to create local indigenous seeds. So if we have wildly fluctuating weather patters, we have seeds that can grow in our local climate.

There’s also an interest in aesthetically creating a softening within the garden, establishing it as a place that’s very welcoming. So it’s not simply a functional place but is also very beautiful. It can be a place that people can come into and engage with in different ways. We’re experimenting with perennial crops like kiwis, blueberries and grapes, looking at edible forestry and permaculture projects, nut trees. There’s a lot of experimentation…

We’re also looking at programming the garden in a different way. We’re thinking about a series of courses that match the elements of the kundalini system with the seasons of the garden. Earth and water, fire and air, ether and subtle. That could potentially be expanded into a rigorous internship program, meaning that people can leave with tangible skills. It’s in development and will probably be put into place next year. It’s part of the transition and questions around who we are and what are we doing. There’s so much potential with the garden and we hope to use that to develop other programs around the ashram.

What have you learned and gained from this process?

I’ve learned a huge amount from this process. The unique part is that we’re at an ashram. There’s a garden and there’s growing food, but the context that it happens in makes it a special and unique opportunity. Also, intrinsic to Swami Radha’s teachings is the symbolism.

Things may seem very simple or literal on one sense, but when I think about my five-year commitment, I did it for very rational reasons. There was a strong pull, which I couldn’t necessarily explain, but then I came up with very rational explanations. With further inquiry over the winter, it became clear I was doing it for different reasons.

The garden becomes one way of entering into the teachings and one way of entering into ourselves. The ashram creates a diversity of opportunities for people to enter in, whether it’s the kitchen or housekeeping or IT. I marvel at the underlying knowledge that my subconscious has, and how it happens at the other end, that the divine creates these wonderful openings that we can enter. There’s an opportunity for everybody.

Other ashram adventures: a yoga community in transition with Swami Sivananda and the yoga of sustainability & resilience with Swami Radhananda.