A Day of Karma Yoga: Visiting Kootenay Bay’s Yasodhara Ashram

A Day of Karma Yoga: Visiting Kootenay Bay’s Yasodhara Ashram

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Story by Gina Begin.


I raced for the ferry.

It was no different than any other meeting: I race for everything. Life is one big blurred rush of deadlines and demands. It has, without my realizing it, become a weight crushing the enjoyment of my day-to-day.

I was headed to Kootenay Bay’s Yasodhara Ashram, a centre for yogic teachings and study, to meet with the people who lived the practices they shared day in and day out. “Yogic teachings” were a new concept to me altogether; the only yoga practice I’d ever taken part in was attempting to hold poses gracefully (and long enough) to convince others that I knew what I was doing.  

I made it on the ferry and put my car in park, rolled down the windows and ticked down the minutes of the crossing: 35 to go. I felt guilty for not thinking to bring my computer so I could get a head start on writing or work on photos that were sitting untouched on my hard drive.

Pressed to be productive, my fingers flipped through notifications on my phone. When a fading cell signal kept me from replying, I gave up.

That’s when I noticed the breeze coming off Kootenay Lake. I observed the difference in temperature from the sun—just warm enough—and the wind that bordered on being chilled. A few degrees cooler, I thought, and I’d need a jacket.

This last thought surprised me: When was the last time I noticed something so minute as the perfect balance of temperatures?

The new "Temple of Light" (still under construction), photo by Daniel Seguin

Views of Kootenay Lake from the new Temple of Light, photo by Gem Salsberg

But on the other side of Kootenay Lake, my in-the-present awareness dissipated as the ferry docked. In my car and in motion again, my brain was churning along with the dust I kicked up from the dirt road. 

What shots would I be able to capture in my short visit?
What questions would need to be asked?
Would I offend anyone with my newbie status in their practiced midst?

Coming around a downhill bend, a stack of colourful flags billowed into view, welcoming me to the Ashram. Parking half a minute later and slinging my various bags—tripod, camera, purse—over my shoulder, I distractedly headed for the front door. “Only a few hours to get shots, meet with people, eat dinner, participate in satsang—what is satsang?—and catch the last ferry,” I thought, trying to prioritize the order and make sense of my schedule.

But first, I needed to understand what an ashram was.

Guenevere Neufeld, in charge of media outreach at Yasodhara, met me inside the building. I jumped right in with questions, trying to lay a foundation on which to build a story. She led me back to the entryway, sharing descriptions about the lineage of yogic teachings that this particular ashram followed, pointing out photos of the founder, Swami Radha, and filling me in on her inspired journey of starting the Ashram in the 1960s.

Ashram's Original Homestead, photo by Gina Begin

A break in the conversation, I rushed in with a question. “I read that there are extended retreats,” I started, trying to understand more about the programs.

And that’s when everything changed.

Guenevere answered that two retreats had started that day, the one-month “Karma Yoga” program and the shorter “Relaxation Retreat”.

It wasn’t a significant statement. I’m sure without explanation, anyone would wonder how it could alter the entire mood of my visit. But when I heard “relaxation”, everything—from the grounds I walked through while approaching the Ashram to the weight of being busy for years upon years—swooped into one profound physical epiphany.

I melted.

I can’t tell you what circumstances turned “relaxation” into a trigger word; maybe the Ashram’s vibe had planted itself in my subconscious while I was prioritizing my visit, or maybe I just hadn’t heard the word in a while. Either way, as soon as Guenevere mentioned a full retreat focused on relaxation, my shoulders softened, my body swayed, and my guard fell.

My physical self knew I needed what defined that word; my mental self just needed a trigger that pushed me into slowing down, balancing actual priorities, and loosening my grip on “the hussle”.

In short, I needed the tools the Ashram was teaching.

Satsang at the Ashram, photo by Gina Begin

Tools, rather than a religious-like adherence, are precisely what the teachings at Yasodhara strive to impart to its guests. Rather than teaching a specific way to live, Guenevere described a process that people—those from any walk of life—could take with them to find the path that best suited them.

She described the Ashram as a place where guests, using their primary approach—Karma Yoga, or “yoga of selfless service”—self-guide their way to the answers they seek as individuals, but come together as a community to learn from each other. The swamis, or teachers, at Yasodhara uphold a belief that each religion is a light and each individual holds a piece of “divine” light within them.

The respect for teachings of every culture and belief system of every individual was clear, and I felt easy in expressing how my own beliefs fit into and were complemented by what Guenevere expressed about the Ashram.

We walked through the grounds. They were quiet, just like the voices I heard around me. We met with Swami Lalitananda, the president of the Ashram, whose mere presence created a deep feeling of meditation within me. As she and Guenevere, and then later Swami Sivananda, spoke with me about the vision of the Ashram and its future, including the construction of a new temple, and the meanings of the tools and teachings of Karma yoga, a sense of humbleness emanated from each.

I was welcome, no matter my point in life’s journey or my own beliefs, to take their tools and make them my own.

We parted ways and I was free to wander at will until the evening’s gathering. After my wanderings, I settled into satsang—a time of reflection, prayer, and learning together as a community—and listened to the group hum in unison the mantras and prayers selected by Swami Sivananda who was leading the devotional. I joined as I could and quietly asked questions of my neighbour when I wasn’t sure. These were answered with a smile, putting me at ease.

I listened to the chants resonating through the room as the sun fell below the mountains within view of our windowed room. The ambient light changed from gold to cool blue. One by one, a basket of slivered dried fruits—prasad—was presented to each person. With my hands cupped, I was given a handful of the fruit. It symbolized the sweetness of the teachings of the day.

Taking my first taste, I reflected on the awareness I had gained in my short time there. It was then, watching people move through the last of the day’s light, that I understood the parallel between the fruit in my hand and the tools given to those learning from the Karma Yoga teachings—tools that worked to create sweetness in life.

VISIT THE ASHRAM

Everyone is invited to visit Yasodhara Ashram and experience the food—25% of it grown on site, teachings, courses and events. No experience with the teachings of yoga is necessary.

Stunning views from the patio dining area, photo by Gina Begin

Get a feel for the community via a “Taste of the Ashram” outing; attend one of the upcoming events, including performances, dance workshops, and activities during the Ashram’s Temple Celebration Week, July 31-August 7th; or stop by during the Columbia Basin Cultural Tour, August 12-13th.


Cover/top photo by Gina Begin.

Gina Begin - Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. On a quest to reach the distant adventures of North America, she lived in her car, traveling to ski the backcountry of Alaska, sleep under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climb Colorado's frozen canyons, photograph Nova Scotia’s coves, backpack in southern US wildernesses and munch on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But after three years living on the road and seeing the many wonders this continent had to offer, she chose the place she knew would fit an explorer looking for a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains.

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