Change the clock and sleep longer!
Google said the place opened at 8:30am. But the Sunday that we planned to head there also happened to be the day that the Daylight savings time ends in the US.
My sister said, “The time changes at 2am but i’ve already changed our clocks”.
Suddenly you have an extra hour – getting up at 6am in the new timing is effectively 5am in the earlier timing! My sister narrated incidents of people turning up late for events on the day of the change. Whatever, it was nice to have the extra hour to sleep.
We planned to start early so that we could be back early. This wasn’t a typical tourist attraction. My friend had said that it’s worth the visit and the place would be scenic – so the worst case scenario was that we’d just drive around the place and return; perhaps an hour or so was our guesstimate.
Morning plans are usually hard to stick to; by the time we had our breakfast of eggs it was 8:30am (as per the new time). From the window I could see that it was bright and sunny. Looked like a perfectly warm day. But I was hit by reality when I opened the door – what you see is not how it feels; even with all that sun shining upon us, the temperature was only in the single digit and I had to put on my sweater and a jacket before stepping out!
Long drives in the US can be boring because there’s nothing unexpected that would happen on the road – I was happy not to be driving because it’s just the type of driving that puts me to sleep.
The drive got better as we neared Yogaville; the roads went up and down as if we were going on large waves – not abrupt climbs and drops but gentle ones; when you reached one peak you could see the upcoming trough and the following peak.
We reached our destination at 11:20am. We parked near what seemed to be an information center. The place was quiet, lot of greenery and a few buildings on the other side of the information center that seemed like hostel. An African American lady greeted us at the reception desk; to her left and behind were large bookshelves.
“Is this your first time?”
We nodded and she excitedly pulled out a map of the place. With a pen she walked us through the places to visit.
“This is Sivananda hall. Where we are now.”
Sivananda – hmm… not easy to pronounce but she got it right. But when she pronounced ‘Chidambaram’ I was impressed – she said it like a Tamilian.
“Ananda Kutir has a meditation session at 12. It opens only once every week. You should be there by 11:45”.
And off we went. A board at the fence said mobiles and photos not allowed. Outside Ananda Kutir which resembled a nice little home, another American lady greeted us. This place reminded me of the classic isolated home you see in horror movies which are surrounded by plenty of trees. No man-made sounds to be heard – just birds chirping and the breeze blowing. I was glad that we were here in broad daylight.
How do you meditate?
We were the first to the place; she guided us to the entrance which was on the right side of the home – and as we walked, way below we could see a lake and the Lotus Temple in the center.
“No photography,” she reminded us.
The home was warm and comfortable; she gave a white robe for me to wrap around my jeans since jeans were not considered respectful. We hung our coats in the hanger and stepped into an inner room where there were a couple of sofas, chairs, many cushions scattered on the floor and on one side was the photo of a Swami who I guessed was Satchidananda. She softly said she’d ring a bell when the session ended. It was the first time that I was going to meditate for 30 minutes. The lady didn’t give us any specific instructions for the session; we were on our own. There are different schools of meditation that you come across – some will say focus on any one thing intensely and cut off every other thought; some will say chant a syllable or sloka or play some specific music so that it helps you cut out all other thoughts; some say that don’t force your mind to focus on something – just let thoughts pass but don’t concentrate on any one thought – just observe as they keep flying by.
I sat in a cross-legged pose and the lady passed me a cushion to use for support; sitting cross legged on a cushion would relieve the strain on our ankles. I had never used a cushion in this posture before but then i had never sat in this posture for 30 minutes either! So I used the cushion but within a minute I felt pain in my lower back and abandoned the cushion.
One of the challenges with meditation is sitting still – physically and mentally! You think it’s easy to sit idle without doing anything but it turns out to be the hardest thing to do – no talking, no fidgeting, no moving. I had to shift position after a few minutes since my ankle started to hurt; then a while later I felt that something was walking on my arm but when I opened my eyes there was nothing; a little later I heard a small sound and opened my eyes to see what it was – a couple of folks who walked in were placing flowers next to the photo of the Swami and then got into their meditative pose; only 12 minutes had passed so far. I could have even kept my eyes open but if you keep it open you will create more thoughts because of the visual stimuli! Even with eyes closed it is hard to control thoughts – if a thought pops up and you want to avoid it then you end up thinking about that thought to eliminate it from your head; the net result is that you focus on the very thought that you wanted to avoid! So I let them float around.
We always feel that time flies but sitting still is one state in which time seems to slow down. Initially you open your eyes often to check the time since you think you’ve been meditating for long but the clock would say that it’s only been a few minutes. It took me a while to tell myself not to bother about the time since the lady would anyway ring the bell.
And the bell did ring; I opened my eyes – it was quite an achievement having sit for 30 minutes without sleeping. The lady who welcomed us was now standing at the door with a small bowl in her hand containing Vibhuti; ash that we typically put on our forehead; was surprising to see Westerners apply it.
Different paths to the same destination
We returned to Sivananda hall for lunch; footwear had to be left outside the dining hall. It cost ten dollars per person for guests; the chefs and the staff working there as well as many of the people who had come to lunch began reciting a prayer (the words were there on a wall) and considering that most of the people were aware of this practice I assumed that they were guests staying in this place for a while. They read the Sanskrit version and the English version.
Lunch was a buffet – on one side was a salad bar and on the other was what you expect to find as part of an Indian lunch – rice, dal and curry. Everything was vegetarian and even though the dal and curry didn’t have strong spices they still tasted good. There were two dining table options – the regular one with chairs or the low height ones where you had to sit on the floor. During the lunch, there was an old American lady reading from a book about some of Swami’s teachings; she had a sweet voice, perfect pronunciation and paused at the right moments. Her age certainly didn’t show in her voice.
Our next stop was the Lotus Temple; it was within walking distance but we took the car to save time. The last stretch of the road to the temple was literally a single lane road running through the woods; it weaved through the forest and there were speed limit signboards that read 5 mph! The single lane finally leads you to a large parking lot.
There were walking trails around the temple but we headed straight to the temple. This wasn’t your typical Indian temple. The main hall in the ground floor of the temple was a circular room. Bordering the wall were many large showcases; each one was devoted to a particular faith and contained artifacts and symbols related to that faith – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and many more. Didn’t seem like this place was about following a specific faith; they were open to all and that was one of the Swami’s beliefs – interfaith; all faiths lead you to the same destination.
Considering the carpeted flooring, this hall also seemed like a place where one could meditate; the hall had a back door that opened to a balcony overlooking a serene blue lake surrounded by umpteen trees in various shades of green and orange foliage. I was reminded of the 1000+ piece jigsaw puzzles which typically had scenery like this. The scene under the clear blue skies was perfect as if an artist had painted it. You could simply stand there for a few minutes just absorbing the view.
We headed back the way we came; while stepping out the main door we noticed a couple of small doorways on the opposite side. Curious to see if there was something upstairs, I went up the winding staircase. It led to another door which I assumed might be locked. I pushed it open. The place was very dimly lit and I realized that this was really the meditation hall. From the center of the room there was a streak of light going vertically upwards to the ceiling; on the walls of this hall there were white arches and under each of them there was a large wooden box. There was light running from the top of the arches to the center of the ceiling as well. Think of a lotus facing downwards – that’s how the lights made it feel. Above each wooden box was a quote from one of the religious books – each of these belonged to a different faith; and all the quotes were about light and truth. We spent a few minutes reading each of the quotes and then sat for a couple of minutes before leaving.
Nature at its best
Next stop was on the opposite side of the Lotus Temple – Chidambaram’s shrine; there were about 100 steps to climb to get to the shrine which was like a small cabin resting on the side of a mountain. This is where the Swami’s body is said to have been buried. The staircase had railings and the steps weren’t steep. The shrine was a small hall where there sat a lifelike figure of the Swami on a pedestal – it was very realistic like what you’d see in wax museums.
From this shrine you could take a few more steps (another 300 odd steps or so and we had to catch our breath a couple of times!) to get to the top where there was a Nataraja shrine; there were a few sculptures with the main one being Nataraja in his cosmic dance posture. After seeing artifacts from different faiths, it was odd to see only Hindu idols over here. The view from top was again scenic – you could see the Lotus Temple below in the center surrounded by grass, and the grass was surrounded by the blue waters, and the waters were surrounded by the trees and they by the sky!
Our last stop was the Lotus conference center – we drove the car following the signboards and were led to an area where there were a row of cabins and on the far left a wooden house. The door of the conference center was open and we could see a few Westerners seated inside in a meditative state. We didn’t want to disturb them and thought of turning around but the sight of a river caught our eye. Yogaville was at an elevation and so the river was far below; near the house there was a small outdoor seating area (like a balcony) with a few empty chairs overlooking the river. I had already had my fill of scenic views today but here was another one. On the far left you could see the lake (that we had seen behind the temple), then lots of trees, then the James river and then trees again. Since the leaves in some of the trees were in different shades of orange and green the scene looked even more spectacular. Another view that you could just gaze at without doing anything and still not getting bored. I could certainly meditate here with eyes open! And I’ve noticed that in these sort of moments of admiring nature you may not have any thoughts whizzing in your head.
It was past 3:30pm when we left Yogaville; we had spent about 4 hours in this place!
People might have their own opinions regarding Swamis; for those in India we’ve seen so many cases and complaints crop up against many of the Swamis. Some still hold Swamis in high regard while others may not be so respectful; some may believe in the purpose of life being to seek enlightenment while some may believe, like a friend used to say, that life is just about killing time. And for those that believe in enlightenment, some believe that a guru is needed to help find it while others believe that everything is within and we don’t need external help.
Irrespective of what you believe in, Yogaville is still a place you can visit if you happen to have time while in Virginia. They don’t try to impose any preaching during your visit and so you needn’t fear having to attend classes or lectures. It’s not a place that small kids may like – it’s all silence here. It’s a place to enjoy nature, a place to unwind and a place for reflection.