Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Paradise for the Soul: Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, Paradise Island, Bahamas, by Kyle Williams Gonsalves

In the mid-60s, there was a swami convention in the Bahamas attended by swamis from all over the world.  A wealthy Bahamian mother begged Swami Vishnudevananda to help her addicted daughter get off drugs and get her life back on track.  He agreed and took the daughter back to his yoga centre in Quebec to teach her his yogic way of life.  The following year at the next convention, to thank Swami Vishnudevananda for taking her daughter under his wing and successfully helping her return to a clean and sober life, the mother offered the swami her parents’ abandoned property and home for 100 years, rent free.  Her wish was that Swamiji build an ashram, teach his yoga and help others find their way.

Today fifty years later, the Sivananda Ashram on Paradise Island is flourishing, growing, teaching and most importantly, helping others find their way.  Their mission is to share peace, health, and joy through yoga.  This particular location is the most traditionally Indian of the nine Sivananda ashrams worldwide, with a tropical heaven-on-earth setting.  The yoga practice is based on the Hindu faith teachings, a religion you are born to, not one you can convert to.  There is such an ease for all guests around that, perhaps the only downside is that you may leave wishing that you could convert.  It certainly crossed my mind. 

By the time you step in the ashram water taxi to the island, you already feel like you are on holidays.  The warm, dazzling sunlight bounces between the heavenly turquoise water of Nassau Bay and the puff ball clouds floating in a sea of azure blue sky.  

Six or seven enormous docked cruise ships provide an imposing back drop to harbor life as they patiently wait for their passengers to return.  For those of us vertically challenged folks, the step down to the bobbing taxi when the tide is low can feel like quite a free fall, but rest assured there are helping hands to make the journey safe. 

After a two minute zoom across Nassau Bay, you are struck by two thoughts.  First, you must have somehow proceeded to the wrong gate at the airport and have landed in India.  When your eyes take in the bright, vibrant colours on the dock, the welcoming arch, and the waterfront yoga platform you know you are far from home and indeed somewhere special.  

The second thought is for the immediate feeling of inclusiveness and welcome for all who come to this paradise. Both an exquisite lotus-shaped sign and peaceful green-rimmed pond at the entrance to the ashram are full of symbols or statues of gods and saints worshipped by many world religions.  For those of us on a return trip to the ashram, it simply feels like coming home. 

The ashram stretches its five and a half acres of lush tropical gardens from Nassau Bay on one end and the Caribbean turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  The soft pristine white sandy beach beckons when you have a moment to dip your toes or take a stroll down the beach.  Worn foot paths between buildings have been paved in recent years but they still retain their lush dense charm.  

Gardens appear wildly full of native plants yet manicured at the same time.  They edge every pathway, making you feel you are always connected to this sanctuary of peace.   While the original family home has been renovated over the years to expand the kitchen and divide original quarters into guest rooms, there has been an explosion of accommodation builds which melt seamlessly into the tropical setting.

Accommodations are simple and clean, in line with yogic living.  The number of choices has expanded over the years.  From an eight-foot square piece of ground to pitch your own tent to a luxury beachfront suite with private bath, there is a room for every budget.  There are three two-floor tent condos with 32 tents per condo.  These 10-foot rooms are thoughtfully appointed but this author found the nocturnal noises from other guests disturbed her piece of mind and a good night sleep.  From tin cans being used as porta-potties, tent zippers going up and down for bathroom visits, to departing guests packing at all hours of the night, one thing was clear; next time, private room. 

Indeed, the many private and semi-private rooms are much quieter and warmer in the February chill with more comfortable beds.  Most accommodations include a shared bath, either in a building or rows of outdoor shower and toilet stalls standing back to back.  Even for a particular guest like myself, the setup somehow felt normal, they are decently clean, you work out a low traffic time to suit you and have your flip flops available for any shower visit. 

The vegetarian meals are good and there’s plenty of food to eat.  Fresh homemade bread, fresh herbal teas, homemade granola all made a great addition to the menu.  Responding to feedback from their guests in 2015, the ashram tripled the food budget and hired new chefs.  Now the food is absolutely fabulous!  Tastier salad dressings, more creative main dishes, a real treat for your taste buds, whether you’re a practicing vegetarian or not.

The ashram provides a complete immersion into their classical yoga tradition and yogic lifestyle, with a daily schedule that includes two meditations (6am and 8pm), pranayama (yogic breathing practices), asana (yoga postures), and education.  They host hundreds of courses, trainings, talks, performances, and special events each year with teachers highly regarded within the Sivananda family, as well as other guest teachers, presenters, and performers.  

There is a Yoga Teachers Training Course at the ashram which is an intense month long, offered eight to ten times a year and to date has graduated more than 26,000 certified yoga teachers.  The core staff is a group of residents, swamis and swamis-in-training who have devoted themselves to a spiritual path, living, practicing, and working together to run the ashram and promote peace in the world through their philosophy and practice of yoga.  It is so much more than a yoga centre.

Whether you spend a few days, a week or more at the ashram, it is truly a vacation for your soul.  Some guests come by themselves, some with a friend or partner.  There are those who come together with a group of friends.  Many guests have made an ashram visit an annual event. 

No matter the number of people you travel with, everyone experiences their own unique spiritual journey.  Often times you come away with knowledge or enlightenment you didn’t even realize you were looking for…. the courage to make a change in your life, an aspiration to take what you’ve learned and create a more peaceful life back home, a vision to start something new.   

There are plenty of spaces and places to be alone and absorb the journey if needed.  Having a private room all to yourself is a welcome gift at the end of a long, full day with others. 

When the courses or special events headline famous guests like Deepak Chopra or Krishna Das, the ashram is fully booked and the energy goes from peaceful haven to electric spiritual joy.  Both energy levels are equally fun to experience.  Because there are no restrictions to choosing the dates of your stay, you are free to choose the exact number of days that completely suits your energetic needs.  Some might prefer a quieter time in the schedule to visit the ashram and some are keen to attend a big event, it’s up to you.

Having visited the ashram two years in a row, I thought it was time to give it a break and experience something new.  I was wrong.  This year I’ve missed the peace, the me-time, the chanting, the food, the yoga, the kindness of like-minded people, the walking sunrise beach mediation that leaves you floating on air and the unique fragrance of the place, a blend of incense, fresh sea air, tropical plants, sunshine  and a blend of spices you can’t put your finger on.  Most of all I missed the spiritual journey my soul would surely have been on.  That enlightenment stays with you long after you get the sand washed off your yoga mat. 

Kyle Williams Gonsalves is a perky, bubbly, happy soul with a vision to become a writer.  She loves life after 50, is devoted to her spiritual path and embracing the wisdom of her years. Kyle lives in Burlington with her husband Mark and is dedicated to her dream job of mom to their two entertaining, loveable teens. 

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