Pursuits Of Spirit Contrast With Search For Pleasure (CT Now, Connecticut)

LISA KINGSTONE, CT Now: In 1967, Swami Vishnu was walking along the beach here when an Englishwoman named Natalie Bosworth beckoned to him from her house and invited him in for tea. She then told him of her drug-addicted daughter and asked if he could help.

Swami Vishnu moved in with the Bosworth family, and through meditation helped their daughter overcome her addiction.

When asked by her parents what they could do for him, the practical man asked for beachfront land to build an ashram. The rest is history. More than 30 years later, the ashram still stands on Paradise Island; although the retreat stretches for 5 acres, it is dwarfed by the huge pink luxury hotel and casino, the Atlantis, just a short walk down the beach.

The contrast of the ashram to the Atlantis and the other high-rise hotels here, a three-minute boat ride across the bay from Nassau, is almost comical, but gives it a kind of resonance as a spiritual retreat.

When the huge yachts from the Atlantis drive by the small pink-and-blue dock to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, you can all but hear the megaphone yell. “That place is for foolish people: no gambling, no alcohol, no women, no fun!”

The luxury Atlantis hotel has a 34-acre waterscape (“with a waterslide off a 6-story Mayan temple!” its website boasts), 11 swimming pools, a 7-acre lagoon, enormous casino, golf course, 23 restaurants and two huge towers with high-speed elevators. The Atlantis wants to expand and purchase the land on which the ashram is built, but the Sivananda organization bought the property last year, after signing a 99-year lease, and has no intention to sell.

The luxury of the Atlantis is similar to that of other hotels that have in common the beautiful Bahamian beaches and the constant sound of speedboats and booze cruises with endless rum punch that sail by, with people doing the macarena or singing along to another version of “who let the dogs out.”

The all–you-can-eat buffets and plush, carpeted elevators are in high contrast to the ashram, with its small fountains, simple wood yoga platforms, and bathroom shacks with a sign reading, “Don’t wash your feet in the sink.” There are two lacto-vegetarian meals a day, and you wash your own dishes. One woman remarked that it reminded her of summer camp when she was a child.

“Ashram” is a Hindu term for a spiritual retreat, often in a secluded place, where seekers engage in spiritual practice and study the philosophy of yoga.

The taxi driver who takes me to the dock at Nassau refers to the ashram as “Yoga camp.” People come with duffel bags and backpacks and, in contrast to the $240 rooms at the Atlantis, the same beaches are available for a $50 tent fee (there are also small cabins and semi-private rooms) or $30-a-day pass. Guests need very little and don’t bring valuables because there are no safe deposit boxes. In fact, there are little in the way of material pleasures because the focus is to go inward.

The ashram often attracts people who have become burnt out by urban life and think they can find themselves or simply de-stress. The difference in going to a resort is that someone else de-stresses you — in the form of massage or cocktails. But on a spiritual retreat, the responsibility is on you to seek your own transformation. Many yogis from other places come to deepen their practice.

On the day I arrive, I come through teeming downtown Nassau to Mermaid Dock. Enormous pleasure boats are tied up there, but I step into the small commuter boat to taxi me across the bay. The day is windy and seawater splashes in. The meandering path from the landing passes a mural of the many-armed goddess Kali and bougainvillea plants. Little paths wander off, with hand-painted signs pointing to the boutique or bathrooms or reception.

“Reception” is the size of a beach hot-dog stand. A woman greets me with a lilting Irish accent. “Don’t mind the bird on my neck,” she says. (Apparently, the dove had been injured earlier that day and she is caring for it.) Everyone helping run the ashram is from somewhere else — Canada, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, New York City. Shankara, who has lived at the ashram for 10 years, leads us around, talking about how simplicity of atmosphere is common in spiritual places.

“When I went to north India to the most holy place, there was pig and monkey [droppings] everywhere.” He looks around at the huts where the paint is peeling a little. “The sea air makes it hard to maintain. Some people from New York come here and say ‘aargh’ when the see the simple accommodations. But when you do yoga, you enter another world. They complain at first, but after three days they say, ‘I never felt so good in my life.’

“If they are really upset at first, I just show them the beach and everything’s fine,” he says, smiling.

Some people come for the day, but most come for at least three. Most of the people running the ashram are spiritual seekers who live there in exchange for work.

Although on the tour I find myself sharing the same judgmental thoughts as the New Yorkers he referred to, by the end of my day the place seems transformed. I attend the asana class on the Bay platform, on the leeward side of the island. Asana is the physical aspect of yoga, made up of poses sometimes linked to prepare the body for meditation. (Yoga in the West has become synonymous with asana practice.)

Sometimes an asana class includes meditation and pranayama, or yogic breathing. As I lie in savasana (corpse pose), the waves slap soothingly against the wood beneath me.

I have the first 10 o’clock meal on the simple benches that sit on the island’s windy, ocean side. The food is colorful and tasty, and could be breakfast or lunch: porridge with a selection of toppings, beans, rice, fresh spinach greens, zucchini salad and an assortment of homemade bread with homemade peanut butter and jams. I chew my food slowly and notice the different flavors. Some people socialize while they eat, but others sit meditatively, looking at the palm trees or rough waves, or write in journals.

After my meal, I walk to the exquisite beach. The sand is white and powdery underfoot. There are palm trees, and the water is that particular blue that allows you to see the shells and rocks. The sun is warm, and the wind keeps away the bugs.

As the sun gets hotter, I leave the beach to go the boutique, where I buy lemon sorbet and sit in an old wooden chair in the shade of a sea grape tree, tasting each melting spoonful. I read for an hour and then book a reflexology appointment with a practitioner who goes simply by Ed. He is over 80, and his hands have had more than 30 years’ experience. I couldn’t believe that my feet hold the key to my entire body, but I believe it when I walk out.

I start to notice other details about the ashram, such as trees growing out of the platform of the meditation temple and through the roof of one of the shacks. Shankara tells me later that one of the conditions of the lease was that no trees could be cut down. There are no bugs, and blooming everywhere are tiny fluorescent-colored flowers that remind me of the fish one sees when snorkeling nearby. Nearby, coconut and tamarind grow.

The dirt is soft, and the smell of the ocean is tantalizing. Sand, rocks and shallow roots make the ground uneven and wild. When I pass people on the twisty paths, they are walking slowly, like me, and smile, but we find no need for chitchat. A man walks by with a companion, and I hear him say, “I haven’t slept that well in months.”

I bond immediately with all of the people I meet. A mother and daughter on their yearly trip together, an architect who lost her husband to cancer and is here recovering, a young New Yorker who works in management and whose friend told her to come here. “When I heard there were no newspapers, I panicked,” she admits.

The ashram requires that you attend the morning meditation at 6 and an asana class. “If you go to all activities, you feel very blessed,” says Shankara, although he knows many will resist it. He refers to one 75-year-old Texas millionaire who came and never took off his cowboy hat. When they urged him to start coming to morning mediation, he said, “I’ll send my secretary.”

At the ashram, your day can include asana, meditation, chanting, lectures by spiritual leaders, helping clean and maintain the ashram, reflection, reading and swimming in the ocean.

It’s that simple, which is exactly the point.

Gopal, a slim young man from Israel who is the current director, says, “We complicate our lives with stress and material things.” He looks around at the picnic benches and dirt paths. ” I think even this is too complicated,” he says with a smile.

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