ashram adventures: the yoga of sustainability & resilience

The ashram sits on the edge of Kootenay Lake (image via Yasodhara Ashram Facebook page)

Sustainability is a big deal at Yasodhara Ashram. The community has made great efforts to be sustainable: recycling programs, building upgrades, solar power and geothermal heating, as well as making a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2013. As the ashram leadership ages and the swamis are approaching retirement age, the community is also looking at how it will sustain itself. Where do swamis go to retire? What does a retired swami do?

I had a visit with the ashram’s spiritual director, Swami Radhananda, in her lovely dining room overlooking the lake. We talked about the questions that the ashram is asking and the changes in the air.

What is happening at the ashram right now? It’s in a place of transition, what’s happening?

Well, all of a sudden we realized we’re getting old. We wanted the ashram to consciously go through the transition of us knowing that we can’t keep doing the same thing forever. For me, the turning point really was the release of my book [Carried By A Promise, timeless books, 2011].

You’re realizing that the leadership here is aging, so the question is “What next? Who will lead next?”

We want to do the best we can to have things moving, and at the same time, the core stable and the foundation really solid. I am 70 years old, I know there’s only a certain amount of time. How am I going to use that time? But we’re all in our 60s and 70s now, so something has to form. It may be different but the same.

What is the foundation, the core?

The core is the teachings, the initiations, and the commitment that people make. There are people who have made long term commitments, who have stayed and gone through everything and are still here. There’s the stability of us being here for a long time.

We’re also realizing what we have as an ashram. Sometimes we cover it up and pretend we’re just this place in the woods, but there’s a very dynamic thing that’s always working here. We want to just say that. How do we get the right words?

That’s the next phase, to put it into words. What is it we really want to do? We know it’s going to be different.

Do you see the model of lineage/swami leadership shifting? Do you see a different leadership model moving into the space that’s opening up?

That’s the part we’re still figuring out. Swami Radha, at the end of her life started to bring me in, consciously brought what she wanted forward. We’re hoping there will be a place for us. That’s another thing we’re thinking of, what is the place for us? When we talk to people, they said yes, you should stay. We have this dream of a mix of people, from children right through to elderly people, here at the ashram.

For the past 15 years, the ashram has been focused on nurturing young people [through the Young Adult Program]. And it seems like now it’s time to shift things around, to nurturing the elders… it’s really interesting.

Yes, it’s something we still don’t know how to do yet. So that’s our learning. We need money, all those kind of administration things. All of those things are turned over to other people right now. We have a large number of people who are being paid to work here because they want to be close. But it’s not their time to become a swami, or stay longer than a two or five year commitment. People realize they can make commitments, for a certain amount of time. They can come in and out.

One of the most interesting things that I’ve seen over the past few years is that the borders of the ashram have become more porous. When I was here 5 years ago, we were here. We lived here, we worked here, we didn’t leave the property. Now there are people living offsite and working here, and ashram residents are offering services to the community. It seems like it’s leading to more…

This is for sure what we’re leaning towards. We want to be sustainable and resilient. And we are, we’re in a great spot. There are people in Crawford Bay, Creston, Nelson, then to have someone like Paris come and draw them all together. And there is this school that was built, this beautiful school with no children [the K-12 school in nearby Crawford Bay is the first LEED certified school in BC]. So here comes [former ashrammers, back from Montreal] Dan and Alicia with an idea of wanting to build the community, to help the community.

We’ve been asked to help the school, in whatever way we can. And we do because we want that connection, we want to know who is here. We have so many people from the surrounding community coming here, to work on the plumbing, the buildings. It’s time we gave back.

Ashrams have a reputation for being quiet, still and traditional. But this community seems very dynamic and open to evolution.

For sure, the ashram can never stay still. What we’re doing this year is renewing and refreshing ourselves. Some people find it hard here, but most of us are able to make the changes. What we do is find the places that aren’t working, and say this is where we need to give our attention. Things begin to percolate, ideas begin to become possible. If we just sit and not do anything… it doesn’t work. There’s just no way.

What contemporary social and political ideas inspire and influence the work that happens here?

We stay informed of sustainability practices, new technologies that help the environment. Our focus is sustainability. That reaches into every part. How are we going to sustain ourselves and our world? The buildings have been fireproofed and changed. We’re working on eliminating our carbon footprint. We’re so far ahead that the government is giving us grants for our work. What they’re suggesting for people, we’ve already done. For 2013, we want to have zero carbon footprint. We make those kinds of commitments and we follow through.

And that comes from the yoga, right? The practice of yoga, the way I see it, is taking care of the self, body, mind, and those layers reach out to how we interact with the world, the space we live in. It encourages awareness and consciousness. I think sometimes spiritual practice can be interpreted as self-absorption…

But it’s actually living your life. That’s what the light is about, too. I think that’s what people come here for. They know that they’re appreciated for the work they do and that they can learn something.

The title of your upcoming book is Living the Practice. What does it mean to live the practice?

It started with my column for ascent magazine. What I did was give satsangs, read, write, talk to people about what I was writing, and that gave me a whole place to bring what was happening at the ashram, what was happening with me, to this one page. So it was a really concentrated time, every three months there was something that had to be explored and finished. It was a way of really reflecting on everything that was happening. And to use it now, to just go back to it and see what it meant in terms of the basics of body, mind, reflection. It was interesting to see that it was still kind of alive.

What is the place of the guru in the community as it transitions and as it changes?

What I’m encouraging is for the women to come forward. I really want them to be strong enough to take it as we go through. I want them to show some real thinking, real devotion. I see it happening. I see it’s difficult for some people. Some people have had enough experience that they could do something, take on something. That they have taken on something and really done it well. It’s a question of initiations, people befriending the lineage through the spiritual leader.

There are six or seven women sanyassins in this community. What we want to do is keep the lineage women-centred. I know from being with Swami Radha, her experience was she would give people that opportunity and see what happens.

But is there perhaps an openness to not following that model, to a new way of doing things…

Except it would all hinge on the lineage. That’s the foundation. When there is an initiation, the whole ashram is flooded. Something miraculous has happened, it’s very evident.

All a sanyassin is someone who has decided that they want to search for the divine and they’re willing to renounce their other desires. What floods in is always amazing to me. I would never be able to do it unless there was that something else behind it.

Previous ashram adventures: back to the garden with Paris Marshall Smith and a yoga community in transition with Swami Sivananda.

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