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Time out for peace

Quebec yoga camp's guests leave refreshed, stress-free

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What? An ashram? Wasn't it odd?

I confess ashrams conjured '60s images of The Beatles, sitars and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in my mind. But when my yoga teacher recommended I try a weekend retreat at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp, I invited my friend Lynne Lavery to accompany me.

We ashram first-timers enjoyed the tranquillity we experienced there amid like-minded yoga practitioners, teachers and teachers-in-training.

Moreover, we fit seamlessly into the ashram's daily routine.

But an ashram? In Val Morin?

It seems unlikely to find an ashram in a Quebec village tucked into the forested Laurentian Mountains. In 1957, an Indian guru named Swami Vishnudevananda thought North America was ready for yoga, so he visited Montreal, discovered Val Morin and founded this yoga camp in February 1962. Today, there are more than 60 similar centres worldwide.

You said "daily routine?"

There is a daily routine at the camp. The schedule is posted on the website and Lynne and I benefited from every activity.

What goes on?

A bell gently awakened everyone at 5:30 a.m., and from 6 to 7:30 a.m., we gathered at the temple for satsang (chanting and meditation). I'd never experienced this and found the melodious sounds soothing, although I admit it was challenging to sit cross-legged that long.

Afterwards, we crunched through the snow to a hall where Chandrika, our teacher, instructed a two-hour yoga practice. Her quietly delivered instructions led us gently through various postures from 8 to 10 a.m.

Next on the agenda was eating. Two homemade vegan meals are offered daily, and although I'm an enthusiastic omnivore, the food was delicious. At 10:45, Lynne and I practised karma yoga, where visitors volunteer to work at the ashram. We helped in the kitchen and swept the temple, enjoying being of service.

Free time extends daily from noon until 4.

While some took a Thai massage workshop, we snowshoed along snow-draped, forested trails, exploring some of the ashram's 300-acre hilly property. (And yes, a nap was restorative afterwards.)

At 4, a second two-hour yoga practice energized us, followed by dinner and evening satsang, or gathering.

Although I'd thought the 10 p.m. bedtime and lights-out curfew at 10:30 might be annoying, I welcomed the solitude of my small, comfortable room and soon drifted off.

Ashram leader Swami Ambikananda amused us during our first evening satsang.

"This is not a spa!" she announced, smiling at us 20 or so visitors while her eyes twinkled merrily. "We follow a routine and expect you to join us. I'm sure you'll receive benefit from our practice."

After her greeting, swami began the satsang, accompanying herself on a harmonium. This keyboard instrument reminded me slightly of an accordion, and under her expert hands, it lent an ethereal quality to the chanting. Others among the teachers led songs, too, and the entire assembly of voices produced an echoing, soothing effect in the temple.

Swami was correct about the schedule: When we left on Sunday afternoon, we were refreshed, stress-free and in tune with our bodies.

What was the yoga like?

Inspiring. The teachers are fluently bilingual, so all the hatha yoga practices worked seamlessly in whichever language you are most proficient. Chandrika led novices and advanced yoga practitioners alike through the two-hour sessions, where some positions were held for several minutes. Another teacher, Annapurna, assisted by quietly suggesting improvements to us personally when postures needed adjustment.

But two hours?

Time flew past while postures flowed. I particularly appreciated not only the emphasis upon breathing, but also the discipline of keeping my eyes closed so as not to be distracted.

Moreover, if we couldn't manage a posture, such as the crow, we simply did something we could do, like the child.

What were accommodations like?

Lynne and I chose a private room. We could have shared, but anticipated we might appreciate privacy, considering all the group practices. The comfortable yet spartan rooms had a single bed, some shelving, a chair, desk and window. Shared bathroom facilities were mere steps down the hall. However, double rooms are available, as are small cabins and tenting facilities come summer.

Was there anything particularly fun or special?

Totally! Founder Swami Vishnudevananda was known as the "Flying Swami" and was renowned in the early 1970s for flying over Ireland and France to release flowers and yoga pamphlets while chanting for peace. Remarkably, his Peace Plane is housed in an outbuilding on site. Painted by renowned pop artist Peter Max, it's quite the period piece.

Will you return?

Definitely. However, we plan to avoid black-fly season.

How do I find out more?

Go to sivananda.org/camp or call 1-819-322-3226.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 D4

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