Grass Valley Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat

Amcan Travel spends a long Thanksgiving weekend at the "Yoga Farm" in Grass Valley, November 2006.

We flew into Sacramento Airport early Tuesday morning. We expected the Ashram to send a car to get us, but due to miscommunication they suggested we take the Super Shuttle. The Shuttle booth outside the arrival terminal is quite prominent but the staff was poorly trained (or intentionally overcharging?). We finally got through to their national reservation system on the phone, and ended up paying two-thirds of the original price. The ride was quite pleasant, especially when as we got into the Sierra foothills closer to the Ashram. We watched the TV screen-sized GPS system over the driver's shoulder til the van pull into the parking lot of the Ashram (photo, Main Gate).

We were greeted by a giant emu (photo, big bird) before getting into reception. Apparently the bird is an escapee from a nearby emu farm and he has adopted the ashram as his new manor. Indeed he looks like a king here.

Swami Sita and her staff welcomed us and showed us to our room on the second floor of the reception building, a dorm with shared bathroom. It felt like staying at a friend's house. The upstairs has 4 bedrooms sharing one full bathroom, a sitting area with sink, a small fridge and a hot plate. After dropping our bags, we went down to the kitchen, where some tasty lunch had been reserved for us. Then we immediately stepped into the daily routine of the ashram. Starting with two-hour yoga class at 4pm. After a half hour of breathing execise, we felt quite relaxed yet could hear our rusty bones and muscles cracking with every demanding pose. In the evening, Swami Sita invited us to her private quarters for dinner where her assistant Gauri cooked an authetical Hindu vegetarian meal. Barbara has been doing travel for Ashram staff for the last six years, so we felt like we knew everyone here. We chatted about different topics and learned more about the history of the ashram, founded by their guru Vishnudevananda. The land covers 80 acres of gentle slope on the Siva hill and valley, surrounded by unpaved road, dotted with Sivananda's yellow banners. The place looks like a Utopia.

Evening Satsang (chanting) with Swami Siva was very nice. The musical training of her early years made her a great chanting leader. All the words we had learned a couple of years ago in the Paradise Island Ashram started to flow back to us and within minutes we became natural chanters.

Wednesday morning at 6am, Richard rose to attend silent meditation while Barbara could not drag herself out of bed. She recalled her experience of falling into sleep during silent meditation, and decided it is more appropriate to stay horizontal while sleeping, for the respect of Sivananda and the fellow meditators. She did get up in time to join the 6:30am chanting and meditation and the 8am Yoga class for two hours til the breakfast time at 10am. We were both hungry and enjoyed a hearty vegetarian breakfast with fresh baked bread, wonderful granola and yogurt. We joined with most of the guests to do karma yoga (also known as volunteer work) around the ashram at 11am, Barbara helped cleaning the receiption office and Richard raked up the leaves accummulated on the grounds, for the preparation of the Thanksgiving celebration. Barbara finished her work rather quickly to come to Swami Siva's workshop at 12pm, learning the proper way of chanting and praying, while the enormous amount of leaves kept Richard busy til mid-afternoon. Then we both pulled through the Yoga class with sore joints and muscles - the sign of lack of practice, and sometimes had to sit on the mat watching the old hands twisting their bodies into amazing poses. So far the only pose we are both great experts at is Savasana (dead man's pose) where you simply lay totally relaxed after a strenous move or pose.

Thursday, Thanksgiving, we attended the mantra chanting in the morning followed by Swami Sita's lecture. Her speech is clear and inspiring, which gets us to think and look deep inside ourselves: Our daily frustrations at work, with each other, and other relationships with our family, friends, clients and colleagues.

After breakfast, we took a walk up the Siva Hill (photo, view from Siva Hill) to see the temple there (photo, outdoor temple), which is not unlike ones we saw in India. The top of the hill also provided our cell phone a better connection. We called Richard's parents, scheduled to join us the next day and to watch their son play a solo concert on Saturday night. We prepped them with what to expect in the ashram since it would be their very first time. We proceeded to attend Swami Siva's Chanting Workshop (part 2) and picked up some good tips on proper chanting. Richard spent the rest of the afternoon practicing for his concert, and Barbara stayed for a second workshop where Pieter Weltevrede, a visiting Dutch Classical Painting Master titled by Dutch government, showed his work and explained his working process of producing beautiful Mandala, Mantra and Yantra. See examples of Master Weltevrede's work at his web site. The paintings are fascinating and truly beautiful, Barbara thinks she would have understood and enjoyed his masterpieces better if she was equipped with some history familiarity.

The evening feast was put out in the meditation hall while we had earlier taken the Yoga class. The simple tablecloth on the floor separated the seating area. We were honored to sit at the head table with the important people. Poor Richard got to sit between Swami Sita and Swami Padma, facing the sitar master Habib Khan who will be the featured performer for tonight's celebration concert. Dinner was a full 4 course feast with carrot/pumpkin soup, garden salad, main course of tofu turkey with all the trimmings and a pumpkin pie dessert. The ashram's cook is a graduate from the Culinary Institute of New York. He really pulled this impressive meal off. The sitar concert started at 7:30pm and Master Habib Khan gave me a truly amazing music feast (photo, the sitar maestro). There is so much emotion, desire and longing in his music they burst out to you. Some audience members were very taken as if it is a religious experience itself. We feel deeply touched, at the same time Richard feels very nervous about his performance two days after.

Friday morning Barbara slept in while Richard did his whole chanting and Yoga routine, now he is getting used to the life style. We had our brunch the same typical way of any meal after the Thanksgiving: lots of leftovers. The two performers for tonight's Peace Dance met with Richard to work out a couple of collaborative pieces with his flute. Barbara went to the herb workshop with the master herbalist and learned some tricks on how to apply common herbs for health. Mom and Dad showed up in the afternoon, and were given a nice cabin on the hill facing the pond. We did the afternoon yoga before dinner. Evening program is the peace dance. This performance involved all the audience to circle around and sing and dance some easy steps. The hardest aspect is to change partners during the dance, similar to line dancing but you touch each other's hands, look into each other's eyes while singing the prayers for different religions in different languages. One lady is the dance leader showing us all the moves and singing the part for us to dance to, the other played guitar and also sang. Richard played his bansuri for the last two songs. A unique and cool experience.

Saturday morning was again sleeping in time for Barbara while Richard faithfully did both silent meditation and chanting. The morning talk was by Dr. John Dobson, a 92 year old physicist and astronomer. Barbara and Mom joined the later yoga class before brunch. Richard and Barbara took another hike up the Siva Hill, weather is cold, crispy and sunny. This time, we spent more time on the top to see the temple and the rock painting (photo, rock painting). It seems to be a great Fengshui place. On the way down, we checked in on the parents and found them cozy and comfy in their cabin. The afternoon featured Swami Padma's class about Bhagavad Gita (Song of the God). Swami himself is an interesting and wise person with vast life experience and knowledge. He showed us some phrases of the book and explained them, then invited us into discussions about happiness, reality and attitude. We both felt stimulated and refreshed. While Richard took his afternoon yoga class, Barbara went to witness a tradtional Hindu wedding ceremony involving a married coupole renewing their vows with the Hindu Priest, who prepared the full set (photo, ceremony preparations) including a special hooded platform (photo, ceremonial platform) for the couple to sit in. After starting a fire with different spices, flower petals and oils (photo, ceremonial accoutrements), the priest started the speech and prayer, blessing and finally a seven-step walking commitment exchange. Swami Sita and Swami Siva were both there in their festival sari attire. The evening dinner served as the couple's reception, so another feast was served, complete with a rich chocolate cake topped with soy ice cream. We toasted the happy couple and their two lovely daughters with sparkling cider.

Evening program is Richard's solo flute concert. All the swamis were in attendance. After a short chanting, Richard started his informal concert (photo, "Dick Valentine"), first introducing the long history of various flutes from the world, mostly mid-Asia, followed by Chinese flute playing, Chinese ocarina (or xun) and hulusi (a Chinese minority free-reed instrument). Then he played different athenic music with Turkish flute, Japanese sakahachi, Indian bansuri. The audience seemed to like what was presented and appreciated the effort. He was warmly applauded and presented a big bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance. Swami Sita showed great interest in the flutes and tried to make sound out of two of them. She would like to follow in her guru Vishnudevananda's steps to go retire in a cave playing flute.

We got up early next morning to attend the Sunday fire ceremony performed by the Hindu Priest, who was probably up all night creating a beautiful sandpainting representing all religions' symbols from different spice powders in all colors. The ceremony was a bit smoky since we did it inside to avoid the bitter cold. Nevertheless it is an exotic experience. We enjoyed our last yoga and brunch before bidding everyone goodbye and to end this relaxing yet inspiring retreat.

More information about the Sivananda Yoga retreat is available at the Official Sivananda Website.