Reset with a taste of ashram life
Stressed about heading back to work? Tucked away in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains is a forested retreat where you can practise sun salutations and the art of meditation
A day at the ashram begins with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up gong. You may be tempted to stay in bed, as I am, but it's mandatory for everyone to rise for the morning meditation. Everyone sleepily traipses across the dew-laced field and passes the statue of Ganesha to gather in the big yoga hall for satsang, Sanskrit for "associating with true people."
A two-hour yoga class follows – this is before breakfast, mind you – and, if the weather is warm and clear, classes are typically held outside at this forested retreat, with everyone greeting the sun as it rises over the Laurentian Mountains.
The classes follow 12 basic asanas, or postures, including cobra, crow and fish. Here at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp, about an hour north of Montreal, they're big on the headstand, which is good on them. (To be fair, there's a modified version, so everyone can try it.)
The camp was founded by Swami Vishnudevananda in 1963 and also serves as the headquarters of the 60 or so International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres – a kind of McDonald's of enlightenment.
Swami Vishnudevananda was an international celebrity of sorts. He flew his rainbow-coloured peace plane, painted by artist Peter Max, over many troubled spots in the world. In the early sixties, while the swami was coming in for a landing in the Bahamas (site of yet another Sivananda yoga centre), the plane was spotted by the Beatles, who were in the area filming Help! The swami later influenced the band's interest in Eastern philosophies. The peace plane is housed in its own museum on the ashram grounds.
At 10 a.m., it's time for breakfast – the first of only two meals served during the day. Each meal starts with chanting as all the members of the ashram, including visitors, gather in a circle to hold hands and offer thanks to the myriad of deities that dot this mountain retreat. The meals are hearty, delicious and vegetarian. Morning options include upma (a south Indian porridge), orange couscous and wheat-free crepes.
Noontime lectures or yoga tutorials are available to help you perfect your headstand. Otherwise, the next yoga class isn't until 4 p.m., so you have the day to explore the neighbouring village of Val-David or stay in the camp and visit the tuck shop for ashram-approved sweets and cool comic-book histories of Hindu deities such as Krishna or Shiva.
At four, it's another two-hour yoga class before the final meal at six. For dinner expect yummy lentil dhal, eggplant-quinoa roasts and other veggie delights. After dinner, there is another satsang session or silent walk through the grounds.
The food here is delicious and inventive, but if you begin to crave a moment or meal that isn't imbued with enlightenment, there's a delicious greasy spoon called Cal's Pizza just a five-minute drive from the ashram. (Don't let the swamis know I told you this, although rumour has it they like the odd slice themselves.)
The focus here on spirituality may not be for everyone. The 5:30 a.m. call for meditation is particularly tough, and the chanting and prayers before meals may put some people off. But you just may find yourself humming, " Om shanti, shanti, shanti" long after you've left the ashram, an echo of calm and peace that surprises you once you return to the busy world of modern life.
If you go
The Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp offers a shuttle from its centre in Montreal every Friday at 7 p.m., returning Sunday afternoon at 2:30, for $15 each way. There are also buses from the Montreal Central Bus Terminal to Val-Morin. And, of course, you can drive. Take Route 15 north of Montreal to Val-Morin and follow the signs to the ashram. There is plenty of free parking at the camp. If you're coming from Toronto, Porter Airlines offers daily flights to the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, just south of the ashram.
There are many options for accommodations, from a basic but clean room in the main building for $90 a night to camping in the summer months for $45 a night. You can also rent a cabin on the grounds for as many as six same-sex guests for $55 a night per person or stay in the dormitory for $60 a night. All rates include yoga classes, meals, lectures and other facilities within the camp; sivananda.org.