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Forget glitz and get ready for bliss on a meditative yoga retreat at Anuttara Ashram in Northern B.C.
I’ve always been dismissive of what I saw as the Lululemon-ization of yoga, which seemed more about the practice of yoga as a way to get buff and a reason to go shopping, rather than something to connect the mind and body as one. My dream class? Probably yin with maybe four poses over 75 minutes, so definitely not the pumped-up version of yoga I had encountered so often in the city.
After researching a story about yoga retreats, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the Anuttara Ashram that I’d discovered in the Nass Valley: off-grid, 90 minutes from the nearest town and set on 105 acres of northern B.C. forest. No meat, no alcohol, no cell service or WiFi—just daily meditation, yoga asana sessions and instant community. I wondered if I could do it… be so isolated (without even a bottle of Pinot Noir or a bacon sandwich to turn to) and immerse myself in a spiritual quest? It didn’t seem to be the kind of thing I did… but maybe it could be?
The drive to the Anuttara Ashram is about 100 kilometres from Terrace, first along the winding Kitsumkalum River and Lake, then through the jaw-dropping beauty of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park (the first provincial park managed jointly by a First Nation and British Columbia) with its lava beds, hot springs and old-growth forest. The turn-off to the ashram leads down a bumpy, dirt road which seems to go on and on. Here you are, in the middle of nowhere. I got out of the car and—for the first time in my life—heard wolves howling. My skin prickled. Magic was in the air. This was going to be good.
I got shown around by a friendly yogi and saw the meditation hall and kitchen, the dorms, vegetable garden and the path down to the river. I was staying in a wooden cabin called the ‘Shangri-La’, which made me giggle as a few weeks earlier I’d been staying in the hotel in Vancouver of the same name. A little less luxurious (OK, a lot less!), this cabin still had everything I needed: a wood stove, comfy bed and heart-soaring view over the trees and mountains. I’d brought along a mozzie net and super-warm sleeping bag from MEC (they stock them for non-campers like me!), and I’d picked up a small camp stove too for sneaky morning espressos with my mini machinetta. (I will try anything but NOT give up my caffeine.) I listened to the description of how to use the compost toilets: Rule #1: Don’t pee in the toilet, pee in the woods; Rule #2: Cover poop with wood shavings—and I tried hard not to think about the amazing Toto toilet at the other Shangri-La with its heated seat and variety of water-spraying nozzles.
Three things about this:
Dinner the first night was delicious, and put to bed my two greatest fears: that the food would be awful and the company dull. The pre-meal chant of gratitude gave way to piled-high bowls of subtly spiced veggie curries and crisp, fresh salads so good I dove in for seconds. There were around a dozen or so other ashramers sitting on the floor at the shared table with me. Most were there for weeks, if not months at a time. And after brimming with laughter throughout the meal, I felt a wave of relief that I’d be spending time with fun folks rather than the humourless yoghurt-knitters I’d conjured up in my imagination.I set my alarm for 5:40 a.m. as I needed to get up, walk my puppy (because, of course, I took him with me), then feed and play with him before heading down to the meditation hall before 6.30 a.m. for ‘arati‘ (which I discovered was a ‘light ceremony’ with chants, candles and the joyful ringing of bells). I practice yoga often but I’m not the bendiest yogi, and—although I really do try with meditation—I find my butterfly mind fluttering off in a dozen different directions, always hard to pin down. But, that first morning, wrapped in a blanket, the smell of the wood stove filling the room, kneeling cross-legged on the floor with my eyes closed, I felt the meditation could have been designed just for me. Slow breathing in and out, listening to the soft voice of the teacher; breathing in the sorrow and sadness of the world, breathing out love. Over and over again. The hour-long asana class was perfect too, long slow stretches with plenty of props as the sun rose over the mountains and gave the hall a peachy golden glow.
The ashram’s spiritual roots are based in the Awaken Love movement of Brazilian humanitarian leader and spiritual master, Sri Prem Baba. I’d noticed in the meditation hall that there were pictures of many different religions and belief systems, from Buddhism to Catholicism. There’s no dogma here. I spoke with Aarti, the ashram’s director of operations, a cheery, warm ex-forestry worker, who—along with Nirav, the founder of the ashram—is the beating heart at its centre.
The majority of the west thinks that yoga is a physical practice, but from our time in India, from our own personal studies and learning from our teachers, we have been blessed enough to learn that you can be a yogi and never touch a yoga mat, and not know how to do asanas. There are many different forms of practicing yoga and asana is just one path.Not many people know the real reason you practice yoga is to have union. You have your ‘lower self’ which makes you feel all these bad things in your day, and then your ‘higher self’: a clear mind, peace at heart, happy days that last, starting to live a life that doesn’t have high ups and low lows, being at one with every moment that comes—good or bad—and transcending the idea that there are good or bad things that happen in life. People might experience that for a moment when they climb to the top of a mountain, or when they get off-grid, or help someone; you get these glimpses of connecting with who you really are. We’re trying to make a space for people to sink into that and get strong enough to go out into the world and be a good person there.
Karma yoga is a big part of what we do here. Our teacher, Prem Baba, feels the easiest way for people who live regular lives to attain yoga is through selfless service. It’s about transcending that ‘lower self’ voice and instead doing good for other people by serving them. We have a yoga program and we ask for a month-long commitment, so stay and you have all the philosophy classes, spiritual school, asanas and meditation with different teachers for four and a half hours of karma yoga each day.
Who comes? Someone looking for an authentic experience, looking for something more in their lives, a way to feel satisfied. We’re a spiritual community but there’s a difference between spirituality and religion. We want to reach a higher state of consciousness, but we’re not telling you how to do it: there are many paths to the top of the mountain. Most important? You have to be down to earth when you come here. There might be a bear in the tree. There might be a mouse in the toilet. And there will be mud on the paths! We’re a tantric community, which means we’re open to all walks, but we’re not into fasting or eating plain foods. In tantra, you believe you can find the divine in everything, whether that’s listening to or making music, or eating foods that make you feel good!I spent my mornings at the ashram in the vegetable garden, all my hard edges soothed away after 90 minutes of meditation, poses and a slap-up breakfast! I harvested kale, chard, nasturtium flowers and squashes ready for lunch, and found huge pleasure in the simple joy of gathering ingredients for the kitchen team to turn into delicious food for us all to share and enjoy.Throughout my time there, I found peace in the garden, one time gathering herbs to put in the dryers so that there would be mint tea after I’d left. I usually took a nap after lunch, then went walking and found my mind unusually clear, with solutions to long-held problems coming easily to me. Each day, there was a meditation session—unguided–and each day I felt like I was making a little more headway toward being truly mindful. I’d craved clarity and seemed to be getting it. Evenings after dinner were spent either talking about spirituality or philosophy, or perhaps at a kirtan where we’d sing chants and play instruments together led by Aarti on the harmonium. My time there was joyful, thoughtful and showed me a path to being more mindful in my daily life.I actually cried a little when I left after five nights; I’d felt so welcome there. Re-discovering the qualities of space and light in my mind that I’d not felt for a very long time was precious. I’m already planning to return next year to make this a regular digital detox and spiritual re-up in my life.
And I’m now prepared for any mice that might come my way!
The Shangri-La cabin overlooking Vedder Mountain is priced at $550 per week, with a dorm room stay running $250 per week. All stays include three meals a day as well as daily yoga and meditation practice.
Thanks to the Anuttara Asharam and Northern BC Tourism (neither of whom reviewed or approved this article) and to MEC who kitted me out with off-the-grid essentials, including the brilliant mini lanterns, comfy capris and cozy merino shirt, which is perfect for a long, slow practice.