A Skeptic in Yogaland

New York Times, June 22, 2003 (Travel Section)

When our ferry pulled into the dock at the yoga retreat in the Bahamas, it was already well past dark. We stowed our stuff in our bungalow, Om Hut 2, and followed a winding concrete path past tropical plants draped with Christmas lights toward the sound of a woman’s amplified voice.

It was coming from an open-air wooden temple. Inside, about 100 people sat on yoga mats on the concrete floor. At the front of the room sat a wizened woman of perhaps 60, her hair dyed magenta to match her fuchsia baby-doll dress. She wore big sunglasses with fat pink plastic frames. A wise-looking bearded man in orange robes sat beside her, nodding occasionally.

“In the next 14, 15, 16 months,” the woman was saying in even, measured tones, “Spirit tells me there will be a time of great changes in the economic system. Changes in the European Union itself.” Long pause. “There will be a reunification of North and South Korea. Many things will come from China.”

No one was laughing.

The seer, Marilyn Rosner, Ph.D., ran her hands over her mouth as if she could scarcely believe what she was seeing through the dark glasses. “Enormous changes in Japan. Five of the nine countries in the Middle East will unite. Australia . . . unexpected . . . changes. Pray for the people of Egypt. Pray unceasingly. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.”

I was very afraid. I crept back to the hut, wondering how I would get through the next nine days.

I had come to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, just down the beach from the Club Med on Paradise Island, in late February of this year, under gentle but firm pressure from my fiancée, Francine, a newly minted yoga teacher. I liked yoga, but on an occasional, casual and almost entirely physical basis – it helped iron out aches and pains. I am a devout agnostic on spiritual matters, and while New Age flakiness is always good for a joke, I didn’t see much point in immersing myself in it.

All together, in fact, spending nine days at a yoga camp went against just about everything I stood for. I have always been a restless traveler, a connoisseur of third-class buses and fourth-rate hotels. I flee from fellow tourists and try to catch normal life being lived. I gravitate toward the mundane and the random, seeking out strange foods and the occasional gastrointestinal challenge. I had never in my adult life spent an entire vacation in one place.

At the ashram, someone else had decided how I would spend most of my time, and the daily schedule, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m., was unvarying: meditate, chant and pray, hear a teaching, do yoga, do more yoga, meditate, chant, pray and listen to a lecture. In between the structured activities there would be about six hours of free time and exactly two meals of a satisfying if not particularly exciting Indian-lite vegetarian cuisine, rich in broccoli, carrots and rice (garlic, onions and coffee were all taboo). What few locals were present would be relegated to support-staff status, and Westerners, especially Americans, especially the exact same annoying neurotic New York types I go on vacations to get away from, would be inescapable.

I agreed to go, though, because finally it was intriguing doing something I would never normally choose to do. Sort of like taking a cruise, only a lot cheaper ($69 a person per day, everything included). I wanted to see what would happen.

What happened was that after spending the first two days in a deep, resentful sulk, hating the dinky clink of the predawn bell calling us to meditation at the temple, I started to enjoy myself.

My body liked the yoga. Well stretched, it felt relaxed. Even the sun salutation was almost pleasant when done on a wooden platform overlooking a gorgeous beach, lapping waves drowning out the instructor’s drone.

The chanting and praying part was surprisingly painless. I loved the gentle, breathy sound of the harmonium. It was fun to sing along, and while I had no idea what the Sanskrit meant, I felt reasonably sure that the words were, at worst, harmless. And the melodies sure were catchy. After a few days, I was unable to get them out of my head. I walked around singing “higgledy-piggledy higgledy-piggledy higgledy-piggledy dum-dee-die, ” my approximation of a line that began “Saravanabhava saravanabhava . . . “

Though the landscape was mostly manmade, there was considerable nature in evidence – lizards came out every afternoon to bask, hummingbirds flitted among the flowers. The rocky parts of the beach were jammed with hermit crabs in cockleshells. Big trees with mysterious leathery brown fruit overhung the paths.

And anthropologically speaking, I had to admit it was interesting to observe a group of people in “Shame on City Hall” and “Auto-Free New York” T-shirts navigating a tropical idyll. There were a lot of Europeans with pretty accents. There was even a little pocket of Authentic Third-World Culture – a cluster of shacks and gardens hidden at the back of the property, tended by some of the workers. An old porter who spoke a nearly impenetrable Bahamian patois revealed to me that the leathery fruit was called sapodilla and was good to eat, but would not be ready for some time.

All in all, there was something endearingly goofy about the ashram. The regular M*A*S*H-like announcements over the public address system – “Om nama Shivaya, so-and-so, call on line 1, Om shanti.” The sight of an orange-robed swami shaving at the next sink at 5:45 a.m. The way everyone, including me, flocked to the tiny campus store after dinner to visit the overpriced snack foods and $52 sweatshirts. The way the whole place looked like an enchanted miniature-golf course at night.

The only really hard part was the 25-minute meditation sessions. There were some nice things about them – it was sort of inspiring to open my eyes after a few minutes and see 100 people in silhouette sitting completely still, looking like Buddha statues or candles trying to light. Sometimes, if I held still long enough, I could feel my body pulse, throbbing slightly with every beat of my heart. But inevitably, sitting up straight on a concrete floor for half an hour trying not to think about anything was an ordeal. Especially at night, when the mosquitoes came out to feed. The end never came soon enough.

On the seventh day, as I padded off to my premeditation shower in the semidark, something squished under my bare foot. It was a sapodilla fruit that had fallen overnight and had already congealed into a rotten mass. In what I now recognize as a harbinger of my imminent descent into New Age flakiness, I took this to be a sign. The fruit was ripening, ahead of schedule.

I arrived at the temple a few minutes late. The only place to sit was in a big, comfortable wooden chair just outside the temple. As I sat down and crossed my legs, my back thanked me. I settled in quickly, focused on the spot between my eyes and breathed.

After a few minutes, I noticed a feeling of weightless heaviness in my arms, as if they were pleasantly paralyzed. After a few more minutes, stuff started happening in my head. Following my breath was like diving into a tunnel or sliding effortlessly along a rope. I felt as if I were being pulled into something. Then the weightless feeling spread to my head. The space inside my head was expanding. It felt like taking a hit of nitrous oxide. Hey, I said to myself, I’m doing it!

Of course, that moment of self-congratulation broke the spell and I fell off my bike, as it were. I was immediately mistrustful – surely there had to be more to this stuff than an imitation of a cheap drug rush.

But as I settled down again, I noticed that the very act of breathing into the space between my eyes was enormously pleasurable. There was an opening there, something that felt almost vaginal, that could suck in energy from the universe, which abounded limitlessly. I drank in the energy like nectar from a flower, savored it and breathed it back out. I could control this pleasure, experience it consciously without ruining it. And this was just my first taste.

Afterward I was elated. At breakfast, Francine, who was herself going through a bit of a crisis of faith and had stopped attending class, accused me of looking radiant, as if I were glowing with an inner light.

This inaugurated my brief messianic phase. I realized I knew the answers to everyone’s problems, including my own, and I did not hesitate to share them. “Just let go and be here now,” I said. “All suffering is caused by trying to repeat past pleasures.”

When Fran tried to shut me up, I held up my left palm and shone it at her. “Tell it to the light,” I said.

All day, I rode my bliss. That night, coincidentally (or perhaps not) was the annual nightlong party celebrating the god Shiva. Bracketing my abiding distrust of personified deities for the evening, I spent most of the next 12 hours singing and banging his praises. I bathed myself in sacred smoke, sprinkled rose petals over an icon of Shiva’s penis, and felt damn good about it. And when I got tired, I only had to sit in the big wooden chair and meditate for a few minutes to recharge.

THE next day, exhausted and happy, I accompanied Fran on a walk to Atlantis, the megaresort on the other side of the island, for a cup of forbidden coffee. In one of the many grand lounges, we spotted someone we’d met at the ashram, a cool-looking older woman with a halo of bleached-blond hair, also sipping coffee.

We sat down and starting talking. Her name was Luna Tarlo, and, it turned out, she was the mother of a New Age guru so famous even I had heard of him. His name is Andrew Cohen, and he publishes a magazine called What Is Enlightenment? that Fran had once brought home from the health-food store. I remembered his name because the brief mission statement mentioned it a half-dozen times.

Luna explained that she had been her son’s disciple for several years but had eventually split from him because he had become a corrupt, egomaniacal control freak. She had not spoken to him for three years and had written a book called “The Mother of God” about her experience.

Luna seemed to have achieved a healthy perspective on just about everything. At one point in her life, she said, she had meditated 15 hours a day for three months, but it hadn’t really made any difference. She came to Sivananda because it was a cheap beach vacation and she liked to do yoga. She found the idea of a bunch of Americans playing Hindu laughable, and she knew the ashram well enough to see the petty power politics that infested daily life there. “All these cults are the same, once you get inside them,” she said.

That night, the meditation seemed to have lost some of its magic. For the first time in days, I felt silly singing “hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare.” It would be interesting, I realized, to see if I could hang onto any of what I had picked up when I returned to civilian life.

After the chanting came the speaker, an aerospace engineer who had had an awakening and now roamed the earth preaching world peace and ecological sustainability. I have no quibble with either, but his sermon seemed canned and hectoring. When he started talking about a scientist who had found that a crystal infused with love could purify moldy fruit juice, I tiptoed out of the temple. It was time to go home.

Travel Information

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, Post Office Box N7550, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas; (242) 363-2902, fax (242) 363-3783; www.sivananda.org/nassau (http://www.sivananda.org/nassau). Rates, including two all-you-can-eat vegetarian meals a day and all classes, are $50 a day for a tent space; $59 for a bed in a dorm-style room; $89 for a single; $138 for a double; $158 for a beachfront double. To those charges, add 6 percent hotel tax.

ANDY NEWMAN is a reporter on the metropolitan staff of The Times.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday June 21, 2003.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.