Arts: New York Diary - Good karma in the Catskills

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FIFTY YEARS ago, New Yorkers summered at Catskills hotels famous for their ad-lib comedy, dancing lessons and borsch (the Borsch Belt). Those hotels are almost all gone now, except for three that were reincarnated as an ashram: the headquarters of the Siddha Yoga Dharma Association (SYDA).

Today, thousands spend their summers at the former Gilbert, Windsor and Brickman hotels. They are followers of the charismatic Gurumayi. Chanting and meditation have replaced the Catskills hotels' former prerequisite, insulting humour. And celibacy has supplanted the Jewish middle-class mating rituals of mid-century.

Now, you wander into SYDA looking for shaktipat, or ecstatic transmission, from the realised guru or a follower. Then, young men and women came to the hotels looking for "a catch". In the Thirties and Forties, predominantly Jewish New Yorkers listened to so-called funnymen such as Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye pelt the audience with quips such as "It says here the world is getting smaller every day. So how come it takes Papa longer to get home every night?" and "The food is terrible. And the portions are too small." Now the ashram's guests spend their evenings smiling, though no one is telling jokes.

The hotels' visitors were a good deal less religious then than SYDA's minions are today. The Brickman hotel's owner once said: "Either you're serious about your religion or you're not and the place you're at doesn't change it." Today, photos of SYDA's lovely Gurumayi cover the walls. Her eyes are always gleaming, her fashionable hats are cocked to the side and her smiles are movie-star enigmatic.

Gurumayi has replaced not only her guru, Swami Muktananda, but also the hotels' old gurus - the tummlers. Tummlers, or social directors, led young guests (and their parents) through the day's activities - swimming, callisthenics, amateur nights and beef brisket dinners. Today, SYDA's herbivores are apparently atoning for their predecessors' chicken feasts. Many of the new guests are still New Yorkers - one regular SYDA visitor calls the ashram "a happy New York City".

Economically depressed Sullivan County has never revived economically after its days as a hospitality and comedy capital. It is full of shingle houses wearing For Sale signs, kosher butcher stores with grimy windows, and roadside placards hawking horse pellets and "1995's BBQ chicken". There are some Hebrew day schools and Hebrew signs, owing to the area's Hasidic population. These Orthodox Jews live in clusters and their New Yorker counterparts summer at the area's

smaller hotels.Locals tend to resent SYDA for its tax-exempt status and its various scandals.

Last summer I travelled to another one of the area's ashrams that was once a Catskills hotel - the Belvedere. Sivananda's director, Sri Nivasan, says that its founder, Swami Vishnu Devananda, chose the area because "he wanted to have an ashram close to New York City, and because of its spiritual energy".

At Sivananda, I felt as if I had indeed found a magic mountain, what with the fresh air, back bends on the porch, the daily 6am wake-up time, the regular karmic yoga and having to do free work around the ashram.

I know full well what my grandmother, who spent most of her Catskills holidays making jam, would have called karmic yoga or SYDA's guruseva. In keeping with the old Catskills parlance, she'd call it "getting some fresh air", or maybe even "keeping yourself busy".