Higher state of consciousness

In the 1950s the 'Flying Swami' left India to bring yoga to the West. Half a century on, his ashrams are visited by thousands worldwide every year. Sarah Barrell gets spiritual in upstate New York

A steaming figure stands in the sauna doorway. He is almost entirely enveloped in a cloud of hot air. I follow him back inside and pull the door shut. As the vapour clears, introductions are made and the conversation ambles from the weather (brutally cold) to yoga classes (hotly anticipated) and the view (blissful wilderness). This is not so much a sauna as an urban decompression chamber. A little over two hours after leaving Manhattan on a bus I find myself exhaling the weight of the metropolis. And I haven't even got my yoga mat out yet.

A steaming figure stands in the sauna doorway. He is almost entirely enveloped in a cloud of hot air. I follow him back inside and pull the door shut. As the vapour clears, introductions are made and the conversation ambles from the weather (brutally cold) to yoga classes (hotly anticipated) and the view (blissful wilderness). This is not so much a sauna as an urban decompression chamber. A little over two hours after leaving Manhattan on a bus I find myself exhaling the weight of the metropolis. And I haven't even got my yoga mat out yet.

In the late 1950s Swami Vishnu-devananda left Kerala in southern India with 10 rupees in his pocket and the bidding from his guru to take yoga to the West. "People are waiting," were the words of his master, Swami Sivananda. And they were. Fifty years later and the Flying Swami, as Vishnu-devananda became known, has left an impressive legacy in the 80 Sivananda yoga centres that now exist worldwide. The first ashrams, like this one in the Catskills in upstate New York, were set up within screaming distance of major North American cities and today, even in the middle of the week, there are guests arriving from far and wide.

With a regulated daily schedule and mandatory classes, the ashram offers working holidays - in the sense that people come here to work on themselves. The strict daily programme that has evolved over the years is intended to allow participants to live like a yogi and to get in touch with their higher self, even if only for a day. Yogi or no, rising to the sound of a gong at 5.30am (to do four hours of yoga, chanting and meditation before breakfast) comes as a shock for most. Arriving in the middle of the day at least meant that I had a gentler introduction. As 4pm rolls around, staff and guests peel off to the main house for the second of the day's hatha yoga classes: my first session.

It isn't my first ever session. Four years of yoga classes in London followed by a two-year lapse precedes my arrival at the ashram. I'm nervous, feeling as if I'm facing a long-postponed date with an old friend. We start the session with some pranayama (breathing exercises) followed by a series of sun salutations. The pace is slick and the names of the asanas (postures) are delivered in Sanskrit: so much for a gentle introduction. Complete beginners would benefit from one of the ashram's introductory weekends. You don't have to be a practised yogi, though, to appreciate the immediate benefits of aligning your body with your breathing. Within half an hour I fall into the familiar rhythm, and by the end of the session I am feeling close to blissful, not least since I know I don't have to dash back to work. I can just "be".

Or sort of. One of the big fears for novices is that ashrams are places populated by cliquey, spiritually smug individuals, who are territorial about yoga mats and evangelical about their arcane dietary habits. As the dinner gong sounds I find myself suddenly swept up into a circle of zealously smiley people, singing a pre-prandial round of Hare Krishna. Most of the staff only go by their spiritual names, given to them by the ashram, which are hard to pronounce let alone remember. I don't quite know who to turn to, so shift my gaze downwards, feeling more than a little out of place. But as we sit down to eat some tasty Indian food, singing for your supper begins to make sense: a "yogic grace" if you like, a collective pause before ploughing in.

Just to test my tolerance, though, there's more to come before bed. Satsangs (meditation followed by chanting and discussions on yoga philosophy) are an integral part of ashram life, practised for two hours, twice daily. Chanting the names of exotic gods initially makes the agnostic in me uncomfortable. But as the evening progresses there's no denying that there is something moving about the rumble of the "om" and collective chanting. I go back to my twin-room dorm and sleep solidly until the gong sounds again at 5.30am. This morning's yoga class is taught by Gayatri, a silken-voiced New Yorker who joined the ashram a year ago to work as one of its unpaid resident staff members. "I started taking yoga lessons at the Sivananda centre in Manhattan," she says. "Then a friend convinced me to try satsangs. I was really sceptical. For me yoga was an exercise. But the chanting touched me in some basic way. It felt weirdly familiar: it felt like I was home."

Four surprisingly swift hours of yoga and meditation are followed by brunch, "karma yoga" (the name for daily chores carried out by guests) and then more free time. I decide to take a walk through the grounds with staff member Narayana, a Brit who left the UK well over a decade ago to teach in America's Sivananda ashrams. We head towards the Vishnu temple that stands at the highest point of the ashram's 77-acre mountain-top plot. "You can see for miles from here," says Narayana. "Each of the ashrams has a temple," he says. "It helps maintain a certain spiritual atmosphere."

This area, with its tradition as a retreat for New York's élite, was named the Borscht Belt in the 1940s after its clientele of holidaying Jewish Manhattanites. Today, the trend for converting the clapboard hotels into New Age retreats has seen the area re-christened the Buddha Belt. Two of the grander ashram buildings started life in the 1930s as the Belvedere Hotel. The main structure, a farmhouse, went up in the 1960s, after which the Flying Swami named the ashram the Yoga Ranch.

As the four o'clock class comes around again, we assemble in the main building. Here I meet Marlin, a tough 21-year old from Queens, who introduces himself politely before scooting off to chop firewood. "He landed here, a refugee from New York's club scene and joined as one of our resident work-study students," explains a staff member. "It's bringing an interesting energy to the ashram," she grins. "But good on him. I'd have run a mile at his age if someone had made me sit silently in front of a shrine." As we file into the temple it feels like yogic Groundhog Day. Each 24 hours is a mirror image of the last, and the only thing that changes is you. Far from being claustrophobic, I was beginning to see how this could be a strangely liberating experience.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The ranch is located near Woodbourne, two hours north of Manhattan. Continental has the widest range of departure points to New York, serving Newark airport in New Jersey. Fares are likely to be lowest on Air India or Kuwait Airways from Heathrow to New York JFK (unless you travel on Northwest Airlines via the Midwest; see the news story on page 6).

On Friday evenings a passenger van travels to the ashram from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center at 243 West 24th Street, Manhattan, returning on Sunday afternoon. The round trip costs $50 (£26). Shortline Bus (001 212 736 4700; www.shortlinebus.com) serves Woodbourne from New York's Port Authority Bus Station for $59 (£31) return. The ashram offers a shuttle service from the town.

STAYING THERE

A day at the Yoga Ranch (001 845 436 6492; www.sivananda.org/ranch) costs $65 (£34), including classes, meals and one night's accommodation. Yoga vacations, workshops and classes are offered at the international Sivananda ashrams.

FURTHER INFORMATION

London Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre (020-8780 0160, www.sivananda.org).

New York State Division of Tourism (020-7629 6891; www.iloveny.state.ny.us)

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