Ashram celebrates 50 years in Nevada County
Retreats resume post-COVID, ashram ‘om shantis’ bi-centennial
The United Nations announced June 21 as the “International Day of Yoga” 11 years ago today.
Now, one of the oldest ashrams in the United States — the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm — celebrates a half-century of retreat and radical living between Grass Valley and Auburn.
“We have been in this country 50 years,” said Swami Sitaramananda, the farm’s director for the last 27 years. “It’s one of the first serious ashrams in this country and we’re very proud.”
Swami Dharmananda, who has lived on the farm since 2007, said “ashram” means retreat or place of retreat.
Guests participate in integrated movement from the moment the morning bell tolls at 5:30 a.m., Dharmananda said, adding that the bicentennial celebration includes a Labor Day program in the fall, an interfaith Thanksgiving retreat and a holiday program scheduled for this winter.
5:30 a.m. — Wake up bell
6 a.m. — Satsang
8 a.m. — Asana and Pranayama class
10 a.m. — Vegetarian brunch
11 a.m. — Karma yoga
4 p.m. — Asana and Pranayama class
6 p.m. — Vegetarian dinner
8 p.m. — Evening satsang
“We’re not just teaching exercise, it’s a lifestyle,” Sitaramananda said, adding that by integrating other dimensions of one’s health, it helps the practice of yoga work like an auto-therapy.
Sitaramananda said her community — made up of 10 to 15 full-time individuals — participates in an intentional lifestyle meant to relieve them of superficial pressures. Although the lifestyle requires certain guidelines be followed, it is not necessarily isolated in the way some religions require of their devotees.
Swami Sitaramananda (left) rides a boat in the Yoga Retreat Farm’s Vrindavan Pong, surrounded by weeping willows.
Since the retreat center was established a half-century ago, numerous temples to Hindi deities, a permaculture garden, lavender hillside, an alpaca-goat farm and numerous guest facilities for retreat participants have been erected.
Beyond frequenting BriarPatch Food Co-op and Hills Flat Lumber for resources to cook and construct, Swami Dharma said her community maintains ties with the School of Ayurveda.
“People move to Nevada County because of us,” Sitaramananda said.
Sitaramananda moved to Canada from Vietnam during the war in the 1970s. After graduating college, Sitaramananda turned to yoga as a meditative practice because of the burnout she experienced as a social worker. Since, she has been tending to her community’s needs by contributing to a change in culture, as opposed to government outreach.
“You go inward to solve problems,” Sitaramananda said.
The yogi lifestyle is not necessarily “strict,” said Sitaramananda.
“It follows the law of nature,” Sitaramananda said, adding that avoiding certain substances like tobacco helps people lead more balanced, harmonious lives.
A regulated life requires self-discipline, Sitaramananda said.
Sitaramananda became the main teacher at the farm in 1995, shortly after operating in a similar leadership role at the organization’s location in San Francisco, a site it decided to let go of during the pandemic.
Sitaramananda said The International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres is a nonprofit organization named after one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the 20th century, and founded by his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda. There are over 50 Sivananda locations — ashrams, yoga centers and affiliates — around the world.
Sitaramananda took over the organization’s area in Nevada County shortly after the retreat space’s founder, Vishnudevananda, died in 1993.
Vishnudevananda discovered the 80 acres in 1971 and chose to make a home of sorts because of its natural beauty, Sitaramananda said, adding that Vishnudevananda’s original idea was to offer a convenient resting place between the two regions Vishnu associated with work and recreation — San Francisco and Reno.
According to the farm’s main teacher, Sitaramananda or known more casually as Swami “Sita,” the need for healthy practices to balance and center the self amid the fast-paced, modern world has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated society’s pre-existing mental health issues.
The ashram, located between Grass Valley and Auburn, closed to the public during COVID-19 and offered online courses — even yoga teacher trainings — a completely new form of outreach.
Sitaramananda said the ashram is keeping its online options, but noted how it was born out of need amid a time of required isolation.
Sitaramananda said the ashram is looking forward to connecting in person with people whose desire to explore alternative ways of living has only increased over the course of the pandemic.
“California is avant garde,“ Sitaramananda said. “We just want to remind people that we’re proud to be here.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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