Outside the ashram, the sun rising over the Catskills is just warming the backs of a herd of placid cows. Inside the ashram, the warm rays haven't yet reached the sleepy group of meditating weekenders seated on yoga mats and carpet scraps in the morning chill. Out in the pasture, the mist is lifting. Inside, the air is just becoming rich with smoky sandalwood incense.
It's daybreak at the Yoga Ranch.
Swami Padmapadananda has been up since 5:30, meditating and chanting before he begins his morning chores. A onetime computer programmer from South Africa, the 53-year-old Padmapadananda is now the head swami, or spiritual leader, of Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch Colony in Woodbourne, N.Y., 100 miles north of Manhattan. This weekend, like most, he's playing host to a score of rat-race refugees--city dwellers who come to chant and contort some of the stress out of their lives in a setting that is pastoral and challenging.
"The spiritual side of the place is much more important than the amenities," says the calm, bespectacled Swami Padma, sitting in his small carpeted room with the ever-present visage of Yoga Ranch founder Vishnu-devananda hanging near his computer. "For people looking for comfort, luxury, pampering, we're in a sense just the opposite. They come here for the discipline. At a spa, there is no discipline."
Instead, the ranch is structured around the five main tenets of yoga (proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking), one lofty monosyllable (ommmm) and a few other instructions for quick spiritual development:
* Get up before dawn. Repeat mantra and meditation.
The discipline starts early, with a 5:30 wake-up bell clanging through the capacious old farmhouse where visitors sleep. This pretty patch of the Catskills has been a real farm, a fat farm, a dude ranch and now a yoga ranch. For today's guests (and staff), meditation, Sanskrit chanting and yoga are "mandatory"--twice a day, four hours per sitting. For the morning session, the 20-odd visitors file somnolently out of their rooms. No one showers, just a quick swipe of the toothbrush and, for one, a dash of lipstick. A sign advises that shorts are inappropriate for these services, yet many are dressed as if they were up for a morning jog, with hooded gray sweatshirts and warm-up pants. Others are swaddled in towels, prayer clothes or wool blankets swiped from their beds. Comfort and warmth are key when your mind is striving for a higher plane but your bottom is planted on a wafer-thin mat.
* Repeat any mantra (sacred syllable) from 108 times to 21,600 times daily.
Daily meditations are held in either the Yoga Hall, a converted hotel ballroom decorated with pictures of swamis and Hare Krishna, or outdoors, on a grassy hilltop near the cows and Siva Temple. Swami Padma provides a model of good form and discipline: eyes shut, back straight, placid mien, as if his body alone remains on Earth. The guests follow suit with varying degrees of success, and fidgeting. Some take the idea of relaxation a little too far, falling asleep while meditating. But it takes more than soft snoring--or even a wandering cow that sniffed around the swami at one outdoor session--to crack his composure.
Finally, the eternal quiet of meditation is broken by a sonorous "Om," like a foghorn slicing through a mist of dense silence. Over and over, the nasal bass tone emanates from the crowd. A rollicking half-hour of chanting ensues, with the still-seated group snapping finger cymbals, ringing bells and singing loudly in Sanskrit. Surprisingly, many know the words (and, surprisingly, were in tune); those at a loss consult pink-covered bilingual (English and Sanskrit) songbooks. And though the meaning of the chants is sometimes lost, the emotion is easy to understand.
* Do not depend on servants. Practice self-reliance.
Yoga at the ranch is anything but the elbow-bashing, head-banging, mats-amissing yoga classes at city gyms. In the windowless 150-year-old barn or old ballroom, where the two-hour sessions are held, there is room to breathe--though the breathing isn't always easy. The swami strolls the polished planks, instructing neophyte yogis on how to suck air from the stomach, not the chest. As the positions increase in difficulty, the teaching becomes more fervent, and more physical. The swami presses a young woman's stiff spine into a steeper arc, gently pulls a reluctant leg over a man's head, torques a waist for that last inch of spinal twist.
After brunch, there is also a less strenuous brand of yoga called "Karma Yoga," otherwise known as helping out around the ranch. Since there are no maids to make the beds, landscapists to prune the hedges or pool attendants to de-scum the pond, upkeep depends upon the visitors and unpaid staff. A team of choppers break for the kitchen to cut vegetables harvested from the organic garden. A New Jersey chef weeds the hydrangea beds in front of the main house. A German photographer helps manhandle the higher limbs of a peach tree, plucking the ripest fruit. Only the swami is excused from chores, leaving him free to transcribe mystical texts, answer e-mail and correspond with prison inmates.
* Do not overload the stomach.