Meals are offered twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m sharp. The all-you-can-eat buffets are served after yoga. It's vegetarian fare, with no eggs or caffeine and minimum dairy. But even diners who are squeamish around tofu can find something to eat: polenta with melted cheese, rich vegetable bean soup, homemade bread with apricot spread and the old health-nut staple, rice cakes.
Some guests don't eat at all. During the ranch's annual fast, a handful of visitors follow the week-long ascetic plan, subsisting on water, eight ounces of juice and lots of encouragement. An Italian nurse from TriBeCa, for one, came to shed pounds and bad eating habits; an entourage of Russian immigrants is making its yearly dietary pilgrimage from New York. A writer from Miami with good intentions but bad hunger pangs squirrels away fruit on the windowsill of her room, sneaking a banana or orange before morning meditation.
* Reduce your wants. Have plain living and high thinking.
From midday to late afternoon, guests are free to explore the idyllic grounds, which include 77 acres of wildflower fields and forests populated with deer and wild turkeys; a wood-burning sauna; a swimming pond; a library; and a gift shop that sells everything from Ganesha kitchen magnets to fat-free fig bars.
Arjuno, a young staff member wearing hunter green Wellies, leads an orientation tour for first-time guests. A group of seven treks along the wooded trails, sloshing through mud to reach a remote temple kitted out with a meditation cushion and a doll-size deity with offerings of burned incense and flower petals. The guide fields a stream of questions: Is yoga part of the Hindu culture? ("The paths are many but the truths are one"). Is there a God? (Ditto). How do you become a swami? ("Go ask the swami").
The route then snakes past wild blueberry bushes, picked clean for tomorrow's buckwheat pancakes. The tour ends at the man-made swimming pond, where the well-padded Russians run relays between the sweat lodge and the ice-cold water.
* Lead a happy and contented life.
The swami knows that--on the surface, at least--life at the ranch can be hard, on both mind and body. But the rigor, along with the Catskills' clean mountain air, serves a higher purpose. "The whole idea is to break the viciousness and harshness of city life," says Swami Padma. "We try to create a perfect society here, and teach people how to have fun in the yoga life."
By the close of the weekend, the swami's teachings may be taking root. Though tired, with sore muscles and a craving for anything but grains, no one in the ranch van seems ruffled by the paralyzed traffic leading back to Manhattan. For a change, they simply enjoy the ride.
The Sivananda Yoga Ranch is 100 miles from New York City, in Woodbourne, N.Y. From Washington, catch an Amtrak train to New York's Penn Station, then walk to the Yoga Center at 243 W. 24th St., where a van transports guests to the ranch ($40 round trip, weekends only).
Guests can choose from shared dorm-style rooms with separate bath; private rooms and apartments (add $10 per night); or camping in a cow pasture. Prices are $35 to $50 per day, depending on type of accommodations and time of stay; meals, meditation and yoga classes are included. Info: 914-436-6492, www.sivananda.org/index.html.