Spirits in the Mountains

The Rev. Lakshmi Barsel spends time in the Pink Lotus Shrine at the Yogaville compound in Buckingham, Va., which houses about 250 residents.
The Rev. Lakshmi Barsel spends time in the Pink Lotus Shrine at the Yogaville compound in Buckingham, Va., which houses about 250 residents. (Stephanie Gross - For The Washington Post)
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008


As the story goes, Sri Swami Satchidananda was flying over Buckingham when he saw the land below and picked it as the site of Yogaville. The founder of the Gathering, another spiritual community along Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, was in New York when, it's said, he dreamed of the abandoned hospital in Schuyler that would take his group a year to find and a decade to rebuild.

Others speak of an indescribable energy that might have drawn them here.

"There's something about the mountains," said Bill McRae of Sevenoaks Pathwork Center in Madison. "The world's most spiritual people are in the mountains."

Whatever the reason, a spectrum of spiritual communities has settled and expanded over the years in rural counties near Charlottesville, creating in many ways an enlightenment hub. It is a place where Tibetan monks can be found minutes from New Age mystics, and jewelry stores sell such items as Om necklaces. People travel from other countries just to spend weekends here, and suburbanites have been known to abandon their lifestyles to stay.

That's what Alan Scherr, 58, did before he and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks late last month. Today, hundreds are expected to attend a memorial service for the two at the Synchronicity Foundation in Faber, where the Scherrs, along with wife and mother Kia, lived for 11 years, practicing high-tech meditation in the relative solitude afforded by being three hours from Washington.

Neighbors say that before the deaths turned an international spotlight on Synchronicity, they knew that the group existed but could describe little about it.

Just as they knew there were others -- many others.

"It's just a really diverse grouping, with everybody being accepting of pretty much everything as long as you're good and kind," said Julie Bendle, a Nelson County real estate agent who has found property for those who came for retreats and decided to remain. "These people feel comfortable being here and are totally accepted, which is not to say a lot of people, myself included, don't know what they're all about."

Within a short distance from Synchronicity, one can find groups rooted in the most traditional Eastern practices and others pushing the boundaries of modern beliefs. In less than a half-hour drive, one can meditate with Tibetan monks at Ligmincha Institute, ponder the role of extraterrestrials with members of the Gathering and explore human consciousness through sound at the Monroe Institute. A little farther northeast lies the Sevenoaks Pathwork Center.

The center serves as a school for psychological and spiritual healing and a retreat for any group that needs one. On some days, one can find a class of mostly Catholic and Jewish middle-aged suburbanites talking about their "wounded child," and on others, one can stumble upon Buddhists retreating in silence or shamans beating on drums.

Karl Hohenstein, 58, who grew up in Buffalo as the son of a housewife and an engineer, gravitated here after a motorcycle accident left him injured. It seemed a logical evolution from the massage classes he was taking. He liked that Pathwork focused on transforming the worst in people, "all the things we bury and choose not to see about ourselves," he said.

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