The rural valleys of Virginia’s Buckingham County, threaded with woods and set against the Blue Ridge Mountains some 40 miles south of Charlottesville, might have seemed an odd place to establish an ashram and retreat center nearly 35 years ago. But when artist Peter Max brought integral yoga teacher and spiritual guide Sri Swami Satchidananda here in 1979, hoping to lure him to America, the monk fell in love with the views of the mountains and decided to stay. Within a year he had founded a community dedicated to the teachings of Integral Yoga, based on unity and harmony among all living creatures, and called it simply Yogaville.
Today, Yogaville provides workshops in yoga, meditation, interfaith spiritual teachings, or just a day of retreat. Curious about the ashram life and warming to the idea of a weekend of yoga in a cellphone-free area (guests are asked to turn off phones while at the ashram, and reception in the mountains is poor anyway), I headed up with a girlfriend to check it out.
Although the ashram welcomes drop-ins, the times of some of the yoga and meditation classes in the early morning or late evening make an overnight stay a more appealing option. My fellow nirvana-seeking friend and I opted for the communal dormitory-style housing, sharing a room with four other women (rooms sleep up to eight; floors are separated by gender). Private and semi-private rooms are available; other options include tents on the wooded Yogaville grounds, and a more luxurious retreat center for groups farther afield.
The eerie quiet of a night spent far from the city in the middle of the woods was broken at 6 a.m. by the mellifluous sound of a violin playing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” The violinist strolling the halls was tiny, white-haired, 85-year-old Swami Gurucharanananda, better known as Mataji, a term of affection and respect accorded a senior female monk.
Mataji, who seemed to glow with an enviably joyous sense of calm, then led our hour-long meditation session, followed by a 90-minute Hatha yoga class. Unsure of our stamina at that pre-breakfast hour, my friend and I opted for beginner-level yoga. We found it a bit unchallenging for people with some Washington-area yoga under their belts, but Mataji’s impeccable cues throughout the class compensated for its ease, and it was nothing if not thorough – I’ve never before attended a class in which I was directed to exercise my eyeballs. (Rotating them clockwise and counterclockwise, looking to the left and right and finally, pressing them firmly with the heels of my hands so they could “rest in their sockets.”)
Spiritual teachings at the ashram are relatively pan-faith and soft-pedaled but omnipresent, as in a reading from Satchidananda’s work given during lunch. (Sample teaching: Love and service to others are the only two precepts that need be followed in life.) Also omnipresent are large, framed photos of the late swami, who died in 2002; his enormous eyes seem to follow you around the room like those of a kindly, white-bearded Mona Lisa. My time at the ashram was insufficient to explore why he’s often depicted with animals: delightedly nuzzling a young lamb, or, as above my dorm bed, playfully scattering food to a gaggle of geese. (I, an admitted guru skeptic, was uncomfortable with the implied parallel between the birds and the ashram’s guests, but I’ll chalk that up to a bit of overly-meta dormitory insomnia.)
After all that edifying meditation and yoga, we were more than ready to dig in to breakfast by 8:30. It included several kinds of hot grains, cold cereals, bananas and toppings (there had been a beans-and-rice breakfast dish, but it ran out too early for the yoga class attendees). Meals at Yogaville are vegetarian and served cafeteria-style, and much of the food is fresh and locally sourced.
Not on the menu: caffeinated drinks. The ashram’s literature includes a gentle nudge to guests to use their trip as an opportunity to reconsider their dependence on caffeine. For those visitors loath to do so, there are several options, including coffee served at the center’s Mandala Market and Cafe.
Two miles down the road from Yogaville, the Nirvana Coffee & Tea shop operates out of a small, trailerlike hut, serving espresso drinks, coffee and baked goods including scones, cookies and brownies, some of them gluten-free. An adjacent greenhouse sells flowers, herbs and vegetables. Although the shop has little indoor seating, the chairs and tables strewn outside the shop lend themselves to lounging by regulars and give the place a certain ramshackle hippie charm.
Guests looking for physical as well as spiritual enlightenment can patronize one of the many practitioners of bodywork and alternative medicine in the nearby vicinity; not officially endorsed by Yogaville, most of the practitioners are current or former students who stayed in the area to practice massage, ayurvedic medicine and more.
To leaven the intensity of our yoga and meditation classes, we toured the acres of Yogaville’s grounds, replete with wooded walking paths. The breathtaking view from the Lord Shiva Nataraja Shrine, with its panorama of the Blue Ridge mountains, is oddly reminiscent of nearby Monticello — if Monticello sported a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of the Hindu lord of the dance encased in glass. In the valley below, the flower-shaped Lotus (for Light of Truth Universal Shrine), Yogaville’s interfaith shrine, appears to float in a man-made lake. In the summer, guests can use the lake for swimming and kayaking. The ashram’s farm is visible from the mountaintop as well; worked by monks and students at the ashram, it provides fresh local produce to the Yogaville kitchens.
After touring the Lotus shrine and its displays, which highlight the interfaith commonality of world religions, we stopped in the adjoining gift shop, where books by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh are sold alongside magnets bearing the likeness of Satchidananda. Returning to the dining hall, we found that Sunday lunch at the ashram featured an Italian-style vegetarian meal with pasta, a choice of two kinds of tomato-based sauces, homemade rolls, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms and a salad bar.
As we drove away that afternoon, through twisting Blue Ridge mountain roads lined with fiery trees of deep bright autumnal shades, we realized Satchidananda chose his location well. There may be more luxurious options for a weekend yoga getaway, but none in a more beautiful natural setting.
Bettina Lanyi is an Arlington-based freelance writer.
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108 Yogaville Way
Dormitory rooms are $75 to $85 per night.
Private rooms are $95 to $140 per night.
Tent sites are $50 to $60 per adult, per site.
Meals and classes are included in the room rates.
For those not sleeping at Yogaville, drop-in rates for classes are $10 each.
Nirvana Coffee & Tea Shoppe
222 Liberty Lane
Coffee, tea and espresso drinks, along with assorted cookies, brownies and scones. Gluten-free options provided.
A number of independent massage and bodywork practitioners, though unaffiliated with Yogaville, treat guests.
Rev. Vidya Vonne
Massage treatments from $75 and up (donation pricing is also offered), including Swedish, Esalen-style and aromatherapy.
Blue Ridge Wellness
Services include myofascial release, trigger-point therapy, chelation and tuning-fork therapy. Transportation provided from Yogaville upon request. Contact practioners directly.
River View Spa
291 Horsley Lane
Owner Michael Sullivan, a practitioner of ayurvedic medicine, provides ayurvedic consultations from $120, chiropractic adjustments from $45 and massages from $75.