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Finding Refuge

My 5-Week, $500 Vacation from Anxiety

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Illustration of animals around watering hold

Water Hole 2 by Michelle Morin

It was 4:00 a.m. on a chilly winter morning as I sat on the couch nibbling frozen peanut butter cups and shuffling through the television channels. Just five years ago I had been the girl who picked a city on a map and moved there and then quit a perfectly acceptable marketing job to plunge into freelance writing. Now I was waking up to the fact that I had never been so timid or afraid in my life—and the thing I was most afraid of was my own thoughts.

To the bystander, I had no reason to be anxious. My husband was still the loving optimist whom I had fallen in love with a decade ago. We lived a few blocks from the beach in Charleston, South Carolina. But as a freelance writer with a husband who worked long hours as an attorney, I felt lonely. My parents’ recent breakup also weighed on me. My dad’s mistakes had broken up a marriage nearly half a century in the making and now my parents would each be alone in their old age. Guilt and fear constantly played in the background of my mind. Physically, I had become a string bean.

Was I where I was supposed to be in life? Was I doing what I was supposed to be doing? I had no idea. I felt walled off from my husband and my friends. Meanwhile, one positive idea had been taking shape in the back of my mind. Years before, I had studied with a yoga teacher who talked about the life-changing nature of moving to an ashram. So that night I got off the couch, went to the computer, and found myself filling out an online application for Satchidananda Ashram in rural Virginia. Satchidananda, aka Yogaville, was somewhat familiar to me, only an hour away from where I had grown up, in Charlottesville.

I pressed the submit button, and crossed my fingers.

About a week later I got the news that I had been accepted into Yogaville’s Living Yoga Training Program for the following month. The LYT program requires that you work eight shifts or a little over 30 hours per week cooking and cleaning at the ashram and pay about $500 in exchange for room and board, three vegetarian meals per day, and daily yoga and meditation classes.

Before applying, I hadn’t mentioned my ashram plans to my husband for fear he wouldn’t want me to leave, but he was supportive, even excited.

“Do what it takes to feel better,” he said. I think he sensed that I needed this, that we needed this. In truth, I knew it wasn’t forever. I had no intention of moving to an ashram permanently, but I did know that while I was there, I would dive as deep into the experience as I could and hopefully return to my family with my head on straight.

My parents, on the other hand, were not so open. My mom worried about why I was leaving my family behind. “You can’t run away from your problems,” she said. My dad thought I was nuts, but agreed to pick me up from the airport in Charlottesville and shuttle me out to Yogaville.

My First Day

When I arrived at the ashram, the doorway to the dining hall was thronged with people waiting for lunch, so I entered the tiny gift shop filled with shoppers fingering vegetarian cookbooks and white linen yoga pants. Then a tall man with a big smile and no shoes opened the swinging doors to the dining hall and everyone scurried in to get in line. I took off my shoes and coat and placed them in a cubby and followed the barefoot and hungry crowd. After filling a large plastic bowl with rice, kale, tofu, and black beans, I scanned the room. It took me back to middle school, the weighty worry of whom to sit with.

The dining room was crowded and even though we weren’t supposed to be talking, background chatter vibrated the hall. On one wall at the center of the room was a huge color portrait of a gray-bearded Indian man with kind eyes and a soft smile. The guru, Swami Satchidananda, seemed to be watching over the room. Half of the room was seated on the floor at tables just a couple feet from the ground and the other half was seated at normal tables. I took a seat at the
low table closest to the door.

“I’m Edith,” said the middle-aged woman seated across from me. She had long, dark hair rolled into a ponytail
that hung over her right shoulder. “Welcome to Yogaville,” she said.

Edith told me she lived in Yogaville during the winter months when Omega Institute, where she worked as an office manager, was closed for the season. Next to Edith sat a girl named Molly. Half of her head was shaved and covered with an elaborate black-and-white rose tattoo. The other half was cut short with a tiny braided rat-tail. She was strikingly beautiful.

Molly, who turned out to be one of my roommates, had just graduated from the University of Texas. At such a young age, she already knew her weaknesses well. After being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, she had given up booze. She was staying until June, when she planned to drive back west to explore Moab in southeastern Utah.

Across the table was a boy head deep in his mashed potatoes. A tie-dyed bandana encircled his forehead. “I’m Justin,” he said, launching his bony hand toward mine. Justin was a local who worked at the ashram by day and spent most of his time here because his parents paid him little attention.

Then I met my other roommate, Liza, who had just graduated from the University of Georgia. She was tall and thin with mellow eyes. Her ankles were covered with scribbled tattoos that she had applied with scorched paper clips. She would sit in the room and read book after book each day. Between chapters she contemplated what she wanted to do with her life after leaving the ashram.

I also met Sam, the tall man with the ear-to-ear smile, who had spent time here when the guru was alive and had returned after a decade-long stint as a photographer in Hawaii. And quiet, peaceful Helen, who had come here from Prince Edward Island after her husband passed away the year before.

Some of my fellow yogis had come to the ashram because of addiction issues, and others were plagued with anxiety and depression. Still others were dealing with breakups, divorce, and grief. One woman, Janis, had come here from Southern California after finding out her husband had a girlfriend. Janis was prone to alcoholism and wanted to avoid falling off the wagon. We were all so different, yet brought together by a common theme: none of us wanted to sit with our emotions alone.

Life at the Ashram

Prior to my arrival, I had secretly imagined a hippie commune where people walked around naked and smelled of patchouli. Although some armpits were hairy and some residents skipped the shower occasionally, Yogaville was generally modest. I hadn’t had a roommate since my post-college years in D.C. and the proposition of bunking with two other yogis and sharing a bathroom with a hall of women was daunting. But the dorm lifestyle had its perks. Minus a few incidents of the younger girls chatting into the night, my roommates and neighbors were respectful and rather a joy to be around. Most of us had taken great pains to be there and really wanted to fully absorb the experience.

You could stay at the ashram as long as you liked, but you had to stay for at least five weeks to be part of the program. The ashram provided a simple routine that was designed to give you enough to do so that you were never bored, but weren’t so busy that your mind was overstimulated. Whether you were cleaning a toilet in the resident hall or peeling a carrot for dinner prep, your mind was supposed to be focused on the task at hand. I never thought making a bunk bed or vacuuming a carpet could be so fulfilling.

Sleep came easily for the first time in a while—which was a good thing, considering that we awoke each morning at 4:45 a.m. for a 90-minute group meditation that included deep breathing and chanting. We meditated again at noon before lunch and then again at 6:00 p.m. before dinner, making the act of eating another exercise in mindfulness. Textures, colors, and smells became vibrant experiences.
I tasted every morsel, chewing slowly before moving on to the next bite.

Daily meditations interwoven with Hatha yoga were welcomed, but they were also required. Rules were the backbone of the program and they were strict. Alcohol, sex, and heavy foods like meat and eggs were not allowed because, according to the teachings, they rattle the nerves and make it difficult to sit in meditation. Cursing, tight clothing, and distractions like smartphones were also off-limits. Yet the rules felt more soothing than prohibitive. Before long, I happily went to bed early and arose before dawn.

Without everyday diversions, I fell deeper and deeper into my meditation. Over time, the cycle of fearful thoughts slowed down. I could sit with myself for three long meditations a day. And staring at my thoughts head-on had a way of disarming them so they no longer felt so threatening.

The Ride Home

Five weeks later, my husband drove seven hours from Charleston. I felt a rush of excitement when I saw our little car pull up to the ashram with him and my freshly groomed cocker spaniel. It reminded me of when we had dated long distance. I had described my life at the ashram to him on the phone in detail, but I really wanted him to see it.

On the ride home I watched the countryside roll past my window without much comment. My husband was happy to see me but his reaction was muted. I think he was waiting to see what my post-ashram personality would be like.

It took a while for me to readjust to life away from Yogaville. At the ashram, sitting with a friend in silence was completely normal, but back home it felt awkward. My best friend commented that I was acting strangely—not my normal gregarious self. But I had learned that outer chatter often leads to inner chatter. Talking too much is a waste of the energy needed to cultivate awareness.

A lot has changed in the two years since I returned home from Yogaville. I’ve stopped getting so attached to my emotions and learned to watch my ever-changing thoughts like a spectator. I also learned that I often blamed my own problems on my partner, bemoaning his shortcomings rather than taking responsibility for my own. My husband has also taken pains to ensure balance in his life, making more time for his family even when he’s busy at work. Having worked through a difficult time, we’re stronger for it.

I’m particularly grateful that he let me go because I’m not sure I could have been as open to the idea if the roles had been reversed. But I hope the next time we visit an ashram, it will be together. In fact, we’ve already outlined plans to visit the Sivananda Ashram in Nassau, Bahamas, one day.

This year we welcomed a baby boy, who has made life more thrilling than ever. Balancing a family with a writing career means that my yoga and meditation practice sometimes take a backseat. But the heart of the ashram is still with me. My fellow residents, a quirky cast of characters willing to show their vulnerabilities, helped me find peace when I couldn’t do it on my own. The inner strength and self-awareness that the ashram ignited in me has been invaluable. It brought life’s obstacles into perspective. And for that, I will be forever grateful.


Places to Find Refuge from Your Thoughts

Ashrams and Yoga Centers

Purposeful Travel Resources

Buddhist Meditation Centers

  • Dorje Denma Ling (Shambhala Buddhism), Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, Canada; dorjedenmaling.com
  • Gampo Abbey (Shambhala Buddhism), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; gampoabbey.org
  • Insight Meditation Society (for new and experienced meditators), Barre, Massachusetts; dharma.org
  • Shambhala Mountain Center (nonsectarian), Red Feather Lakes, Colorado; shambhalamountain.org
  • Vipassana Meditation Centers (Vipassana meditation), U.S. and Canada; dhamma.org

Spiritual Centers

  • The Abode of the Message (Sufi), New Lebanon, New York; theabode.net
  • Camphill Villages (Rudolf Steiner/based); camphill.org
  • Catholic Network of Volunteer Services (multidenominational), directory of 200-plus member programs; cnvs.org
  • Catholic Worker Community (Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded for social justice work), various locations; catholicworker.org
  • Christian Service Programs: Brethren Volunteer Corps (Church of the Brethren); brethrenvolunteerservice.org
  • Esalen Institute (the birthplace of the human potential movement), Big Sur, California; esalen.org
  • Habitat For Humanity (includes Americorps), U.S. and abroad; habitat.org
  • Jesuit Volunteer Corps (Catholic), throughout the U.S.; jesuitvolunteers.org
  • Kalani (educational nonprofit refuge), Hawaii Island; kalani.com
  • L’Arche USA (mental handicaps/focused), 15 U.S. communities; larcheusa.org
  • Lutheran Volunteer Corps, 10 U.S. cities; lutheranvolunteercorps.org
  • Mennonite Central Committee, 50 countries including the U.S. and Canada; mcc.org
  • Omega Institute (variety of workshops), Rhinebeck, New York; eomega.org
  • Pendle Hill (Quaker), Wallingford, Pennsylvania; pendlehill.org
  • Rowe Camp and Conference Center (variety of programs), Rowe, Massachusetts; rowecenter.org
  • Sojourners Community (evangelical Christian) Washington, D.C.; sojo.net

Sara Novak is a journalist and yoga instructor who can be found walking the beach with her husband, baby boy, and two lovable cocker spaniels—or at saranovakwrites.com.


This entry is tagged with:
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