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By Associate Editor Natalie Gates
As a kid, I had a mysterious aunt and uncle. I have spotty but vivid memories of a family vacation to Costa Rica with them when I was five, where I sat high up on my uncle James’ shoulders as we walked the beach to view leatherback sea turtles. He was six feet tall, but might as well have been twelve—I could almost catch the sun. I remembered my aunt Elizabeth showing my grandparents how to do the tree pose for a group photo on the beach with a toothy grin. Near the end of the trip, they got me a laminated, one-page, double-sided “field guide” of the mammals in Costa Rica, which I mounted on my bedroom wall at home like a priceless piece of art.
For several years after that, I didn’t see them much, if at all. They sent me a hanging crystal and a heart-shaped box that fit in the palm of my hand and smelled like musty incense. I knew they lived in a place called an ashram, where they did a lot of this thing called yoga and didn’t eat much meat, but the obliviousness of childhood kept me from questioning it.
I guess Dad—a stubborn tradesman from Edmonton—was confused by his brother’s shift in lifestyle from an NHL-destined tough guy, and unable to comprehend it. Neither he, nor Mom, seemed to mention it at the time, so that was that. Little did I know they were leading a lifestyle completely foreign to my own, embracing a purpose I had no way of comprehending at the time.
When I was about 13, my aunt and uncle appeared in my life again when they moved back to the Vancouver area. We started seeing them more and more regularly, but I still had no idea what they’d been doing the past six years. As a typical teenager, I didn’t ask.
A couple years ago, something on T.V.—a movie, about kids with cancer—triggered an abrupt, debilitating realization of my own mortality. I was in the midst of a tropical vacation for spring break—living up the magical simplicity of youth and a week of freedom in the sun, and somehow this realization that I could, at any moment, be cursed with a terminal disease hit me like a ton of bricks.
Suddenly I was seeing cancer and illness everywhere I looked. I walked around wondering how everyone could act so normal, wondering if I was the only one fearing this uncertainty. I thought it would subside quickly on its own once I returned home, but as a couple weeks passed, it only got worse. Every little ache or slight “off-ness” I thought I felt sent me shuffling into the walk-in clinic for no real reason other than to be told that there was nothing wrong with me.
One day at work I convinced myself I was having a stroke, and forced my boyfriend to take me to the emergency room.
I had never really been a worrier; I knew I was supposed to just live in the moment and not concentrate on such what-ifs, but something had changed.
One day I was sitting on my tiny dorm room bed, body crumpled, eyes wet, and my head spinning with all the things that could possibly be wrong with me. I was on the phone with my mom. “Why don’t you try meditation and yoga?” she murmured.
I would have tried anything at that point.
I examined my floor. There was just enough room for me to stretch out on it. How does a millennial short on time and money learn anything new? It sounds silly, but I resorted to YouTube, of course. I put my laptop down, laid out an old pink towel, and sat cross-legged.
I eventually bought a cheap mat from London Drugs and unraveled it on my cold, dirty dorm carpet with great satisfaction. Each morning and night, I gave my mind the chance to break from the day’s events and thoughts and focused on my breath; on how my body moved.
The virtual teachers soothed me with their mantras—that nothing was permanent, and the unknown was not to be feared. Mindfulness dominated the way I breathed and moved; gratitude that I had such abilities surfaced.
At that point, my aunt and uncle had been living outside the ashram for seven years. One day, when they came to visit at my parents’ house, my mom gushed to them that I had started yoga.
I blushed and avoided eye contact. My process of practicing alone in my room sounded so trivial compared to what they had been through.
But then I realized how little I still knew about their process.
My uncle James suffered a stroke when he was 27—in a park on central Vancouver Island. A healthy, active, young guy, it changed him—the experience made him softer, and more interested in his inner life. Having never set foot in a class, James was introduced to the physical and spiritual world of yoga by Elizabeth, who had just spent a couple years on an intensive meditation path.
There was some sort of unidentifiable force drawing James to the practice. “I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I guess I was looking for something a little more meaningful,” James says. “Plus, Elizabeth was interested, so that made it interesting to me.”
After several years studying and practicing at other yoga centres together, they visited the Yasodhara Ashram, a spiritual retreat that spans over 20 acres in BC’s Kootenays. They went for 10 days, then three months, then a year. Eventually, in 2002, they returned to the ashram as residents instead of guests. They made a two year commitment but ended up staying for six.
“I don’t even remember anything about a two year commitment,” James says. “I just had a really strong feeling that that’s where I wanted to be.”
Known as the yoga of action or the practice of selfless service, karma yoga is the foundation of life at Yasodhara. It involves maintenance of the ashram facilities, from cleaning and painting, to gardening and landscaping, simply for the purpose of getting it done, and expecting nothing in return.
Everything James and Elizabeth did became a teaching; they were constantly in a state of observing themselves, reflecting on their tendencies, their emotions, as well as those of other people.
Residents and those in long-term courses support guests on short-term retreats and manage the village, which revolves around the teachings of Swami Sivananda Radha, the founder of the ashram. A day in the ashram was structured, and set around morning hatha yoga class, scheduled meal times, work (or karma yoga), in-depth reflection periods, spiritual workshops, and evening satang—a time for the community to gather and chant or hear readings and teachings.
Life in the ashram had a surreal sense of emotional and spiritual intensity, particularly for long-term residents. There were also strict ways of governing daily interactions, and visitors and residents were not permitted to leave unless they had a compelling reason to do so, or for a “town run” to restock supplies. Despite the restrictions, the close-knit, like-minded community and spiritual lifestyle kept James and Elizabeth vibrant and passionate.
Two years into their residency, James and Elizabeth began working seven days a week, for 8 to 10 hours a day. Their health was at its peak, as daily physical activity was built into their regimen and on-site chefs prepared nutritious food for each meal. They began teaching yoga classes and working with young adults.
“I was thriving, learning, and teaching every day,” Elizabeth says. “I was 100 percent satisfied with life.”
Yet in the sixth year of their stay, a draw to the outside world had begun to build. James felt a compelling force to leave when a prominent friend in his life left to seek his own change, which diminished his own bond with the ashram. Elizabeth started having stronger urges to travel.
That’s when I started seeing them again. Little did I know at the time that the simple act of planning to meet up with somebody now seemed foreign to them. In the ashram, meeting up with friends was an organic process, because everyone gathered for meals and workshops, or ran into each other in the garden or down at the lake. Scheduled meetings felt forced and awkward.
I vaguely remember having a difficult time tracking down my uncle in a Vancouver market as he was not yet accustomed to checking his cell phone for text messages.
Bustling streets, honking cars, emails, and texts pinging like heart monitors were a shock to the system. Inside the retreat, everyone had a similar process, but it seemed on the outside, there was none. No one was aware of what they were doing, or why they were doing it.
Finding a balance of what they learned inside and applying it outside was critical; finding purpose in the wild chaotic outside world was the next step. “We had given up personal freedom for structure and community,” James says.
But they eventually found their way; they discovered their passions for local food, so they found jobs in the local farming and market sectors. They took yoga classes. But they also got a beloved whoodle (Wheaten Terrier and poodle cross) named Zadie. They traveled. They went to the symphony and opera, and took up swimming and hiking.
They got to know my sister and I better, and I them.
It’s a crisp early-autumn morning; the trees are gold and crimson; the early sun reflects off Kootenay Lake and warms the cool air.
Five people enter a garden, shovels, gloves, and buckets in hand. James towers above them all; he leans against a wooden post, scans the rows, and runs a hand through his greying curly hair. Elizabeth adjusts her glasses and tucks shoulder-length salt and pepper strands behind her ear, before quickly pulling on frayed gardening gloves.
James then immediately begins weeding the garden, freeing the beets and carrots from the vice crowding them below the surface. Elizabeth starts as well, and the others follow suit. The workers bring awareness to their tendencies while they pull the sprouting greens from dewy soil.
This summer, my aunt and uncle quit their jobs and moved back to the Kootenays, eight years after their departure. They had fulfilled what they needed to outside the ashram.
As I speak to them through a grainy Skype call, asking them to fill me in on the past 25 years of their life, I can hear Zadie lapping water in the background. They have just come home from a breathing workshop.
This time around, they also have paid management jobs and live in a personal cabin just off ashram grounds instead of in the ashram residencies. James and Elizabeth now venture beyond the ashram’s confines each weekend to explore the surrounding wetlands and hike the foothills, their black curly-haired dog racing ahead of them.
Yet, they still continue to gather for hatha yoga and satang, work hand to hand with the community, teach, observe their tendencies, and evolve internally.
“Just because we’re getting paid doesn’t mean it isn’t karma yoga,” James says. “But with this particular move here, I want to live more of a secular life.”
I asked them how long they want to stay this time, but they have no particular plan. Elizabeth shrugs, “Long term.” She asks me if I will visit soon and I say I would love to.
I may never be ready to live on an ashram; variety and freedom are too important to me, even if they are also the things I tend to fear the most. But I think anyone can practice the basic guiding principles that yoga encourages. Being “present” and “mindful” doesn’t have to mean your mind can never stray, or that daydreaming is a sinful practice of pretentious, ignorant assholes. Simply show up, honour where you are today—good or bad—and remind yourself of the things you can be grateful for.
At the risk of sounding cheezy or cliché, apparently Buddha said, “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” As I see this truth applied in more and more peoples’ lives, I hold it closer to myself.
Today, the heart shaped box sits on my bedside table full of hair elastics; I open it to grab one whenever I lay out my mat. The little crystal hangs in my apartment’s kitchen window, catching the sun, now a reminder to stay “grateful” even when I’m doing something mundane as washing dishes—a sparkling token of purposeful presence.
Now in her fourth and final year of a political studies major and journalism minor, Natalie has been on The Nav team for about two years. When she’s not brainstorming stories or studying, she’s usually on her yoga mat, going for a hike, listening to Springsteen, or fantasizing about what to cook for dinner.