The Catskills -- after ages of has sle, my boyfriend, David, has convinced me to get a yoga teaching certificate. I have been a practitioner for nine years and needed work. And so I find myself on a plane headed for The Ranch, an ashram in New York's Catskills, where I will live in a tent for a month and learn the ways of the yogi.
The Ranch is not like the modern yoga spa/vacation spot where trend-lovers go to wear the latest yoga fashions, do a little stretching, then return to their daily lives to tell their friends about the enlightening experience over lattes at Starbucks.
The Ranch is boot camp.
I will wear a uniform. I will wake up at dawn, followed by 17 hours of meditation, asanas (yoga postures), lectures and karma yoga (selfless service).
"Oh my fucking god," I'm thinking.
Booze (referred to as "evil spirits"), drugs and smokes are forbidden on The Ranch. Also taboo: secular music, meat, fish, fowl, eggs, coffee, tea (caffeinated), onions and garlic. But I have a bottle of Canadian Club and a pack of cigarettes tucked away in my bag.
It's pouring rain when I arrive. ***
I come to hate the bell that tolls 10 times a day, beginning every morning at 5:30, and entertain fantasies of hog-tying its ringer and throwing him into the nearby pond, in which we're not allowed to swim. But this morning I'm too disoriented to feel much of anything when I awaken damp and freezing in my tent.
I haul my soggy ass to meditation, where I'm supposed to sit quietly, concentrate on my ajna chakra and repeat the mantra Om, freeing my mind of all thought. I open my eyes after five minutes and fidget for the next 25.
Clad in white surgical pants and oversized yellow T-shirt, I'm united with the 43 other teacher trainees in that we all look like bird shit.
They've come from all over the world - Israel, Sweden, Brazil, Cuba, Turkey, England, India - but are mostly white and screechingly middle-class. They're searching for enlightenment with a determination that can only be inspired by dissatisfaction with a life of comfort.
Their interpretation of karma is that bad things happen to people because they deserve it. Bring up a topic like genocide, I discover, and they will immediately change the subject. I do this whenever someone mentions karma, which is often.
"You know," one women sighs when I point out that perhaps Jews, Armenians, Cambodians and Rwandans who have been slaughtered en masse might not have deserved such fates, "on that scale, I don't know what to say," as though making a noble concession.
Yoga, we are told, is not just about asanas, as most North Americans believe. Asanas are but one small part of a larger scheme, an entire way of life, a peaceful, reflective, modest existence.
The head swami teaches us about Brahman and Atman. Brahman is absolute reality, something that defies description and definition. Atman is Brahman manifested in the individual consciousness.
"So," ventures a student, "let's say Brahman is the ocean. Is Atman the waves?" "No," says the swami.
More hands shoot up into the air.
An hour later we are no closer to defining something that defies definition, but that doesn't stop the trying.
It's going to be a long month. ***
In the mornings and evenings we have Satsang, a half-hour meditation, after which we chant in Sanskrit. Then one of two swamis gives a lecture that often involves political commentary. For the purpose of these lectures, George Bush is the metaphor for evil and Bill Gates for greed. All of the other deadly sins fall on the shoulders of the alcoholic, used as an example for every possible human failing. As a last resort, hookers and Liza Minnelli are brought in.
I find this scapegoating suspect, to say the least. I mean, why pick on Liza? For an organization that's supposed to be about peace, I find these people surprisingly intolerant of those who don't subscribe to their way of thinking, including the meat-eater, drinker, smoker, prostitute and Republican. ***
It's been a week, and I feel like hell. I'm sore, and my bowels have stopped working. I've taken exactly one poo. The various unidentifiable forms of vegetarian mush we're fed twice a day are piling up in my insides, causing me to expel all kinds of noxious smells. I've developed acne all over my face and big blue bags under my eyes. I can't stay awake.
I've taken one shot of whisky per day and have not smoked any cigarettes. I actually had to sign a contract stating that I wouldn't bring any of these things onto the premises, so I feel kind of bad about the whisky, but better when I see that I'm not the only one breaking the rules.
We swore that we would remain celibate for the duration of our stay, but I can't help noticing the most spiritual of teacher trainees, a young, buff man with a ponytail who says things like, "Open your heart and feel the love of the great Mother Earth," seems to be spending a lot of time with a hot young thing from Holland. I see them head off to his tent each night. What hypocrites, I think. ***
We spend eight hours of each day sitting cross-legged on the floor. The pain and stiffness are becoming unbearable. I need to walk. I venture out onto a mountain road during one of the 45-minutes free times we have each day after noon and keep getting chased by large dogs baring teeth and snarling.
I abandon my walks and feel trapped. I don't have a car, and there are thick woods with bears in them in every direction.
"You're being ridiculous," I tell myself as I sit in Satsang watching yellow-clad middle-class Americans bang tambourines and chant "Hare Rama, hare Krishna, Rama Rama, hare hare." ***
By our first day off, I've made a friend who has what I take to be a healthy disdain for the quasi-piety surrounding us. I'll soon learn she's a sociopath who can't stop talking about herself. She'll falsely accuse me of snooping through her things and refuse to believe that I didn't (and I really didn't), so we'll spend the last week ignoring each other like second graders. But for now we plan to take her car to the nearest town for drinks and real food.
"Remember," the swami tells us, "this is the kind of day off that you might want to spend in quiet reflection." Immediately I think, "Fuck you. A day off is a day off."
We have a good laugh, then jump in the car. Nearby we discover a fancy Italian restaurant, strange in a town that seems nothing more than a stoplight and strip mall. I order carpaccio (raw beef), and we share a bottle of red wine. I also smoke several cigarettes. They're by far the best beef, wine and cigarettes I've ever tasted.
I buy some instant coffee to hide in my tent, rationalizing that I didn't pay $2,000 for lectures in order to sleep through them.
I'm experiencing weird emotional upsets, crying for no apparent reason, which is awkward. Great, now I'm farting and crying. This sucks. And it's still raining. ***
Krishna Das, a disciple of Neem Karoli Baba, is visiting. One hundred or so of his followers, mostly women nearing middle age - and many of whom are shooting snatch with their eyes at the pudgy aging minstrel - have also come to The Ranch. "Is anybody here freaking out?" he asks. A plump bleached blond in her late 30s raises her hand. "Well, yeah?" she says. "I was really excited about coming here?But at the same time I was really scared because I had to leave home and work and stuff?"
I wasn't sure whether to comfort here or strangle her. But something's happening. The disdain with which I've been regarding my fellow teacher trainees is giving way to camaraderie.
I'm suddenly finding common ground where there was none. What seemed before to be self-indulgence and delusion is revealed as altruism. There's not an unkind person among them.
I'm also starting to appreciate the swami's lectures. I love chanting! Hooray for chanting! I catch myself closing my eyes and clapping my hands and thinking, "God, I hope there aren't any hidden cameras in here." ***
By the fourth week the sun's finally come out, my acne's cleared up, my bowels are working and I can see how one could get used to this sort of life. I opt to spend my third day off fasting. I meditate - or try to. I still haven't quite got the hang of that one yet. I do asanas, I listen, I eat, I wash dishes. There's no time to think or get caught up in neuroses, self-doubt or worry. I do what I'm told when I'm told, completely free of the responsibility that comes with freedom of action.
As a group we share a commonality here in the mountains, completely isolated from the outside world. The night before we're to leave, I'm feeling very emotional, sad that I'll be leaving my new friends. We all say we'll keep in touch, but I think that unlikely.
On the flight home, I'm suddenly seized by a rush of terror. "What am I going to do when I get there? Am I going to continue getting up at 5:30? Will I be good? Where's my discipline going to come from?" I'm petrified at the prospect of liberty.
"I got out of there just in time," I think before taking a deep breath and ordering a whisky and soda to still my rapidly beating heart.