Outside the ashram, the sun rising over the Catskills is just warming the backs of a herd of placid cows. Inside the ashram, the warm rays haven't yet reached the sleepy group of meditating weekenders seated on yoga mats and carpet scraps in the morning chill. Out in the pasture, the mist is lifting. Inside, the air is just becoming rich with smoky sandalwood incense.
It's daybreak at the Yoga Ranch.
Swami Padmapadananda has been up since 5:30, meditating and chanting before he begins his morning chores. A onetime computer programmer from South Africa, the 53-year-old Padmapadananda is now the head swami, or spiritual leader, of Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch Colony in Woodbourne, N.Y., 100 miles north of Manhattan. This weekend, like most, he's playing host to a score of rat-race refugees - city swellers who come to chant and contort some of the stress out of their lives in a setting that is pastoral and challenging.
"The spiritual side of the place is much more important than the amenities," says the calm, bespectacled Swami Padma, sitting in his small carpeted room with the ever-present visage of Yoga Ranch founder Vishnu-devananda hanging near his computer. "For people looking for comfort, luxury, pampering, we're in a sense just the opposite. They come here for the discipline. At a spa, there is no discipline."
Instead, the ranch is structured around the five main tenets of yoga (proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking), one lofty monosyllable (ommmm) and a few other instructions for quick spiritual development:
The discipline starts early, with a 5:30 wake-up bell clanging through the capacious old farmhouse where visitors sleep. This pretty patch of the Catskills has been a real farm, a fat farm, a dude ranch and now a yoga ranch. For today's guests (and staff), meditation, Sanskrit chanting and yoga are "mandatory" - twice a day, four hours per sitting. For the morning session, the 20-odd visitors file somnolently out of their rooms. No one showers, just a quick swipe of the toothbrush and, for one, a dash of lipstick. A sign advises that shorts are inappropriate for these services, yet many are dressed as if they were up for a morning jog, with hooded gray sweatshirts and warm-up pants. Others are swaddled in towels, prayer clothes or wool blankets swiped from their beds. Comfort and warmth are key when your mind is striving for a higher plane but your bottom is planted on a wafer-thin mat.
Daily meditations are held in either the Yoga Hall, a converted hotel ballroom decorated with pictures of swamis and Hare Krishna, or outdoors, on a grassy hilltop near the cows and Siva Temple. Swami Padma provides a model of good form and discipline, eyes shut, back straight, placid mien, as if his body alone remains on Earth. The guests follow suit with varying degrees of success, and fidgeting. Some take the idea of relaxation a little to far, falling asleep while meditating. But it takes more than soft snoring - or even a wandering cow that sniffed around the swami at one outdoor session - to crack his composure.
Finally, the eternal quiet of meditation is broken by a sonorous "Om," like a foghorn slicing through a mist of dense silence. Over and over, the nasal bass tone emanates from the crowd. A rollicking half-hour of chanting ensues, with the still-seated group snapping finger cymbals, ringing bells and singing loudly in Sanskrit. Surprisingly, many know the words (and, surprisingly, were in tune); those at a loss consult pink-covered bilingual (English and Sanskrit) songbooks. And though the meaning of the chants is sometimes lost, the emotion is easy to understand.
Yoga at the ranch is anything but the elbow-bashing, head-banging, mats-amissing yoga classes at city gyms. In the windowless 150-year-old barn or old ballroom, where the two-hour sessions are held, there is room to breathe - though the breathing isn't always easy. The swami strolls the polished planks, instructing neophyte yogis on how to suck air from the stomach, not the chest. As the positions increase in difficulty, the teaching becomes more fervent, and more physical. The swami presses a young woman's stiff spine into a steeper arc, gently pulls a reluctant leg over a man's head, torques a waist for that last inch of spinal twist.
After brunch, there is also a less strenuous brand of yoga called "Karma Yoga," otherwise known as helping out around the ranch. Since there are no maids to make the beds, landscapists to prune the hedges or pool attendants to de-scum the pond, upkeep depends upon the visitors and unpaid staff. A team of choppers break for the kitchen to cut vegetables harvested from the organic garden. A New Jersey chef weeds the hydrangea beds in front of the main house. A German photographer helps manhandle the higher limbs of a peach tree, plucking the ripest fruit. Only the swami is excused from chores, leaving him free to transcribe mystical texts, answer e-mail and correspond with prison inmates.
Meals are offered twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. sharp. The all-you-can-eat buffets are served after yoga. It's vegetarian fare, with no eggs or caffeine and minimum dairy. But even diners who are squeamish around tofu can find something to eat: polenta with melted cheese, rich vegetable bean soup, homemade bread with apricot spread and the old health-nut staple, rice cakes.
Some guests don't eat at all. During the ranch's annual fast, a handful of visitors follow the week-long ascetic plan, subsisting on water, eight ounces of juice and lots of encouragement. An Italian nurse from TriBeCa, for one, came to shed pounds and bad eating habits; an entourage of Russian immigrants is making its yearly dietary pilgrimage from New York. I writer from Miami with good intentions but bad hunger pangs squirrels away fruit on the windowsill of her room, sneaking a banana or orange before morning meditation.
From midday to late afternoon, guests are free to explore the idyllic grounds, which include 77 acres of wildflower fields and forests populated with deer and wild turkeys; a wood-burning sauna; a swimming pond; a library; and a gift shop that sells everything from Ganesha kitchen magnets to fat-free fig bars.
Arjuno, a young staff member wearing hunter green Wellies, leads an orientation tour for first-time guests. A group of seven treks along the wooded trails, sloshing through mud to reach a remote temple kitted out with a meditation cushion and a doll-size deity with offerings of burned incense and flower petals. The guide fields a stream of questions: Is yoga part of the Hindu culture? ("the paths are many but the truths are one"). Is there a God? (Ditto). How do you become a swami? ("Go ask the swami").
The route then snakes past wild blueberry bushes, picked clean for tomorrow's buckwheat pancakes. The tour ends at the man-made swimming pond, where the well-padded Russians run relays between the sweat lodge and the ice-cold water.
The swami knows that - on the surface, at least - life at the ranch can be hard, on both mind and body. But the rigor, along with the Catskills' clean mountain air, serves a higher purpose. "The whole idea is to break the viciousness and harshness of city life," say Swami Padma. "We try to create a perfect society here, and teach people how to have fun in the yoga life."
By the close of the weekend, the swami's teaching may be taking root. Though tired, with sore muscles and a craving for anything but grains, no one in the ranch van seems ruffled by the paralyzed traffic leading back to Manhattan. For a change, they simply enjoy the ride.