I’m not a yoga fanatic. You won’t find me waking up at 6 a.m. to do sun salutations, nor will you ever catch me walking up Fort Street lugging a yoga mat and wearing Lululemon. I’m a casual practitioner who has been taking beginner classes on and off for about half a dozen years
I appreciate the benefits of a yogic lifestyle, but even imagining a life without alcohol, meat or garlic (a food which, according to Ayurvedic medicine, increases passion and ignorance) is enough to make me shudder and reach for a glass of wine. On top of all that, I’m in mediocre shape at best. So when the opportunity arose to spend a few days at the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga and do a personal retreat, I was curious as to just what someone like me would get out of such an experience. As it turns out, quite a bit.
The Salt Spring Centre of Yoga, which has been operating on Salt Spring Island since 1981, describes itself as a “working yoga community.” Not only does the centre offer regular weekend workshop programs from April through November, they also play host to karma yogis — yoga practitioners from all over the world who come to live communally on the property in the hopes of deepening their practice by teaching classes, helping with the property’s organic farm and just tending to the day-to-day needs of the centre. The personal retreat I’m taking — where folks can pay a fee for food, accommodation and daily classes — is a relatively new addition to Salt Spring’s offerings.
Things are pretty quiet when I pull up to the beautiful old farmhouse on Blackburn Road, the hub for most of the activity at the yoga centre. I arrive at the tail end of a small afternoon yoga class just before dinner — vegetarian shepherd’s pie, chard and salad from the centre’s garden and quinoa — is served. Most of the people I mingle with are karma yogis, each with their own story about where they have come from and why they are staying here. Everyone is friendly and open, and not just because I’m writing a story on the centre. There’s a real sense of genuine kindness in this place that’s apparent in the first hours of my stay. It’s a sentiment Shankar Martin — who took over as director a couple of years ago but has been involved with the centre since its founding — says is common among both short-term visitors like me and longer-term residents like the karma yogis.
“When they come, they think, ‘I’ve come because I want to strengthen my yoga practice,’” he says. “They go away with the feeling that the community is amazing. It’s really like a family.”
The meal is followed by the screening of Jewel of the Jungle, a short documentary about an orphanage in India founded by Baba Hari Dass, a silent monk who is also the inspiration for the Salt Spring centre. Then it’s time for a class entitled “Breath and Yoga Nidra,” where we sit in a restorative pose known as yoga mudra and experience a guided relaxation session. I’ve never tried meditation and the most yoga-related relaxation I’ve practiced has been shavasna, or corpse pose, which is done at the end of most yoga classes. The yoga nidra (which roughly translates to “yoga sleep”) session brings me down to levels of relaxation I’d never experienced before. After a cup of herbal tea and mingling with a few more folks, I’m ready for bed, excited for my second day.
After a restful sleep, I wake up in time for my 7:45 a.m. morning yoga class. It turns out, I’ve already missed two sessions; this week, the centre is offering special Mysore classes, a style of Ashtanga yoga, at 5 a.m., and the daily morning meditation has also passed me by. But I do have a chance to take in a beginner class before breakfast, so Johanna, one of the centre’s karma yogis, leads me in what turns out to be a one-on-one session — which is good, since I’m definitely not used to practicing yoga first thing and am a bit stiff. After a tasty breakfast, I head to Salt Spring’s legendary Saturday market to pick up some goodies to bring home in the form of handmade soap and fresh-baked bread. The afternoon schedule is wide open until a pre-dinner yoga class, and while some of the folks from the centre decide to go off on a hike, I opt to take in a massage at the Chikitsa Shala Wellness Centre, a small Ayurvedic spa run out of the garden house on the Yoga Centre property. While I’ve been enjoying meeting and spending time with the community, the massage and alone time are just too enticing.
Martin says a lot of the personal retreaters end up enjoying a mix of solitude and social time.
“Some people come and they want peace and quiet and they can get that,” he says. “Others come and they want to find out a lot about the community and talk to a lot of people and they enjoy that. Some even come and ask, ‘Can I do any work here?’ and they do some dishes or sweep the floors or redo the flowers or something like that. People seem to get what they want here.”
I’d have to say, after a one-hour massage and some quality time with a good book, I am definitely feeling like I’m getting what I want out of the Salt Spring centre experience. When the Saturday afternoon session rolls around, I’m even inspired enough to take on that intermediate yoga class I never thought I’d step up to (but, selfishly, I don’t offer to sweep the floor after dinner). And while I won’t be giving up steak or developing an early-morning yoga practice any time soon, I can definitely see myself returning to Salt Spring when I’m in need of a space to do some quiet contemplation.
For more details on the Salt Spring Yoga Centre and their personal retreats, visit saltspringcentre.com.