Tag Archive | "hare krishna"

Eco Yoga Park: Relaxation With a Dose of Indoctrination

Yoga retreat and farm garden (Photo/Laura Mojonnier)

The trope of the Western traveller heading east in search of spiritual enlightenment is nothing new: the perceived simplicity of ancient traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism can seem like the perfect antidote to the material excesses of modern life.

But while these mystic quests can be used to justify an expensive trip to an Indian ashram (like the one Elisabeth Gilbert takes in the hit memoir-turned-Julia-Roberts-movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’), these days one can find opportunities for spiritual awakening a little closer to home.

One such place is Eco Yoga Park, a yoga and meditation retreat outside of General Rodriguez, about two hours from Buenos Aires via colectivo, run by adherents of Vaishnava Hinduism, popularly known as “Hare Krishnas”. The park is one of more than 2000 yoga centres, institutes and vegetarian restaurants that make up The Superior Institute for Vedic Studies (ISEV), an umbrella organisation based in India meant to promote the country’s rich culture and Vaishnava practices.

Tourists and porteños alike can find relief from the urban chaos of la capital in this eco village and hostel for a few days or a few months at a time, as long as they are willing to renounce certain creature comforts and full plumbing systems, and endure the occasional, gentle explanation of Vaishnava philosophies.

A Rustic Retreat

Arriving at Eco Yoga Park via a rocky, unpaved road that cuts through provincial farmlands, one is hardly reminded of the sublime beauty of the natural world. Flat fields of vegetables and cows being tended to largely by Bolivian migrants surround the park, and in the cold, muddy Argentine winter, the setting is almost bleak. (But perhaps the mind more easily embarks on an inner journey when there is less to look at.)

The park itself is a collection of small buildings made of wood and stone, nestled next to a modest vegetable farm and an impressive, conspicuous white dome, which serves as a temple. The basic accommodations include bunk-style lodging, dry “green” toilets, and no heating or air conditioning, which was difficult to endure in the winter, despite the extra blankets.

Yoga classes emphasise endurance over brute strength (Photo/Laura Mojonnier)

Guests split their time between practising yoga, meditating, and eating delicious vegetarian food. The first meditation is offered at 5am in the white dome, where the half a dozen ‘permanent’ residents of the park practice their morning prayers and change the clothing of the figurines of the god Vishnu placed on the temple’s altar. Paying guests are invited but not required to come to this early event.

Different teachers lead mid-morning hatha yoga each day. These classes offer a slow, serene yoga practice, focusing on holding poses for extended periods of time and emphasising balance and endurance over agility and brute strength. The sessions end in singing the Hare Krishna mantra, which basically consists of repeating the words “Hare”, “Krishna” and “Rama” in different orders – all names for incarnations of the religion’s main god, Vishnu.  By the end of the weekend I found myself involuntarily humming the tune.

Afternoon music therapy takes place in the temple, with the park’s permanent residents leading cheery worship songs in front of the altar on guitar and drums. With the chilled out hippie vibe, I could almost forget that I was sitting in a place of worship, participating in a religious ritual.

Pre-dinner meditation incorporates some gentler yoga – more focused on stretching than strength – and features more direct lectures on Hare Krishna doctrine, including readings from religious texts. Depending on one’s level of Spanish, these can be easy to tune out (the teachers do offer translations in English, for those who are interested).

Vegetarian Grub to Chant “Om” For

Hare Krishna Vegetarian Meal (Photo/Laura Mojonnier)

One of the main tenets of Hare Krishna belief is vegetarian eating. Very little dairy is used, and alcohol, eggs, and caffeine are forbidden, along with garlic and onions, which are thought to inspire unsavoury passion. But despite these restrictions, the park’s food is delectable (as long as you like whole grains and beets), providing a needed break from the bland porteño diet.

“I loved all of it, specifically the wrap was great and the chocolate desert balls,” said Lauren Storella, an American who was taking a break from her English teaching job in the city. “It was very nutritious, like I was feeding my body what it needed, not like I was eating simply because I was hungry.

The daily menus blend traditional Indian spices and dishes like sabji and chapatti bread with influences from South American vegetarian cuisine. Fruit-based cakes are served for desert, and seconds are encouraged.

Sustainability is also a priority at Eco Yoga Park: In May-September, 50-70% of the food served comes directly from the park’s farm (which guests can join a volunteer program to work on), with the rest coming from local markets. In October-April, that number rises to 80-100%.

A Voyage Into the Mystic

Though the park has been open since 1997, it has seen a marked increase in tourists in the last 2 or 3 years, according to director Thakur Das, who has lived there since 2005.

Hare Krishna Yogi (Photo/Brian Funk)

“There is more interest in alternative lifestyles, organic agriculture, ecotourism,” Das said. “There are people who come because… they are looking for a yoga retreat, they are looking to experience an alternative, sustainable lifestyle. They want to do organic farming. There are people who want to travel, but in a more conscientious way.”

Das said that the goal of the park is not to convert people to Hare Krishna-ism, but rather to expose them to the positive aspects of their way of life.

“I want people to develop an interest in alternative lifestyles, to live in contact with nature, to eat healthfully, to practice yoga and meditation, to be in contact with people who are seriously spiritual and to see that these are people who are really happy,” he said. “If they develop an interest in the way of life, we’re happy. But only to improve someone’s consciousness—their quality of life—for us, that’s the project.”

Eco Yoga Park’s association with the Hindu sect is not mentioned anywhere on its website, its blog, or the fliers it passes out in hostels. After talking to more than half a dozen guests and volunteers, the few who had known prior to arriving that the park was run by Hare Krishnas had heard through friends.

According to Swami Giri, national director of ISEVAR, not mentioning the park’s religious affiliation is intentional.

“In reality if we put that we are Hare Krishna, there will be people who think that ‘I’m not Hare Krishna, I can’t go’,” Giri said. “Simply, we don’t put it, so that if someone wants to participate, they have the chance to partake and get to know the practice. The goal of the park is to share. If someone does not have a religion or a culture, and wants to know about ours, they are welcome.”

Most guests I spoke with did not find the religious element oppressive.

“I found it interesting to begin to learn bits about a different way of life and a philosophy that I know very little about,” said Gemma Grass-Orkin, a writer from London who is currently living in Buenos Aires. “This religious aspect neither enhanced or detracted from my experience, it was an essential part of it. The only point at which I felt uncomfortable was when a yoga teacher made a generalisation about city-dwellers, saying they were crazy/loco and violent people. Of course it’s true to an extent, but it’s not very healthy or positive to stereotype like that in my opinion.”

Said Storella, “I never felt pressured or uncomfortable at all.  I truly felt like their main goal…was to provide a relaxing, beautiful weekend for us which is what we came for…not to try to recruit us.”

For more information, visit www.ecoyogapark.com. Depending on length of stay, daily rates are US$28-33 for the yoga/meditation retreat depending, which includes yoga, meditation, 3 vegetarian/vegan meals and 1 snack a day, a nightly film, and access to an extensive library of books on Hinduism, Vaishnava philosophy, and hatha yoga. Tourists can also join the volunteer program, which includes all of the aforementioned food and activities, but requires 4.5 hours of work 6 days a week, usually in the form of helping out on the farm, construction and preparing meals. This second program costs US$12-15/day, depending on length of stay.

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