Yogaville much like a convent, visitor says

The Daily Item/July 11, 2010

By Amanda O'Rourke

Buckingham, VA. - A Valley woman who spent 10 days on a silent retreat at Yogaville less than a year ago said there is no way the man suspected of killing a New Berlin yoga master last week was a true student of yoga.

"Anyone who would equate Joel Snider's behavior with the truth about Yogaville is misinformed," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "The truth about that organization is far, far, far from Joel Snider's actions."

Snider, 33, of St. Louis, was arrested and charged with the July 5 shooting death of Sudharman, whose son Jonathan Fenton revealed Thursday that it was through his and Snider's training together at Yogaville that Snider first met Sudharman.

Founded in 1980 by Indian spiritual leader Sri Swami Satchidananda, who was Sudharman's guru, the Yogaville ashram is located in Buckingman, about four hours from Washington, D.C., amid the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia.

The word ashram is Sanskrit and refers to the residence of a guru that is used for religious retreat or instruction in Hinduism. Guru also is a Sanskrit word and refers to someone who is regarded as having great knowledge and wisdom. Put more simply, guru means teacher, as does rabbi in Hebrew.

At Yogaville, an orange arch with the words "Truth is one, paths are many" stands at the entrance.

"Every religion believes in a god but it's so ironic that so many religions fight because of their differences," the Valley woman said. "That's what so beautiful about Integral Yoga, because it tries to integrate the best things about all religions."

Though the Valley woman uses the word religion, Integral Yoga is not considered a religion. Swami Satchidananda described it as a philosophy, a system of practices and a way of life.

The goal of Integral Yoga, according to the writings of Swami Satchidananda, is to realize the spiritual unity behind all diversities and to live harmoniously as members of one universal family. This goal is achieved "by maintaining one's natural condition of a body of optimum health and strength, senses under total control, a mind well-disciplined, clear and calm, an intellect as sharp as a razor, a will as strong and pliable as steel, a heart full of unconditional love and compassion, an ego as pure as a crystal, and a life filled with supreme peace and joy."

Integral Yoga is a combination of the various branches of yoga, and on her retreat to Yogaville last summer, the Valley woman practiced hatha yoga, which focuses on the physical aspects through postures, breath control, a yogic diet and deep relaxation.

She was drawn to Yogaville, she said, through her meetings with Sudharman.

"I had begun practicing hatha yoga with Sudharman, who I'd known for over two decades, and he encouraged me to take the 10-day silent retreat," she said. "I thought about it and felt like it would be the perfect vacation."

On a silent retreat, she said, all participants do is listen.

"You reflect internally and it's really an amazing experience," she said. "It's very, very easy to talk when you don't have to."

The silent retreat was designed by Swami Satchidananda 40 years ago and includes the practice of hatha yoga, breathing practices known as pranayama, deep relaxation and meditations each day, vegetarian meals and lectures.

Tuition for the retreat is $375, which includes accommodations and meals. More extravagant accommodations are available at an increased cost.

During the Valley woman's retreat, Swami Karunananda's was one of the speakers.

Swami Karunananda has been an Integral Yoga teacher since 1971. She has served as president of Satchidananda ashrams in California and Virginia, and as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and Santa Barbara. She serves as vice president, overseeing spiritual development at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Virginia.

Her background, the Valley woman said, would make it impossible for her to have been involved in the murder of Sudharman.

"If she were truly who she portrays herself to be, she could not have been involved," she said. "It's impossible. It's like oil and water."

The Valley woman characterized Snider as a "kook," an extremist who did not exemplify the ideals of yoga or Swami Karunananda, who has not returned repeated calls seeking comment.

"There is nothing about the crazy, extremist behavior that that man demonstrated that is yoga - nothing," she said. "(Swami Karunananda) lives a life to serve and love and preserve and enrich and teach. She is not a person of violence."

Rham and Jonathan Fenton, Sudharman's sons, spent part of their childhood at Yogaville, and Jonathan said the experience was a good one, if only a bit isolating.

"It was a little tough because coming from normal society there were different rules," Jonathan said. "You're not supposed to be with the opposite sex, no violent movies, no racy music, so being a teenager, that was kind of tough.

"But overall I got a great sense of community and the people were loving and supportive."

Beliefs that Yogaville is akin to a cult, the Valley woman said, are off base, and drew a comparison between Yogaville and a convent.

"Why do people think that a bunch of nuns living together is any less strange?" she said. "Nuns live together, nuns eat together and no one calls them a cult."

"Integral Yoga exemplifies the best of every religion," she said. "At the heart of every religion is love and acceptance and Integral Yoga exemplifies that and I think it's a nice, honorable way to live."

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