When you think of what goes on in an ashram, what are the first things that come to mind? Yoga, silent meditation, and peaceful group chanting probably? However, as a famous book/film recently popularized by Julia Roberts eludes to, food is another important part of the path to inner peace.
With the arrival of eastern philosophies in the West came the holistic embrace of the mind, spirit, and not least the body. We can go so far as to thank this influence for the popularization of yogurt, yoga, alternative diets like vegetarianism, and arguably the organic and local food movement.
Yasodhara Ashram – the East arrives in the West Kootenays
Throughout the early 20th centutry, the West Kootenays have attracted many spiritual communities seeking peace, solitude, and refuge. For the FLDS Mormons in Bountiful, the Dukhobors in Castlegar & Grand Forks, or the Quakers who settled in Argenta, the high mountains, thick forest, and tranquil waters have offered this. Not surprisingly then, eastern philosophy inevitably would arrive in the West Kootenays in the early 1960’s.
Throughout the early 20th centutry, the West Kootenays have attracted many spiritual communities seeking peace, solitude, and refuge.
In 1962, under the direction of her Indian guru to bring this message west, Swami Sivananda Radha established a yoga and meditation centre along the shores of Kootenay Lake. Nestled along the lake between Crawford Bay and Riondel, Yasodhara Ashram was founded in 1963 by the Swami and a small group of followers on land that had previously been a farm and orchard, which now seems quite fortuitous.
Since then the ashram has grown in size and recognition, becoming one of the most widely known yoga and meditation retreats in North America. Despite the tragic loss of their Temple of Light in a fire in 2014, it still plays host to over 1,000 guests a year, not including the many long-term residents who call it home.
Yasodhara in Bloom – Balancing Growth with Sustainability
With growth comes the challenges of managing expanded needs, while staying true to core values, an often perilous challenge for many communities. As the Yasodhara Ashram community grew from humble beginnings to become what it is today, so too did it’s own needs for energy, resources, and food.
In response to these expanding needs and the recognition of it’s impacts on the planet, the ashram has worked hard to develop policies that minimize its footprint. Solar panels dot the rooftops of buildings and a thorough composting system helps minimize waste. Of even greater interest to me has been the development of the ashram’s food policy, known as it’s “food flow”, much of which was implemented by Paris Marshall Smith, now working in Creston on the Fields Forward Initiatives.
Emphasizing the importance of self-reliance, organic growing practices, and purchasing locally the ashram has become well-known in the Creston area, where it purchases a substantial amount of it’s food from local farmers. I thought it would be interesting to come visit the ashram, learn about how this important relationship has grown, and glean lessons about living sustainably while supporting a local economy.
Yasodhara Ashram’s Food Flow – A Microsystem of Local Food Sustainability
Following a phone call to the ashram I was quickly directed to Steve Kruse, Head Chef for the past four years, who was more then happy to meet with me to give a tour. A week later I pulled into the ashram on a foggy and wet day in early October. Walking into the main hall I was welcomed by a smiling Kruse who brought me into the main dining area, a beautiful open room with windows overlooking the deep blue colours of Kootenay Lake.
We spent the next hour talking, Steve patiently answering my questions about the ashram’s food flow. With three meals a day served to guests, Kruse and a kitchen staff of three to four prepare roughly 65,000 meals a year, no small logistical feat!
The Creston Area – Bread Basket to Yasodhara
Of those meals, roughly 40% come from goods purchased in the Kootenays, the majority of which comes from the Creston area farmers. The list of area farmers that supply the ashram is impressive, from big producers like Sutcliffe Asparagus and Canyon City Farms to smaller operations like Cartwheel and Purple House Farms.
“We’re not so big that we can make a huge difference for someone like Canyon City Farms, but we can really make a big difference for small farmers” Kruse points out, while highlighting with pleasure that many of those relationships started right in the Creston Valley Farmers’ Market.
Following my bevy of questions, Kruse then took me for a tour of the ashram’s substantial farm garden, which helps the ashram meet much of it’s own food needs, about another 25% of all food. He proudly points out that as of this year the ashram was completely self-sufficient in garlic and pretty close with salad greens. And with hearty varieties of greens picked for the climate, a collection of hot houses, and a ingeniously designed hoop house on a rolling track, the garden looked impressively active for October.
The ashram’s substantial farm garden… helps the ashram meet much of it’s own food needs, about another 25% of all food.
Of course Kruse acknowledges that there are still limits to how much the ashram can grow itself or purchase locally, mostly due to climate and limited storage space. Even with a newly bought freezer the size of a Uhual truck and a large cold storage space, he noted that he could always use more space to store food over the fall, winter, and spring.
However, Kruse was confident that over time the ashram will continue to find opportunities to increase the amount of food it sources locally. Following some early success with Twisted Roots greenhouse in Crawford Bay, he was hopeful that the greenhouse would be able to supply fresh produce to the ashram throughout the year, taking the pressure off the limited storage space available on site.
Yasodhara’s Food Flow – An Example for the Future
Coming home from my conversation with Steve Kruse, I have been left to admire what the ashram has been able to achieve collectively in 53 years. In a time when many communities across North America are looking for models of sustainability that limit environmental impacts while supporting the local economy, the Yasodhara food flow model offers an example.
Based on principles of walking on the earth softly and living well, the Yasodhara Ashram has slowly and incrementally worked towards its objectives. While it still has work to do to reach them, it acts as an important reminder to us that the road to success is not achieved overnight, but bit by bit, inch by inch. I for one look forward to seeing what the Yasodhara Ashram will achieve in it’s next 50 years and the opportunity for the Creston Area to be a part of that success.