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East met west at Birchdale yoga retreat


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by Belle Hatfield

Yoga teachers and enthusiasts from around the Maritimes gathered at Birchdale Lake Retreat in North Kemptville (formerly Nova Nada) during the first two weeks of August to practice the living art of yoga. Within the octagonal walls of the chapel that used to call Carmelite monks to worship, these students worked daily with teacher in residence Yogendra Mishra, (Yogiji), a Brahmin priest and yoga master based in Rishikesh, India.

A series of classes ran through the day and ended with evening question and answer sessions, followed by meditation. Participants studied not only classical yoga poses (asanas) and breathing (pranayama), but also the philosophy that underlies the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga, which seeks to achieve balance through a unification of the mind, body and spirit. The retreat also featured an advanced posture course for the certified yoga instructors in attendance.

In between classes students had opportunities to put the living practice of yoga to work, exploring the 58-acre property on foot or by canoe or kayak. Meals were prepared communally in the main lodge, but there were many opportunities for solitude and contemplation, qualities that had prompted Mishra to accept the invitation to teach.

The retreat was organized by Tusket resident Kerry Lawson, who is a certified hatha yoga instructor and who also led classes during the retreat. Lawson has been studying yoga for more than 10 years, including annual pilgrimages to India for instruction in this ancient art. It was while in India this past spring that Lawson was accepted as a student of Mishra. She spent three weeks of intensive study at the Tapovan Dham Yoga Center, working one on one with the yoga master.

While there she shared with him her experiences at Birchdale, where she held the first Birchdale Yoga Retreat last year. His interest was piqued by her descriptions of its history, its natural beauty and the sense of peace and solitude that she said enveloped her whenever she approaches the gate to the former monastery.

Birchdale was built as a hunting lodge in 1910 by local guide Omar Roberts. In 1972 the property became Nova Nada, a Carmelite monastery and retreat centre. The monks added several new buildings, including the chapel, to the existing lodge and cabins, and generators to provide bare-bones electrical services. The monks left Nova Nada in 1998 after losing a battle to secure a two-mile logging exclusion zone around the property.

In conversation during this visit, Mishra observed that their spirit of contemplative serenity remains, making Birchdale an ideal environment in which to study yoga. Stripped of the excesses of modern technology, participants can focus on being fully present in the moment. With no phone or internet service, no television or radios, only the flickering light of a kerosene lamp to pierce the darkness of night, communication with the outside world is placed on hold. The occasional drone of a high-altitude plane serves as a reminder of the world beyond the gates, but it can wait. “Slowly, slowly,” Mishra said, adding that no one has to hurry here.

Mishra left Canada last week en route to Frankfurt, Germany where he will teach a three-week pranayama and deep meditation seminar. Then it is back to his base in Rishikesh. But before leaving he made a commitment to return next year. Lawson says the response to this year’s retreat has been so overwhelmingly positive that plans for next year’s yoga retreat are already underway. “There is such a thirst for the knowledge that he has to share,” she said, in summing up the experience. For information about the retreat go to www.arjuna.ca.

As for Birchdale, it continues the tradition, begun nearly 100 years ago, of welcoming those in search of a communion with nature, and with themselves. Current owner Helen Matthews bought the property in 2002 with dreams of creating an ecological haven within a cooperative living community. She receives numerous requests from groups, like the yoga group, seeking the special experience Birchdale can offer. All requests are considered, says Matthews, but the property is available by invitation only. For information go to www.birchdalelake.com.

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