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California oasis offers 'soul bliss'

By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2009
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NEVADA CITY, Calif. - First you see the deer. They graze freely on the lawns and don't run away when you approach them. "The deer have a sixth sense. They know they're safe here," says resident Peter Skillman. Adds another local: "They know there are no meat-eaters here!"

Such was my introduction to the Expanding Light Yoga center, a spellbindingly beautiful site 2,500 feet up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. I had driven 165 miles from San Francisco, weaving through a series of hairpin turns to get to this slice of paradise.

It's part of Ananda Village, a spiritual community of 300 spread over 800 acres of pristine grounds filled with cedar trees and Douglas firs that take your breath away. No TVs and no cellphone access, but they do have an Internet lounge and Wi-Fi access in some rooms.

The retreat hosts 2,000 guests a year. The food is high-quality vegetarian fare. The yoga classes are dreamlike (starting with special energization exercises), and the meditation classes are well taught. Best of all is the price. Food, classes, and a private room in modern, cabin-type buildings with names like Harmony House and Serenity House cost $145 a day. And you can't put a price tag on its charm.

The retreat started as a utopian community in 1969, when hippie-era adventurers lived in tepees, yurts, a treehouse, and a school bus on the grounds. It was founded on open-minded spiritual principles traced to Paramahansa Yogananda, whose 1946 "Autobiography of a Yogi" still sells some 15,000 copies a year. His disciple, J. Donald Walters (a Brown University graduate and author of many self-help books, including the "Secrets of Life" bestsellers) founded the retreat and still runs it. His home sits next to Ananda's Crystal Hermitage, a small church built to resemble St. Francis of Assisi's Portiuncula Chapel in Italy. (Ananda has a community in Umbria, near Assisi; in Gurgaon, India, near New Delhi; other California centers in Palo Alto and Sacramento; in Beaverton/Portland, Ore.; and in Seattle.) But the mothership is here in Nevada City, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Perhaps the most impressive part of a stay here is the lack of proselytizing. "People come here from all paths - from all different levels of being awake or asleep," says Jivani Ghirla, who left a corporate career to become general manager of the retreat. The name Ananda means "soul bliss" and a plaque in so-called "downtown Ananda" (consisting of a post office, market, jewelry store, thrift shop, and restaurant) states that the goal is "to unite all religions" and that "simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness."

As with any world-class yoga retreat, there is a health center. The Center for Radiant Health offers the latest massage techniques (at extra cost) and everything from astrological forecasting to energy balancing. My massage therapist was Pushpa Rainbow, which I first thought to be an extraordinary hippie alias before learning that Pushpa is a Sanskrit name and Rainbow her family name from her native England.

The 800 acres comprise a rare oasis that includes paved roads like Brotherhood Way, Lotus Lane, and Assisi Way. Ananda has "householder yogis" and many live with their families in private homes and work regular jobs off the grounds. I was inspired by how many creative people live here. Facilities manager Lewis Howard used to play bass with '60s R&B star Joe Tex (remember his song "Skinny Legs and All"?) and toured with B.B. King. Donald Eby is a symphony cellist who has played with famed cabaret pop band Pink Martini. Joseph Cornell is a world-renowned writer of books showing children how to relate to nature. Ananda has its own publications office (Crystal Clarity Publishing) and digital recording studio and music label, Crystal Clarity Light and Sound. Walters has written more than 400 songs and collaborated on an album with harpist Derek Bell (of the Irish group the Chieftains) titled "The Mystic Harp."

Despite some famous residents, everything is low-key at Ananda. They even have a "seclusion retreat" a few miles away on Bald Mountain, which they share with the San Francisco Zen Center and poet Gary Snyder. To get there, you turn onto Jackass Flats Road (the name dates from the Gold Rush) and go down a winding gravel road to a stunning spot with tiny cabins and garden bungalows, a couple of man-made reflecting pools, and a geodesic-dome temple. High school and college students retreat here, and some rentals are available to the general public. I visited with a couple of other guests and we were overwhelmed by its serenity.

A sign in my room gave me something to take back home: "If your life has been touched by your time here, do help us spread peace in the world, one person at a time."

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

If You Go

Expanding Light Yoga and Meditation Retreat Center

14618 Tyler Foote Road

Nevada City, Calif.

800-346-5350, 530-478-7518

Meals, yoga, meditation classes, and private room $145 a night. Guests receive 20 percent off for bringing a friend.

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