A Secret Retreat in the The Blue Ridge Mountains

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is a well kept secret that I am about to reveal. Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center is a pristine destination for those who want a short getaway to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

October is the best time to drive through Blue Ridge Parkway and watch the leaves turn into shades of yellow, orange and red. As you go up in the High Country, watch the valleys unfold beneath you and fill in your lungs with refreshing crisp mountain air.art of living boone

Perched up on the mountain on a private reserve, only a few minutes outside the city of Boone, NC, is The Art of Living Retreat Center . Originally built in the mid 1990’s as a transcendental meditation center, the place was abandoned, auctioned, and later rebuilt as one of the largest retreats in the country. In October 2011, the Art of Living Retreat Center opened its 381 acres after lots of renovations, and now offers a hotel, spa, restaurant, apartments, organic garden, pottery center, and halls that can be rented out for weddings, conferences, retreats and workshops.

The retreat’s parent organization is Art of Living Foundation,  the world’s largest volunteer-based non profit organization, that was founded in 1981 by India’s spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The Foundation conducts “Art of Living” stress-relief courses, based on yoga, breathing, and meditation, and offers a variety of personal-development and trauma-relief programs around the world.

art of living boone

The resort is designed on the principles of Vastu, a set of architectural and planning principles assembled by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi based on ancient Sanskrit texts. The exterior of the main hall reminds me of an elegant white palace that could be found in southern India, with its welcoming gardens, calming fountain, and giant swans guarding its gates. Wooden ceilings have a geometric layered pattern and a glass window in the middle of the ceiling, resembling an upside down stairway to heaven. Heated floors and carpeting provide comfort to those participating in weekend yoga and meditation retreats.

Across the street is the main building where guest check in. There is an unassuming reception desk managed by couple of resident staff. They greet me with a big smile and a warm welcome. Mr. Venkat Srinivasan, PhD (Manager of operations and guest experience), who has been here since the renovations began, officially welcomes me to the premises and takes me on a tour of the grounds.

We first drive a few blocks to the spa building, the newest addition to the property. On the way we pass by buildings that are rented out as apartments to the staff and students at Appalachian State University. There are also modest one bedroom rooms rented out to visitors for an Ashram type experience. Guests who are looking for solace and peace can stay here without the distractions of modern life, at a very affordable price. The spa rooms at the Shankara Ayurveda Spa are comparatively more luxurious. King and double beds are decorated with hues of purple and white, and offer unobstructed views of the forest and mountains beyond. There’s a phone, television and working desk, as well as robe and slippers. Samples of toiletries come from Shankara, an upscale skin care line that embodies the ancient eastern science of Ayurveda, and the western state of the art anti-aging science. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. Plant-based treatments in Ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds such as cardamom and cinnamon. 100% of the net profits of Shankara product sales are donated to global humanitarian projects through International Association for Human Values (IAHV).

The spa service rooms and saunas are located only one floor up and offers traditional Ayurvedic treatments, such as Marma – where pressure points are activated to pacify the doshas; Basti – warm medicated oil massage for the joints; Netra Tarpana – eye detox for improving eyesight; as well as herbal exfoliations, Thai and Swedish massages, are offered at the spa. The therapists here are well trained in the traditional Ayurveda therapies and many of them have practiced all around the world.

art of living boone

I try the Abhyangya detoxifying herbal massage which involves a gentle full body oil massage in circular patterns. It aims to release stress and improve circulation. Regular treatments of Abhyangya also helps in weight loss. After unwinding at the sauna, I lounge in a chaise at the quiet room, sipping on a cup of soothing organic Balance Tea. Shankara blends and sells different kinds of Ayurveda teas that help with depression, anxiety and restlessness.

Dinner reservations are not necessary while staying at the Art of Living Retreat Center. Breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet is served at the main dining hall at set hours of the day. Emphasis is on healthy and wholesome vegetarian dining, while gluten and dairy free choices are also available. Executive chef, Raju, believes in invoking the taste buds with sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent flavors that help feel satisfied while eating less. A typical meal would include soup, salad, protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and dessert. Variations of cuisines is also great for the taste buds. On a Friday night, the theme could be Southern, serving okra and kale stew made with ingredients from the garden, vegetable Jambalaya, and maple molasses coconut bar; while on Saturday afternoon, we are offered a simple meal of Indian yellow lentils, aloo-gobi (potatoes and cauliflower curry), and basmati rice. There is a strict no alcohol and no meat policy on the campus.

art of living boone

After dinner, everyone heads downstairs to a communal hall for Satsang, which in spiritual context means a gathering with good or righteous companions. A few people pick up musical instruments, while others take over the mike and start singing in a slow melodic voice. The group joins in the chorus of short chants and songs that are pleasing to the ears, and invoke a meditative state in the room.

Visitors can enjoy free yoga and meditation lessons offered every morning and evening for anyone who wants to join in. The classes are good for any age and experience level. We stretch our joints, practice breathing techniques, and learn how to manage stress and be more peaceful. Some of the classes involve group discussions and guided meditations, most teachings act as reinforcements to keep a healthy mind, body and spirit.

huffpo boone1Art of Living offers a happiness program on the weekends where participants are taught the importance of being happy from the inside, and how it impacts immunity, health, energy and personal relationships. There are also silence, meditation, detox and weight loss retreats throughout the year.

For leisure, visitors can enroll in pottery workshops at the Clay Studio. Here you can learn how to make your own pottery on a clay wheel with a guided instructor. Extended workshops allow you to paint, bake and finish the pieces, or the instructor would mail it to your home once ready. In November, there are special holiday ornament making classes with clay conducted by studio director and award-winning Appalachian State Fine Arts Pottery alumna, Laurie Caffery Harris.

If you have a green thumb, you can volunteer at the organic vegetable farm. Resident farmer, Emily, a native of London, practices biodynamic agriculture, that emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives on the soil, plant growth and livestock care. Farming methods include crop diversification, avoiding the use of chemicals, and consideration of celestial and terrestrial influences on the crops. All of the produce from this garden feeds into the kitchen, and you can see a fresh basket arriving at the dining hall each morning.

Finally, Srinivasan shows me a well manicured labyrinth, historically been used as a meditation and prayer tool. The Labyrinth represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world.

art of living boone

Being so close to nature, solo and guided hikes are encouraged during your visit. I go through 3-miles of natural trails encountering various kinds of trees, shrubs and mountain herbs, as well as occasional deer. The walk along the edge of the hill offers spectacular views of the fall color. Seeing how nature has shed its leaves and adjusted its appearance for the seasons right before me, I begin to recognize a subtle transformation happening inside of me. After the clean air I ingested with my newly learned breathing techniques, the release of stress from my body during the Ayurvedic massage treatment, the farm to table organic vegetarian diet in my system, and the communal gathering of spiritual companions, its hard to walk away not feeling any different that when you first came in to the Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center.

Go Eat Give is offering a weekend Spring retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center in March 2016, in partnership with Calmtivity Yoga. Click here to read more.

Into the wild : Yogi who camped and hiked

There exist several well documented examples demonstrating that one week of camping sans electronics, not only resets our biological body clock but also synchronizes melatonin (hormone) production with sunrise and sunset.

camping in north GA Armed with the knowledge of these studies, I decided to undertake a camping trip, in the midst of wilderness and in the very lap of nature. Although, the move was prompted by a very dear friend of mine, Andrea, coupled with my own notions of the universe, and its role in every life, was compelling enough for me to take up this challenge.

We decided to camp at The Desoto Falls located off Highway 129. The drive itself instigated me to surrender to the bounty of nature and the wilderness which nourished my soul. I believe that camping is a silent form of adventure, which brings clarity to mind as well as allows the soul to soak in the positivity around. For me, it is a stress buster, wherein, I can be myself and enjoy my surroundings without worrying about the every day mundane tasks.

Divya Sarin

Deciding the campsite, setting up the tents, arranging food and starting the camp fire, requires immense strength. Yet, despite the strenuous tasks, our bodies oozed energy like never before and our quest for adventure grew by leaps and bounds. When at last, we did start to feel at home, we spent time making smores and talked our hearts, not mention that some of us were also strangers for one another. By the time, the day lapsed into night we had cemented that awkward relationship into a budding new friendship – our hearts were lighter, the summer became cooler and our energies were higher. We had the best sleep in years with just the sounds of crickets and the nearby creek as lullabies. To further quench our thirst for adventure we started our day-two with yoga in the company of trees by the creek, followed by a staggering 4.8 miles hike from Neel Gap to Blood mountain- the Appalachian trail.

yoga camp north Georgia

It rained while we hiked, which was soothing, and the majestic view from the top raised our spirits to an unknown level of ecstasy and elation. The trip concluded three days later with quality time spent with friends and most importantly nature. Our zeal for adventure has reached a pinnacle, not to mention our inquisitiveness to know more about nature. I now know that mountains are my calling, for I have left a piece of my heart there.

Every year Andrea from You Yoga Me Yoga  take the interested yogis amidst nature to make them disconnect from the daily routine. Camping once in an year helps in relaxing the mind. It sets the natural alarm clock for the body, helps with mood-swings, and also engaging with nature by turning off the mobile phones/laptops lowers the stress levels and is believed to be equivalent to meditation. I urge each one my reader to camp once in life and I promise you will not be able to stop yourself from camping again. Let loose and for a change, party with nature. Smell the moist earth and take home the fragrance you would love to wear.

~ By Divya Sarin, a yoga enthusiast who can’t sit idle, and wants to create some magic in each person’s life. Follow her on her blog on happiness and life. 

160 years in memories with Clent

“It’s a beautiful love story with a lot of powerful women” kept saying Clent Coker, the historian, museum director and author at Barnsley Gardens Resort in Georgia. While visiting the gardens this past weekend, Clent gave me a personal tour while sharing his own personal obsession with the property.

Clent’s great-grandmother was born in one of the cottages adjacent to The Barnsley Manor in the early 1800s. He grew up playing in the gardens listening to her fairy-tale stories about Godfrey Barnsley and his beloved wife, Julia. Since then he has dedicated his entire life researching, collecting and documenting every event that took place on the property. Clent’s family was friends with the Barnsleys’ so he has a mental biography of each of the family members as told over time. With hundreds of letters, pictures, furniture and personal belongings, Clent now maintains the Barnsley museum and is overjoyed to talk to whoever is interested in listening to his story.

Clent is the author of “Barnsley Gardens At Woodlands”, a 260 page, photo filled hard cover book that narrates the history of this majestic estate and its owners over the last two centuries. Cotton lord and Englishman, Godfrey Barnsley built the gardens and manor for his young wife, Julia. Clent told me that although she passed away at the age of 35 before seeing the great manner completed, it was her strong influence that later guided Godfrey through the final construction of the estate. It would become one of the greatest love stories of the south.

Surviving a tornado, the civil war, a murder, and a few owners, today the 2,000 acre Barnsley Resort stands as one of the most beautiful places in the south. By the mid 1850’s the Woodland’s gardens were completed from the manuals of the renowned landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (aka The Father of American Landscape Architecture.) Downing is famous for his cottage style residences surrounded by symmetrical gardens. As we walked out of the ruins into the Woodlands gardens, I got a beautiful view of how rows of shrubs, trees and flowers had been strategically placed creating a pristine oasis within the lush grounds.

Clent drove me around the property in his all-terrain golf cart, speeding away through grass and dirt trails. He showed me the place where the Barnsley family is buried, the beautiful orchards, lakes and picnic areas. Apparently, Clent has also been working as a strategic advisor, overlooking the construction of the resort that opened in 1999.

He guided Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria (previous owner) in restoring the gardens as he remembered them as a child.  He shared his vision of a peaceful resort representing an old English village, inspired by which the rows of neatly placed cottages were built. During the 1990’s Clent handpicked several other historic homes from the north Georgia area and had the moved to the premises, creating the outpost for adventure sports, an original Cherokee Indian cabin and the Rice House restaurant. However, we were not trying to create another “Dollywood” Clent exclaimed. He said that he and Prince Fugger and the developers agreed they would maintain the natural beauty of the place offering people a relaxing family friendly atmosphere were they could hike, bike, golf, kayak, horseback ride and swim while also touring the historic ruins and museum. In 2005 the Barnsley Gardens Resort was purchased by Julian Saul and associates and the Barnsley dream continues on.

Clearly, Clent is more than passionate about his own love affair with Barnsley. Everyone I talked to at the resort had the same feeling about him. He knows a lot about everything, they told me. His legacy is going to last with Barnsley. I couldn’t resist bringing home an autographed copy of his book and feeling the presence of a great storyteller in my own library.

To read more about Clent Coker or his book, click here.