After a massage workshop at Kripalu Yoga Center, Pastor Christopher Parker quit his job and returned to Kripalu as a volunteer doing veggie prep. Three months later, he set off on a road trip, living cheaply
and deepening his practice as a yoga center volunteer. Here's his field guide to doing selfless service.
Volunteering full-time at Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, was the most valuable and transformative experience of my life. The three months I spent living and serving in the community gave me new self-acceptance and a strong practice -- a core strength that's now always available for my refreshment. Many of the people I met volunteering said that the course of their lives changed through their time of spiritual service. We worked hard, but we received much more than we gave.
Most of the larger yoga centers, ashrams, and other spiritual centers in North America offer programs similar to Kripalu where participants provide basic labor (usually housekeeping and kitchen service) while living in a spiritual community. The volunteer service makes staying at these centers more affordable for everyone, and the work is a primary spiritual practice.
Why We Volunteered
As I crossed the country sampling centers, I learned that, like me, many of the volunteers had come after burning out at their regular jobs or being laid off. Others were fresh from divorce or had lost a parent or loved one. "Everything evaporated at once," said Eric Baierlein at Mount Madonna Center, a gorgeous yoga retreat overlooking Monterey Bay in California. His words were echoed at centers across the country. People often volunteer because something breaks or needs to break.
Others, especially the 20-something set, haven't established a direction and hope that volunteering will help them find it. Sea-Anna Vasilas of Mount Madonna is a typical example: "After I graduated, I traveled for eight months, trying to figure out where I was going and what I was doing." Then she became a volunteer. Ironically, for many, a volunteer stint can make it even more difficult to live according to previous materialistic values. Some stay for further volunteering or become permanent community members.
A common experience is a deepening of spiritual practice during three months of intensive full-time focus. At Kripalu, I found that, because the volunteers got to know each other so well by working together, our yoga classes seemed more powerful than those for paying guests. That bonding and structure helped in other ways as well. Said Kripalu volunteer Lizzy Hoke hoke
tr.v. hoked, hok·ing, hokes Slang
To give an impressive but artificial, false, or deceptive quality to: hoked up some phony allegations. , "I was looking for some structure in order to create a daily spiritual practice that I could take with me. I knew that it was very important to me, but I didn't know how to do it on my own."
The Range of Possibilities
At Sivananda ashrams, the day is disciplined, full, and everything is mandatory, beginning with 5:30 a.m. meditation. There is little or no free time. Mount Madonna offers the other extreme. There, the only requirements are one workshop and a sharing program two nights a week. Surprisingly, the totally compulsory approach of Sivananda felt simpler -- in the same way that having to wear a school uniform makes it easier to dress -- fewer choices clears the mind for other things.
The most rigorous programs are probably the Buddhist Vipassana vipassana
In Theravada Buddhism, a method of insight meditation. It aims at developing understanding of the nature of reality by focusing a sharply concentrated mind on physical and mental processes. centers, which break you in with a 10-day sitting meditation, mostly in silence. This is hard work, both physically and spiritually, and you must complete the program before you can contemplate a longer stay. A more relaxed Buddhist experience is available at the Insight Meditation retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Even more than most yogic or Christian retreat centers, the Buddhist centers make it possible for people with little means to attend -- either through work exchange, scholarships, or through simple living that keeps expenses low.
The male/female ratio is close to 50/50 in all of the programs, and most places offer private rooms. Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville houses two to three people per room, and Kripalu, which hosts as many as 250 volunteers, has large dorms. Food is vegetarian, often organic and mostly quite good, and most programs require celibacy and abstinence from alcohol.
For most entry-level volunteers, 20/28 hours of work per week is required, with Kripalu's full-time requirement (35 hours per week) being the significant exception. Yogaville requires 20/25 hours a week, but drops the fee for room and board if you work full-time. In general, the longer you stay, the more you work.
There seems to be a flow to volunteering: the first month is usually a honeymoon followed by issues and suffering. One weekend, this got so intense that I fled Kripalu. My fellow volunteer Amy found full-time work to be particularly difficult when she was simultaneously concentrating so hard on herself and her practice. And she was not alone. A lot of people were exhausted -- particularly towards the end of the program, she observed.
Marlon Tarasov at the Sivananda Ashram ashram
In Hinduism, any of the four stages of life through which a “twice-born” (see upanayana) Hindu ideally will pass. Yoga Ranch is realistic: "When you're first serving it's really fun -- you've got music playing and stuff -- but the real practice is when it's not fun anymore." Everyone has moments of being tired and cranky and ready to be done.
Making an Investment in Yourself
It's not hard to enter this world of selfless service. Investigate the websites (right) to learn more and obtain applications. Expect telephone interviews and application fees. Except for Kripalu, most of these programs charge a fee ($250/600 per month) to cover room and board. However, the longer service programs run by denominations provide free room and board and offer a tiny stipend. Since this is a full-time commitment for an extended time, it is something to consider carefully, being sure of your motivations.
Volunteers not only give practical service, enriching themselves, but they serve a higher calling. "I'm much more able to serve the world now -- more powerfully, in a deeper truth," says Lizzy from Kripalu. Perhaps this is the best reason to take a working vacation. v
Share Your Experiences at www.SpiritualityHealth.com/RetreatCenter
Every retreat center is different: settings, structures, and teachers vary from place to place. A program that works for one person may not work for someone else. You can learn a lot from websites (see page 72). We are asking those of you who have been to these centers or to others to share your experiences at www.SpiritualityHealth.com/RetreatCenter. Our goal is to help people locate the programs that are best for them.
Three Days as a Volunteer
At Kripalu Yoga Center...
I wake at 5:30 for yoga class at 6:00. Afterward, breakfast is in silence. My work shift starts at 8:30. I am in "veggie prep," chopping lettuce, green peppers, kale kale, borecole (bôr`kōl), and collards, common names for nonheading, hardy types of cabbage (var. , and so forth (most of it organic and from local farms). Others serve in maintenance or in the kitchen, or by preparing program rooms. We have an hour for lunch and good conversation at a table in the corner of the big dining room. I have just enough time to grab a short walk with another volunteer (like all these places, Kripalu is in a beautiful spot). Afternoon shift drags on until 3:45. It's hard work chopping all day. Yoga class with other volunteers is at 4:15. It takes willpower to show up, but afterwards I'm in blissland and not quite ready to face the buzz of the dining chapel. There's an evening workshop with one of the yoga teachers. Other days it could be a concert, dancing, or an escape to the sauna. At 9:00, quiet hours begin. I've spent all day with cool people, working, studying, eating, and sharing the time in between as well.
At Sivananda Ashram...
The bell rings at 5:30. I walk down the hill to 6:00 a.m. satsang Satsang (Sanskrit sat = true, sanga = company) describes in Indian philosophy (1) the company of the "highest truth," (2) the company of a guru, and (3) company with an assembly of persons who listen to, talk about, and assimilate the truth. , which is more or less equivalent to a worship service, beginning with meditation and then moving to mantra chanting and Sanskrit kirtan This article is about Kirtan in Sikhism. For Kirtan in Hinduism, see Bhajan.
Kirtan is one of the pillars of Sikhism and in that context refers to the singing of the sacred hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib to set music normally in classical Raags singing (see www.SpiritualityHealth.com/kirtan). It might look strange if someone hasn't encountered this devotional tradition before. I let it wash over me. Yoga postures (asanas) follow at 8 a.m., with breathing (pranayama pranayama /pra·na·ya·ma/ (prah?nah-yah´mah) according to ayurveda, breath control, occurring as one of the eight limbs of yoga; used for controlling the energy within the body and the mind and acting as a vitalizing and regenerating ) and relaxation (shivasana) mixed in. Now I'm really hungry. I go through yoga class in a bit of a fog. Brunch at 10:00 is Indian food -- simple, vegetarian, and good. The work day starts at 11:00. Chopping a downed tree and moving it with a tractor is the assignment. Afternoon yoga class, outside on a wood platform, is at 4:00. Dinner at 6:00. At 8:00, we have evening satsang, which begins with a talk and goes on quite a while with meditation, chanting, and Sanskrit kirtan once again. Lights out at 11:00. I'm fading before the satsang has finished.
At Mount Madonna Center...
Yoga classes are offered four mornings per week. There is breakfast and dinner. Leftovers are set out for lunch and we drift in. Work schedules vary more than other places. Typical is a split shift: a two- to three-hour morning shift in housekeeping, a break for one to three hours, then an afternoon dish shift, and evening meal service. Some days work is in bigger blocks: a three-hour recycling shift, a half-hour break, and then a four-hour kitchen shift. People are on their own a bit more here, taking more walks and working on their own projects. Sometimes workshops are offered or kirtan and other devotions are scheduled. Twice a week there is an evening class and discussion or check-in circle. Otherwise, evenings are free.
Centers with Residence Programs
Yoga Centers and Ashrams
(flourished 6th century BC, India) First cousin and disciple of the Buddha. A monk who served as the Buddha's personal attendant, he became known as the “beloved disciple.” It was Ananda who persuaded the Buddha to allow women to become nuns. Ashram, Monroe, New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of ; www.anandaashram.org
The Expanding Light, Nevada City, California Nevada City is the county seat of Nevada County, California, USA, 166 miles (267 km) northeast of San Francisco. In 1900, 3,250 people lived in Nevada City, California; in 1910, 2,689 lived there. The population was 3,001 at the 2000 census. ; www.expandinglight.org
Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, Pennsylvania; www.himalayaninstitute.org
Kashi Ashram, Sebastian, Florida; www.kashi.org
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Lenox, Massachusetts; www.kripalu.org
Mount Madonna Center, Watsonville, California; www.mountmadonna.org
Salt Spring Centre of Yoga, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada; www.saltspringcentre.com
Satchidananda Ashram (Yogaville), Buckingham, Virginia; www.yogaville.org
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp, Val Morin, Quebec, Canada; www.sivananda.org/camp
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm, Grass Valley, California Grass Valley is a city in Nevada County, California, United States. The population was 10,922 at the 2000 census. Geography
Grass Valley is located at (39.219215, -121.058414)GR1. ; www.sivananda.org/farm
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, Catskill Mountains, New York; www.sivananda.org/ranch
Yasodhara Ashram, Kootenay Bay, British Columbia, Canada; www.yasodhara.org
Buddhist Meditation Centers
Dorje Denma Ling (Shambhala Buddhism), Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia Tatamagouche (2001 pop.: 738) is a Canadian village in Colchester County, Nova Scotia. Tatamagouche is situated on the Northumberland Strait 50 kilometers north of Truro and 50 kilometres west of Pictou. , Canada; www.dorjedenmaling.com
Gampo Abbey (Shambhala Buddhism), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; www.gampoabbey.org
Insight Meditation Society The Insight Meditation Society is a Buddhist organization located in Barre, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1975 by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, and is rooted in the Theravada tradition. (for new and experienced meditators), Barre, Massachusetts; www.dharma.org
Shambhala Mountain Center The Shambhala Mountain Center was founded by Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1970 at Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Trungpa arrived in 1971 with a number of students from Tail of the Tiger in Barnet, VT, now known as Karmê Chöling. (nonsectarian), Red Feather Lakes, Colorado Red Feather Lakes is an unincorporated town, a U.S. Census Bureau Census Designated Place (CDP), and a U.S. Post Office located in Larimer County, Colorado, United States. The CDP population was 525 at the U.S. Census 2000. ; www.shambhalamountain.org
Vipassana Meditation Centers (Vipassana meditation), U.S. and Canada; www.dhamma.org
The Abode of the Message (Sufi), New Lebanon, New York
- For other places with a similar name, see Lebanon (disambiguation).
New Lebanon is a town in Columbia County, New York, U.S., 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Albany. In 1910, 1,378 people lived in New Lebanon, New York. ; www.theabode.net
Camphill Villages (Rudolf Steiner/based); www.camphill.org
Esalen Institute (the birthplace of the human potential movement), Big Sur, California; www.esalen.org
Harbin Hot Springs Harbin Hot Springs is a non-profit hot spring retreat center in Middletown, California, USA that has been a healing and gathering place from the early days of Native American occupation to the present. (spa treatment, diverse workshops), Middletown, California; www.harbin.org
Kalani (educational nonprofit refuge), Hawaii Island; www.kalani.com
Omega Institute (variety of workshops), Rhinebeck, New York; www.eomega.org
Pendle Hill (Quaker), Wallingford, Pennsylvania; www.pendlehill.org
Rowe Camp and Conference Center (variety of programs), Rowe, Massachusetts; www.rowecenter.org
Christian Service Programs: Brethren Volunteer Corps (Church of the Brethren Church of the Brethren: see Brethren. ); www.brethrenvolunteerservice.org
Catholic Network of Volunteer Services (multi-denominational), directory of 200-plus member programs; www.cnvs.org
Catholic Worker Community (Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded for social justice work), various locations; www.catholicworker.org
Habitat For Humanity Habitat for Humanity, nonprofit ecumenical Christian organization that enables low-income people to own affordable, livable housing. Headquartered in Americus, Ga., it was founded in 1976 by businessman Millard Fuller and his wife. (includes Americorps), U.S. and overseas; www.habitat.org
Jesuit Volunteer Corps (Catholic), throughout the U.S.; www.jesuitvolunteers.org
L'Arche USA (mental handicaps/focused), 15 U.S. communities; www.larcheusa.org
Lutheran Volunteer Corps, 10 U.S. cities; www.lutheranvolunteercorps.org
Mennonite Central Committee The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a relief, service, and peace agency representing 15 Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish bodies in North America. The U.S. headquarters are in Akron, Pennsylvania, the Canadian in Winnipeg, Manitoba. , 50 countries including the U.S. and Canada; www.mcc.org
Sojourners Community (evangelical Christian) Washington, D.C.; www.sojo.net
Purposeful Travel Resources
Case Foundation's Resource Page (U.S. and overseas), www.casefoundation.org
Christopher Parker is a freelance writer, teacher, and pastor living in Brattleboro, Vermont. He blogs at www.commonspirit.info.