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A Bit of India in Pittsburgh s Back Yard?

During an intense personal journey in recent years, I ve discovered that the more I m able to know my true self, the more my perception of the world changes. As a result, my surroundings have changed as well ?people, places, directions. At one point, internal and external changes happened so rapidly, it was difficult to fully process anything; I felt overwhelmed.

Amid urges to explore so many new directions, all at the same time, it became impossible to focus. My initial instinct was to flee to India, where I could peacefully stay at an ashram and process all that was transpiring in my mind. Although circumstances kept me from traveling abroad, I knew I needed to simplify. That s when I remembered an old issue of Point of Light I d kept. I dug it out and quickly flipped through the pages? There it was: Peaceful Valley Ashram & Retreat, located just north of Pittsburgh!

My desire to be in India, to experience the extreme peace and spirituality that comes from staying in an ashram, was about to be fulfilled in a way I had never dreamed possible ? within two hours of my own back yard. I immediately contacted Peaceful Valley and arranged for a 10-day personal retreat. An ashram located right outside of Pittsburgh ? could the universe have made things any more convenient

My husband and 12-year-old daughter were dropping me off, knowing that I needed to get away even if they couldn t fully understand why. When we arrived, I must have known subconsciously that it was best to separate from my loved ones without my emotions getting in the way. As such, my memory of first arriving, after a quiet two-hour ride, is rather sketchy. Dealing with the quickly looming separation, I couldn t truly see or consider the ashram at that point.

We were warmly greeted at the door and shown to the guest rooms, from which I could choose any room or bed I wanted. I asked my daughter to choose for me, reasoning that it might prove meaningful for her to know that she picked the room and bed I d be staying in for the next 10 days.

A few moments later, outside at the car, there were lots of hugs and kisses, no tears, and an emotionally disconnected goodbye on my part. As they drove away, I waved once more and turned to see the ashram for the first time. The main building was three-stories tall, all painted red brick. Its enclosed front porch was lined with large windows through which I could see a statue of Lord Ganesha waiting to greet me as I reentered. I chose to not hang around with anyone that evening, so I simply said goodnight. It was early still, but I was eager to start my personal retreat.

In my room, I slowly unpacked my things. My daughter had tucked a note into the side pouch of my suitcase. I opened it up and read: Hi Mommy. I hope you re having a very good time. I m sure right now I miss you. I hope you re having lots of ?realizations? or whatever you wanted to happen. I love you, love you, love you. That s when my body knew what it needed to do.

I cried, curled up into a ball on the chair in the room, and sobbed as hard as I used to cry as a child. All of the emotions I d held inside came rushing out. I questioned what I had done, how I could have left my family, why I was there, and whether I could somehow contact my husband and ask him to come back to pick me up (we don t have cell phones, so this was impossible). I calmed myself a bit and then I cried even harder. I missed them, realized I don t like being separated from my husband, didn t want to go to sleep every night without kissing my daughter goodnight. Yet, from deep inside, I heard my inner voice advising to give it time; I was there for a reason that couldn t be realized if I gave up. So, I dressed for bed, brushed my teeth, and cried myself to sleep.

That first evening I couldn t sleep soundly; not because I was in a new place, but because I didn t want to miss the morning meditation and chanting at 6:00 a.m. One reason I m continually drawn to India, its people, and traditions, is because of the spirituality woven into every aspect of a person s life. It has always seemed like such a beautiful way to live. I was looking forward to the spiritual aspects of staying in an ashram as much as I was looking forward to the quiet time to calm my mind.

Since I didn t have a watch or alarm clock, I asked to be woken up for meditation. I wanted to be ready early, however, in case there wasn t enough time to change out of my bed clothes. So, I tossed and turned a lot, fading in and out of sleep. At one point, I figured it must have been close to 5:30 a.m., so I took a quick shower and dressed. I walked downstairs to the kitchen to find that it wasn t even 4:00 a.m. yet. So, I crawled back into bed and fell asleep. Before 6:00 a.m. there was a knock on my door to wake me for the morning meditation (and later that day there was a new alarm clock waiting for me to use during the rest of my stay).

Morning meditations and chanting were highlights of my stay at Peaceful Valley. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. anyone staying in the ashram was welcome to meet in the yoga room to participate in a group meditation, followed by some chanting and an inspirational talk given by the ashram s spiritual teacher, Leela Mata (who comes from the Sivananda lineage of spiritual teachers and studied directly under Swami Vishnu Devananda).

The entire ashram springs from Leela Mata s vision to create a place for those seeking respite, spiritual guidance, and enlightenment. In India, ashrams are traditionally located in natural settings, with a spiritual teacher present to guide residents in spiritual instruction and meditation. That s exactly what has been created here in Pittsburgh s back yard! The ashram is situated on 12 acres and includes many outbuildings that will one day be used for guest rooms, Ayurvedic treatment rooms, a large yoga space, training rooms, an outdoor caf , a restaurant, and a community hall (in the large barn that is on the property).

The meditation room was silent when I entered that first morning. A few candles dimly flickered on an altar in front of Hindu God and Goddess statues and framed pictures of enlightened teachers, including one of Leela Mata. Beautiful potted flowers adorned either side of the altar, next to which Mata Ji (a respectful way to address Leela Mata) sat on a slightly raised platform. A few chairs and tiny cushions formed an arc in front of the altar area; people were already sitting there, in silent meditation, when I arrived.

I quietly sat on the floor next to Mataji and crossed my legs to begin meditating. The room filled with the sound of AUM, called out three times, and then everyone meditated. I found it a little difficult to meditate that first morning; I was too conscious of my surroundings and the sounds of the crickets outside that were followed by the sounds of birds once the sun started to rise.

After approximately half an hour, the sound of AUM again filled the room and was followed by a procession of chants that vibrated throughout the room and filled me with energy. Most of the chants were sung in Hindi, but some of them were in English. They were easy to follow because of the repetition as well as their mentioning familiar Hindu God and Goddess names.

Incidentally, I was surprised at one point to hear the names of Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, and other non-Hindu religious leaders being sung within one of the chants. Mata Ji explained that all spiritual leaders are respected at Peaceful Valley Ashram. In fact, I noticed a framed picture of Jesus on the wall above the statue of Lord Ganesha in the main building entrance. So, it became clear that this place wasn t exactly like an ashram in India; it still followed the main concepts, of course, but combined Eastern beliefs and practices with the Western world (traditional American clothing, English being spoken by everyone, etc.).

After the chanting and a special light ceremony, called Aarti, a small offering of raisins and nuts was passed around the room for everyone to share. Then Mata Ji gave a talk about the importance of following Ayurvedic time cycles. She explained that it s best to wake before 6:00 a.m. to keep the body more Pitta (alert). If you sleep past 6:00 a.m., you enter the Kapha cycle, which tends to make it more difficult to concentrate during the day.

It was fascinating to learn more about Ayurvedic principles since I d read about them in the past and appreciated how they re based mostly on science. I felt fortunate to be in the presence of someone who had studied Ayurveda under the well-known Dr. Vasant Lad, who was then sharing that knowledge with anyone interested in listening. During my stay, I gained a great deal of wisdom and insight from Mata Ji s guided meditations and talks.

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My days were mostly spent wandering the grounds of the ashram and sitting in my room, emptying my mind (which was quickly beginning to quiet) onto paper. Among the many interesting places on the grounds, I usually gravitated toward some wonderful mature maple trees under which I would sit and meditate, or a pile of flat rocks on which I could sit and admire the beauty of the place. I also greatly enjoyed rocking in a chair on the front porch, next to Leela Mata s 95-year-old mother who was filled with love and sweetness.

Every morning and evening, time was set aside for group meditation, chanting, and satsang (the wisdom talks given by Mata Ji). There were also yoga classes, different from any I d taken before, open for anyone to join. The style of yoga taught is called Sampoorma Yoga, developed by Leela Mata with Yogi Hari while she was directing the Yoga Vedanta Center in Fort Lauderdale. I have since learned that this style of yoga has been taught to many teachers who have spread Sampoorma Yoga over the globe. It s very peaceful and gentle.

Throughout my stay, I met and befriended many residents of the local community who stopped by to participate in classes or the evening meditation, chanting, and satsang. I wondered how they must feel, to have an ashram literally in their own back yards.

For me, it may not have been a trip to India, but everything I wished to accomplish by going away to India was gained. I was able to process many of the changes that had been occurring in my life, make plans for some new adventures I ll be starting, and gain personal insight and know what I want for myself.

When my husband and daughter arrived to pick me up, they found a different person waiting for them. I had shed the outer layer of stress I d been wearing for too long and was glowing with inner peace and inspiration, ready to truly live my life as a whole person. I m still filled with peace and inspiration after my retreat at Peaceful Valley, and plan on making it an ongoing part of my spiritual and emotional care.

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Leela Mata s Peaceful Valley Ashram is located in Clarion, PA, less than two hours north of Pittsburgh. Leela Mata has been teaching internationally for many years, and offers a wide range of classes at the ashram (yoga, Ayurveda, meditation, etc.). If you d like to find out more about the ashram, visit www.LeelaMata.com.