Permaculture in Spiritual Community

Colin Eldridge
Tuesday, 8th October 2019

Conflicted or interests or perfect match? Colin Eldridge explores the role of permaculture in a yoga community based on 86 acres of agricultural land.

At the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California, daily life can be an interesting and exacting experience. For one, things are done differently than the ‘status quo’ and strict yogic guidelines are followed. We follow a vegetarian diet and stick to a disciplined schedule that involves daily meditation and yoga.

Spiritual community is at the core of the lifestyle at the Yoga Farm. The primary focus and mission of the Sivananda organization is the dissemination and propagation of classical yoga. We teach yoga from a holistic perspective and it is a way of life rather than solely physical exercise. 

Our director and head teacher Swami Sitaramananda often jokes that the Yoga Farm ‘grows yogis’. For a long time, that statement was exclusively true. Until relatively recently, the Yoga Farm didn’t produce crops for harvest, despite the fact that the 35 hectare (86 acre) property is designated as agricultural land to the U.S. government. 

Developing the Farm

The Yoga Farm was established in 1971 and the first garden was planted in the early ’90s. Since then we’ve expanded our garden, added a greenhouse, llama/alpaca/goat pen, solar panels, orchards and lavender fields. These projects and more were possible because of the dedication of our volunteers. It is the spirit of volunteerism that allows the community to flourish.

Everyone who lives at the Ashram, even the director, is a volunteer. And to be honest, we are often short handed. For this reason, it can be a challenge to see certain projects come to fruition – especially permaculture projects. 

We’ve implemented small and slow solutions where we can: struggling fruit tree guilds here and there, dappled hugelkultur and sheet mulching in the garden, experiments with polycultures, composting, no-till methods in the lavender fields, fertilizing with on-site pond algae and llama manure ... the list goes on. Often, projects are started and then fall apart until somebody comes along and revamps it.

Despite these challenges, community continues to present itself as the most valuable resource. As many permaculturists and gardeners know, many hands makes light work. Many hands also makes that work more enjoyable. As somebody who wants to see permaculture projects thrive, I’ve learned that collaboration is vital. Guided by permaculture principles, below are some practical ways that we’ve expanded our permaculture department with the help of our community.

Observe and Interact

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word ‘Śuśrūsate’ translates to ‘the desire to listen to’ and ‘to serve’. The two meanings go hand in hand. For me, that is an indispensable lesson. When I first arrived at the Yoga Farm, I wasn’t good at listening. One could say I was overzealous in wanting to implement permaculture.

I got frustrated because there wasn’t enough time or people to do it at the scale I wanted. My ego got in the way and I started criticizing everything around me for not being ‘permaculture-y enough’. The longer I stayed, watching and participating in the community, I realized that my narrow ideas of ‘how it should be’ were limiting my capacity to see ‘what could be’.

Once my mind and emotions calmed down, I was able to take a step back and really listen. I was able to surrender and let go of my preconceived notions and judgements. I learned that before trying to change a system, it’s best to learn how it works. 

I learned that the primary driving force behind the community was yoga and selfless service, not permaculture. Although permaculture was valued and desired, it was seen as a means to an end. It was only one of many methods to reach the organization’s mission of inner and outer peace.

This new-found clarity helped me collaborate with others without agitating the community structure. To do that, I had to stop trying to assert my own structure. As soon as I aligned with the systems already in place, the next steps became obvious.

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©Sivananda Yoga Farm - PDC students lay straw down on a swale that they just dug in the garden

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©Sivananda Yoga Farm - A permaculture service day volunteer helps plant a peach tree guild with clover, oregano, lupine, daffodils, lavender and more

Design from Pattern to Detail

The existing pattern was that we already had a lot of yoga retreats, and that guests often wanted to help in the garden. We knew that permaculture ethics and principles nest well with yoga philosophy. So why not create more permaculture and yoga programs? A fellow permaculture enthusiast and I proposed it to the Swamis (the monks in charge) and they were into it.

Every first Sunday of the month, the Yoga Farm now offers a ‘Permaculture Service Day’ where guests help us work on the land for four hours and enjoy two organic vegetarian meals, a permaculture workshop, yoga class and tour. We made the program coincide with our open house, so that guests could learn more about the community and participate in it for free.

After that, it was easy to coordinate more programs because we followed the existing educational structure. We already had a Permaculture Design Course and a couple other weekend courses, so we simply expanded from there.

We now offer monthly permaculture programs where guests gain valuable experience through implementing simple and small projects on the land. It creates a symbiotic relationship with guests where we also benefit from their helping hands. Many permaculture institutions use this model, which seems to work well when done ethically and with careful consideration.

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©Sivananda Yoga Farm - A group of garden volunteers smile in the sunshine

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©Sivananda Yoga Farm - A Yoga Farm staff member uses a hula hoe to weed around the bases of young lavender plants, leaving the rest as groundcover

Integrate Rather than Segregate

For more educational programs to take place, we needed experienced practitioners to help teach them. That’s where community outreach came in handy.

We sent representatives to the NorCal Permaculture Convergence to teach a yoga class and a workshop about our permaculture efforts. In between teaching we were able to cross-pollinate with fellow permaculturists. We also sent folks to volunteer at the Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley, California. It was there that we met local farmers in our bioregion.

Once we had a network beginning to germinate, we reached out to some of the permaculturists we met. The first new course we offered was a social permaculture intensive with Ryan Rising from the Permaculture Action Network. The course was a hit with the highest attendance out of our other permaculture courses!

We invited Karmendra Rossy, a Gaia University graduate that we met at the Permaculture Convergence, to help us design a greywater system blueprint for our new laundry and bath houses.

These are just a couple of examples of how opening our doors and networking with others allowed more opportunities to blossom.

We also began integrating more ashramites into our permaculture projects. Often our volunteers were too busy with other tasks to help out with permaculture. To tackle this issue, we introduced Karma Yoga parties once a week. During these parties, a handful of folks who are normally not in the garden get together and work on a project.

The Swamis also started hosting morning Satsangs in the lavender fields. Everyone came together to enjoy Nature and each other’s company while they pruned, weeded and layed down sheet mulch. Bringing people together in these ways helped raise spirits and encourage interconnection.

Use and Value Diversity

Participants in our courses and service days come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are experienced gardeners who want to learn more about permaculture. Others are new to the subject. All of them have useful insights about ways we can improve our systems. Counterbalancing those observations with the opinions of our long-term volunteers helps bring a rich diversity of ideas to the table.

Obtain a Yield

Interconnection, joy and meaning are all yields in community life. Another useful yield is information. As much as possible, we try to document and record what we do. It helps us see what works and what doesn’t. It also helps us pass down information and procedure when duties switch hands. This article is an example of that documentation. 

Accept Feedback and Apply Self-Regulation

Permaculture program participants always fill out feedback forms, which is another way we harvest information. Feedback helps us apply self-regulation because we then know what needs improvement. We noticed that many students wanted more breaks in between class time. The best feedback we got was that guests wanted more garden time. So in the future, we will intersperse shorter class times with more hands-on time.

Small and Slow Solutions – Looking to the Future

The most important thing that I remind myself is this: although the faces often change at the Yoga Farm, the spiritual premise of the community doesn’t. Finding small, slow and realistic ways to plug in permaculture to that spiritual structure is a nuance that takes time. Patience is key when creating resilient systems.

With that being said, we still have a lot of work to do. Our goal is to implement something that is more self-supported by Nature. What gives me hope is the sheer amount of selfless dedication and interest that so many people have put into the Yoga Farm, not only in permaculture projects but in every aspect of communal and spiritual life.

Colin Eldridge is a volunteer yoga teacher and permaculture faculty member at the Sivananda Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California on occupied Nisenan territory. He offers education, consultations, design and event coordination through his project Fractal Permaculture. He is currently writing an eBook on patterns in Nature and a book on Yoga and Permaculture. Colin can be reached at: fractalpermaculture@gmail.com

Useful links

Mind and body benefits of walking everyday

What is spiritual ecology in action?

Natural springs - metaphors for life

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