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The School of Life: Spirituality in D.C.

By Lindsay Maizland | 5/12/16 9:49pm | Updated 5/12/16 9:54pm
Lindsay Maizland / American Word Magazine

With new yoga centers popping up throughout D.C. and the rise of yoga-exercise fusion gyms catering to fitness-focused, spandex-wearing young people, it seems that many have neglected the core of what yoga is really about: spiritual development.


The School of Life Ashram, a yoga-centered spiritual community in Bethesda, is a sanctuary for individuals seeking spiritual rejuvenation and a quiet space to refocus on the self. Although it’s located in the heart of the city, by stepping into the School of Life, students and visitors are transported miles away from D.C.’s constant pressure and stress.


Lindsay Maizland | American Word Magazine

Durga at the School of Life. 

“It’s so much a part of our culture that you go and say, ‘What do you do?’ And then that is supposedly what defines a person or what defines a place. And really that gets at the heart of what the ashram is about. It’s about personal transformation,” said Durga, an AU alum who has been living there for 17 years.


Seventeen years ago, Durga was “desolate” and “directionless,” searching for a community to call home. Vyasa, the guru and teacher of yoga at the School of Life, and his wife Lakshmi opened their home to Durga and another woman. Thus, the idea for the School of Life was born.


Since then, the School of Life has been home to over 100 individuals who stay from a few weeks to several years. Many come to the ashram when they are at points of transition in their lives. “Some people are in crisis of different kinds – spiritual, physical, whatever. They need a safe place to come and to center themselves to get their bearings, and then to reform themselves and go back out to life,” said Durga.


Gayatri, a yoga professor at American University and known to her students as Brigid Rauch, was at a point of transition when she quit her full-time job and moved into the ashram in 2007. She was pregnant and experiencing problems with her husband when she felt an unexplainable pull toward the ashram. She asked the guru if she could move in, he asked for how long; she knew that she didn’t have any intention of ever leaving.


Seven individuals now permanently live in the ashram, but their doors are always unlocked for members of the wider community to join a variety of classes, participate in weekly meditation sessions on Friday and Saturday nights or seek guidance from the guru.


But the School of Life can get busy sometimes. “Some people think of ashrams as quiet places and that people meditate all day, but that’s so far from the truth,” said Lakshmi, the ashram’s main administrator and finance manager. The permanent residents and community volunteers operate three organizations: the Global Coalition for Peace, the Essene Church of Peace and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). All three initiatives provide students with the opportunity to practice karma yoga, focusing on selfless action and service.


The School of Life fills voids they notice in the DMV community. The Global Coalition for Peace offers educational programs to spread the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence. The Essene Church of Peace gives back to the community, including preparing meals for 150 homeless individuals in Franklin Square every Sunday. The CSA grew out of the students’ need for good quality food unavailable in D.C. when the ashram first started. They connected with a biodynamic farmer in Pennsylvania and started purchasing his produce for the students. Now the CSA provides food for at least 145 families in the area. Families pick up their food from the ashram every Wednesday.


Although the School of Life offers much to the community, they weren’t always accepted. According to Durga, back in the 80s when most people hear about a communal home with a man called a guru, they think, “It must be a cult.” Nowadays, the ashram has met with the local neighborhood council to clarify their purpose and goals; people in the neighborhood no longer have concerns. The School of Life continues to positively affect the individuals that pass through its doors and the community at large.


“People come here and have their lives touched and changed and ultimately for the better. And that’s what makes this place so sacred and so beautiful,” said Durga.


To learn more about the School of Life, visit http://www.schooloflife.org/.