A fabulous review of the Woodstock spiritual community in the New York Times. Mark Healy, also a past editor at Details Magazine wrote this up about me.
(p.s. it’s pronounced “buh-jun” rhymes with “uhhhh” or “duh-fun” not “bha-jan” rhyming with “mah-jong!”)
By MARK HEALY
Published: October 18, 2002
The New York Times
EVERYTHING you need to know about the spiritual rhythms of the Catskill Mountains is spray-painted on a rock face along Route 28. It’s the sign for om — the mystic syllable of Hinduism — and it’s a subtle suggestion of the energy that vibrates throughout the region.
Some call it the bhajan belt, applying a word derived from Sanskrit for devotional song to an area that stretches from the holistic enterprises of New Paltz to a yoga ranch in Woodbourne. The term fits, for as much as the region is defined by dairy farms, summer campers and a John Deere ruggedness, it is also home (or second home) to the influential stars of the new New Age — people who dine with the Dalai Lama or turn up on the cover of Yoga Journal — and their less celebrated followers. As the Hamptons have become summer destinations for city people who spend weekends sailing, playing polo or maintaining an aggressive social agenda, the mid-Hudson Valley tends to attract those more at home with a yoga mat or a prayer wheel.
Scott Blair spends Monday through Friday as the vice president for merchandising of Clinique, then heads to the 1920’s farmhouse he bought in West Shokan, N.Y., last summer. It’s an easy place for him to get his yoga fix, but it’s more than that. ”Somehow, there’s a vibe up there that gets you to slow down and focus inside,” he said.
The solitude and energy of the area have not escaped the many East-leaning academics, musicians and authors who call the bhajan (BUD-gen) belt home. Robert A. F. Thurman, a Buddhist author and scholar, has had a home in Woodstock for close to 30 years; Sharon Gannon and David Life, the influential founders of the Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan, purchased a place in Woodstock a few years ago.
Sting, one of the early celebrity yogis, has a place in the mid-Hudson Valley, as do a number of Hindu musicians, including the chanter Krishna Das and Baghavan Das, who inspired Ram Dass’s classic New Age memoir, ”Be Here Now.” Shyam Dass, a Sanskrit translator, musician and practitioner of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion), divides his time between northern India and Saugerties, near Woodstock. He is 49 and made his first trip to India when he was 18; when he bought his house in Saugerties four years ago, he said he was pleased to find a rural area with dharma devotees and ‘’several people who can read Sanskrit.”
Shyam Dass isn’t sure who coined the term bhajan belt but said that he thinks it was Mike D of the Beastie Boys, who occasionally goes to the the devotional gatherings at Shyam Dass’s house.
Not surprisingly, the bhajan belt is centered around Woodstock, an island of hippie culture in rural Ulster County. Shyam Dass has a theory about why the belt wraps around this town. Along with ”the quality of the land, he said, ”there’s a wide breadth of acceptability for all types of people trying to understand the deeper elements of existence.”
The town’s spiritual underpinnings — and the commercial manifestations of it — are hard to miss. Every other backyard seems home to a concrete Buddha. (”The fat, happy ones are the best-sellers,” said Gary Gallo of Gallo’s, a nursery and garden supply store in Woodstock.) The local hardware store places Tricycle, a Buddhist quarterly, on the same prominent rack as Time and Newsweek. There’s even a wizened local who has been known to press slips of paper inscribed with a Sanskrit mantra (”om mani padme hum”) into the hands of townspeople.
Woodstock has a history of tolerating alternative thinking. A utopian artists’ colony called Byrdcliffe appeared in the early 1900’s without much resistance, and the town has never really looked back. The American Communist Party held its first meeting in secret at the top of Overlook Mountain in the early 20’s, the New York Arts League flourished there at the beginning of the century and, of course, there was that concert that bore its name (though it wasn’t in it).
Other towns in Ulster County have a similar openness to outsiders. Elizabeth Lesser, author of ”New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide,” said, ”The whole area has a lot more tolerance for out-of-towners, oddballs and eccentrics.” Referring to the largely defunct string of resorts known as the borscht belt, she added: ”That’s why I think Jews found acceptance here. There’s a funkiness that allows for a wider expression of spirituality and the arts. All you have to do is stand on the green in Woodstock and you get your answer. It’s a wacky place.”
Ms. Lesser was drawn to upstate New York during the 70’s by her spiritual adviser, a Sufi mystic named Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. He encouraged Ms. Lesser and her future husband (now former) to form an institute that embraced an ecumenical approach to spirituality. In Rhinebeck, N.Y., they found a camp that had been a bungalow colony run by the Jewish mystic Shalom Aleichem, and created the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. It now has 20,000 visitors a year.
The Catskills are filled with institutes, ashrams and retreat centers, among them the Sivananda Yoga Ranch, in Woodbourne; the Retreat at Big Indian, in Big Indian; the Center for Symbolic Studies, near New Paltz; a Greek Orthodox monastery; and a number of Buddhist monasteries. The Karma Triyana Dharma Chakra center is on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, just down the hill from the scene of that first secretive Communist meeting.
The Shree Muktananda Ashram, a 200-acre retreat in South Fallsburg, is the home of Siddha Yoga meditation in the West. One of the ashram’s buildings is the former Gilbert Hotel, a remnant of the borscht belt, which in many ways made the bhajan belt possible. The old properties proved well suited for groups seeking seclusion and sleeping quarters within a few hours’ drive of New York and Boston.
John Loori, the abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, counts three monasteries as neighbors. ”The Catskills have always been a special place,” he said, ”first for the Native Americans, then the Hasidic, then the Hindus and the Buddhists.”
Mr. Loori arrived in the area with a 13th-century scroll about the role of mountains and rivers in Buddhism by a Zen master named Dogen Zenji. On his first day at his monastery he went into town for a cup of coffee. He picked up The Woodstock Times, which, to his astonishment, had an article on the same obscure scroll he had brought with him. ”I went over to the paper’s office and asked, ‘Where did you find out about Dogen Zenji?’ And the man replied, ‘Doesn’t everybody know about Dogen Zenji?’ I knew I was in the right place.”
Dr. Thurman, the author and a professor of religion at Columbia University, stresses that Woodstock’s spiritual awareness began long before there were Ayurvedic healers on the main strip and drum circles on the village green. ”There’s a kind of magic to it,” he explained. ”The natives that lived here used the mountain as kind of a holy place. They’d go up there to hunt and bury people and would use it for vision quests.”
This month, a few miles north in Phonecia, Dr. Thurman, who is also the father of Uma Thurman, will open his own center: the Menla House Retreat, a study center and a spa offering traditional Tibetan medicine and a place to meditate, learn massage or take a steam bath.
An airy 19th-century barn in Woodstock has been a gateway of sorts for many future bhajan-belters. Here, Iyengar yoga classes are taught by Barbara Boris, who bought the barn in 1992 with her husband, Martin Brading, a photographer.
The founders of the Jivamukti Yoga Center, Sharon Gannon and David Life, have been guests, as have more than a few men who have named themselves Das — Sanskrit for devotee.
Ms. Boris said that while Woodstock has a reputation as a ”hippie artist colony,” most people ”aren’t as alternative as you’d think.” Still, those who prostrate themselves at her weekly classes include the founders of the Omega Institute, a handful of therapists and at least one Buddhist psychologist.
She thinks it may have been the arrival of Shree Muktananda in the early 70’s that helped energize the region. ”That kind of charged the whole area with shakti,” she said.
Whatever the region’s appeal, it is clearly drawing more people. Yet the core charms remain. ”There is still an abundance of wildlife,” said Ms. Gannon, an avid animal rights advocate who relishes seeing wild turkeys, skunks and bears in her backyard. ”This is in itself pretty extraordinary considering Woodstock is 100 miles from New York City.”
Woodland creatures aside, Ms. Gannon likes the Hindu notion of satsang, of surrounding oneself with like-minded people. ”Our friends are dharma practitioners, and it is very important to be near others who are interested in following a spiritual lifestyle,” she said.
Shyam Dass wryly calls the bhajan belt a kind of promised land, its forests and peaks as close to an American Mecca as it comes.
”Our parents were not into these practices,” he said. ”We are pioneers, pilgrims in unchartered lands, and the bhajan belt is a good place to wander.”
© The New York Times