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Nostalgic For My Ashram

This time of year I get nostalgic for sleep-away camp. Camp Seneca along the shores of Whaley Lake in Pawling, New York was my haven for 7 summers. What wasn’t to love…swimming, water skiing, basketball, and for those less athletically inclined, arts and crafts.

During those eight weeks of summer, I saw my parents only once and talked to them for about 5 minutes a week. (no cell phones or emails then).

I loved the daily ritual…reveille, flag raising, meals in a dining hall with about 150 girls, clean up, inspection (hospital corners) activities, letter writing, rest, more activities and taps. Every day we were told what to wear and where to go.

Most of all I loved that I could be someone completely different then I was during the year at school. I could shed habits that were no longer useful and indulge in both my geeky side by reading and my inner jockette by serving hard during tennis matches. I had a different set of friends than the ones from home. They lived with me, a bunk bed away and knew my peculiarities and fears. My counselors were in large part kind and sincere…although not much older than me.

All in all camp life was idyllic.

I’ve come to realize it was a lot like an ashram…complete with fire ceremonies and the telling of mythic tales (but we told Native American ones). And, while there wasn’t a Guru…there was a wise head counselor who could be compassionate if you fell and broke a bone, or fierce if you left your bunk on an evening raid to boy’s camp.

At Camp Seneca the girl’s even had a code of ethics…kind of like the Yama and Niyama. They were called the “Seven S’s”. Sisterhood, spirit, sportsmanship, service, sincerity, skills and squaw character. Skills was a lot like the physical aspects of a yoga practice. After all, how to get better at catching a softball is not much different than making your way more gracefully from warrior 1 to warrior 3. The secret is practice.

Sincerity was a desire to do away with youthful irony and sarcasm. An attempt to be more peaceful and sattvic. Sisterhood were my peeps…my bunkmates, my division, my sangha. We looked out for one another and that led into service or how I could use the skills I developed to help others.

This year while studying A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life with Lama Pema Wangdak, he talked about the ability to rejoice in the success of others. I think that’s what sportsmanship was all about. And spirit…well that was the Jewish forerunner of my challenges with Ishvara Pranidhana.

Perhaps the most difficult “S” of all was squaw character, culturally appropriated and controversial. Squaw is a word that some think means a “woman’s sexual parts” and other think means the “totality of being female”, “a woman of the woods” or a “female chief.” (It’s a mistranslated term that was stolen from the Algonquins rather vs. the Indians of Southeast Asia.) But to me, it meant a way of being in the world, of holding yourself with grace and being able to observe your actions and the actions of others. In other words, being a yogi.

As summer approaches and trees become dense with leaves and warm waters call me to dive in, I reflect on life at Camp Seneca. I can’t help but think it set me up for the life I lead now. The rituals, the practice, the community and the attempt to adhere to an ethical code. Perhaps even the desire to find the totality of my female nature and put it to good use for others.

--Brette Popper

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