Skanda Vale Monastery

»Hard work and no pay in rural Wales«

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At the Skanda Vale Monastery, saluting the sun is more likely to involve sweating in the fields at dawn than stretching on a yoga mat. This is where Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga are practiced, neither of which have anything to do with physical poses and deep breathing. This is an ashram for pilgrims, all of whom are here to strengthen their connection with God by working selflessly for others. It's a tough experience, not a holiday, but beds here are always in demand.

  • What we love
  • The green and peaceful Welsh countryside
  • Chance to participate in an authentic working monastery
  • Tolerant interfaith ethos
  • What to know
  • No smoking or meat-eating permitted
  • All food and accommodation is free
  • Single women must be accompanied by a female friend
  • Children allowed
  • Why go
  • Selfless service to very worthy causes
  • Authentic ashram experience
  • A different kind of yoga

In the unlikely location of rural Wales is an interfaith ashram. Populated by monks and nuns, Skanda Vale welcomes more than 90,000 visitors each year. This staggering number arrive with a single purpose – to give their time and energy to the good works of Skanda Vale in the spirit of divine living.

The words ashram and monastery are interchangeable. No matter what the faith, the purpose is always the same: to gradually cut the bonds between the individual and the material world, and create new ones between the individual and their God, whichever name is used. Skanda Vale have dubbed themselves The Community of the Many Names of God, illustrating their faith in a higher power without limiting themselves to a particular religion.

Those who live here are monks and nuns. They have taken the Franciscan vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and follow a deeply disciplined path of Bhakti Yoga (worship) and Karma Yoga (work). These types of yoga are like a living prayer - selfless service, in the name of the Divine.

Those who visit are not just guests or visitors. They are ordinary people who have become pilgrims to Skanda Vale, searching for deeper meaning in life and willing to give of themselves to others. 'Others' does not only mean other people. One of the fundamental tenets of Skanda Vale is that all life is sacred. This has led to an extensive animal shelter on the grounds, including a temple elephant and an assortment of formerly neglected and abused strays, farm animals and household pets. It is forbidden to even pick flowers, and pilgrims, especially children, are strongly requested not to do so.

An entirely non-profit organization, Skanda Vale offer accommodation and food free of charge. They are supported wholly by donation, usually made by guests, and there are no 'recommended donation amounts' or acknowledgments of the donation's source. Skanda Vale specifically request that all donations remain anonymous, to avoid the self-aggrandizement of large donations or the possible embarrassment of small ones.

Booking a bed requires at least 24 hours notice as the ashram, despite being open year-round, is too popular to be able to accommodate walk-ins at any time of year. Meals are vegetarian and pilgrims are requested to observe a three-day 'detox' before arriving on-site, consuming no meat or alcohol and using no illegal drugs. Anyone who has breached this request must sit at the rear of the temple during the thrice-daily Puja (worship), and women who are menstruating must observe the same rule. All visitors to the ashram must attend all Pujas. These are held five times each day, with the first at 5am, and extra services for special events. All faiths are treated equally here although the services themselves are largely based on Hindu and Buddhist rituals with a weekly Sunday evening Christian service.

Skanda Vale Monastery is founded on the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Specifically, the concept that all forms of God are essentially the same thing, and worship of any kind is legitimate and valuable. This is the earliest known form of interfaith, a tolerance and understanding of the world's religions that is becoming well-known to the point of being fashionable. The ashram's guru, Sri Subramanium, bought the then-derelict farmhouse in the 1960s and a small community began to grow, with the help of a few goats who naturally eradicated the brambles that overgrew the property. From stark and humble beginnings, the monastery is now a full network. The on-site buildings include three temples, a non-profit hospice designed specifically to bring homely comfort to those with life-threatening illnesses, and the main buildings designated to administration, meals and accommodation. Another Skanda Vale Monastery has recently opened in Switzerland.

Pilgrims can participate in Karma Yoga in a variety of ways. Volunteers at the hospice are always welcome, particularly those with medical skills and talents in the arts of cooking (the meals are deliberately delicious), organizing fun activities, building maintenance or simply reading aloud to those who are no longer able to do so. Skanda Vale is a regular donator to local food banks, and many pilgrims lend a hand packing and distributing the excess food given to the ashram. Ad-hoc daily tasks are vital to the running of the ashram. Chopping vegetables, tending the garden, stacking hay bales, or cleaning – all the jobs that would have a normal person grumbling at home are done here with a light spirit and regular laughter.

There is something undeniably joyful about completing a task with others, in the spirit of true giving. The Skanda Vale Monastery has long recognized the peace and satisfaction to be found in doing something well, with the whole body and mind, not for acknowledgement but simply to be part of something greater than oneself. This is perhaps the key to the ashram's popularity – not necessarily the religious services or the crisp clean air of Wales, although these things certainly don't hurt. Rather, the basic human satisfaction of honestly earned tiredness, a team effort, and a job well done.

About the area: Carmathen

Sometimes called the Garden of Wales, Carmathen and surrounding Carmarthenshire are part of the fertile farming belt of west Wales. This is the picture-postcard land of rolling green hills, seemingly endless views and the occasional farmer complete with Aran-knit sweater tending his flock. The weather is, in typical UK fashion, more often cold and rainy than clear and warm. Winter averages drop to around 2 degrees C and summers barely nudge 20 degrees C. Nonetheless, for those who pack warm clothes, a day spent wandering the hills and dales of the region can be the kind of low-key enjoyment that the region is best suited for. This goes double when clambering over the remains of the fortresses and castles that dot the landscape.

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