Dharma & Me

In the 1970s, a teenager set out to escape a stuffy city only to discover there’s no place like home.

To look at it now, moving into a yoga commune in 1974 was the act of an 18-year-old girl seeking a whole family. My own had splintered dramatically; both my parents had left the city, and I was on my own. My objective was similar: to leave Cincinnati and its stodgy, soporific temperament for art school and adventure and the bright lights of a big city. Anything to get away from my buttoned-down hometown.

But first, I needed money. Sharing an apartment near Mariemont with a girlfriend, I baked bread to sell from our tiny kitchen. No one talked about artisan bread back then, so at $3 a loaf (the grocery store variety cost less than a dollar) my target customer was a financially comfortable one—primarily the parents of my Indian Hill high school friends, who took pity on me when I showed up on their doorstep hawking misshapen bagels. 

Marijuana was still affordable then, and much of my income went towards keeping myself and friends immobile on the couch listening to Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead. My roommate Paula had a more structured job, working for a group of people from Bloomington, Indiana, who’d moved to Cincinnati to reopen a historic restaurant called Mecklenburg Gardens. The Indiana crowd lived together, all 18 of them, in a big house in Clifton. They practiced yoga—something I was marginally familiar with thanks to WCET’s Lilias! Yoga and You—and they worked together at “Mecks.” I was fascinated by the stories Paula brought home about these enigmatic yogis. One day I was invited to a class, and my life changed forever.

The class was not yoga, as Americans know it today. To my novice eyes, the teacher merely sat cross-legged on a raised platform, the students seated randomly on the floor in front of him. In his late 20s, handsome, ripped beneath his snug orange T-shirt, he would silently scan the room, lock eyes with a student, they’d stare at each other for a few minutes, and then his gaze would move to another. Nothing else seemed to be happening. Or so I thought until one of the students started convulsively shaking, then somersaulted backwards. Backwards. What the hell? I had never seen the yoga lady on Channel 48 move like this. Whatever was going on, I knew it was a different sort of high. In a matter of months, I’d moved into the Sri Rudrananda Ashram.

Ashram is a Sanskrit word referring to a spiritual community, and that’s how we lived and worked as we struggled to integrate an ancient Eastern philosophy into our Queen City lives. As our group grew, we sought out successively larger homes—most notably, two mansions in North Avondale. Understandably, a yoga commune in the midst of the neighborhood made people suspicious. From the neighbors’ perspective, yoga meant a coven of hippies practicing secretive, paganistic rituals and doing yard work half naked (OK, so that much was true). Through hate mail, neighborhood consortiums, and zoning laws we were chased out of each mansion, finally settling into a large apartment building across from Mecklenburg Gardens.

If our lifestyle was an affront to many Cincinnatians, our food was not. By 1975, Mecklenburg Gardens (with the brilliant Rob Fogel as chef, and me turning out pastries) had been named a four-star restaurant. Still, the headlines we made most often were not gastronomical. The most sensational was when family members abducted our chef de cuisine for “deprogramming.” Twice.

Four years in the Sri Rudrananda Ashram—and Mecklenburg Gardens—were some of the most colorful moments in my life. My experiences there set the professional and personal course I follow today: I teach and practice yoga and earn my living in the world of food. And I learned an Oz-like lesson: The adventure and artistic life I sought was always right here—literally right under my nose. This city harbors plenty of countercultural experiences. Artisan bread, yoga, and half-naked gardening? That’s so Cincinnati.

Donna Covrett has been Cincinnati Magazine’s dining editor since 2005.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue.

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