My time in an ashram
It’s early. I feel good though. I’m ready. Cross the legs comfortably. Sit tall and still. Close the eyes. Relax the body. Focus the mind…Crap, I left my clothes line at the last spot. Dag. Maybe I can pick one up in…NO. Stop it. Here and now. Om…Where the flip did all these mosquito bites come from?! Mosquitos are ruining my mediation. Ugh. Get it together. Deep breath, straight spine. Focus. Om…I got this, just relax with a quick little head roll, and-oh man, that’s good. Fine, a small bend at the waist to reset. Well hell, might as well give the legs a little shake. Then for real, do it right! Ok, get up, start over. Eh, who am I kidding? Now I’m just rolling around on the floor like a child. Sigh. How is everyone else so still? Maybe this could be considered movement meditation? Ha. Just kidding. I totally suck at this…How long do we have to do this for?
It’s not exactly a mantra for meditation, but this is how my first day at the ashram started. I had arrived late the night before, past all the activities. I was quickly and quietly escorted to my dorm with no chance to scan the grounds or get my bearings. I was excited to start the next day and met the pre-dawn bell without hesitation. But all of my over zealous enthusiasm for this spiritual endeavor came to a sudden halt. My frustrating meditation was followed by full on chanting, singing and prayer in Sanskrit. Um I’m sorry, did someone say prayer? Cause yeah, I don’t do that…Why does this feel so religious? These people sound insane.
I figured a trip to India wouldn’t be complete without the quintessential spiritual experience, right? Certainly, after the chaos of India, indulging in the other end of the spectrum seemed natural. After all, I practice yoga and meditation. I’ve dabbled in chanting and explored the philosophy of yoga beyond the physical aspect for years. A visit to an ashram in its motherland seemed obvious. Turns out, the deep end of that pool is a lot bigger than I realized. I mean, I knew it would be challenging and more involved than any practice I’ve ever done, but by my first hour I felt like I was drowning.
The schedule is tight. It’s rise and shine at 5:20am for a day filled with four hours of satsung (chanting, meditation, prayer, talk), four hours of asana practice (the physical stuff), an hour of lecture, two half hour feeding times, some practice time, some tea time, and a little social hour. The day ends around 10pm and it’s light out by 10:30pm. It will make you very tired. The ashram is far removed from hectic Indian life outside. Its tall protective walls encase the feeling of safety, peace, and nurturing love. And the mountains that hover around make it feel all the more secure. Inside, everyone moves slowly, calmly, with faint smiles and soft eyes. Dressed in comfortable, loose clothes, people from all over the world discuss life over tea, chant, study, practice asanas, execute their karma yoga duties. A calm vibration is steady in the space, making the outside world seem unappealing.
The accommodations are bare bones. Mosquito nets and fans, hard beds, cold showers, shared bathrooms. The food is strictly vegetarian, but no eggs, onion, or garlic allowed. Simple grain and local seasonal vegetables are the staple with minimal use of spice and are served in a basic dining hall. Food is served to rows of yogis seated on the floor. The right hand only is intended to bring food to the mouth. Meals are to be eaten in complete silence. One should focus on digestion, not discussion. This is not a resort, this is an ashram. Please wash your dishes properly when finished.
Everything is simple but adequate. It does not leave you wanting.
Ok, so the morning of day one took me a little by surprise, but it only got better fast. A great asana practice followed by meeting several wonderful people put me right at ease and I was enjoying myself in no time. A couple compelling yet rational lectures helped remind my very non-worship, non-religious mind that yoga, in fact, is not a religion, though it is very spiritual. This is key. I stopped paying attention to the fact that the acoustics of the large space were very reminiscent to a church and reminded myself that the word prayer is only a word I had attached a specific association to. I started paying attention to the message, which is all about love, peace, and embracing diversity. Who can get offended by that? I made a conscious effort to take down my defenses and just sit back, listen, and learn. I learned a lot. My opinion didn’t matter, I only had to be open. I came to the ashram, it was up to me what I would take away from it.
The physical part of the day came more naturally to me. It’s much easier to steady the mind while moving through familiar poses and let’s be honest, easier on the ego to do something it knows. My body had been craving bending and stretching. Hours and days spent on buses and trains over the last six weeks had wreaked havoc on my joints and muscles. I indulged in every breathe of movement fully… until day three that is. On day three I hurt. I was sore. My back was in pain and I just wanted to stop sitting on the floor for everything. We sit on the floor for satsung, for meals, lectures, breathing exercise, everything. It was a funny conundrum. My meditation and attention suffered from the pain in my back caused by sitting for meditation and lecture. And then I was kindly reminded I don’t have to beat myself up so much. It’s not in a competition. It is not required that I execute every moment to perfection as dictated from the outside. I allowed myself to take it easy on day four by resting when needed and forgiving my broken attention span during seated meditation. Being kind to yourself, what a concept. After that, everything improved. I found gratitude. I became one of those happy, soft eyed, calm people I noticed walking around. I also made friends with those people and they are all amazing. We could have all just stay there happily ever after.
The upkeep of the beautiful gardens, cleaning of the dorms and practice spaces, organizing of activities, pretty much anything that goes on inside the ashram is a direct result of the community within contributing. Each person is assigned a karma yoga upon arrival. My karma yoga was to set up mats and books for satsung. How perfect for me. I was assigned to directly deal with the one thing that made me uncomfortable and it helped me in many ways. The point of karma yoga is do for the sake of doing with no attachment to expectation or reaction. It’s harder than you think.
But it’s not all super deep, serious, soul seeking stuff. Yogis know how to have fun too! While the major celebrations of Holi Festival were happening in other larger cities of India, the ashram had their own color throwing, water soaked, dance party followed by a cleansing swim in the lake.
I loved my week at the ashram. It’s wasn’t easy. It takes work, but the reward is massive and doesn’t end once you walk out. If anything, it leaves you wanting more. It truly is a life changing experience. While I know it’s not for everyone and some might think it’s only a matter of time before I turn into a bag of crazy and disappear into an ashram forever, all I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I am very grateful for my time there. I can go on sharing my details, but it’s one of those things you simply have to experience for yourself. While a week in the ashram left me with plenty to absorb and think about for now, I can foresee a longer stint in my future. Thank you to all the wonderful people who shared the journey with me.
Om shanti shanti shanti