The Ashram Experience

[A long post, no apologies].

Before leaving London, I had been told by a few people that visiting an Ashram was really de riguer for my trip if I wanted to earn the badge of the International Federation of Travelers. The problem was that I had little idea about what to look for, or what to expect. The only recommendation I got was from a friend who looked at me piercingly and suggested Vivekananda Ashram, 35kn north-east of busy Bangalore. This would be a “hard core” experience, but with nothing to compare it to, this meant nothing to me. On that basis, I decided to give Vivekananda a body-swerve.

Fellow travelers over the past few weeks gave me another option – it was in Mysore that an attractive Spanish Yoga Bunny first told me that Sivananda Ashram would be good for someone suffering from years of desk-bound creakiness; Justin-the-Enfield-biker also confirmed this was an “amazing” place. The decision was finally made a couple of weeks ago when I met an American girl in Cochin who had just returned from the Ashram. She was a producer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. With fellow attendees like that, what could go wrong? Hard Core would just have to wait.

On being inducted

The train journey down to Trivandrum (the stop for the Ashram) was memorable if only for the chronic overcrowding. Traveling on the Sunday before Christmas meant that I coincided not only with the Indian Holiday traffic, but also with a large group of Ayappa Cult devotees (on the way
to Sabarimola for what is the second-largest pilgrimage in the world). There were 21 of us in a compartment made for eight. One particular devotee (pictured) took it upon himself to fix me with a stare for the majority of the 4 hour journey. This was most unsettling, and when he lunged towards my lap after 3 hours of solid staring, I was seriously concerned. It transpired that all he wanted was the magazine in my lap – he then spent the next 20 minutes flicking through the pages nonchalantly, pausing mostly on the advertisements.

On arrival at Trivandrum, I briefly considered having one last slap-up meal before retreating from worldly things, but somehow that felt like it would be cheating. A short taxi ride and I was at the gates. This was it. The real deal.

After my first 20 minutes, I was flabbergasted, consoled only by the knowledge that first impressions rarely tell the truth. The first three people I saw seemed to be carrying dreadful injuries – a bandaged knee, a cradled arm, a hobbling limp. It brought to mind a First World War Hospital Camp. What had I let myself in for?

Things went from bad to worse as I checked in, being told sternly by George (an oversized Kenyan) “READ THE RULES – WE HAVE TOO MANY PROBLEMS WITH PEOPLE HERE”.

“Hey, no problems here buddy, I’ve read them,” I said. George broke into a soft smile which worried me slightly. It felt like he knew something I didn’t. (It later turned out that he had a great sense of humour).

My first couple of days were a slow and painful descent into frustration and grumpiness. My legs stubbornly refused to cross properly, the twice daily chanting started to grate, and the food felt inadequate, particularly for a growing lad like myself. (Later, as I became a senior, I realized that this descent was part of a familiar pattern. It’s kind of like you are getting broken-in before you start to really understand what you are in the Ashram for).

Karma Yoga, from 11am to 12am, is a particularly important part of this Ashram’s experience – an hour of good deeds to help the Ashram run smoothly. Although occasionally painful (I had a narrow escape from shoveling cow dung on Christmas Day) it is also a great way to get people talking. For instance, on the second day I found myself sweeping the steps with a 29-year-old Brazilian beauty who revealed quietly that she was a judge. (Sensing my incredulity, she explained patiently that this wasn’t a joke, and that in Brazil you can take exams to become a judge after completing your law degree). Thank the Lord for Karma Yoga, I thought.

She in turn introduced me to another Brazilian girl, Thais, who had been on a veritable ashram tour over the previous 2 months. She was able to confirm that Vivekananda (the one suggested to me by a friend in London) was indeed “Hard Core”. Dubbed “the prison”, rising hour there was 4am (a full two hours earlier than at Sivananda), the food was truly awful, and free time was a chimera.

I started to realize that Thais was the real deal when she revealed that she spent a whole month at Vivekananda. Not content with this punishment, she good-humouredly told me that she had subsequently taken part in a ten-day silent meditation (Vipassana) and had visited a further two Ashrams in Rishikesh, North India’s Ashram Central. After Sivananda she was heading for the Amma Ashram, renowned for its spiritual leader known as the “Hugging Mother”. When she finally revealed that she had previously worked at Disneyland, I virtually begged her to to write a book. “How I survived Disneyland, Silent Meditation and Five Ashrams” has a nice ring to it.

All these revelations helped to put everything into some sort of perspective. In comparison to the stories from some of the other Ashrams, Sivananda suddenly felt like a summer-camp. As flexibility slowly retuened to my sorely neglected body, the chanting started to become bearable. Cultural events in the evening also helped to shed a welcome ray of light to the proceedings.

Even the food started to taste better, although I suffered problems at meal-time that caused amusement to other Ashramees – being cack-handed, eating with my right hand (no cutlery) isn’t easy; but combine that with sitting stiffly cross-legged with only a stainless steel tray in front of you and you can imagine the carnage. I got round it by rolling my trouser legs up, and resigning myself to a twice daily wash of the legs after mealtimes.

But it was on Christmas Eve that things really started to turn around, No-one except the brilliant minds of the staff in the Ashram could have expected what happened next…

On Jesus, the Hindu God

‘Twas the night before Christmas…

24 December started with a 6am “silent walk”. This came at just the right moment for me. Sitting cross-legged hurts, so the opportunity to walk and meditate was very welcome indeed. And stunning. (The picture in the previous post is of one of the staff Yogi Narayanan meditating by the lake that we walked to).

I was genuinely intrigued to know what the Ashram would make of the evening of Christmas Eve. Having been brought up a Christian, Christmas has always been relatively simple to understand. One God, had a son (miraculously), was born, celebrate. Add Hindu religions into the mix however, and things start to get complex and really quite interesting.

In an admirable display of pragmatism, it seems that at least some Hindus believe Jesus to be just another God (of suffering), to be celebrated for his contribution to the world alongside other Gods like Ganesha, Shiva and Durga. (This rather conveniently side-steps the rather important point that Christians (with their monotheist beliefs) would be unlikely to concur).

The evening started with Satsang (meditation and chanting) as normal. The only concession to Christmas appeared to be a small nativity scene at the side of the stage at the front of the hall, and the announcement that there would be “some carols”.

“Some” turned out to be lots however, led by the assistant Swami with a hastily assembled choir of twelve or so volunteers. By 11pm, Jingle Bells appeared to be turning into a chant as the refrain was repeated for the 30th time. I suddenly realized that the game was only just beginning. Out of the dark recesses of the end of the hall Santa Claus appeared in a wave of incense smoke. As he made his way to the stage, I reflected on this mad world we live in. Here was an Indian dressed as Santa Claus (Pagan), in an Ashram (Hindu), celebrating the birth of Jesus (Christian), with statues of Gods (Shiva, Ganesh) and 20th century Gurus (Swamis Sivananda and Vishnu-Devenanda) on the stage. As one of the girls remarked to me later “Huh! You’re confused? What about me? I’m Jewish!”

As midnight passed, a large cake appeared to feed the masses, presents were dispensed to every one of the 175 people in the Ashram, and a remarkably open, memorable and intriguing evening came to an end. It had all been beautifully organised– and a lot of fun. The suave Swami (ever popular with the girls), his yellow-clad assistant Swami-ess, and the rest of the staff had a lot to be proud of.

On some wonderful people

It would be wrong not to tell of some of the fabulous characters here.

One of the most remarkable things in this most international of Ashrams is hearing English spoken between people from France, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, South Africa, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Ireland, Sweden, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. (And I’ve probably missed a couple).

Top billing in the fabulous list therefore goes to the Basque, Endika Izquierdo. His legendary misinterpretations of English included on Christmas Eve when he got the wrong end of the stick about the carol-singing (“Carrots? When do we have Christmas Carrots?”). Probably the best of all was the following exchange as we developed a firm friendship:

Me: “I’m embarrassed by my lack of flexibility Endika…”
Endika: “In Paris you lack flexibeelitee? You live in Paris?”

We also had a Lebanese Doctor with a talent for amusing everyone, a high-flying Parisian Architect, a sultry Venezualan film director, a man from Calcutta who had lost $500K in the Credit crunch (“Here I can gain something I cannot lose”), a couple of doppelgangers for Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film Magnolia, and many others.

There was even a character who had rearranged the letters of his name from Jonathan to Thaannjoe 12 years ago in a conscious rebirth at another Ashram. This resulted in some confusion when he introduced himself – my own response:

Me: “Errrr… did you say Fangio? Like the racing driver?”
Him: (patiently)“No. Thaannjoe.”
Me: “Sorry. Fanta?”
Etc. Etc…

It was a remarkably supportive and friendly environment.

To Christmas and beyond

In the days following Christmas Eve, I found myself pausing every couple of days to register the imperceptible developments in physical and mental flexibility. It’s a rewarding experience. Christmas Day itself included a talent show where I read out excerpts from this blog – remarkably, a couple of the people at the ashram had stumbled across “Mind, The Gap” in their pre-trip research. Other far more impressive acts included a rap artist, singers, a guitarist and a couple of yogic belly dancers.

By yesterday I felt like a senior at school as those of us that arrived pre-Christmas slowly trickled away to the beautiful beach resort of Varkala. It was too much effort to get to know the new intake – they could learn for themselves. Frankly, I was ready for a break too. For New Year, I enjoyed the freedom of the outside world along with other Ashram escapees. I am here for a few days as I contemplate my next move.

A final note on the teaching of the Yoga Asanas here (the stretching that most people think of when they think Yoga).

Sivananda is a branch of Yoga that is relatively easy for Westerners to do – it is taught in a formulaic way, and allows practice in a repeatable series of steps. It has spread
fast due to the simple and effective Teacher Training Programme.

A consequence of this is that you get the most wonderful set phrases, repeated by teachers from all corners of the world, with wonderfully amusing and contrasting accents:

These include:

– {Indian accent] “Relaaaaaaaaaaax you body…” (not to be confused with…)
– [Spanish accent] “Reeeeeeeeeeelacs your body…”
– [Indian accent] “Sloooowly put your feet together, hands above the head, and stretch-stretch –GOODstretch-BIGSTRETCH and release”
– [Nasal accent] Inhaaaaaaaale…. Exhaaaaaaaaale… Inhaaaaaaaale” (etc. etc.)

Notes on my personal development in response to this teaching will remain only in my personal diary, but yoga (proper yoga not just stretching) definitely has a lot of benefits.

Overall, the time here has been good with many great memories, not least of which was the sound of Lion roars as background to our 6am meditation each morning (the Ashram is situated by a lake, across from a little-known lion safari park).

The Ashram experience isn’t for everyone, and neither is Sivananda necessarily the amswer to all your pujahs. (Maybe you want “Hard Core”). But the ten days worked – for me.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

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