Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ashram life

India is a land of religious and spiritual devotion. With Hinduism, Muslim, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and a handful of other religions I have never heard can't go far without coming face to face with it. It is in the people, the buildings, the streets, rivers, animals, music, movies, art, and tourists. Even the people who aren't as devout as others (such as my tour guide DJ), religion is still a part of their foundation of life.

I for one, did not come to India on some crazy spiritual life quest. However, many people travel here for this reason find a religious or spiritual path different from the mainstream West. Some are just on a 2 week holiday where they cram as much spirituality in as they can, while others nestle into a few years of the Indian lifestyle. You don't have to travel far to find a deep philosophical conversation or a temple to kneel in.
As my long journey is coming to an end and my traveling patience is getting shorter and shorter, I decided to enroll myself into a yoga ashram to tone things down a bit. I had no prior plans to do this and no idea what to expect. But since 1,000s travel to this country on a spiritual basis, I figured what better time then now to give it a whirl.

For the past 2 weeks I enrolled myself into the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in South India

The first day was totally confusing for me as I wandered around trying to get into grips about the place I just entered. There were a few programs going on at the same time so about 300 people were living in the ashram. I met some other people and set up my space in the woman's dorm room. At around 5:45pm I heard a bell ring. This was to signify that it was almost dinner time. I walked to the dining hall and stood in line. When we entered the hall I saw rows and rows of reed mats with metal plates and cups lined down them. You had to sit on the floor cross-legged and eat with your hands (right hand preferably) in silence. The meal was a watery vegetable soup and 2 fermented rice biscuits. Of course, the fat girl in me was like..."Dear God, I am going to starve for the next 2 weeks." I sat in silence and picked through the food....staring at all the people around me.

After dinner, we all had to attend what is called the Satsang. This includes mediation and devotional chanting. This night was unique though, because they had built this fire pit surrounded by offerings to the Hindu gods. We meditated for only a few minutes and then everyone started chanting these Sanskrit Hindi songs and swaying back and forth. Some people were shaking the tambourine or playing bongo drums and really getting into it. After about 30 minutes of chanting people took offerings and threw them in the fire. After that, they kneeled on the ground in a praying position towards the fire and did some weird ritual head bobs and hand gestures. It was one of those moments in my life where I thought to myself..."If only my family could see me now." I was in the back of the crowd taking it all in and waiting for the Swami to say the world was going to end and then bring out a bowl of punch for all of us to drink. I was seriously feeling uncomfortable and didn't know what to do. I tried to keep an open mind....but it was hard for me to simply follow everyone else....especially since I didn't know who or what we were making the offerings to. Obviously, they were giving offerings to the Hindu gods and since I was not Hindu I did not feel the need to bow and pray to them. I was feeling a bit when I knelt I just thanked mother nature and prayed for the health and safety of my family. You have to pay a minimum of 3 days when you enter, so I knew I would stay for that amount of time at least. Hopefully the orientation the next morning would ease my discomforts.

The following day I went to the orientation. Our teacher, whose "spiritual" name was Janaki, introduced the ashram lifestyle and rules to us.
The main rules were no alcohol/tobacco/drugs, strict vegetarian diet, no fornication, dress conservatively, lights out at 10pm, and the most important.....attend all classes each day.
The routine was rigorous and included 4 hours of yoga, 4 hours of meditation/chanting, 1 hour of karma yoga (a job you are assigned within the ashram), 2 meals, and a 1 hour lecture. The day started at 6am and ended at 10pm. Attendance to all of these were mandatory in order to remain in the ashram so it made for a long and busy day. After she went over all the details, she relaxed her shoulders, lightened her tone and smiled. She said " I know a lot of you are out of your comfort zone right now. For some, this is your first time to India and your first time in an ashram. An Ashram is a retreat. You are retreating from your normal life back home...from work, family, and society. This time is for is your time to learn and gain knowledge from your teachers and peers spiritually, mentally, and physically. It is up to you how much you want to gain. Some things we will do will be very different then you are used to. I just ask one thing from you....allow yourself to be here these next 2 weeks. Open your mind and take this opportunity for yourself. It may not all make sense to you right now, but someday you may look back and understand it in a different light or experience. Mastering Yoga is not something you can do in just 2 weeks....but what you gain here will help with your foundations."
I immediately felt better. She tapped into all the weird emotions I was having and her ease and openness relieved me. She seemed quite normal and not some radical cult leader. But then my skepticism clicked in again and I figured that David Koresh was probably a really captivating person and eased people into his beliefs as well. Then Ted Bundy and his charming personality flashed in my mind and I began to fidget again.
Open mindedness versus skepticism battles broke out in my head, but finally I relaxed and decided to be open to learning. I reiterated to myself that it was my choice to be here. It didn't mean I had to start praying to Hindu gods or go spend 5 years meditating in a cave somewhere.....It just meant that I should take this time to learn something new. Regardless of anything else though, it was only for 2 weeks.
After orientation it was time for Brunch. I was STARVING!!!! I figured out that brunch is the larger meal of the day and I was excited to see vegetables and more vegetables on top of rice. I frantically shoveled the food into my mouth with my right hand like a wild animal. Others were doing the same around me since the dinner was so light the night before. Before long I could hardly move because I had eaten so much. I wasn't sure how much to eat because I didn't want to "wither" away in the next 2 weeks. Heaven forbid I don't get enough food! It took a few days for me to get used to the diet and how much food I needed to be eating. Given the circumstances though, the food was actually pretty good. Since we were here to study yoga, the diet was that of a true yogi. This meant that it was a strict vegetarian meal with no spices, garlic, or onion. Yogis do not eat anything that will cause stimulation to the body....therefore they don't eat spicy food, drink caffeine, or do drugs. It helps with meditation and brings you closer to "self awareness". It wasn't the most flavorful meals, but I enjoyed most of the dishes. However, over the course of the 2 weeks I had a carb overload. Carbs and a mixture of gaseous vegetables did not do well for my digestive system and bowel movements. I am not sure if my body just went into shock from all the healthiness, but I was clogged up for the first week, then rushing to the bathroom the second week. Over time, I am sure my body would have gotten used to the diet and balanced itself back out. But for the 2 weeks it was not cooperating with me.

When I arrived to the ashram, I thought yoga was just a bunch of vegetarian health nuts holding ridiculously hard postures on a foam mat. I learned quickly though, that the postures were only a small piece to the larger puzzle. Yoga means Union. Not the union between mind a body (which one would assume)...but the union between one's individual consciousness and the Universal Consciousness. The yoga postures are just one method used to reach a state of union with the divine. In the beginning of the course, we were taught the 5 points of Yoga. They are Proper Exercise, Proper Breathing, Proper Relaxation, Proper Diet, and Meditation. After the 5 principles....there are then 4 paths within yoga to help reach self awareness. Sivananda (1887-1963) was one of the most influential Yoga masters of the 20Th century and is the inspiration behind the Sivananda Yoga Centers around the world. He advocated that integrating all 4 paths was the best way to achieve the Universal Consciousness. Our lectures were teaching us the foundations of the 4 paths.

One of the paths is Karma Yoga. This is the path of action or selfless service. It is doing something with no reward or monetary gain. Mother Theresa is probably the best example to use for this path. To live in the ashram you get assigned a karma yoga (job) to help keep things up and to learn selfless acts of duty. Some of the jobs are better then others. For instance, working in the boutique seems much more appealing then cleaning the dorm bathrooms. I must have good karma though because I landed the "coolest" job in the ashram...working at the Health Hut. The Health Hut is the ashram hang out and a place students go to for fruit juices and healthy snacks if the included meal didn't fill them up. A group of us were assigned the night shift. The first night of work, my so called "cool" karma yoga turned out to not be so cool. Our boss was this crazy Venezuelan lady who would start yelling in Spanish when she was stressed out. She had the tough love approach and would blatantly tell us how bad we were doing, but then at the end of the night laugh, hug, and smile at us as if everything were wonderful in the world. For about 1 minute she showed us around the kitchen and said everything was easy and that we should have no problems. A few of us asked if we should learn how to make drinks and figure out where things were. But she replied "Shanti Shanti Shanti" (Peace, peace, peace) and that it was all easy and we would figure it out as we worked. So basically, we had no training and didn't know where anything was located. At 6:30pm, I peaked outside to see a line heading out the door. Apparently, I wasn't the only one worried about withering away with the ashram food and people came flocking to the health hut each night for more snacks.
You would think...being in an ashram where we are studying yoga and meditation and searching for the ultimate goal of world peace that people would be pretty easy going, right? Well if it is one thing I have is that you should NEVER come between a hungry ashram student and a banana milkshake. The first night was a disaster! As we foresaw, no one knew how to prepare anything or where any utensils were located. We had a pile of tickets growing and growing, people yelling at us for taking too long, and about 6 of us running around like chickens with our heads cut off. "I need 3 chai teas, 2 fruit salads one without papaya, 4 plain toasts, a banana milkshake"....and so on and so on. There were 15 orders of toast waiting and it took us about 30 minutes to realize that bread was not even in stock that night. People hastily returned their lukewarm teas and chunky milkshakes. The whole "shanti, shanti, shanti" concept went down the drain when the first ticket came through the window. It was probably the most unsuccessful work day of my entire life. I knew it would be the worst of it because the next day we would have a better understanding of the logistics of the kitchen. Until then though, I decided not to tell anyone in my dorm that I worked in the Health Hut was that embarrassing.

At 6am the next morning I headed to Satsang to meditate and chant. The Satsang classes were the most difficult sessions for me to get through. Sitting cross legged for 30 minutes while silently meditating and then chanting Hindu Sanskrit for another 1.5 hours was not my cup of tea. On this particular morning, I decided my 1 goal for this session was to sit cross-legged and hold my position without moving. We spent most of our days sitting on the ground and it took a toll on the body. My back and legs were constantly aching as my body took revenge on my 27 years of bad posture. As we went into silent meditation, my mind was far from detaching from my ego and I had one goal only....don't move for 30 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused energy on my third eye and said "OM" over and over in my head. I tried to visualize myself sitting in a perfect meditation posture for days and days ....not moving a muscle. The first few minutes went by quickly, but then my right foot started to go numb. I managed to remain still for a few more minutes, but my spine started to ache again and my left foot felt like pins and needles. One of the bug bites on my arm started to itch but I resisted to scratch it as I continued to focus on my mission. I could feel the sweat building up on my upper lip and my left foot finally went numb as well. For a moment, I wondered if people ever lost the ability to walk from remaining in the meditation pose for so long. Surely this was not good for the blood circulation. long has it been already??? 25 minutes maybe? I sure hope so!
Ok...FOCUS FOCUS pain no gain. Om Om Om Om. With all these thoughts and aches running through my body, I began to get angry and anxious. The meditation isn't over until the Swami says "Om" I started visualizing him leaning over into the microphone and humming "OM' in his low strong voice. Come on.....when are you going to say it. Say "OM"....say "OM".....hurry...please....say "OMMMMMM"...OM...OM...OM....come on you can do it...OMMM...Say flipping OMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
Just when I was about to give up, I heard the click of the microphone and his voice drawled out a long "OMMMMM". I instantly opened my eyes and had to manually grab my legs with my hands to unravel them since they were both numb and plopped them out in front of me. I achieved my goal, but completely defeated the purpose of the meditation process. I wasn't any closer to self awareness. After this egotistical experience (I was pretty proud of myself for not moving) I was time to reach into my inner self and stop playing these silly games to help pass the time. It was probably better to just shift my body a bit and focus more on detaching from my consciousness. Over the course of the 2 weeks, I never was able to fully detach myself from my ego and get away from my thoughts. A few times I felt really close to it, but wasn't sure if it was me just falling closer to sleep or not. Meditation is not something that comes easily I have a long ways to go. People practice for years and lifetimes to achieve self awareness. It was my first time to ever try it and I definitely built a good foundation for future practice....if it is something that I decide to incorporate into my life.

My fellow peers were people of all ages and from every part of the world. Holland, Norway, Israel, Iran, UK, Australia, Hungary, South Africa, Japan, China, Mexico, and Brazil....just to name a few. With such diversity, it made for really interesting discussions. A lot of the times my head would hurt because we would take the conversation to non tangible levels. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is not just an exercise, but a lifestyle change. The lecture would start with the basic principles of yoga and then turn into these full blown question and answer debates. I really enjoyed hearing different philosophies and ideas and comparing them to my inner thoughts. We discussed God, reincarnation, collective consciousness, devotion (how it works with any religion), diet, environment, positive thinking, tolerance versus acceptance, and all sorts of other mind numbing topics.

Not all was glamorous and fun at the ashram though. 4 hours of yoga and 4 hours of meditation and devotion each day started to take a toll on each of us both mentally and physically.
Sometimes negativity or inner problems can surface in environments like this because it really is a full-on intense process. The staff had warned us at the beginning of the program that things can come up. They even offered counseling throughout the day. A few people had break downs or ended up leaving because they couldn't handle the ashram environment for various reasons. My biggest struggle was being around extreme people and learning an extreme way of life. I strongly evaluated my own lifestyle in comparison with what we were being taught. I think it was just a lot of extremities in such a short amount of time. At first, I told myself that by entering the ashram I was taking a baby step to learning more about this particular lifestyle. But this was far more then a baby step. Some days it took a lot of effort for me to think positive and keep my energy going. The chanting was becoming more and more difficult for me to participate in. I think being devotional is a personal thing and chanting was not my specific channel of choice. It works for some the "happy-go-lucky" staff for instance, but I couldn't get into it. Towards the end of the 2 weeks I simply attended the devotional chantings only because it was mandatory.
One day, my friend Kristin and I were complaining to each other about the Satsangs and how we were losing our motivation about them. This girl who had arrived a week late and had only been in the ashram for 1 day overheard us and said "You realize it is just your ego talking to you right now and challenging you to not accept the chanting." Even if she was right...(any negative excuse is blamed on the ego) she hadn't been there for the full two weeks. I looked at Kristin and said "I give her 4 more days with the chanting sessions before she cracks."
Fortunately, every Friday was a free day. You were able to leave the ashram as long as you were back before 10pm. The staff offered field trips to tourist destinations in the area. I decided to sign up for them so I could see some parts of South India as well. The field trips were hilarious. There were about 50-60 students on them and you could tell we were super excited to be out of the ashram. We guzzled down coffee and ate chocolates and sweets. Some people snuck off to smoke cigarettes and have a cocktail (I chose not to drink for the entire 2 weeks). We snuggled into the comfortable bus seats and enjoyed not sitting cross legged on the hard floor. We talked about movies, music, and fun travel stories instead of chanting or meditating. It was a much needed break. It wasn't until our day off that I realized just how intense the program was.

The yoga asanas (postures) were progressive classes in which they teach us the 12 basic yoga postures. There are 84,000 postures in Sivinanda Yoga in which only 84 of them are mostly used. The 12 that we learned are the most important and the basic foundations into the other postures. The classes were challenging, but good and I feel that I now have the confidence I need to attend other yoga courses. I truly hope that I continue with yoga postures throughout my life. In just two weeks I was far more flexible and holding positions that I never visualized myself doing before. Under my layer of travel chub...I can feel that my strength has improved vastly.

All-in all, the 2 week program was a positive experience. I would be lying if I said it was easy and always fun...because it wasn't. I had some good moments and bad moments and lots of frustration in between. I guess that is what happens when you challenge youself physically and mentally and start addressing the difficult questions about life. I am nowhere close to becoming a yogi and don't plan on being vegetarian (yet). But I learned a lot and hope to slowly incorporate some of those things into my life. As Janaki told me at the beginning....the things I learned in this program may effect me gradually througout my life rather then immediatly.

On our last day, a big group of us headed to the reception. We handed in our sheets and mosquito nets and they handed back to us our wallets, cellphones, and computers. After our balance was taken care of we were given a "check out" card. WE WERE FREEEEEE!!!!!!!!

There is this beautiful beach about 2 hours from the ashram called Varkala. It is a white sandy beach surrounded by gorgeous jagged cliffs. For the past few days a group of us have been enjoying the coastal winds and sounds of the waves. I have been drinking fresh fruit juices and eating grilled fish and vegetables (my first time to eat meat in 2 months!). Each morning I wake up to do my yoga session on the rooftop of the hotel. I feel great! I have about 2 more weeks left of my travels and plan on cruising up the west coast to Bombay where I fly out. Since it is winter back in Austin, I am going to soak up the sunny weather as much as possible.....

Before I head back I will try to write one more blog to end my travels and sum up my journey. I hope all is well with everyone this holiday season and I look forward to seeing some of you real soon.

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