My days in an Indian ashram
Sometimes it’s good to take things nice and slow.
Whenever we decide to embrace a change in life we need to create distance from our daily life and we are forced to evaluate our thoughts and beliefs. Major changes - whether chosen or unchosen - compel us to pay attention to what is happening in our mind.
Nowadays I feel like many people (including myself) are too busy on social platforms and do not live in the present moment. Technology has made us so busy that we forget the people around us. I mentioned it before in my first article “Disconnect to reconnect”. At times I feel irritated with people around me who constantly are fussing around with their smartphones. I came to the conclusion that, you cannot change people but I can change myself. “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy
I felt like I have to change something with myself. I needed to slow down, get grounded, find inner harmony again and withdraw from everything and everybody. But how can I do this and where can I go?
I remembered the words of my yoga teacher Master Sanjiv Chaturvedi (Head of Divine Yoga, Bangkok), who said if I was looking for a place where I could get the possibility to find myself, go to Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in India and join ashram life for a few days. The seed was planted...
I’ve never been to an ashram before. Yes, an ashram sounds to be the right place to practice and experience what I was looking for. An ashram is the least distracted place you can find. Technical devices are prohibited, you have to observe silence, work selflessly, following a disciplined daily routine and study your inner self. During your stay you are not allowed to leave the ashram. Any contact with your family or vice versa is prohibited. BSY is known to be one of the strictest ashrams in India.
For this reason I chose BSY. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, put myself in a kind of extreme situation – wanted to test myself. How far can I go and how do I feel with that. Finally I went to BSY for 9 days beginning of March 2016.
An ashram is neither a yoga retreat nor supposed to be an escape from your current life; but it is a respite from worldly pursuits. “An ashram is a place of simple living, where you can develop a positive attitude and an understanding of selfless service. It is a place of inspiration because it does not teach or preach,” by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati
Don’t visit an ashram if you have gone through major emotional trauma the last months (e.g. divorce, death in family, etc.). You won’t be able to concentrate on your self-studies. The ashram management wants you to come strong because ashram life is rigorous.
Not just physically but also psychologically. You spend a few hours a day in silent mode. You live in closed quarters with strangers and you are not allowed to leave the ashram. Do not expect to get pampered or spoiled there. Everybody works internally with themselves.
So what did I do the whole day? The day’s flow is dictated by regular activities like working, chanting mantras, observing silence, attending satsangs and meal times. Plus, there is personal time 2 hours after lunch for exercise, reading, writing and sleeping. The days start at 5 am and finish at 8:30 pm. If you ‘only’ want to experience ashram life there is no asana, pranayama or guided meditation involved. When you go for a course or want to get a yoga teacher license for sure all above mentioned activities are mandatory.
The first 3 days I felt very weird in the ashram. I was not used to this guided routine and that someone tells me what I have to do the whole day. I felt irritated by the high walls around the ashram and the window grills everywhere. In addition we got locked up in the nights and at daytime during the working time the dormitories got locked as well to make sure everybody is participating in ashram.
Ashram means “come and work”. If you go to an ashram you must demonstrate and show that you can work because you’ll be expected to contribute your manpower up to 5 hours of “seva” (selfless service) a day.
Seva goes beyond common service - it is an attitude. Be useful to others without a thought of reward. Seva involves giving time and effort for a cause and helping other people and most importantly without any expectations in return like love, appreciation, fame, gratitude or admiration of the people whom you are serving. “Doing good and bringing happiness to others brings goodness and happiness to you”, Swami Sivananda Saraswati.
During my stay in the ashram I had to work in the kitchen, do gardening, clean the dormitories for new ashram guests and serve food in the food hall to the residents.
One benefit of practicing seva is you get a sense of inner peace. It comes out of the satisfaction of doing whatever you can for the common good of others. Another benefit is that society improves as result of your seva. And the most important benefit is that it helps you progress on your path by elimination of your ego and overcoming your selfishness, bit by bit.
Another very nice experience of my stay in the ashram was observing mouna (silence) for a few hours a day especially during meal times. It is one of the best ways to know and realize yourself. When your tongue stops – your mind begins to work. Only in silence you can understand life and you know what to do, what to say and where to go. Silence develops willpower, gives peace to the mind and control over the speech. What did I learn? In daily life avoid long and unnecessary talks.
Twice a day we chanted mantras. At the beginning I didn’t enjoy chanting due to my inability to pronounce the Sanskrit words with the super fast chanting speed of the residents but after talking to some of them they said it is okay just to listen and relax.
What exactly is a mantra? The literal translation of the word mantra is manas (mind) + tram (protect). It means “to guide and protect the mind by taking the consciousness away from excessive thoughts”. The purpose of chanting is to clear the path for concentration. Only a relaxed mind can meditate.
What did I learn? Chanting mantras is a powerful technique to quiet the mind. It helps to forget troubles, produces a sense of connection with others and fosters a wealth of positive feelings such as serenity and joy.
What I liked the most during my stay was the weekly Sunday satsangs with Swami Niranjananda. I was lucky to join satsang with Swamiji two times. Satsang means sat (truth) + sanga (company) literal “the company of the truth”. Satsang is not a discussion, philosophy or academic debate - it is a reflection. People who participate in satsangs regularly become more reflective and intuitive. Satsangs can as well help people to develop the quality of positive thoughts and actions.
The rooms at BSY are clean and simple. There is only a bed and a closet in the room – nothing else. The toilet and the shower you share with your room neighbors. You don’t need the comfortable facilities or equipment a hotel room offers you. When you start enjoying living simple, you begin to ask yourself, “Where else in my life can I remove distractions?”
Over the years at home I was collecting so much unnecessary stuff. As a result, my home filled up with more and more needless possessions. And because I believed the best solution is to to manage all of it, I organized bigger boxes to store all this needless stuff. But only organizing stuff without removing it, is only a temporary solution. What did I learn? Owning less is far more beneficial than organizing more.
Yoga means “union”. So the task in yoga is to find union and balance between the body and mind, our thoughts and the source of thoughts. Become One, and to become one is to be centered, to be a balanced person, a conscious person.
Swami Niranjananda says: “Purify your body and mind through
· cultivating awareness
· observing your own life and actions
· disciplining and restructuring your personality
· managing the mental and emotional distractions and disturbances
· developing positive qualities which uplift your nature and by expressing these qualities, then other people get uplifted as well.”
Okay, understood - but trying to put that understanding into practice and live it every day, outside the ashram with all the daily distractions, is the challenge. Of course this all takes practice and effort. It is not a teaching that you hear once and think you can master it immediately. Lifestyle changes take time. There will be trouble, trial and error, and pain.
What did I learn? I started to be vigilant about watching my thoughts and emotions through the day, and try to maintain a positive attitude under all circumstances. Negative emotions and thoughts are completely useless. Resentment, bitterness, hate and jealousy have never improved the quality of life for a single human being.
At the end of my 9 days I spent in the ashram and I know it was only a glimpse of what I could have experienced – I wished I could have stayed longer. I felt an amazing sense of self-awareness and strong connection with the here and now. I am again in tune with my own inner rhythm. Every experience in the ashram (chanting mantras, practicing mouna, doing seva, eating a balanced diet of light and nutritious food, self-study and attending satsangs) helped to relax my mind, controlled my thoughts and brought me back in the present.
I know there might be as well other ways to get rooted with yourself, enjoy solitude or try to balance body and mind. Ashram life is not for everyone but for me it was simply right. I find staying in an ashram to be very healthful and creative. A few days can do wonders, but a few weeks or even months can maybe really make a lasting difference in your life. I found in these few days what I was looking for and got even more. It won’t be my last time I visit an ashram.
Bangkok, 6th May 2016
by Helena Hoffmann