OYOP: Yoga Ashram Life. India, the Finale.
We spent our last week in India in the valley town of Rishikesh, one of India’s many spiritual cities. It is a picturesque and relatively calm town. It boasts views of the foothills of the Himalayas and sits on both sides of the mystical Ganges River.
Presumably because of its yoga ashrams on every corner, Rishikesh is known as the “yoga capital of the world” or the “birthplace” of yoga. A yoga ashram is a sort of retreat center with basic accommodation, vegetarian meals, and a strict schedule of at least daily yoga and meditation. We spent our time in Rishikesh in a yoga ashram tucked into the narrow maze-like alleyways of town, following in the footsteps of yogis and curious travelers from around the world, and interestingly, of the Beatles, whose members spent a couple of months writing most of The White Album in one of Rishikesh’s yoga ashrams. I should preface this post by saying that we produced no such equivalent creative output, and we also did not add psychedelics to our daily ashram schedule as I think it’s safe to assume the Beatles did.
In the yoga ashram, we practiced yoga twice daily at 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. for 1 hour and 45 minutes at a time. These practices were much different than the westernized version of yoga that I’m used to, with its aerobic vinyasa flows and pop music playing in the background. The ashram yoga classes incorporated much more than yoga poses, such as chanting, meditation, breathing exercises, and even laughing therapy. After the morning class was a 30 minute fire ceremony, with chanting and cleansing rituals, followed by silent breakfast. Every day in the ashram dining hall, we ate three vegetarian meals mostly consisting of rice, curry, and dal (lentils). We spent our time between yoga classes engaged in interesting conversations with our fellow ashram dwellers from around the world and exploring the town of Rishikesh.
The best part about staying in a yoga ashram is that it’s essentially an opportunity for self-discovery. The ashram is filled with people of varying ages and walks of life, many who have never taken a yoga class in their life. Anyone who approaches the ashram lifestyle, regardless of how foreign it may seem, with an open heart and mind will, without doubt, experience some form of self-realization. It may rise from the unusual idea of tending to the ashram’s strict schedule, the constant meeting of new and different people, the physical demands of 3 1/2 hours per day of yoga, or the quiet time to journal and read. The overall effect is that the experience is as rewarding as it is challenging.
In the yoga ashram, it is inevitable to leave your comfort-zone and if you truly participate, your ego, behind. The accommodation is very basic and the bathroom situations are less than ideal. In a yoga class, you may be lying on your back and asked along with 30 other adults to loudly make animal sounds or to start giggling. There might be people who invite you to ceremonies of drinking cacao and dancing around a fire. There might be others who have never left home on their own and need help with clothing, supplies, and basic travel advice. Each new interaction and moment shared in the ashram is an opportunity to learn and grow, as long as you stick it out to the end and open your mind to learning from the entire experience.
I realized while in the yoga ashram that the same concepts are true for traveling in India. It is completely foreign. It is filled with challenges and uncomfortable situations, but it is also filled with so many moments and people who have much to teach about life. I may not have come to understand nearly everything about India, but I did come to learn why people desire to travel to this chaotic place to find a spiritual journey. It is because if you try to get inside of India, past the outer experience, you will see, little by little, more about the country and its people. And if you keep an open mind and heart along the way, you will learn, little by little, more about yourself as well.