To date, I’ve spent time at five yoga ashrams: four in India and one in the Bahamas. My stays have lasted anywhere from about four days to a week. This is to say that I’m neither an expert on ashrams generally nor on any one ashram in particular.
Disclosures made, I’ve written here about ashram life as I’ve experienced it. Both to answer questions I’ve gotten from my students, and for the larger project of reflecting on my time in India.
Ashrams are not difficult to visit. Most ashrams would be happy to host you. For a fee, you’re provided with a bed, three vegetarian meals a day, and a program of yoga-related activities for you to experience. Here’s an example of a daily schedule:
5:30 – Wake-up bell
6-7 – Meditation
7-7:30 – Chanting
7:30-9 – Yoga asana (poses) and pranayama (breathing)
9-10 – Breakfast
10-12 – Karma yoga (community service)
12:30-1:30 – Lunch
4-5:30 – Yoga asana (poses) and pranayama (breathing)
5:30-6:30 – Dinner
7-9 – Evening program/Kirtan (devotional singing)/Satsang (gathering with a teacher)
9 – Mauna (practice of silence) until 5:30 wake-up bell the following day
Your participation in the yoga program is encouraged, but not mandatory. Unless you’re enrolled in a particular training, no one is taking attendance. If you decide to sleep in and skip morning practice, that’s your choice. That said, if you aren’t participating in the yoga program, you might want to ask yourself why you’ve come to the ashram. Maybe a hotel down the road would be a better fit?
The schedule may seem like a lot, but even if you follow it exactly, you’ll still have a chunk of time in the middle of the day to do with as you like. In the Bahamas, I typically headed to the beach for a swim and then found myself a hammock to nap in. In India, it depended on whether the ashram was more urban or rural. If urban, I enjoyed walking through the streets, taking pictures and looking for the perfect souvenir. If rural, I spent my free time reading and getting caught up on my laundry.
The ashrams I have stayed at have all been lovely in their own way; however, the word “rustic” comes to mind. Ashram accommodations are less like all-inclusive resorts, and more like camping. And when I say camping, I don’t mean camping with the latest high-tech gear from MEC; I mean your grandfather’s hunting camp. Everything is serviceable and all the basic necessities are provided, but it has been awhile since the blankets have seen soap and there’s a mustiness to the rooms that incense doesn’t hide.
If this bothers you, feel free to let reception know. They will be more than happy to show you where the cleaning supplies are kept. You can scrub and scour to your heart’s content.
Here are some photos of my room at Phool Chatti Ashram. Although I was initially perturbed by the newspaper taped to the shelves, I grew to like my room. It had a monastic quality that appealed to my minimalist nature.
Here’s a photo of my shared washroom. The fixtures and tiles were new; it had clearly been renovated within the past year. But look closely at the floor under the sink. Can you see how the tube coming from the sink just dangles over the drain, rather than connecting to a pipe? Every time I brushed my teeth and spat into the sink, it all drained out at my feet. The broom-like tool beside the sink is meant for pushing and guiding water down the drain. Rustic.
Karma yoga activities fall under the umbrella of community service and selfless action. Ashram guests are invited to practice karma yoga, and are assigned tasks based on community needs, such as watering plants, serving food, sweeping floors, etc. Like the rest of the daily schedule, karma yoga is encouraged but not mandatory.
Here’s the thing: cleaning the community toilets as an act of karma yoga is every bit as “yogic” as chanting, meditating, or doing sun salutations. Like everything in yoga, it all comes down to attitude. If you’re grumbling while cleaning toilets, you’ll get as much from the experience as you would from grumbling during meditation. If you’re mindful while cleaning toilets, the same follows.
Something they won’t tell you in the brochures: Ashram living can bring stuff to the surface, and often that stuff is uncomfortable. Living in close community, spending hours of your day in contemplation, negotiating spiritual life with a less-than-spiritual human ego: this is a recipe for pains of the growing variety.
Case in point: I spent my karma yoga time cleaning washrooms, emptying garbage pails, and washing windows. Did I grumble? Hell yes. But I’m a big proponent of the “fake it till you make it” approach to life, so I kept on. In the process, I learned something unflattering about myself, which I’ll share here. My grumbling was, more often than not, directed at the people who were notably absent during karma yoga. I felt way more resentment toward them than I did toward the task at hand.
As I emptied pails and buffed windows, I had lots of time to observe the feelings of resentment surface. I felt a strong pull to strengthen the resentment by adding fuel to the fire. I felt another pull to keep my head down and focus on my own path. Ultimately, the work happening on the inside was way more profound than the karma yoga work happening on the outside. And that’s kind of the point.
It’s hilarious, when you think about it. Sometimes the helpers on our path are the people cheering us on. But just as often the helpers are the people pissing us off.
Mauna is the noble practice of silence. Ashrams typically observe mauna from the end of evening program until the following morning. Ashram guests can choose to extend that practice for longer. While I was at Phool Chatti Ashram, I spent just over 3 days in silence. During that period, I only used my voice for chanting and to ask a question during satsang (gathering with a teacher). This was how I chose to define my practice of mauna; however, a strict practice would exclude all speech and communication (even reading and writing).
While holding silence, I kept a list of things that I would have said had I been speaking. Items on this list fell into one of three categories:
Questions about what was going to happen next
For example, on the day we first arrived, I squelched a complaint disguised as a stupid joke about my room just before uttering it aloud. I’m glad I did. I ended up really liking my room, and had I begun my stay there with a complaint, that negativity could have lingered.
My need to know what’s going to happen is something I’ve long recognized in myself. I have a very low tolerance for ambiguity (I’m working on it!), and being in a new place with new routines really exacerbates that. What I learned during this practice of mauna, however, was that the answers to my questions were often only hours or even minutes away. It was a discipline of silence, but the real practice was patience!
Practicing mauna at an ashram is a pretty special experience because people understand why you’re doing it and want to support you. I can only imagine trying to practice it in my regular life! Firstly, I couldn’t work. Secondly, I think my son would revolt!
I’ve really enjoyed my stays at the different ashrams I’ve visited. I’ve come away from each experience feeling full and replenished, the flame of my practice burning brighter than before. I look forward to many more stays.
What I most want to convey about ashram life is that it’s not a “vacation” per se, but it is hugely rewarding if you can approach it with curiosity, open-mindedness, and a sense of humour. If it’s something you think you’d like to try, go for it!
Images © 2017 Erin Bidlake