Let me preface this post by sharing that since this experience I have become a little better at researching tours and activities that I book in advance…
On my first trip to India, after a long flight to the bustling streets of Bangalore, I was driven in the dark to a hotel that I had booked last minute as it was close to the airport. First impression was ‘mmm’. The next morning I woke up excited to see my surroundings in the light. I looked outside my window and on one side was another high rise building, while on the other side lay some piles of rubble and rubbish. This pretty much aligned with the contrasts I had been told to expect in India. I had breakfast before taking a taxi back to the airport and flying north to Dehradun, Uttarakhand.
On arrival, I was picked up at Dehradun airport by a driver and we drove a couple of hours to Yoga Niketan in Rishikesh, which would be home for three weeks, as I was attending a yoga retreat to set myself up for the long travel adventure ahead.
The roads were bendy, uphill and occasionally on a cliff, however this did not induce the drivers to reduce their speed nor stop motorbikes weaving between the cars. I had to close my eyes a few times just to ensure I did not give myself a heart attack.
As we drove through the gates of the ashram, it looked very much like a boarding school complex, with accommodation blocks on either side of the road. My teachers met me on arrival to welcome me and were surprised by the amount of luggage I had.
In jest they asked if I knew that Ashram living was simple, before directing me to my room. The room was quite basic, containing a bed, a desk and a closet to put clothes in. I had a bathroom and was informed that hot water was mainly available in the mid morning to late afternoon as it was heated by solar energy.
When I was alone I had to go back to my booking to confirm if this information had been provided, indeed it had – but I just had not double checked what an ashram was. Turns out an ashram is a Hindu monastery…….where people of the Hindu faith go to deepen their spiritual practice. I found this rather amusing as my belief system is founded in Christianity and I had no idea that I would be staying in a place of any religious significance. Also, at this point I knew next to nothing about the Hindu faith and felt like a bit of an imposter. I later learnt that ashrams are also open to people who are seeking and desire to learn about the faith or spirituality, or would like an environment to develop their own personal religious practice…this is where I qualified myself.
As I had booked the yoga retreat to mentally and physically prepare for the journey ahead. I realised that my first test was learning to be comfortable in whatever space I found myself. Once I made this mind shift, apart from the cleanliness, the accommodation itself was not too bad. The Ashram complex is build on the side of a hill. Trees had been cut down in the forest to accommodate the Ashram and therefore there were lots of trees on either side of the buildings and there were usually monkeys and a few other creatures that would be spotted around the Ashram grounds. My room had a beautiful view, overlooking the Ganges and a temple on the other side of the river. During the day I could sit on my balcony or the top of the garden, basking in the sun and watching the river flow.
The mornings were filled with the sounds of chanting from across the Ganges as people did their prayers, the evenings brought the same, as people closed off the end of the day with an evening prayer ceremony. The temperatures dropped significantly at night, and the lack of internal heating was remediated by my trusty hot water bottle that always finds a place in my packed luggage.
The Ashram had specific rules that everyone was required to follow within its premises. We weren’t allowed to leave food outside, as this may attract more monkeys. Some forbidden things included alcohol, sugar, cigarettes and drugs. The gates to the premises were shut at about 10pm and therefore one had to be back by that time, or stay out all night.
Yoga Niketan has a daily schedule that starts off with a 5.15am meditation, before yoga at 6.30am. Thankfully it was not all mandatory and needless to say, I never made it for either of those. My private morning class started at 6am – so I was still up and getting active pretty early in the morning. As you can see the activities varied by the day and you could choose what to attend.
There were about 40-70 people at the ashram at any point that I was there, in addition to 2 adopted dogs.
The diet was satvic which meant, no meat, no sugar, no onions and no spices. The food was always buffet style, well made, variable, flavoursome and in spite of eating a lot, I actually lost a bit of weight as I guess it was quite wholesome and I was generally very active.
It was really an experience of cultural immersion as I spent a lot of time with locals, therefore in addition to learning about the Hindu faith and beliefs, I also learnt a lot about Indian culture. Although my religious beliefs did not fundamentally change, I learnt how similar the core of the belief systems are. It gave me a reason and an opportunity to challenge my own beliefs and their source. Due to the structured schedule, I developed a discipline that I believed would help support me mentally, spiritually and physically as the year unfolded.
I believe that a lot of the hate and mistrust in the world comes from a lack of tolerance and understanding – and time living in the Ashram showed me that people with different beliefs can be united when they discover that they are all essentially searching for the same thing, albeit in different ways.
It turns out that there are also some foreigners who opt to stay at ashrams simply for the low cost of the experience, as one receives a private room with a private bathroom, all the activities and three lovely meals plus snacks for under $10/night.
Comment below to share if you would stay in an ashram? What would be the most difficult thing for you?