What I Learned Living in an Ashram in India

Curious what it’s like to study yoga at an ashram in India? Here was my experience.

 

I spent a week living in a spiritual community in India. There’s a sentence I never expected to utter.

 

If you read this blog, you know that I practice yoga regularly and that it became a much bigger part of my life after a traumatic experience abroad (when I experienced and truly needed its healing power.) And if you didn’t know? You likely could’ve assumed given that I live in San Francisco (where yoga clothing is the mainstay on the city streets.)

 

But what you might not know is…I was kicked out of my first ever yoga class. Yes, let’s rewind back ~13 years to when my friends and I tried yoga for the first time in high school in my somewhat-hippie hometown. We were asked to leave after we couldn’t stop laughing when the class launched into ‘Lion’s Breath’ (which, if you don’t know what that is, I dare you to get on the ground on all-fours right now and exhale loudly through your mouth with your tongue out.)

 

So while I’ve come a long way maturity-wise since then (here’s hoping,) I thought back repeatedly to that moment when I was struggling at the ashram in India. That’s right, I struggled. Big time.

Waking up for sunrise meditation. Chanting in Sanskrit. Sweeping floors to improve my karma. Getting into postures I didn’t know I could do. Over and over I’d ask myself…what in the world am I doing here?!

 

Part of the struggle was indeed the rigorous schedule, which included four hours of daily chanting, four hours of daily yoga, plus silent meditation, chores, lectures, and ONLY TWO MEALS PER DAY. The other part of the struggle for me was letting go of resistance to anything that resembled organized religion — like venerating a guru or chanting to Krishna.

Yoga ashram in India

 

You may find yourself asking (as I did)…why did I sign up willingly for this? Waves of doubt and skepticism came and went throughout my time there. Yet I kept thinking back to how foreign and strange yoga once was to me, and how we must remain open especially to the things we don’t understand. In the end, like anything worthwhile and transformative, I had to surrender to the experience, sit with my discomfort, maintain an open mind, and stick it out even when I wanted to quit.

 

And oh how, I glad am that I did. By the end, I almost didn’t want to leave…Here’s why.

Ganesha in Indian ashram

 

To get an idea of how the process takes shape, here’s a look at the daily schedule:

5.20am
Wake up bell
6am
Satsang (group meditation, chanting and talk)
7.30am
Tea
8am
First Asana Class (yoga)
10am
Brunch (Indian vegetarian meal)
11am
Karma Yoga (selfless service)
12.30pm
Asana or Meditation Coaching (Optional)
1.30pm
Tea
2pm
Lecture (talks on various yoga topics)
3.30pm
Second Asana Class
6pm
Dinner (Indian vegetarian meal)
8pm
Satsang (group meditation, chanting and talk)
10.30pm
Lights out

(from sivananda.org.in)


The daily schedule is centered around the five points of yoga including…
  • Exercise (asana)
  • Breathing (pranayama)
  • Relaxation (savasana)
  • Diet (vegetarian/sattvic)
  • Meditation and positive thinking (Vedanta and Dhyana)
Again, it’s so much more than just the poses. Yoga encompasses not only your body and health but your mind and heart. It’s a way of life, and each part of the practice is designed to assist you in reaching a higher level of consciousness and yes, inner peace.
The four paths of yoga, which are followed in part by all but predominantly based on what you choose, are:
  • Karma Yoga – the yoga of action
  • Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion
  • Raja Yoga – the science of mental control
  • Jnana Yoga – the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom
 
Seems intriguing right? Although clear about what to expect, when I read this online, more than 7,000 miles away from the ashram, I still had no idea how time in an ashram would be in reality.

 

This leads me to now sharing what I learned in my time there, in which I try to impart some of the knowledge I just gained (knowing full well that it took me planting myself in India for a week to have this all sink in.) Here goes.

Morning meditation spot in Kerala, India

 

First, what even is yoga? And furthermore, what is an ashram?
I learned that while yoga makes us think of working out in a downward dog, headstands, or even hippies in tight clothing, yoga at its roots is very different. Here are a few of the definitions that were offered:

 

Yoga is the management of your energy.

Yoga is the joyful participation in both the ups and downs of life.

Yoga is so much more than the postures (asana practice) we’ve come to regard as yoga in the West.

 

I furthermore learned to lose many of my bad habits, some I’ve held all my life. Even if just for a week, it was an incredible feeling to know that I could be a morning person/meditator/non-anxious, non-caffeinated/vegetarian person.
  • Waking up early feels good.
  • Single-tasking, being disciplined to your commitments (without excuses!,) and truly being present with one activity at a time…feels good.
  • Having a daily routine that gets you into motion and stays fairly consistent feels good.
  • Being disconnected from the Internet, media and the news, and notifications feels good.
  • Not being the slightest bit concerned with your appearance, as you practice focusing on the inner, feels good.

(Are you sensing a theme here?)

 

ashram ayurveda

 

I could do a whole post on what I learned about food alone, but for now know that this is what I learned about eating:
  • What you eat affects how you feel…(a seemingly simple concept that finally clicked for me here. I have an iron stomach, and I truly can eat and drink whatever I want. I’ve experienced food making me feel worse, but I didn’t realize I could feel so much better!)
  • Foods have different energies, and food that is reheated, old but not spoiled, overcooked etc. loses its vital energy even when edible. Eating seasonally, locally, organically, and freshly prepared foods increases not only its nutrition but the positive energy your body absorbs.
  • Eating only sattvic foods and eliminating meat, caffeine, alcohol, and even garlic and onion…all serves to enhance clarity of the mind (it may not be fully realistic, but it works.)
  • The act of creating, offering, and sharing food can be a spiritual experience. As I was in Kerala, the birthplace of Ayurveda (the sister science of yoga and an ancient Indian healing practice,) this was well-ingrained into meals and principles of food.
  • Eating in silence allows us to show reverence for food and the way it nourishes our bodies, as well as practice mindful eating and being very aware of what we put in our bodies.
  • Eating with your hands (with some time and practice) feels good! You feel more connected to the food (really!)

 

ashram food in india

 

Every individual’s experience is undoubtedly different. What follows is a summary of what I wish I had known would come from the hours of discipline, the leap to go at all. Here are some overall thoughts upon leaving the ashram, after only a week of surrendering to the schedule:

 

 
Sitting with discomfort — mental, emotional, even physical (my back from all that sitting cross-legged…ouch) is important sometimes. Whether on the mat, in the middle of chanting, or during a particularly long meditation, I stretched myself (pun not intended) to just be in moments where I had the impulse to get up and leave about 100 times.
I travel admittedly, to experience discomfort. While I love a nice massage or beach cocktail as much as the next person, I have learned that pursuing places and activities that make us uncomfortable at first create so much room for growth. (That might be a huge part of why I love India so much.) Also, you can do anything for a week.

There is unity in diversity. This is literally one of the mottos of the ashram, but having the experience at the ashram is what cemented it for me. All of these people from around the world…and I mean from my Danish roommate to the group of Iranians or Japanese students undergoing teacher training, to the dozens of new friends I met from all over India…we all dressed, ate, practiced, and pursued the same common goal for the time we spent in the ashram. Spiritually you are taught that this world, our perceived reality, is all a mere projection of the mind, that underneath or beyond that we are all the same…and fortunately I got to experience this on both a surface and deeper level here.

There is magic in surrender, and what is surrender? Ultimately it is trust. This is something I personally needed to rebuild. Trusting the people around you, the people guiding you, the people that enter your journey, is essential. The harder part, at least for me, is trusting yourself, especially when life or interactions with others lead you to doubt this.  I had to exercise this trust way more than I exercised any joint, bone, or muscle in this “yoga vacation.”

There are two choices for how we feel, both on and off the mat. Love and fear. Everything else is some variation of one or the other. So many of us are choosing fear blindly and repeatedly, without even recognizing it for what it is (I know I do!) Silly as it may sound, finally learning to hold a headstand did indeed represent for me the process of moving from fear to love during the week. I will seek to do this in more places in my life now.

There is no substitute for experience. For most of my life I have known that things like walking, meditation, eating your vegetables, and being kind were ‘good things to do.’ Often my practice of those pursuits was limited to that widely accepted belief. But it wasn’t until I pushed past the ‘what’ or ‘how’ and into the ‘why,’ feeling the benefits through my own experience, that these ideas became understood and truly valued.

Balance is the key. From my yoga poses to this blog to how I live my daily life, balance is the theme that comes up again and again for me. And the thing I appreciated most about my ashram experience (besides finally nailing that headstand! :P) was that despite its strict schedule, its demands and required commitments…everything was presented with a loving, inclusive, and balanced perspective that left plenty of room for you to process, individualize, or even reject.  Balance.

 

best ashram india

The journey within is in so many ways more difficult than moving externally through India with all its fascinating stimulation and guaranteed assault on the senses. No matter how intimating travel in India may seem, the silence, simplicity, and solitude of sitting still in an ashram I believe is much harder to go through, especially in today’s changing world.

Some parting words

The ashram was at once both infuriating and appealing, challenging but rewarding, and best experienced when you surrender yourself to it and ‘go with the flow.’

A bit like India itself.

neyyar dam, india

I realize now it’s a gift from India as much as it is from the study of yoga…the grounding and beauty that is being able to sift through the chaos, to find respite from the chatter of the mind, to recognize what is real and true and lasting amongst all the hardship and complications of life, even if just temporarily. Though it can still be hard to arrive there, I am grateful that I now know that this place exists within me. And I can only wonder what another week, or even longer, would leave me feeling.

yoga ashram india

Would you ever consider staying in an ashram anywhere? Including India?

 

More Sri Lanka and India stories to come, and many more posts to come on the blog. Updates to follow <3

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11 Comments

  1. Back in the 60s, I was first learning about yoga and Indian spirituality along with much of Europe for the very first time. I stopped practising for a short period of time in the 80s (a sad decade yes) but I am being glad this practice has once again gained recognition.

    • Anne Lowrey

      Yes, it was fascinating learning about how yoga was initially introduced to the West. There were some interesting stories shared about this particular teacher’s first visit to San Francisco!

  2. I love this. I certainly felt I was coming along your journey with you

    • Thank you for your comment; it means a lot. That is my ever-constant goal as a travel writer — to bring you along with me 🙂 It makes me happy to know I succeeded here, because this was a challenging experience to put into words.
      Sending you love and light!

  3. Love this! You are a great story teller…so authentic. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with me, Stacey

    • Anne Lowrey

      Means a lot coming from the wise writer woman you are! So appreciate your kind words. Much love!

  4. Loved hearing about your experiences! I’m going on a yoga teacher training soon and although it’s not the same as an ashram there will be very long days of yoga, meditation and early rising as well as detoxing foods. I feel reading this helped prepare me for that journey.

    • Anne Lowrey

      Thank you, Vibeke! I am looking forward to hearing more about your teacher training…it’s definitely something I now want to do eventually. Glad this helped prep you…just remember to surrender to the process 🙂

  5. What a beautifully detailed account of your experience! I loved reading this, Anne, and I am so happy for you that you had this incredible experience. WOW! Yes, it makes me want to visit India even more… Thank you for sharing every detail!

    • Anne Lowrey

      Thank you for reading, Pat! I believe India will resonate deeply with you whenever you are destined to go there. <3

  6. Josephine

    Beautifully written as usual, Anne. Thank you for sharing this experience with us through your gift with words. Can’t wait to see what you write about next.

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