Looking back, I can’t exactly remember my reasons for booking a seven day ashram course, other than the fact I had a vague notion that it would be a peaceful break from the noise and city-hopping and I was curious to see how I’d react. I figured I would either love it or it would drive me crazy.
I picked the place almost at random. I fancied the idea of getting up to Rishikesh, with its reputation of being the ‘Yoga Capital of India’ and its connection with the Beatles (they wrote most of ‘The White Album’ here) and settled on the only place in the guidebook that offered week-long courses at short notice.
The ‘Phool Chatti’ Ashram turned out to be the sweetest of choices, and a very special place that I feel sure I’ll return to whenever I need a reminder of how simple and beautiful life can be. By the end of the course I felt relaxed, happy and had slowed myself down to an easier pace. I even started wearing socks with my sandals – and didn’t care what they looked like. The effect may be difficult to maintain when back amongst the blaring horns, phlegm-spitting and hawkers, but for the moment I’m lapping up the feeling that my body and mind has been nourished and soothed.
It wasn’t all easy though. For the first day or two I felt like I was dragging my multi-tasking, sugar-addicted, spoilt lazy western butt through a regime that sometimes jarred with me. The yoga sessions were familiar territory, but I kicked against the idea of singing Hindi text and chanting mantras. Not only did I feel like a total idiot, some kind of fake new-age hippy, I also suspected that I was being somehow brainwashed into worshipping some god I didn’t believe in (or even begin to understand).
Daily ashram life also takes some adjustment. The routine is dictated by the gong, which sounds in the central courtyard. This is the signal for everyone to rush down and assemble, ready for the next activity. The first gong sounds at 5.30am, shaking everyone out of their simple little rooms (why would you need anything more than a shelf and a bed in an ashram?) and out shivering into the cold morning air. Cold is a concept that I’d almost forgotten since beginning to travel, but it is approaching the Indian winter now and we were nestled at the foot of the Himalayas, which means the dress requirement was ‘Ashram Chique’ (meaning wearing the entire contents of your backpack all at once to keep warm in the mornings). Bear in mind that at this point breakfast is still three and a half hours away. First there’s meditation, chanting, nasal cleansing (yes, I’m serious – you pour warm salted water in one nostril and it comes out of the other!), breathing exercises and yoga. After all these efforts it is blissful to sit in the courtyard amongst the doves, ashram dogs and butterflies, eating wheat porridge and fresh fruit and soaking up the sunshine.
As the week went on the morning routine ceased to become a chore and started to become a pleasure. There’s something to be said for doing things one-at-a-time and focusing on the task at hand rather than fast-forwarding to whatever’s next. The whole process of moving gradually from mental focus, deep breathing, limbering the creaky joints and finally firing up the body with some big yoga stretches started to feel great. The long repetitions stopped feeling dull and frustrating and began to feel hypnotic and calming. Even the nasal cleansing, as crazy as it may sound, turned out to be really easy and effective. As a long-term snuffler and sneezer, it was great to breathe the mountain air through two clear nostrils for a change!
All this humble and quiet living also had the wonderful side-effect of throwing the surrounding countryside into sharp contrast. Nature took on a whole new force and excitement and showering in a waterfall or bathing in the Ganges felt absolutely exhilarating during our daily morning silent walks.
Meals are taken in silence, with lunch and dinner being served in a dark cool-floored dining room with us all sitting cross-legged on mats and eating from large stainless steel dishes with our one allocated spoon. I learned to thoroughly enjoy this process and the food was fantastic. Imagine having two curries a day, complete with popadums, all the chipatis you can eat, sauces and pickles made largely from home-grown vegetables and herbs and milk fresh from the udder of the happy ashram cows. No one went hungry. By day seven my body felt like it was ticking along in a beautiful happy rhythm and my sugar addiction was a distant memory.
We all came to wholeheartedly love our yoga teacher, Lalita Ji, who in the absence of the ashram’s guru (Shwarmi Ji – who was mostly away travelling during our stay) ruled the roost. She’s my age, has an infectious laugh and gentleness while still commanding absolute respect. Guidance also came from Randi Ji, a non-Hindu American man with the gift of explaining big concepts with a few simple words. My fears of being forced to ‘worship’ proved completely wrong. We were encouraged to participate only in activities in which we felt comfortable and there was a completely open minded attitude towards allowing people to apply the practice to their own faith (or to no faith at all). I learned so much from discussions with the 35 other course participants, who were visiting from all over the world.
Meditation was something new to me and I was shocked at first by the mental ‘noise’ going on in my head. My ‘monkey mind’ was attacking from all angles with bizarre random memories, projections into an imagined future and weird creations (where the hell did that two-legged rabbit come from?!). The process was like clearing out the cupboards in the back of the brain. Bit by bit I got better at slowing down the thoughts and eventually they started queuing up patiently instead of kicking and screaming for attention. I have a long way to go before I reach Nirvana, but I’m definitely making progress and plan to continue meditating daily from now on.
The official rule (often broken) was silence until after lunch. This was something that I found in turns frustrating and liberating, but it seemed that the time spent in silence did more to create a bond between the course members that the afternoons spent chatting over chai. By the end of the course we were all sitting around the campfire singing happily together. Everyone shared a song from their own country (I did ‘All You Need is Love’ by the Beatles, which seemed pretty apt).
On the last day of the course we performed a cleansing fire ceremony, based on a Hindu ritual and we got to chant the mantra that we’d perfected throughout the week and to write down something we wanted to be rid of and throw it into the fire (cue for lots of mother-in-law jokes). It was then time for group photos and big hugs goodbye. I decided I wasn’t quite ready for the ‘real world’ so stayed an extra night. In the morning I woke early and went through the morning rituals alone then took a walk to the Ganges to bathe and meditate (just me and the butterflies). During those few hours I got enough warm and happy feelings to bottle up and bring home for everyone!