“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself” – Buddha
“Ommmmmmmmmmmmm.” I can say this word a thousand times over but it doesn’t become more real. I’m sat cross-legged on the cold floor with my yoga mat perched under my bum for support. I try to keep my back straight but at 6am in the morning it just won’t do what its told. In front of me the golden-eyed statue of the Hindu god Nataraja glares at me from the temple alter. Next to him are the equally intimidating effigies of Sivananda, and Vishnu Devananda, the once enlightened, now deceased gurus of this ashram. Small candles and incense burn steadily around them and I watch as the smoke wafts outside, lingering in the fronds of coconut trees before evanescing away on the morning breeze.
And then I realise my mind has drifted once again. I’m supposed to be meditating and freeing my mind of thoughts in order to attach myself to the eternal consciousness. I close my eyes and try again. “Ommmmmmmm”
I’m in India, a place that has long been renowned for its spirituality; and with more religions in the subcontinent than there are states, it is perhaps no surprise that people come here to “find themselves.” But I’m not not exactly sure what I’m trying to find here and I suppose that is the problem.
When I first arrived in India I came with the same preconceptions as most travelers – that I wanted to find the illusive spirituality that sent so many hippies here when an increase materialism began to dominate the West. But whilst this increase sent confused Westerners on spiritual journeys to India, India’s own materialist boom allowed it to monetize on it by exporting spiritual culture and marketing it towards Western tastes. Hence the reason why yoga is now so well-known internationally.
But the yoga that reached the Western world is simply one ‘limb’ of an ’8 limb’ practice. Indians call this one limb ‘asana’ and the remaining 7 limbs include a disciplined set of rules on how to live your life in order to achieve enlightenment. These rules include instructions for diet, meditation, devotion, breathing…the list goes on. For me, it was asana that drew me towards India’s spirituality, but I was also interested in learning the other 7 limbs of yoga. Indian ashrams give visitors the chance to do this, offering up a kind of crash course in spirituality for those seeking a deeper side to yoga.
On the hunt for a spiritual story, I found myself at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, one of the Southern states of India. The ashram surrounds a giant lake, and is fringed by coconut plantations and jungle, encapsulating all the beauty of Kerala in its little grounds. On arrival, I was handed a mosquito net, a bedsheet, and a schedule and was led to a 40 person dormitory. My schedule was split into four main parts: satsang, karma yoga, meals, and asana class. The woman at reception assured me sternly that all parts were absolutely mandatory. I was a little weary about the enforced schedule. This all seemed a little strict for my taste, but ,as I was to find out, ashram rules are to be followed, never questioned. Feeling like Liz from Eat, Pray, Love, I shuffled off to my first activity -karma yoga – wondering exactly why I had come here in the first place. Was I really trying to “find myself?” Would I?
Karma yoga is considered an essential step to enlightenment . It is a selfless service that is supposed to “free your ego” by doing something for no reward. Everyone in the ashram is asked to do karma yoga, and not only does it count as one of the 8 limbs of yoga, but it is also meant to make you feel more a part of ashram life, as you take part in day to day tasks involved in the running of the ashram.
I would consider my main fault as being a tendency towards materialism, so I was really hoping that my time in the ashram would help me to escape from this. Imagine my dismay, then, when I was told my task: working in the ashram boutique shop! As it turned out though, this was not such a bad task when compared to cleaning the dormitory toilets. With the CD player pumping out Indian beats, and streams of people passing through to buy mystical accessories and trinkets, I found my work in the boutique rather enjoyable. I wasn’t quite sure it was helping me to enlightenment, although perhaps I was lightening the pockets of visitors in order to line the pockets of the Sivananada ashram.
At Sivananda, asana classes (which are what we know as ‘yoga’ in the West) run twice daily, for 2 hours each. Whilst 4 hours of asana a day is quite a lot for beginners, it also meant that we experienced very fast progression. Our yoga instructors were a mix of Westerners and Indians, and were all well-trained and friendly. Over the course of two weeks they slowly introduced us to the 12 basic asana poses, making each class a little more difficult than the last.
The only downside of asana at Sivananda was the sheer amount of people in each class – roughly 30 – which meant you got very little one-on-one time with the instructors. To counter this, an additional coaching class was run during lunchtime to help people with specific poses they were struggling with.
Asana class was my favourite part of the day. Although it left me feeling tired and achy at first, I started to notice a change in my body towards the end. I was stonger, fitter, and more flexible. It was amazing to see myself change.
In India, Ayurvedic (natural) medicine influences cuisine, and the ingredients of each dish often include several Ayurvedic herbs and spices that are said to be good for overall constitution. In the ashram, Ayurveda governs the meals completely, with certain foods being eliminated from the food due to their dubious properties. Meat, fish, and eggs are all banned items, as these do not form a proper yogic diet – which is always vegetarian. Since celibacy is practiced at the ashram, anything that is considered to be an aphrodisiac is also off the menu. This includes spices, onions, ginger, and garlic.
In my opinion, this limited diet left very little to be desired. Slushy, favlourless curries with overcooked vegetables and rice were served two times a day – at 10am and 6pm. These meals were to be eaten in silence, making for a rather bland eating experience. What surprised me the most, however, was how we were pushed to eat more than we could, often having second and third helpings dropped on our plate before we had time to refuse.
I was really disappointed by the food at Sivananda, and felt that it lacked the finesse of my eating experience in a Buddhist temple in Korea, where we were taught to conserve water and food, and ate vegetarian food of extremely high quality with excellent nutrition.
Satsang was the one part of my stay in the Sivananda ashram that nearly drove me over the edge on insanity. It included half an hour of meditation, followed by chanting, singing, devotional readings, and finally prassad, which is an edible blessing. For me, satsang became so boring that the prassad no longer seemed like a decent pay-off. This happy-clappy ceremony went on for a nightmarish three hours a day, from 6am to 7.30am in the mornings, and 8pm to 9.30pm at night. I knew that there would be a religious element to studying yoga in India, but I did not expect it to feel so much like a cult. For some people, satsang was the highlight of their day, allowing them to show devotion and share happiness through chants. For me, new to the culture of Indian devotional prayer, it was almost unbearable.
The word ‘God’ was thrown around a lot in Satsang, and although we offered devotion to all gods (mainly Hindu), it was this use of ‘god’ that left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The fact is that I just don’t believe in God, and I had wrongly assumed that in the ashram no one would either. They taught us in Sivanada that God is the universe, and is therefore everything. This, I can believe. But if that is so then why offer blessings? why offer devotion? Why sing like you are in a school choir? This all seemed unnecessary. I often found myself daydreaming about all the things I could do if I weren’t in Satsang – lie and sunbathe on the grass, gossip with my new ashram friends, draw, write, practice asana poses….anything! All this sitting around chanting meaningless phrases to the universe seemed a total waste of time.
There were one or two times, however, when Satsang was OK. Twice a week we would take a walk down to the lake in the morning. Sitting on the banks of the lake, we would roll out our yoga mats and meditate – or try to meditate – and watch as the sun rose in the sky. I would sit and enjoy the peaceful beauty of the nature that surrounded us, but then, just as I was getting settled, the chanting and singing would begin and spoil it for me.
So…..did I “find myself?”
I made amazing friendships at the Sivananda ashram, and discovered a passion for asana that I’d never explored before, and in that sense it was a fantastic experience. However, I truly believe that the road to spirituality does not lie locked inside an ashram, and I did not travel thousands of miles to India to be are spoon-fed spirituality in the easy-to-swallow form of ‘god.’ Sivananda felt a bit like a yoga factory to me. It was a great place to get a taster of Indian spirituality, but it just wasn’t for me.
Did I find myself at the ashram? No, I didn’t. Why? Because I already know who I am. I respect ashram culture for offering a route to happiness for people who require a structured system of worship. I also loved how the ashram’s form of worship celebrated all religions, and encouraged people to strengthen their mind, body, and soul. However, I don’t need to sing songs and live on a scheduled routine every day to show my devotion to the universe. I offer my thanks to the universe every time I touch down in a new country, every time I am humbled by another human being, every time I stand on the shores of a tropical island and thank the world for allowing me to travel there.
As it turns out, I don’t need blessings or enlightenment. I am already blessed.