After a 6 week march from the Nepal border down to the poop-stained beaches of India’s southernmost point, I did an about face and started phase two of the Indian adventure: a two and a half month journey back to the north in search of some things a bit more significant than chai and masala dosa. Although their’s most def nuthin’ wrong with either..
Like many of the other millions of visitors that come each year, I was originally drawn to the intangible energy of India. Many say it’s the most spiritual place on earth and for good reason. The seat of Hinduism, birthplace of the Buddha and home to millions of Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Jains, Ba’hais and other devotees, India is on fire with religious devotion. On every street corner, in every home and on some foreheads, it’s on proud display every day, usually coexisting peacefully. For them, it’s not a ‘Sundays only’ thing, an occasional reminder of how to live. Here and many other areas outside the West, religion/spirituality is life.
Many of the Eastern philosophies that influence and hopefully soothe our often troubled Western minds were born here, including yoga (sadly known mostly for its physical benefits in the West) and many forms of meditation. The Beatles visits to gurus here in the 70s helped kickstart the West’s fascination with the country as well.
I studied a bit of religion in college and have always been interested in it as a subject – more by the cultural traditions and rituals associated than by the actual devotion to any god. As a biology major/science guy, the god part was always something I had a hard time with. Textbooks and Darwin were the closest things to holy books, gurus or priests that I’d ever really taken seriously. Yet, as I’ve gotten older, become a little less idealistic and a lot more realistic about the way the world works, stresses, suffering, wonders and incredible joys included, I’ve softened and let the door open just a bit to the idea that ‘something else’ is happening. While the ‘god with a capital G’ thing has always rubbed me the wrong way (thanks as well to what traditional religions have become – exclusive, dividing, downright scary at times), as I pick my head up more and gain perspective on life and how the world works, how we’re all connected and the energies we all share (a scientific phenomenon as well – anyone see “What the @#$% Do We Know?”?), I’ve become a bit interested in learning more – specifically about the underlying philosophies common to those religions and learnings of those who’ve have gained their own insights into what exactly is happening here.. Spirituality rather than religion, I guess. With all that in mind, I wanted to experience a bit of what was happening ‘here’ in India.
I’d heard a lot about the ashrams (‘place of learning’) in India and wanted to see for myself what they were all about. Seemed like a good place to start. Kate had the same idea when she thought about coming to India. We were having such a blast traveling together that she decided to extend her trip so we could both visit one together. We signed up for a 2 week “Yoga Vacation” at one of the Sivananda centers in India, known for being ‘Western mind friendly’ and made our way north from Kanyakumari to the town of Trivandrum, up the coast in Kerala.
Knowing we’d be leading a slighly.. less indulgent lifestyle inside the ashram, we decided to see a movie before we checked in, getting a bit of mental comfort food first. What better way to kick off two weeks of self-discovery and tranquility than by watching the latest Rambo flick: Rambo IV. It was the only Western movie playing in town and easily the most gorey I’ve seen in years. What the hell happened to Stallone?? Still pissed off about the horrible face lift(s)? The Indians surrounding us absolutely loved it all, screaming, jumping up and down in their seats and clapping every time someone’s head exploded in a flash of red. God Bless America.
As we rolled up to the ashram the next day, we were both a bit nervous, unsure of what exactly we’d encounter on the other side of the high gates of this place. The description included practicing yoga (yes!), meditation (yes!), chanting (??) and some other benign sounding stuff. With what little I knew, I had a vision of a serene refuge where I’d be able to relax, pick up some good habits and learn how to calm my often cluttered mind.
We got a bit of what we were looking for, but a whole lot more. The daily schedule went something like this:
5:00 AM – Spiritual songs from nearby temple town start blaring at eardrum-splitting levels from massive speakers from the village below, waking us all up
5:20 – Ashram bells begin ringing, announcing the call to actually get out of bed
6:00 – 7:30 Everyone gathers in the main hall for a 30 minute group meditation session followed by ‘Satsang’. Satsang consisted of about 45 minutes of group chanting – Hindu devotional songs in Sanskrit followed by a lecture from one of the ‘swamis’ (monk/gurus – one from Italy and another from South Africa) about any of the original teachings of the Indian swamis that founded the ashrams and their yoga-based movement.
7:30 – Tea served outside in the communal area – time to chat. Caffeinated – a total surprise and our only real indulgence.
8:00 – 10:00 Hatha yoga class #1. Hatha is one of the 3 main types of physical yoga (asanas), known for being more relaxing and less ‘physical’ – more for inducing relaxation and the mind/body connection than breaking a sweat
10:00 – 11:00 Communal vegetarian lunch. All ~300 people at the ashram sit on the floor Indian style in rows, eating rice and curries from plates on the ground with their fingers as volunteers ladle out the grub from huge buckets
11:00 – Karma yoga. Basically volunteer work – anything from emptying garbage cans to rolling up mats after the Satsang.
12:00 – 1:30 Optional yoga coaching classes or free time
1:30 Tea time #2. More caffeine.
2:00 – 3:30 Lecture on various topics – from meditation to chanting and so on
3:30 – 5:30 Yoga class #2
6:00 – 7:00 Communal dinner (yes, only two meals a day – enough for a near heart attack when I started. Thank Shiva for seconds..)
8:00 – 9:30 Group meditation and Satsang #2
10:30 Lights out. A full day.
While the yoga, meditation, vegetarian diet and relaxation in the serene setting (in the middle of a nature preserve) were absolutely amazing, the rest got to be a bit much. There were over 300 people (many of them students training to become teachers – bursting with nervous energy) crammed into a relatively small space – way too many people to maintain the kind of tranquility we were all looking for. It felt like more of summer camp than anything else at times. People stayed up late talking, leaving lights on and cellphones ringing (even though they were technically forbidden inside the ashram – even saw one of the swamis walking around talking on one..) enough to frustrate the rest of us looking for the ever-elusive peace and quiet. I found myself with the urge to smack people talking during a meditation session – funny at the moment but not exactly the kind of result I was looking for from the whole experience.
But the main source of frustration for a lot of us (the ‘ashramites’ were almost exclusively Western) came during the Satsangs. With no explanation or introduction into the meaning or purpose, everyone was encouraged/expected to join in during the chants in a language we didn’t understand about gods we didn’t understand (Lord Rama what? Hail Krishna who?) and then prostrate before those same gods. You want me to do what? To whom?? For many of us, all of this raised our Western subconscious hesitation to do anything that feels illogical. While many of us had come to learn and were okay with surrendering some of our overly logical Western habits, this was supposed to be designed for Westerners and was still just too much to swallow. We understood the underlying benefit in the chanting (feels amazing to sing together with 300 people full of energy – if you didn’t think about what you were actually saying) but not in the words themselves which frustrated us all. Most of us were there to understand the philosophies underlying yoga’s Hindu roots – all of which makes sense. But anthropomorphizing those philosophies is what turned a lot of us away from traditional religion in the first place. Throw in a few crazy lectures from one of the slightly out-of-touch swamis (“All of life can be boiled down to two things: sex and shopping” what the?) and after about a week, Kate and I realized it was time to go.
The decision to leave was incredibly difficult. Despite the description above, I had some amazing experiences there. And I can honestly say I can’t remember ever feeling so much serenity in my life. Ever. There were many moments when I found myself just smiling for and full of joy for no reason. Hard to explain but absolutely stunning. But those feelings were punctuated with pockets of frustration and confusion that made the equation impossible to work out. What most of us were truly looking for was an actual yoga/meditation retreat – with a bit of philosophical lectures thrown in to help us understand the benefits of the yogic lifestyle. To learn more about the parts of Hinduism we ‘get’ without all of the traditional religious baggage we don’t want. Instead, we were expected to jump in without an owner’s manual and that just didn’t feel right. What the hell did I expect in the middle of India? I dunno..
But the experience was not at all bad. We were both truly glad we’d done it, learning as much about we agreed with as what we didn’t. And helping to build a foundation for some peace-inducing habits I’ve sorely needed. More on that next.
P.S. Kate just sent me a link to a National Geographic article that just came out on our friends at Sivananda.