Surviving 2 weeks in an Ashram

Yogi Hari & I.
Yogi Hari & I.

It has taken me over a year after completing my time in the ashram to talk about the experience and what it meant to me. I signed up for the two-week experience on the outskirts of Miramar, Florida to gain my RT200 Yoga Certification. I had preconceptions about the course. I had wanted to attend an ashram that wouldn’t be too based in the exercise and physiology side of things, like some of the Western courses can be. As a personal trainer and fitness instructor, I knew enough already to take care of that side of things. I was eager to have a more “authentic” experience, with an Indian guru, so I could really understand the roots of Yoga and build a class more steeped in tradition than full of ab exercises to develop your six pack.

However, I wasn’t really prepared for what I had asked for, and didn’t really even know what it was I had signed up to experience. The experience was indeed a massive culture shock and one that I spent the majority of my time there battling with. Despite saying I didn’t want the “Western” style course, I did still expect a heavy amount of anatomy and kinesiology as it pertains to Yoga, to fully understand the poses (asanas). I didn’t prepare myself for so little attention to exercise science, and so much more attention to Hinduism, among many other things, despite knowing that Yoga is part of a system in this religion. My experience with Yoga had been mostly in British and American studios, where none of the teachers had so much as mentioned Hinduism. So I hadn’t placed as much importance on this as integral to Yoga, until the course that is. I also thought that since I wasn’t travelling to India for my training, I’d get a far more “Western” training course.

As a particularly non-religious individual, my beliefs are far more spiritually based and non-conventional. In fact, I don’t subscribe or believe in any organised religion at all, and at times have battled with whether or not I am in fact an Atheist or just Agnostic. I believe in an energy, a oneness in us all, but no deity, convention or practice that should be used to attain some kind of Nirvana or Heaven. However, I do subscribe to many practices that various religions perform to help me be a better person, grow my mind and soul, and help me reach some form of contentness. I describe this about myself to help you understand how my background colored my ashram experience and why.

Upon arriving at the Ashram, my otherwise opened-minded partner whispered in my ear “If you need me to come get you, just call and I’ll be right there…..any time, night or day.” He took one look at the disciples in the Ashram, dressed in white pyjamas, walking around smiling and bowing, and immediately thought it felt like a cult. I laughed at him and told him I’d call him every day during my break, just so he wouldn’t worry. I did find everyone’s behaviour a little cult-like, but I had expected a little of this, so it didn’t bother me.

I was met by some really nice disciples who showed me to my room, which I would share with five other female students during my stay. We had three bunk beds. So I spent my two weeks feeling like a child again, climbing up my bunk ladder to the haven of my bed over-looking part of the ashram gardens. I really enjoyed being part of the dorm environment. It provided an opportunity to really bond with my room mates and stay focused with group study, opposed to locking myself away to call my boyfriend or check emails.

I wouldn’t spend much time however sleeping in that bunk, as the ashram bell would wake us up at 5.30am everyday so that we could begin our meditation at 6am. Our evenings would run late with meditation ending around 10pm, then all twenty students scrambling to use one of four bathrooms and one set of washer and dryer between us. Not to mention personal study time, talking to relatives on the phone, and just unwinding from the day. As someone who is used to staying up until 2-3am on most days, the schedule was like jet-lag for me, with most nights only getting about four hours of sleep at most. I have to say, meditation definitely got me through the lack of sleep, as I was surprisingly not tired and didn’t feel sleep deprived from the experience.

Our daily schedule everyday was the same:

5:30 am – Wake up
6:00 am – Meditation, Nada Yoga, Lecture
8:00 am – Asanas, Pranayama
10:00 am – Brunch
11:00 am – Karma Yoga
12:00 – Personal Studies
2:00 pm – Main Lecture
4:00 pm – Asanas, Pranayama
6:00 pm – Dinner
7:30 pm – Meditation, Nada Yoga, Lecture

Room Mates & Best Friends
Room Mates & Best Friends

The course I had picked was focused on the practice of Sampoorna Yoga, the Yoga of Fullness. This practice was passed down to my Guru by his Master in India, and involves equal attention to 6 paths of Yoga: Nada, Karma, Hatha, Raja, Bhakti and Jnana Yoga.  In western society, it is Hatha Yoga that has become predominantly practiced as a way to keep in shape physically, but I learned that this as a goal has never been the purpose of Hatha Yoga.

I’m not going to spend this post writing the meanings and details about every aspect of Yoga, suffice to say, you can learn about it by studying it yourself. Instead, my focus is on the person details that most spoke to me, or affected me during my stay.

So, back to what I learned about the purpose of Hatha Yoga. My guru told me that the physical component of Yoga is designed to prepare the body to sit. As simple as that. Think about it. How long can you sit still? Why do we need to sit still? To be able to meditate and chant. To be able to practice the other paths of yoga, one must be able to sit, unhindered, preferably in a lotus, but not necessarily.

I consider myself to be pretty healthy, very flexible and coordinated, and have practiced the physical part of yoga for years, not to mention having been a gymnast and professional dancer for some years in my younger days. Yet, as I sat for hours and hours meditating and chanting during my stay at the ashram, I was blatantly aware that it was incredibly difficult for me to just sit still and focus my mind. I would get cramps, pins and needles, numbness…even my hands swelled up from being unusually still for so long. I developed a misaligned hip from the joint becoming loose and sinking in a lotus position in fact. I’ve since spent almost a year in rehab trying to reposition the joints. Yes, an injuring from sitting and meditating. Of all things!

We have no idea how much we move around and distract our minds throughout the day! I had even been studying Tai Chi for many years, and meditated through this discipline on many occasions. I didn’t expect to experience such hardship just sitting. But I will attest that sitting still was perhaps the hardest thing I had to do at the ashram, and is in fact, a very difficult discipline to master. Sitting for hours and hours every day became very stressful. I would loath those times of day. Mornings were the worst, as it was dark and closing my eyes to meditate after just waking up seemed impossible. I knew I’d fall asleep, so I often had to keep my eyes open with a hot cup of green tea hidden from my Guru behind the back of the person in front of me. I’m sure he was well aware of my open eyes, not to mention the tea. One of my room mates just couldn’t handle the morning meditations and managed to keep a low profile, only showing up for a couple of the morning sessions, and sleeping in for the rest. The ashram wasn’t a prison camp. No one forced us to participate. We each got out of the course what we needed. During evening meditation, she would also disappear and read about Yoga philosophy in our room. No one really objected.

Nada Yoga was another very interesting aspect of Yoga that I hadn’t considered but that made an impact on me during my stay. My guru was big on Nada Yoga, the practice of inner realization through sound. We did this through chanting and making music or rhythms – usually chanting to music, or singing chants. My guru is a master of Nada Yoga, having created many albums of chants that his followers around the world play and meditate/chant to everyday. In fact, many of the students had already listened and memorized many of his chants before arriving at the ashram and were able to sing along perfectly with him from the beginning. I however had not. But I learned fast as he broke the tunes down into small chunks for us to follow, and I really enjoyed singing the different patterns that he had created.

We would spend hours being lectured by our Guru on the stories of the gods and the lessons that they taught us. But in addition to lectures about Hindu gods, our Guru would talk about saints in Christianity, a teaching practice I assume he developed hoping to resonate with Christian students…of which there happened to only be precisely one out of twenty of us on our particular course…..a number I imagine that has changed over the years he has been teaching. Indian philosophy felt much more of a cultural education and a history behind the religion that bought Yoga to the world. But for some reason, chanting religious prayers in particular left me very conflicted. On one hand, the subject matter gave me issue, but on the other hand, the music resonated with my soul, speaking to my ears and heightening my mind. All music has this feeling for sure, but chanting in the manner in which we did, accompanied by traditional Indian percussion or the Indian harmonium, and led by our guru, chanting from the heart, had a much deeper connection and resonance than simply listening to relaxing music or my favorite artist. As an aid to meditation, chanting in this way simply worked. My focus and presence during our meditation after chanting was far more than I ever could achieve through other practices.

My partner will attest to the fact that I came back from this two-week experience with two less frown lines between my eyes and what was seemingly pounds of inflammation all over my body gone. My demeanor was so relaxed and happy that he felt uneasy about it at first. He picked me up and immediately noticed that I wasn’t back seat driving. I have terrible passenger anxiety after a traffic accident some years ago that is so bad that he mostly lets me drive to avoid my panic attacks. It seemed to disappear after one week at the ashram. I’m sorry to say the affects weren’t permanent, but perhaps with time and more meditation, they will be.

An important meditation tip I learned from my guru was about the source. For years I had been meditating trying to zone into it, or find some connection with an external energy. These concepts I had learned hadn’t gotten me very far. My guru taught me that meditation comes from looking inward. He explained that we are all made of the stars. In other words, we are all one. The information and energy of the universe and God, are in all of us. Therefore, to feel God and know her mind, we only need look inside to that part of ourselves. He said it so much more eloquently, but you get the gist. This revelation was very significant for me and jumped my ability to meditate tenfold. I haven’t looked back since.

(A year later, I have read Anita Moorjani’s book “Dying To Be Me”, the account of her deadly battle with Stage 4 Lymphoma, a near-death experience, and miraculous over-night recovery to 100% remission. I recommend this book, and mention it because it backs up these theories of looking inside yourself among other amazing revelations.)

Bunk buddies
Bunk buddies

The other hugely impactful thing that I took away from the ashram, was my new found friends! Spending two weeks doing nothing but meditation and Yoga with just a few people can be challenging. There’s those people who you spend most of your time trying not to hate, and those who you fall in love with. The beautiful thing is in understanding the reasons why you dislike certain people, and why you resonate with others.

For me, I spent a lot of time being constantly aggravated by the number of smug, know it all, self-proclaimed enlightened individuals that had come along to show off how much they already knew about the universe. These supposed old souls really started getting under my skin by week two, and I’m sorry to say, as outspoken and blunt as I am, those people weren’t unaware of my distaste for their constant condescending brags and put-downs. I hadn’t really expected this type of smug self-adoration on the course, so it caught myself and some of my friends off guard a little. As it turned out, we studied this behavior, known as Rajas, in our teachings at the ashram – this ego filled fire for success and notoriety, recognition, or whatever you will. I began to see it in those that had proclaimed early on to be so much more enlightened than myself. I don’t claim at all to be free from this phenomenon by any means, we all have it, none of us are perfect. It’s just unbearable to listen to someone who thinks they are so far up the ladder to Nirvana, knowing darn well that just this simple act of bragging puts them all the way at the bottom with the rest of us. No, it shouldn’t bother me. But again, I’m not that far up the ladder myself, so I’m still learning to deal with my own emotional responses, as you can tell!

Not all those that came in thinking they were ahead of the game left feeling the same way. I mean this in a good way.  A lot of growth happened for a lot of people. For some of us, it was learning to love ourselves and give ourselves a little bit of a break. For others it was learning to be humble. For some it was all physical…believe it or not, some people paid $2500 to attend the teacher training course, having never seemingly taken a Yoga class in their lives. Not everyone planned to actually teach after the course, using the course as an immersion tool for themselves only. For some of us it was a cultural and philosophical lesson. I can say for sure that each of us got out of our time not what we thought we wanted to learn when we arrived, but what we really knew we needed to learn by the time we left.

I graduated feeling like I impacted some people very positively, and that others impacted me just as positively, and that I made lifelong friends. I left with a basic understanding of Yoga, the ability to teach a great class and a desire to learn more about its multifaceted aspects.

Contraband - we weren't perfect!
Contraband – we weren’t perfect!

Some left the ashram as newly appointed disciples of the Guru. This was a choice you could call out on your certificate before the ceremony. If you chose to become a disciple, a small fee was required, and a promise to attend ‘x’ number of courses a year or a number of days working on the ashram doing Karma Yoga (working in the garden, teaching, helping, for the compensation of good Karma). Choosing to become a disciple also gave you a special name like, Govinda or some other Hindu god or term that the Guru deemed appropriate for you. Disciples are only addressed by their special name from then on.

Although I respected those that chose this path for their dedication, I felt this path was not in my own destiny, and so I declined my choice to become a disciple.

Looking at ashram life, it’s easy to understand why anyone would want to become a disciple of any faith or system that allows you one unwavering path. One unquestionable understanding that answers all your doubts and concerns if you can just subscribe to its truths. Being told all the answers and how to achieve all your goals opposed to carving your own path in this uncertain world is a comforting and safe thing. Even with my aversion to the dogma involved, I still long to spend more time in such an environment….to give my mind and soul space to breath and grow without the day to day worries of modern day society. It’s easy to eat clean, practice yoga and mediate all day when that’s all there is to do at an ashram. It’s like a stress vacation. That said, for me, at this point in my life, there is so much more for me to explore in this world beyond this one system that I don’t feel the urge to shut out everything else. Not just yet at least.

I hope you enjoyed this honest and unfiltered review of my experience, written from my heart. It’s easy to write all the positive things about an experience, or to slate something if you hate it. But to write about such a soul searching experience that challenged me both physically and emotionally, in both good and bad ways, has been difficult to do. Hence taking almost a year to do it. I hope my insight will help you understand why, and motivate you to give it a go too. I highly recommend the experience, not just for those wanting to teach Yoga, but for anyone practicing Yoga who wants to challenge themselves in ways they don’t even know they need to.

A step outside of your comfort zone is always a good character builder. Two weeks in a Yoga Ashram will do that.

Namaste.

Class of Spring 2015
Class of Spring 2015

My journey with Yoga

For years I have studied various forms of Yoga and have enjoyed practice with instructors all over the world. Some of my favorite teachers are Megan Crum, teaching Vinyasa Flow in Los Angeles, Paula Ahlberg and Karina from Wellbeing Warehouse in Newmarket UK, teaching Ashtanga and Hot Yoga and Cora Rosen at Moksha Yoga in Wellington, FL, also teaching Vinyasa Flow amongst other classes. Just had to do a quick shout out in recognition of their awesomeness.

After many people telling me I should teach it, I’ve finally decided to begin my journey as a Yoga Instructor. Paula among others have convinced me that it won’t ruin my love of Yoga, if I don’t teach too many classes, and that becoming an instructor will broaden my knowledge and deepen my practice…..so I’m on board!

The first thing to do is choose a mentor. This is actually quite difficult to do. There are lots of Yoga teacher training courses out there. Generally speaking, if they’re not recognized by the Yoga Alliance, you probably won’t get a job teaching with your qualification, so that’s a must. But, more importantly, I’m looking for a Yogi that will give me inspiration and challenge me to grow.

It seems no matter who you pick, Yoga teacher training courses cost a mint! So picking carefully is important. I will only get to do this once. It will take YEARS to earn back the cost of the course, so it isn’t really something to do for an income….rather a labor of love and something I’m doing for my own personal spiritual journey.

Yoga & meditation groups

So excited! I’m going to sign up to do a yoga master class with Paul Zink, right here in San Pedro where I live in May. He’s doing the class at this place called People’s Yoga, Health & Dance, just across town. I checked out their site and it seems that they also have a regular schedule of Yoga, Tai Chi and Meditation, taught by a Tibetan Monk. Most of the class schedule clashes with my Kung Fu schedule, so I’m not sure I’ll get to attend. But there’s one class I’m hoping to get to on Sunday mornings, if I can keep it free!

I’ve been looking for places to get more involved in my spiritual practice, but it’s hard to find English speaking meditation groups around here. The closest temple seems to be in Santa Monica, and honestly, that’s a long drive with my hectic schedule. I’d have to commit half a day to just get an hour practice in. I’m busy joining online groups and email lists to get some regular guidance, but I can’t help but feel I need a local, regular guru of some sort to help keep me accountable for my practice. Now I realize that I’m supposed to be holding my own self accountable, but at this stage, for me, that means finding someone to help hold me accountable, if that makes sense. If anyone has any suggestions or leads on local groups, please help me out. Thanks 🙂