This Ashram Life

(or What Do You Mean There’s No Coffee?)

Sometimes I think that it might be nice to live in a convent.  I find the idea of always knowing that you have shelter, food, a job and a purpose in life to be quite comforting.  Never mind all the many sacrifices required: I’d nearly trade marriage and motherhood and free-will for a life where I didn’t have to worry about bills and career and retirement.  I said nearly.  Plus I’m not religious, much less Catholic.

This weekend I got a 48-hour insight into what a monastery life might look like.  In search of a break from the unrelenting demands of motherhood and an intense need to reconnect with the outdoors, my own breath and spirit, I headed to a yoga retreat at a nearby ashram.

I’d never been to an ashram before, and I probably should have done more research first (although to be fair, the website could have included a bit more information about exactly what I had just signed up for).  The specifics of the retreat really didn’t matter to me; I just wanted a time-out for a few days and the promise of hiking and yoga was enough for me to commit.

Let me share what I learned.

IMG_1367The routine. Ashram life is all about routine.  It’s like a real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day.  Every day is essentially the same.  Wake-up at 5:30am (because you need to be up before 6:00am when the energy shifts).  Morning meditation and chanting.  Yoga class.  Brunch.  Chores.  More yoga.  Dinner.  More meditation and chanting.  Lights out.

And not only is the routine the same, but the elements within the routine are the same.  Same daily chants, same yoga class, even the same food!  If you had asked me how I found the ashram on Friday night, I would have said amazing – stimulating and challenging yoga class, delicious food, beautiful setting.  But by Sunday, after I had done the same yoga class repeatedly and eaten the same food at every meal, I was losing my enthusiasm for life as a yogi.

While it was never explicitly explained, I believe that the ashram routine creates a very controlled life, with no surprises.  All expectations are met each and every day.  So if you are not worrying about what you are going to do or what comes next or even what’s for dinner, you can focus on other things.  Besides, after you do 3 hours of chanting and meditation and 4 hours of yoga and 1.5 hours of eating and your work around the ashram, there is very little time left.  Certainly no time to waste sitting on the couch at night watching bad TV!

I’m not sure if this regimented lifestyle is something that I could get used to or if it would drive me crazy.  I do think I like more variety in my life, but there is an escapist element that appeals.  I left my phone in my room, stayed off social media, avoided the news.  And it was really good to disconnect.  But not everyone did.  I was surprised at the presence of phones in the sacred spaces at the ashram – places where you were not allowed to wear shoes, but apparently were allowed to be online.

I kind of wish they could confiscate all mobile devices at check-in, and maybe only allow you access for a set time during the day, 30 minutes max.  Or place a basket at each entrance so that you take off your shoes and deposit your phone before going inside.  As it was, phones went off during meditation and during yoga.  People (including staff) took pictures during ceremonies in a way that felt disrespectful.  There were a few times when I wished I had a camera, but I decided that it was better to be present and savor what I was experiencing instead of trying to capture an Instagramable moment.

IMG_1391The yoga. So there is more to yoga than poses.  Yoga involves 5 tenets: Proper Exercise (Asanas), Proper Breathing (Pranayama), Proper Relaxation (Savasana), Proper Diet (Vegetarian), Positive Thinking and Meditation (Vedanta and Dhyana).  There are also many different schools of yoga, which I had not quite appreciated before.

Before this weekend, my yoga practice mostly centered on the asanas.  I am quite proud of myself for mastering more complex balancing poses, like bakasana (or crow), or poses that require a degree of flexibility, like halasana (or plow).  But at this ashram, there is a set yoga routine of 12 poses that you do in the exact same order, twice a day.  There is a science behind this, and each pose has a purpose and is usually paired with an appropriate counter-pose.  It was only the final teacher who explained the rationale of the sequencing, all of which is designed to help you build up strength to maintain good posture and sit still for prolonged periods of meditation.

It’s an interesting concept, but it made me realize that I love the diversity of yoga, and all the many poses that you can incorporate into your practice.  I like the way that asanas can be artfully strung together into vinyasas, creating a kind of flow that can be cathartic and releasing.  I like practicing to music, but it does have to be the right kind of music.  And after 3 days of intense poses, my body was sore – abs, legs, back – and I knew that I would soon need a break.  Even hard-core athletes get a day of rest.

IMG_1393The diet. We eat pescatarian at home, so I didn’t read the fine print on the yoga diet.  Of course meat and fish is not allowed.  But also banned are the stimulant (“rajasic”) and sedative (“tamasic”) foods: onion, garlic, scallion, leek, chive, mushroom, eggplant, spicy food, salt, alcohol, caffeinated beverages.  Needless to say there is a lot of rice, beans, lentils and kale.  Lots and lots of kale!

Despite these restrictions, the food was actually very good and tasty, but I just couldn’t eat the same meal on repeat.  My children are able to eat the same thing every day, but that just doesn’t cut it for my taste buds.  I’m fine with one round of leftovers, but that’s usually my limit.

I definitely wasn’t the only guest who missed the “no caffeine” memo and it was mildly amusing to watch everyone go through caffeine withdrawal – and a lot of talk about the addictive properties of caffeine.  We took a field trip from the ashram to a nearby state park on Saturday for a long hike, and nearly every car stopped at the Dunkin Donuts to get a caffeine fix.  The general consensus was that it would be one thing to wean from caffeine if you are staying for weeks or months, but quite another for just a weekend visit.  Besides, even monks and nuns get to drink coffee and alcohol.

Still, it did give me pause to think about what the little caffeine I do consume does to my body and my sleep.  I slept really, really well at the ashram.  But that could have been due to any number of things: being alone (no kids!), pitch black darkness, complete quiet, exhaustion, and maybe perhaps no caffeine.

IMG_1387The chanting and meditation.  The chanting was a new experience for me.  Most of it was in Sanskrit and there was chanting before, and sometimes after, every activity.  Yoga, meals, hiking.  Before any activity, there was a mantra to be offered up, always best done with a chant.  It started to remind me of summer camp.  Actually, being at the ashram was a lot like summer camp: just substitute yoga for swimming and horseback riding, Savasana for rest hour, chanting for singing!  We had a song for everything at summer camp and sang all the time.

I remember when I first arrived at camp, I didn’t know any of the songs and felt so out of place surrounded by people who seemed to know everything about this new world I had entered.  I got that same feeling at the ashram.  But by the end of the weekend, I was starting to catch on to some of the daily chants, noticing that a melody could get stuck in my head even if the words were elusive.  And I slowly discovered that I liked the chanting, and the less foreign it became, the more comfort I found from the ritual.  Some of the chants were even in English.  And a quick perusal of the chant book showed me that some chants were in fact songs that we did sing at camp:

Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea
Everybody is a part of everything anyway
You can have everything if you let yourself be

I also discovered that my meditation got significantly better in only 2 days.  I could sit still for much longer (maybe there is something to the asana regimen!) and my mind wandered less.  It was amazing to have 25 minutes breeze past without any notice of the time.

Ashram life is structured so that all 5 tenets are attended to each day.  Real life, and especially motherhood, just doesn’t work that same way.  It was a true luxury to be able to take time out for me and focus only on my needs.  And while I rib about the monotony of the food, truth is that it was a welcome break to have all of my meals prepared for me.  Maybe I could get used to eating the same thing if I wasn’t the one having to do the cooking.

IMG_1394Karma Yoga.  On Saturday night, as I was eating dinner with two of my new friends, a staff member approached and asked if we might be interested in helping out in the kitchen after the meal.  Saturday was Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and there were over 100 people at the ashram for the evening meal and ceremony that was to follow.  This meant that there were a lot of extra dishes to do.  One final tenet of yoga at the ashram is Karma yoga, often translated as “selfless service.”  All at the ashram are encouraged to participate in Karma yoga each day, usually just after the morning meal.  Since we had spent the day hiking, we had not had an opportunity to participate in any work around the ashram, so we all eagerly said that we’d be happy to help.

The hour-and-a-half that followed was some of the most enjoyable time of the weekend.  Who knew that washing dishes could be both fun and cathartic?  Why isn’t dishwashing at home even a fraction as gratifying?  One reason I jumped at the chance to help out was that it evoked memories of my camp days, when I was known for my skill and efficiency at loading the industrial dishwasher (see, just like summer camp!).  It was heartwarming to be acknowledged by the staff as the “karma yogis,” and I was grateful for the chance to lend a hand and return back to the ashram some of what had been given to me.

My first morning at home, I awoke early, still on ashram time.  I crept downstairs in the dark of pre-dawn and started to get ready for the day.  As I worked in the kitchen, I decided that making breakfast and school lunches is my own form of karma yoga.  Just that small mind-shift made the activity feel less of a thankless, mandatory chore and more of an offering.

IMG_1390Diwali.  The ceremony on Saturday night was breathtakingly lovely.  The message of Diwali is to “forgive and forget.”  I tried to take this to heart, knowing that I struggle with both.  I find it hard to forgive those who have hurt me, even harder when there is no remorse or responsibility for the injury.  There is plenty that I would just as well forget altogether, but I know that too just sets me up to repeat the same injurious cycle.  Maybe the best I can do is to have a little forgiveness for myself.

The ashram was beautifully decorated, the staff having spent most of the day preparing for the ceremony.  But by the next morning, all of the decorations were cleared away, the ashram returned to its original state, just as quickly as it had been transformed the night before.  There are times that the routine is relaxed, but not for long.

IMG_1386Check-out.  The first order of business when I got home was to savor a cup of tea and several handfuls of unprocessed, nutritionally-negative Cheez-Its.  Followed by a glass of wine that evening.  Ah, balance restored.

So I’m not going to run off to the ashram any time soon.  But I am going to try to incorporate more yoga elements into my daily life, while savoring the variety and choice of each day.  And I take to heart this one mantra, which is lovely way to move through this life, no matter what you believe or how you choose to practice:

Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize
Be Good, Do Good, Be Kind, Be Compassionate
Adapt, Adjust, Accommodate

~Swami Sivananda

Om shanti shanti shanti.

Om peace peace peace.

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