During our time in a Rishikesh we spent four days at the Anand Prakash Ashram. This is the Yogi/ Non Yogi and He Said / She Said summary of life at an Ashram.
He Said: Jesse’s Non-Yogi Perspective
I have a confession. Before Quan and I lived for a few days in an Ashram in Rishikesh India I had never dreamed of going to an Ashram… yes never dreamed about it not even in one of my nightmares. Why? Because I had never heard of an Ashram before. I’m not a yogi, I’ve done very little Yoga, which for me was more of a workout than any sort of spiritual experience.
Before we showed up Quan described what living in an Ashram would be like as, “we are basically going to be living in a complex where we’d get our meals, do a bunch of yoga and meditation…and we might have to be completely silent the whole time I’m not sure.” It didn’t sound that bad, kind of like camp, which I really loved growing up so I was a little excited. Living in an Ashram was actually a little different than Quan described. I would say it was closer to a prison atmosphere than a camp atmosphere.
She Said: Quan’s Yogi Perspective
Ashrams are a great place for spiritual development and a return to a very simple, monastic lifestyle. I had previously stayed at Amma’s Ashram (the hugging guru) at Armitapuri. I had also been a day time visitor to the Sivinanda Ashram in Kerala, India during my yoga teacher training. While not an Ashram, I lived an Ashram life during my 10 day vipassana program in Nepal which required rising at 3am and about 10 hours of meditation each day. I sought out each of these experiences during times in my life when I was at a turning point and wanted the time and space for deep reflection or to simply just be. Our time in an Ashram in Rishikesh was my first with a partner and our debrief on the experience proved to be an amusing difference of opinions.
Here’s a summary of aspects of our daily lives in the Ashram:
She Said: Ashram Schedule
The Ashram was recommended by a friend and I chose to stay here because the schedule was not as strict as other Ashrams I’ve experienced. There were several hours of free time each day. It was also located in the city and residents were allowed “off campus.” Many Ashrams are located in self enclosed remote locations and are their own oasis. During a stay there is little to no interaction with the outside community. Since this was Jesse’s first time, I thought the lighter schedule and ability to go off campus would be a good compromise and help with his transition to Ashram life. Our four day stay was also much shorter than a typical Ashram experience. Before I hand over to Jesse for his perspective on this schedule, here is why most Ashrams have a set schedule. It is based on the ayurvedic principle of dinacharya which aims to achieve maximum wellness by putting the body on a set routine.
The Ayurveda practice of dinacharya, or “law of nature,” consists of daily self-care routines, which provide structure for instilling balance and establishing cohesiveness in the physical, mental, and emotional bodies.
He Said: Ashram Schedule
Meditation starts at 5:20 AM, so at 5:00 AM a large gong goes off. Screaming children on planes and screeching trains were previously my two least favorite ways to be woken up, but I think I have to add gong in the morning at an Ashram to this list.
Going with the prison theme, while Quan had said the schedule is not as strict as the other Ashram she had stayed at, it seemed pretty strict to me. Here’s a list of the daily schedule:
He Said: Meal Time
The first time I realized that Ashram life was a prison setting was the first day at meal time. Everyone waits around for a bell to sound before they go into the meal hall, grab their plates, bowls and spoons (that’s right folks, no sharp objects like knives or forks). You go into the room where everyone sits on the floor with their own little table, staff comes around and plops some food on your plate (which was actually quite good). Then you have to sit there for 5 minutes while they continue to go around the room serving people, which is the torturous part, you can’t eat until someone starts going, “ommmm” and everyone says the prayer on the wall, which ends with “Shanti Shanti Shanti.” (Peace). Staff comes around once or twice more serving seconds and sometimes third portions of food, so you better take the food while you can get it.
The best meals were the ones where you were not allowed to talk, which was every day at breakfast and dinner most nights. What is incredible is how fast people eat when they can’t talk. Here’s the meal hall on my way inside:
Here it is 15 minutes later, which is 10 minutes after the prayer to eat is recited:
She Said: Meal Time
Waiting to eat while food is right in front of you is pure torture for Jesse, so his reaction was expected. I love meal time at Ashrams. The food is vegetarian and prepared with care from local produce, it was some of the freshest food we ate in India. The prayer that Jesse mentioned is one to give thanks for the food prior to eating as well as to wish peace for the world. There are several designated silent meals which give you the space to focus on the food and eating. We’ve all been guilty of shoving a plate food into our mouth and not even realizing because we’re deep in conversation with someone. Gratitude and mindfulness are part of what you’re able to cultivate with these practices which inevitably make the meal so much more enjoyable. The meals are served to you by volunteers as part of their seva (service to others) this ensures there food is fairly distributed. The Ashram aims to eliminate waste by feeding leftovers to the local cows and take care to separate the date pits which the cows can’t digest. You’re expected to clean your own plate and utensil after each meal which makes meal time a real community effort.
He Said: Yoga Practice
Yoga is twice a day for 90 minutes each, and for me, this was a very different yoga experience than I was used to:
The Daily Morning Yoga Class Taught by the Guru
This was at 6:00 AM every day, which was right after morning meditation. This class is primarily focused on breathing and stretching. I found a lot of aspects of the class to be more enjoyable than others. The breathing and stretching exercises were something I hadn’t experienced before, I found it helped me to wake up and even helped to clear up my sinuses.
That was the good part… but a lot of class was to say the least one of the oddest experiences of our entire 4 month Shabbatical thus far. There was a ton of chanting which, I didn’t understand nor did I find meditative. At one point, everyone is chanting very powerfully, “OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!” Then while everyone is chanting, the Guru whips out what looks like a large seashell and blows into it, which is basically a loud horn/shofar. He blew into it for about 30 seconds at a time, while everyone continued chanting “OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!, OMMM YAM!”
But the part of the class I found the most mentally challenging is the 15 minutes at the end of the class called Shavasana, where you lay on your back and close your eyes. Having woken up at 5 AM it took all my mental strength to not fall asleep, which I was nervous about because on my back I’m likely to snore. Someone did end up snoring one morning and I was pretty jealous of his chutzpah.
The Afternoon Yoga Class
The daily 90 minute 4:00 PM class was taught by one of the staff members. It was the first activity we did when we arrived at the Ashram that first day. Overall, this class was one of my most enjoyable daily occurences and closer to the physical challenging yoga I had been used to with some breathing aspects that were new for me. Although, like everything at the Ashram, it did have some bizarre aspects to it, including a breathing exercise where we raised our hands above our heads, dropped them quickly, stuck out our tongue and roared like a lion, repeated that many times, which prompted the first of many “what the fuck are we doing?” questions.
Another thing we did in class that day is we laid on our backs and had to giggle out loud for a few minutes, which was even more awkward for me, so I just started saying in a low voice” he he…he he….he..he” with Quan looking at me just laughing.
She Said: Yoga Practice
While some Ashrams teach one style of yoga, our center did a beautiful job weaving many styles into each day’s schedule. The Chakras were the theme for the week.
We checked in Tuesday afternoon and missed the Monday classes themed around the root chakra. Each of the meditation and yoga classes on Tuesday were focused on the sacral chakra, Wednesday on solar plexus, Thursday on heart and so on. The chakra are wheels of energy that run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The “weird” chants and exercises that Jesse spoke of are each designed to open up a specific chakra in the body.
Each of the seven main chakras contains bundles of nerves and major organs as well as our psychological, emotional, and spiritual states of being.
I’ve studied chakras for a while and loved how the Ashram incorporated it into the classes. I also loved how they used different styles of yoga to help ignite each chakra. I also appreciated the different types of pranayama (breathing exercises).
My all time favorite moment of our ashram experience was looking at Jesse’s face of pure confusion during laughter yoga. I laughed so hard I was on a serotonin high for the rest of the day!
He Said: Morning Fire Puja & Evening Kirtan
The Fire Puja is the morning prayers, which are done in front of a fire. The same prayers are repeated every day for 30 minutes, while ghee is thrown into the fire. The chants are done in Hindi. This is my least favorite part of our daily routine. Luckily the prayer book has transaltions and the prayers are similar to much of Judiasms daily prayers which includes praying for good things to happen in the world as well as thanking God for all the gifts we are blessed with. I spent several years growing up repeating prayers every day. Reciting similar prayers in a language I do not understand was just not appealing for me. The last day I did manage to sneak a 90 second video in of some of these prayers:
The 90 minute Kirtan that goes on every Tuesday and Thursday nights was what I would call a hindi sing-a-long. Chants are often sung on repeat with drums being played around the room in a foregin language. Its kind of like a Grateful Dead concert, with the best part being when a few people get up and start dancing by themselves, basically spinning around in circles. This was the last activity before bed, and by that time I was usually over being confused and just wanted to go to bed.
She Said: Morning Puja and Evening Kirtan
Ashram life is filled with rituals. The morning puja and evening kirtan are part of these rituals. Puja is not unique to Ashram life. In a holy city like Rishikesh, puja (fire blessing) is performed all over the city many times on the Ganges River. It is a way to open the day by making blessings together as a community. The fire, like the river, is considered a holy element of nature. In both puja and kirtan there is communal chanting. While the puja ceremony is more reverential, kirtan is more celebratory. In Kirtan you express joy and celebrate the blessings of life. There are often instruments that accompany the evening kirtan and joyous dancing. I love both of these ceremonies as there is something powerful about chanting good wishes as part of a community. I especially enjoy the kirtan for the musical talent that is shared by those singing, playing the tabla (Indian drums), or the harmonium (Indian accordion).
Site of Morning Puja and Evening Kirtan:
He Said: Final Words
I came into the Ashram experience with very little expectation, except perhaps I thought it would be like camp. As I mentioned, I felt the experience to be more like a prison than camp. While clearly not prison, one of the reasons it was difficult for me is that I realized that people go for their own spiritual experiences. I was going because I wanted to be a supportive husband. I knew that Ashram life was an important part of Quan’s experience as a Yogi and I wanted to be supportive by trying it out myself. Now that I understand what it is, I am happy to sit back and let Quan go on her own to her next Ashram stay. No more 5am wake up gong for this guy!
She Said: Ashram Stay
This experience staying in an Ashram with Jesse was very different from my previous experiences. It was so interesting to debrief with him and hear about his perspective of each aspect of Ashram life. He was a great sport about the experience and made me laugh with his prison metaphor. I walk away with deep gratitude for his willingness to learn about something that was a defining part of my past experience. We are happy that we did this, but both agree that my next Ashram experience will be solo!