One of my goals in life has been to experience a stay in an Indian ashram. So, when my friend from India Nalini told me she was going for one week at the end of February and invited me to join her, I couldn’t resist. Three weeks ago I jumped on a plane from New York to Delhi (14 hours), followed by another plane, this time to Bangalore, southern India (3 hours), followed by a car drive to the village of Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh (another 2 hours). We spent 8 days there and it will remain one of the deepest and one of the most meaningful spiritual experiences I’ve ever experienced.
Every morning, we got up very early (around 5 or 6 am…), had a cup of tea at sunrise, and then got dressed to head to the mandir (temple). We left our phones behind, removed our shoes and then sat for 90 minutes with plenty of time to chant and meditate. Following this, we enjoyed breakfast with a choice between the Western or the Indian canteen, in either case where a full meal costs less than a dollar. After breakfast, we either ran a few errands or went for a nap, followed by reading, yoga sessions and a light lunch. Around 4 in the afternoon, we went back to the mandir for still more chanting and meditation. After sunset, we enjoyed a vegetarian dinner followed by a stroll in the now slightly cooled Indian evening air around the ashram grounds and its beautiful gardens, sipping fresh coconut juice or tasting the delicious ashram-made ice cream.
Ashram can either mean a place of religious retreat (as understood in the West) modeled after the Indian ashram, or (as understood in India) a place of religious retreat for Hindus. I was curious to find out that the word “ashram” derives from a Sanskrit word, “srama,” which means “religious exertion.” Much to my dismay, when I found that out, gone were my Hollywood visions a la “Eat, Pray, Love”. The realization dawned suddenly on me that this would be intensive and tough work.
I learned a few things during those 8 days that I would love to share with you:
1. Time and space take a whole new meaning: getting up early, following a daily routine, being present in the moment. All of these activities are liberating. And although your inner journey is a solitary one, you become part of a warm and loving community.
2. Silence is golden. You are requested to keep silent in most areas of the ashram or in other areas to speak softly and kindly. You realize that few words are actually necessary, which makes you think twice before speaking. Gossiping is frowned upon. While chatting with my friend Nalini, I caught myself just in time on several occasions about to make some comment to Nalini about somebody’s outfit or demeanor! I love the quote below: here it is (I’ll let you think about it):
“Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve the silence?” Sathya Sai Baba
3. You detox your body. The food is vegetarian and healthy. There is no alcohol or tobacco allowed. Think of how that helps your mind (with positive and kind thoughts). After just ten days, I lost 5 pounds and felt serene like never before.
4. I was amazed by the number of foreigners, mostly in the women’s section (men and women sit in different sections of the mandir). I heard Russian, Spanish, Italian and French…I tried to imagine their story, their motivation and quest for being at the ashram. And I took notes, because you never know…it might inspire a story!
5. Last, but not least: the sari is much more comfortable than I had anticipated. Even with 42 degrees Celsius (figure over 100 degrees F ) in a site without any a/c , it was tough for me sitting in the lotus position (but I survived). My biggest fear was to lose the sari (which fortunately never happened). Another fear was, would I step on it? (It happened a few times). At the end of the week, I could manage the first 2 steps of putting on a sari, of the 7 or 8 steps necessary. I felt proud.
I hope you enjoyed this post and will consider a spiritual retreat, trust me it’s so worth it.