Ashram exploration has become a hot topic since Elizabeth Gilbert‘s “Eat Pray Love” and more curious kittens are rolling up, yoga mat in hand then ever before.
There’s something romantic about the idea of turning to prayer, turning within and finding a deeper truth in the face of chaos.
In fact, for sometime, I envisioned a three month adventure to India with my best girlfriends but every year seemed to pass without so much as a peep of an om to get our tickets.
So when my mom called to share with me that she’d like to treat me to a stay at an ashram, I was fairly surprised.
“Where is it?”
“Grass Valley, just outside of Sacramento. I was thinking you could go for your birthday with your friends, it’s not exactly a vacation but it’d be something really incredible to share- don’t you think?”
Hmmm, well the gal pals and I were already headed to Mexico for my birthday but I just so happened to have a plane ticket to San Francisco the week of the next yoga retreat at the ashram. With a groupon codein hand (I know, a groupon for an ashram?!?!?), I was en route to go get my prayer and yoga on.
The week leading up to my stay, I visited with family and friends, some of whom I’d not seen in anywhere from a year to three. It was a strange time, I was saddened by the loss of our family pet, Max, who’d died unexpectedly shortly before my arrival.
I had this homesick feeling, a deep sadness like something was about to change dramatically. To make matters more heavy, strange and sad- there were three deaths of neighbors or friends of family while I was “home”. I was followed by a hearse for the better part of an hour on the freeway and I had this sense of urgency, this keen awareness to really soak up the time I had with my loved ones.
So I did. It was bittersweet and when I drove east towards the ashram I felt moved to make one last stop. A sage in my life, someone who mentored me in my youth, a surrogate mother if you will, had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was beginning chemotherapy the week I began my stay at the ashram and she was on the way. As I sat with her, my pictures framed alongside other family members I saw the girl I’d once been and how large of a gap there was between her and the woman I am now. How could I even begin to express in an hour where I was, who I was, what I was doing in my life. My words, my sentences seemed to be echoing from someone else’s mouth.
Finally, I just asked to sit with her on the couch. She smelled the same, she looked the same, she laughed the same. Was I so different? Feisty as ever, I knew she knew she was going to be okay- it wasn’t her time to go yet but I felt regret. I didn’t know when I’d see her again and I hid my tears.
With the day slipping away, I departed with kisses and hugs. I had a few hours until sunset and dinner at the Yoga Farm.
Hot, dusty, moo-cow landscaped gravel roads wound around and around until I arrived at a gateway entering the ashram.
I was half-expecting everyone there to be robed, wearing japa (prayer beads) or at the very least one with the universe, i.e. mega blissful.
Upon arrival the staff was agitated, stressed and discombobulated. Many of the yogis on site have remained to work through any number of issues to do work-study and having people skills isn’t a requirement. In fact, their karma yoga is often to do the very thing they least enjoy and with a smile on their face. Well, the “receptionist” was not digging his new role and shared he had just started the position this week. And so it went, a bit of a free-for-all, “I’m not sure why but that’s how it is” mantra repeated over and over again.
I drove my things up to my humble little cabin for four, found that a bottom bunk remained and placed my things on it before heading back down for dinner.
The food was incredible, organic, ayurvedic, garden fresh and made with love. WIth only two serving times a day, it was a challenge to refrain from piling heaps of the delicious yum on my plate.
Karma yoga, sacred service. I was assigned kitchen duty under a young man observing silence (I didn’t know, I just thought he was quiet). No one else was showing up to help but the plates, pans, pots and silverware were. Cleaning up a meal made for forty is no joke. 90 minutes every day in the hot sun baked kitchen wasn’t my first choice but it gave me peace of mind to just focus on a task, and once I was given gloves- I was over the moon.
I had no time to think, I had no time to reflect on the meaning of life, there was none.
We got up every morning to the sound of bells and the voice of a chosen staff member (who wasn’t a morning person but did his best) calling out “Om Namah Shivaya 5:30″. A quick run to the bathroom, shared by 12 to brush teeth and wash our faces and then down the hill I plunked towards the meditation hall. Thirty minutes of silent, still meditation where I found my mind racing, my legs going numb and mosquitoes having a field day with my restful, warm limbs. At least 30 minutes of kirtan (prayer chanting in sanskirt to the gods/archetypes of the soul), followed by 30 minutes (but often an hour) of satsanga, wisdom keeping company- where the swami would lecture on yoga philosophy.
My favorite pieces of this yoga pie were certainly kirtan and satsanga. The concept was to raise our awareness, raise our vibration, elevate our consciousness with inspiring and enlightening thoughts as well as sounds. Then yoga instruction would begin after a five minute break, two hours of only 12 asanas plus a whole lot of breathing. In my yoga teacher’s training, we were pushed to the limit of what we thought possible with intensive drills for time. Here, the teaching was relax yourself as much as possible to create trust and peace in your approach. Night and day. We would lie in savasana (corpse pose) for 5-10 minutes between each pose and have a final 20-30 minutes savasana to close the practice.
For many, yoga is about sweating and being in shape but here we embodied yoga- in everything we did, which was the whole point of Swami Sivananda’s teaching. We cannot live peacefully without knowing peace within little by little in all that we do.
“Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize.” – Swami Sivananda
And so it went…
Wake up, brush teeth, pee, meditate, kirtan, satsang, yoga class, brunch, karma yoga time, an hour free time (often shower time), open yoga for a two hour class outside on the deck, dinner, meditation, kirtan, satsang, brush your teeth and lights out.
The restfulness I had in having routine was profound. It’s like knowing where your keys are, that they have a place and when you need them, you know where to find them. Turning off my phone, having no computer- wow, that was a whole other form of vacation. My eyes began to focus and enjoy the grounds, the heat was intense during the day but I found it penetrating my muscles and helping immensely during yoga.
I made a great number of friends in my beginner yoga group and it was really wonderful to be in the role of student again.
On the last day, we were taught head stand- the one asana I’ve been attempting for seven years (and to no avail). I was nervous, my heart starting pumping as we brought our bodies into v-shapes and walked our feet in towards our hands. My back straightened directly in line with my head and my feet popped up, beginning to rise. I was in half-hand stand and growing. My mind all of a sudden realized what had happened without its consent and I shrieked, jumping out of it.
I’d made an agreement that it was impossible and here I was having done it. My whole body shook. I realized that all this time it hadn’t been a control issue as much as it had been a trust issue with myself. I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, that it would know.
Our teacher was a bit type-A, a kindergarten teacher/Catholic missionary gone yogi-super-star. She reminded me of me in some ways and that was painful. A recovering perfectionist, it was hard to have a conversation with her without her getting defensive and re-routing the conversation back to “thanks be to God.” I didn’t want to ask for more help at that time so I just laid down in savasana to relax myself and come out of the mini-hyperventilation that had started.
For the rest of the class, my body jumped from fight to flight mode- it didn’t know what to do with itself. I couldn’t hold any of the poses, it was bizarre. When I finally listened and just stayed down, my heart began to pinch. This immense grief that had been locked up started to pulse and tears streamed out of my eyes, dripping into my ears and I just stayed with it, breathing until it had passed.
Gently approaching yoga was something I hadn’t experienced in some time, the lineage I had followed before was fierce, warrior training (not unlike the military). I felt myself soften and be reminded that tenderness, sweetness, softness is not to be mistaken as weakness.
During meditation, we were instructed to repeat a pure thought- Om – and pick one of two places to focus that attention in our bodies while silent. We were instructed to choose either the point between the brows (the third eye) or the heart center. Day one, I felt more resonance with my heart but I wanted to focus on what I considered to be more powerful- the brow, the mind, the intuition/intellect. Gee, I wonder why my mind was so active. Ha!
So finally, on the last day I decided to own where my center was – my heart and it resounded with a breaking, a cracking, a trusting.
I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay for a month and just rest in these newfound awarenesses. The permission slip to be present, lack distraction and communication with the outside world was a mighty temptation. In the end, I knew it was time for me to go for now and that I would take my practices with me.
On my drive back into “civilization” I got lost and nearly wound up back at the ashram. And then I got stuck in grid-lock traffic just outside of my mentor’s town. I pulled off the highway and found a Whole Foods (and went a bit crazy with all the food). I picked the most perfect, little yellow happy flowers in a pot that looked like they could withstand the 100+ degree heat and brought them to my mentor’s door.
I sat writing her everything I’d wanted to say but didn’t trust I knew how. I wrote one of the kirtan chants that had meant so much to me and seemed utterly appropriate for her healing. As I turned away from her doorstep, I smiled. She already knew everything I’d wanted to say, she knew everything that she would soon read. I was grateful for her presence in my life, for her wisdom and love. I felt peace.
I’ve meditated every day since, maybe not for as long or as restfully but little by little.
My time at the ashram wasn’t so much eat, pray, love as it was breathe, trust and squish… ;-)
by popular demand… this story is now published on Elephant Journal, too!
Check it out: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/08/eat-pray-breathe/ and like it, share it, re-post it if you enjoy it!