Whether you go to an ashram for the atmosphere, the practice or just for a holiday, great self-awareness and growth can occur.
I want to share with you my experience of my stint in a Satyananda ashram in India in 2009. I remembered how much I loved that time and how much I gained from that experience, especially concerning the niyama, Tapasya (self-discipline).
The ashram was in a village called Rikhia, in northern India. Thirty years ago, Rikhia was one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest states in India when Swami Satyananda established an ashram there. When I was there it had been going for twenty years, and although many people were still desperately poor, living conditions had risen considerably as a result of the ashram.
I arrived in early October, to be present at one of the large celebrations that are held annually. I was assigned one of three beds in a tiny room in a dormitory a kilometre or two away from the main ashram.
There were not many sensual pleasures there: waking at 4.00 am to get all the dormitory housework done, shower and walk to the main ashram in time for breakfast at 6.00 am. After breakfast, was Karma Yoga . Karma Yoga is selfless service. This included washing up, cleaning, preparing vegetables and any other jobs that you were assigned.
I spent a great part of each day making leaf plates.
These were great: when you finished your meal, you threw the leaf plate into a bin, which is later emptied into the paddock next door that is home to various cows, goats and dogs who look forward to the free meals. Frequently I was assigned serving duty – that is, carrying a ladle and a large container of rice or dahl, and slopping it onto people’s leaf plates.
As it was festival time, there were 2,000 or 3,000 people for each lunch and dinner, all sitting in neat rows on the ground, waiting to be served.
More karma yoga in the afternoon; as at home, there are always more jobs to be done! Dinner, I think, was at 6.00 p.m., and after cleaning up, we then walked, (or hitched a ride) back to our dormitory – exhausted. Lights out at 8.30 p.m. There were no weekends off.
So…. being so busy, how is it that I enjoyed my time there?
In fact, it was probably the happiest I’ve ever been. I think it’s because I felt that I was a part of something bigger, something really worthwhile.
For example, among the thousands of people whom we were feeding each lunch and dinner time, were the school children. The ashram runs the school – the only opportunity these very poor children have for getting an education, and frequently the only time they get a meal.
I never heard of any asana class that I could attend while I was there. We each did our own asana, breathing and meditation practice in our (rare) spare time!
The beds in the dormitory were firm – to say the least. The mattress was maybe 2 centimetres thick, resting on a wooden base. I was lent two sheets and a pillow slip. I’m glad I took my sleeping bag with me! The “showers” were cold – but really, just a cold tap in a cubicle where one washed one’s body, clothes and sheets. You were lucky if no one stole your clothes or sheets off the line while you were up at the ashram during the day!
I can’t really say why this pleasure-less lifestyle appealed to me.
There was camaraderie. There was the excitement of being in another culture. There was satisfaction in knowing that I didn’t NEED an inner-spring mattress to sleep on, that I didn’t need something new, exciting and different for each meal, that I didn’t need movies or TV, that I could get enjoyment from the feeling of the sun on my arm as a cold morning gradually warms up.
There was still the gnawing knowledge, however, that as “tough” as life was in the ashram, the village people who lived along the route I walked each day lived in much, much tougher conditions: tiny houses made of bamboo and corrugated iron – the “kitchen” a hole in the ground in front of their house where the open fire was, the bathroom/toilet a hole at the back or side of their house. There was the inevitable skinny dog, cat, cow or goat. But the people always smiled and waved as we walked by on our way to or from the ashram. What a privilege for us, for me! And I could come home to a much more comfortable lifestyle any time I wanted to.
As a result of this experience, brief as it was, I realised that I was stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I became tougher, not worrying about the cold shower after a while, and recognising the value of living a simple life – which is the heart of Tapasya (austerity).