It’s awards season…and the award for ashram of the year goes to…

Via on Mar 6, 2011

To pass beneath the green arched ‘Sri Ramanasramam’ sign is to enter a hermetically sealed world of elegant simplicity; white washed walls offset the ashram’s signature green and terracotta paint, orange clad sadhus tread silently on raked sand walkways, milk white peacocks fan their tails on the temple roof. 

Welcome to Sri Ramanashramam

I was there to practice Jnana Yoga, the most challenging of yogas. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the guru in whose honour the ashram was built, believed that repetition of the question ‘Who am I?’ destroys all other thoughts leaving behind only sat-chit-ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss. 

My alarm went off at 5am; the question ‘Who am I?’ quickly followed by ‘and what the heck am I doing here?’ I threw on my ashram-friendly white dress and followed in the slipstream of dozens of similarly clad devotees on their way to the main hall, for the morning milk offering to the Maharshi. 

A bare-chested large bellied swami bearing armfuls of orange, pink and white garlands conducted a prayer ceremony, scattering leaves and petals as he chanted, filling the air with a heady mix of rose, citronella and incense. 

Sri Ramana Maharishi

I went to breakfast looking like a true disciple – my forehead smeared with sandalwood paste. I ate off a banana leaf which I was told to sprinkle first with water – I wasn’t sure if this was devotional or hygienic but I gave it a good dousing. A pot bellied sadhu with a huge tin bucket turned the leaf dirty side up, threw the contents of his ladle upon it and beamed. I beamed back, attempting to practice non-attachment to cleanliness. 

The breakfast of iddlies submerged in brown sugar and some very hot, strong south Indian coffee restored my energy levels and I spent the rest of the day exploring Arunachala, the hill that the Maharshi called his ‘guru.’ I tried to meditate in his cave, and then in the little house that he’d lived in for many years before the ashram was built, but there was no room at either inn. The dark inner chambers of both were full, with a long queue of cross legged devotees patiently awaiting their turn. An Indian man had fallen asleep and was now snoring loudly. 

Perhaps I would have more luck in the ashram’s own meditation hall. The Maharshi would lie for hours on a tiger skin covered bed, the only sound the swish of a fan, surrounded by every form of life – from Jackie the dog who would sit on an orange cloth and stare at him, not eating until he ate, to Lakshmi the cow – believed by the Maharshi to be an incarnation of the old lady who used to feed him when he lived in the cave. 

The meditation hall

There were no cows or dogs anymore but there was plenty of room so I settled down and soon I was dropping like Jacques Mayol, the freediver immortalised in The Big Blue, leaving the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life behind, sinking deeper into the infinite blackness, getting very quiet. I sat listening to my breath – deep and steady – watching the air bubbles rising like reversing rain drops, nothing to worry about. And in that weightless inkiness I found stillness, an awareness of a bigger reality. Just pure existence, consciousness, and yes, bliss. As Jacques says in the film, ‘you go down to the bottom of the sea where the water isn’t even blue anymore, where the sky’s only a memory, and you float there, in the silence.’ 

I don’t know how much time passed before the cleaning lady’s sudden entry awoke me from my deep dive but I resurfaced without the bends. Had I experienced Jnana yoga? Who cared? Whatever it was called, and however long it had lasted, I had, for the first time in the yoga schools of India, felt the potential of a merger with cosmic bliss. No matter that it was in the presence of a saint who had been dead for more than fifty years and thought a cow was an incarnation of an old lady. For this miracle I award it the title of Ashram of the Year. 

Sri Ramanasramam Ashram is donation only – spiritual epiphanies not included.

About Lucy Edge

Lucy Edge worked in advertising as a strategist for more than twenty years. Her campaigns for Marks & Spencer, Yellow Pages and Johnnie Walker were awarded the top prizes in the business and she built a reputation for creative and effective solutions to her clients’ business problems, a talent that was rewarded with board positions at three top ten agencies. One day she decided to give it all up in favour of a quest for life’s deeper meaning in the five star ashrams, utopian villages and yoga schools of India. Yoga School Dropout her highly acclaimed account of this journey, records her encounters with Gucci clad gurus, hugging mothers and swoony swamis as she searches, ever more desperately, for mystic Indians, Tantric bliss and a boyfriend. Named by The Independent as one of their books of the year, and a consistent bestseller on Amazon’s Yoga and Travel Writing rankings, Yoga School Dropout has become a traveller’s classic – inspiring hundreds of disenchanted workers to follow her yoga trail around India in search of a more meaningful life. Lucy contributes to a wide variety of newspapers, books and magazines including Tatler, The Daily Express, Yoga Journal, Body & Soul Escapes and BA’s High Life magazine. See her website, follow her on Twitter, read her blog, and join her Facebook page.

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3 Responses to “It’s awards season…and the award for ashram of the year goes to…”

  1. Love this blog, Lucy. What a vivid description! Your writing makes us feel like we're right there with you, and inside your head as well. Thank you for this little gem.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. [...] ashram is a place of spiritual retreat, despite the growing sensationalization in memoirs-turned-movies [...]

  3. [...] whom I adored, when he gave satsang years ago when I lived in New York City. Hearing both swamis speak about the meaning of life always made me feel like I was absorbing the wisdom of the ages, passed down over the centuries in [...]

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