How a stay in an ashram can change your practice…and you.
Like many yoga enthusiasts, my copy of Eat, Pray, Love is especially dog-eared around the India section. The first time I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s tale of finding profound peace during an ashram stay, I immediately made the following entry on my bucket list: Go to India to study yoga.
A few years later, I did it. I decided to go to a renowned ashram in Rishikesh, the “birthplace” of yoga. Despite the incredibly long journey (36 hours from Canada) and the culture shock (People everywhere! Cows in the street! Monkeys on the bridge! Random smells!), I had the time of my life.
I went to the ashram to deepen my practice and knowledge as a yoga teacher, and Gilbert went as part of a journey of self-discovery, but any yogi can enjoy amazing benefits from an ashram stay. Here are some reasons why you should go:
1. Get into a routine.
Many of us set a goal to hit a 6:00 a.m. yoga class every day, but traffic, work obligations and the temptation of that darn snooze button can throw us off. The yogic principle of dinacharya, or daily routine, says that optimal wellness occurs when we follow a set schedule. Most ashrams establish a dinacharya and expect residents to follow it strictly.
A loud bell will ring to wake you up, tell you when it’s time for yoga class and inform you of meal times. Once you get over your initial annoyance at that bell (especially if your room is right next to it, like mine was), you quickly realize how good it feels to do things at the same time every day. You have more energy, better digestion and deeper sleep. The only hard part is keeping it up when you get home!
2. Try a vegetarian diet.
Following the idea of ahimsa, or non-harming, ashrams only serve food that does not involve harm to animals. If you’re interested in vegetarianism, but don’t know where to start, a stint in an ashram is a great way to try it out.
Also, many ashrams grow their own produce, so you’re getting the local and organic aspects in too. And no worrying about trips to the grocery store or deciding where to eat; the ashram staff take great care in preparing healthy, balanced meals, served onsite in the ashram dining hall.
3. Discover what’s really important to your practice.
Sure, we all love looking hot in our yoga outfits and owning the Cadillac of yoga mats. But many ashrams have dress codes that don’t allow the tight, often revealing clothing we’re used to practicing in, and good luck packing that 12-pound yoga mat in your luggage.
There’s freedom in realizing that your practice is just as awesome in a cotton t-shirt on a two-dollar mat from the village corner store. And given the recent publicity surrounding lululemon’s crop of accidently see-through pants, you may just see a resurgence of baggy sweatpants at your local yoga studio.
4. Try a cleansing technique.
Whether you religiously clean your sinuses or think a neti pot is something you make tea with, an ashram stay is a great time to experiment with the kriyas—the traditional hatha yoga cleansing techniques. Because kriyas must be practiced under the guidance of an expert yoga teacher, gurus of most ashrams will accept private appointments to safely guide you through a kriya such as jal neti (nasal cleansing with a neti pot), sutra neti (nasal cleansing with a thread) or even shanka-prakshalan (intestinal cleansing with salt water).
You might just find something you want to adopt into your regular or seasonal cleansing routines. And if not, you’ll have a unique story to share with your friends back home! I know I’ll never forget the look on the faces of my family and friends when I explained my experience with shanka-prakshalan in exquisite detail (I’ll spare you).
5. Check in with yourself.
Most of us kept a diary as a kid—you know, the ones with the flimsy locks our brothers could pick with a safety pin. Your eleven-year-old musings may be embarrassing now, but chances are, those words came straight from your heart. A stay in an ashram is an ideal time to get journaling again, in accordance with the yogic principle of svadhyaya, or self-study. Some powerful realizations can come up through this practice of simply writing down your thoughts! And hey, you might just turn that journal into a book deal and Julia Roberts movie.
If it’s not realistic to travel all the way to India, don’t worry. There are some fantastic local ashrams modeled after the traditional ones in India. Ask your yoga teachers and fellow practitioners where they’ve been, and you’re sure to get a few solid recommendations.
Julia Marshall is a yoga teacher and freelance writer based in Calgary, Canada. She has a weakness for chickpeas, Guinness and espresso, but wasn’t allowed to have any of the latter two while studying yoga in India, which she did for nearly two months in 2012. Her BFFs are her three dogs, who combined, outweigh Julia by nearly 100 pounds. Check out her website at www.jewelyoga.ca.
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Assistant Ed: Sara Crolick/Ed: Bryonie Wise