Now, more then ever, ashrams are attracting yoga vacationers, burned out work-a-holics and urban escapists.
An ashram is a place of spiritual retreat, despite the growing sensationalization in memoirs-turned-movies like Eat, Pray, Love and flashy ads in the Yoga Journal.
One day you wake up and decide that running away to an ashram is the answer to your loathed job, your family, your partner—not to mention the key to becoming a bona fide yogin. You have resolved that the answer to all of your problems is waking up at five a.m. to meditate, chant in sanskrit, practice pranayama, eat kitcheri and use your neti pot more than your tooth brush. Yes, there is nothing like austerities to make you whole and bright.
A visit to an ashram may infuse the needed change in the doldrums of your life. The experience may awaken you and inspire a personal renaissance. And it may not. The reasons you jump on a jet plane may not line up with what you ultimately experience and walk away with. But leaving the comforts of your life will unequivocally shower you with a paradigm shift and a fresh view of countless aspects of life.
Here are a few recommendations before you embark on your journey to an ashram:
1. The Art of Timing…
Decide when to go and make a commitment to the minimum and maximum amount of time you will spend there. Do you need to sublet your home for a few months? Should you ask for a leave of absence from work?
Caution: Do not quit your job, use this time away to make a prudent decision on your career. Ask your employer for a hiatus; explain that this experience will be continuing education and personal growth development. Knowing you have a job to return to may ease your mind. On the flip side, it may also deter you from staying the full term. This is precisely why it is crucial to make a commitment to the length of your stay beforehand and stick to it.
If you have a partner, spouse, boyfriend and/or children, be sure that they all understand why you are going, when you will return and that you are not joining a cult or religion. I will never forget my mother saying, “If you come back a Hare Krishna chanting lama lama lama I’m going to cry.” They will take comfort in getting a sense of what this experience means for you and why it is important to your personal evolution.
2. Leave your iPhone, blackberry, laptop, iPad, etc. at home.
“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
~ Warren Buffet
This is the most difficult thing for any human to do. You can proclaim all you like that you will exhibit control with your technological toys but you will fail. Why make it a temptation? Very little, if anything, will change back home and with the people you love in your absence. Leave a phone number to the ashram for emergency messages and then resolve that you will be able to breathe without your thumbs taping on your technology of choice.
Do bring a camera, many pens and a journal. There is no reason not to document your experience. In fact, it may open your eyes to the beauty around you that is often missed when we are distracted by e-mails and texting.
On photography: be sure to ask Priests, Swamis and guests for permission to take their photograph. Be respectful with your camera in the temple. There is nothing more irreverent and distracting than watching a special guest squirm, blinded by the flashing paparazzi-like Satsang (gathering in the temple for spiritual discourse) crowd.
2. What to pack.
“Faith is the very first thing you should pack.”
~ Sarah Ban Breathnach
You are not going to Florida. You are not going to Paris. Think of your ashram experience like camping: the bare necessities are needed. Here are a few key items I suggest you bring:
Modesty is key. Leave your lululemon wardrobe at home (except for the bras, ladies, which are comfortable and quick-dry after washing). Your appearance should not be distracting. Cover your shoulders, chest, backside, and knees. Visit a used clothing store to find baggy pants and shirts in white or modest colors.
Bring full covering underwear, ladies, and leave those rainbow thongs at home. There is nothing worse than bowing down to the alter for Puja (a ritual offering made in the temple) and having florescent pink polka dotted panties shining through your white pants for all to see. Gentlemen, be sure to bring enough underwear.
You are usually fed twice a day at an ashram with no caffeine allowed. For many it will take some time to adjust to the food, sleep and technological stimulation withdrawal—not to mention the rigorous schedule.
I remember having a migraine for four days from caffeine deprivation. I advise you to plan ahead and wean yourself off of sugar, caffeine and any foods you are addicted to prior to your departure. Bringing some herbal tea for the mornings and little packets of electrolytes which you can add to your water will help keep your sugar levels moderated. And for those with an insatiable appetite, bringing a small reserve of dried fruit and nuts will prove beneficial. But be warned, this will encourage friendship with critters.
Pack your clothing in zip locks. Pack some tarps if you are sleeping in a tent which you can put under your tent or over. Bring a rain poncho. Even the cheap ones they sell at the dollar store. I used these over my tent when my tarp blew away.
It sounds decadent, but when walking nearly barefoot all the time, your footsies start feeling like they are going to fall off from exposure.
It’s a must! There is no Samadhi with a sore buttocks, back and hips. Don’t even consider for a moment that you can simply roll up your yoga mat or use a blanket for support unless this is what you customarily use. Seek out, test and fall in love with your meditation cushion. It will be the best investment you make for your journey next to your meditation shawl. I had a shawl that my friend Tiago gave me from Syria. I have no idea what it is made of but it was warm on cool mornings but managed to be cool on the hot evenings.
4. Silence is Golden.
Speak less. Speak softly. Maybe do not speak at all.
Mauna is the sanskrit term for silence. You may want to observe silence for a day or even as long as a week. This is an excellent method of deciphering how frequently we blurt out rubbish all day long. Especially if you are a teacher or have a lifestyle where you use your voice a lot. You will feel a surplus of energy by refraining from speaking ad nauseum.
You can write the word “Silence” or “Mauna” on a piece of paper and safety pin it to your chest. Everyone will know to pretend you are invisible. My favorite time to slap the “Mauna” tag on my shirt was during meals where I could really savor and enjoy the ritual of eating.
5. Bring no expectations.
“Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.”
Repeat after me: I will have no expectations. I will be flexible in my thoughts. I will surrender to whatever I experience because, like it of not, it is what the Universe believes I need.
Ashram life will push your proverbial buttons. You will be challenged on a physical, mental, spiritual, psychological and emotional level. There will be days of utter joy and bliss followed by days of complete sadness and confusion. Most of our aversions, attachments and fears are initially heightened and then fade away.
I admit that, within the first few days of Ashram life, I was ready to press eject and grab the first flight out like a captive prisoner. But luckily I couldn’t afford to change my flight! Something inside of me said, “Alright! I surrender! I give up my need to control this experience.”
The Dalai Lama advises that the fastest way to be happy is to have no preference toward the outcome of events. If it rains, be happy. If it’s sunny, be happy. If you have a headache, smile anyway. If your heart is blossoming, sing. If you learn this one thing and this only, it will be a wonderful treasure for the rest of your life.
Natalya Grod is a Canadian yoga and Pilates instructor, aspiring writer, former professional contemporary dancer and long time yoga practitioner. She has been teaching in Toronto’s foremost studios since 2002. Natalya’s extensive education in kinesiology, STOTT Pilates, Hatha Yoga and classical ballet have led her to teach students from all walks of life. She completed her Advanced Sivananda Yoga Certification at the Nassau Ashram last year, and stayed on 3 months for Karma Yoga. When Natalya is not practicing or teaching yoga she can be found rock climbing, dabbling in Ayurveda, singing to Jai Uttal and drinking copious amounts of tea.