When in Doubt Go to an Ashram

During my trip to India this year I planned to visit Rishikesh again. This time, it was for the purpose of visiting Swami Rama's ashram. The first time I visited Rishikesh was in 2000 and it was mainly to kick around. I had heard it was nick-named yoga town; being littered with yoga ashrams on the banks of the Ganges. I was curious about the place and wanted to be a wanderer. Rishikesh was also the same place where the Beatles met their Guru and studied Transdental Meditation (TM). My second trip to Rishikesh was in 2005. This was mainly as a pit-stop in order to take a 10-hour drive up the mountains to reach the Sivananda Ashram in Gangotri. Because I had visited Rishikesh in the hot summer and stayed in the main city, my memories were of a dusty, over-crowded city with lots of sadhus walking around. I did not have nice memories of mountains or a peaceful atmosphere.

I made plans to visit the ashram after unexpectedly meeting Swami Veda (a disciple of Swami Rama's) at a yoga conference in Los Angeles. It's funny how through a series of unforeseen events one thing led to another. Had I not been invited to the conference in LA, had I not befriended a woman doctor at the conference who was a student of Swami Veda's and had she not told me about the 'secret' meditation that Swami Veda was holding in his room, I never would have met Swami Veda! When he told me he would be at the ashram in the middle of India, I knew I had to try to arrange my schedule to see him. Fortunately it fit perfectly as I would be able to finish my training with my teacher in Mysore (the south of India) and still have time to do some travelling in between before getting to the ashram.

We arrived at the ashram after taking the overnight train from Amristar. For anyone who has NOT seen the Golden Temple, I highly recommend taking the time to visit Punjab! We got to the the ashram in the late afternoon after changing drivers twice and getting the directions from a Swami at the wrong ashram.

It has always bloggled my mind as to why driver A takes you about 4-5 km's, gets out of the car and is replaced with driver B and C. Or, asks you to get out and into another vehicle with a driver looking very pleased to take over. The first time this happened to me, I was alone and pissed off. The second, third and fourth time, I came to the understanding that these guys must have some bizarre social network in which everyone does and says the same thing. While driver A switches with driver B and/or C he always reassures you with the same thing. "No charge!" I have always thought, "Okay, that's very nice, but you haven't gone any where yet!" And it gets even stranger because from the time driver A had met us, it was all about "no problem", "he knows it" and "come, I take you." Hence, I have learned not to trust any of this and to expect the unexpected. So, after getting 2 new drivers (B and C), we headed off to what we thought would be Swami Rama's ashram.

As it happens, we first paid a visit to a local ashram, which I am sure was the first one the drivers spotted. Here, I met up with an orange clad-swami man, who told us we were at the wrong ashram. Certainly it did not look anything like the pictures I had seen! Normally the drive from the Hardiwar train station to Rishikesh should have been 30-40 minutes, but in this case it was more like 2 hours. Okay, no problem, we had time to spare (I guess). Our drivers, who looked about 16 years old, were certainly in no rush and offered us a "smoke." They looked so disappointed when I said, "I don't smoke." But this should have come as no surprise since Indian people (re: men) tend to make many assumptions about travelling Westerners; in particular females. I have read about Indian men thinking that Western women show up to India in pursuit of sex. Well, to be frank, if that was the case, which it is not, I highly doubt that any of us would travel all the way to India. It would make more sense to go to a single's club or an all-inclusive resort!

When we arrived at the ashram I was impressed with the service we received as the first thing that Gloria, our host and personal greeter, did was tell the drivers they were over-charging. Tired and not willing to get upset over an extra $5 bucks, I said it was okay. We got our bags and headed into the receiption area.

The ashram provides extremely well kept and comfortable huts. Each hut has a full kitchen (re: stocked with plates, cups, etc.), separate bedrooms and an attached toilet with a shower. I had the feeling that if you wanted to stay for a long period of time you would be very comfortable. At other ashrams I was either in a tent or a dormitory with only a small room (250 square feet). Staying a month was a good exercise in 'basic' living. At the Sivanada ashram in Trivadram I even stayed in the 'newer' addition, which ended up having an unfixable clogged sink and not much privacy.

The ashram was very relaxing and appealing. This was my first time at this particular ashram having only been to Sivanada ashrams in Canada, the United States and India. Although my prior stays were as a serious yoga student than as a tourist, I did spend time at the Sivananda Ashram in Quebec as a guest and still felt I was in "training." Generally speaking, if you go as a tourist or guest you will tend to experience things thru a very different filter as compared to someone on a holiday. From the yogic point of view, the tourist who goes to India accumulates more karma while the yogi burns off karma. That said, however, I felt that there was an air of relaxation and ease at the Rishikesh ashram that I had not experienced at the Sivananda ashrams, which tend to be more traditional. At most Sivananda ashrams attendance is mandatory even as a guest for all the classes. As well, couples have separate quarters unless they are married. In Rishikesh they were more relaxed about these things, including what classes you wanted to take and how you were going to spend your day. Bear in mind, too, we only stayed a few days so perhaps the powers in-charge were letting us off easy. Still, I felt a sense of warmth and friendliness not only in the more relaxed schedule but from the people themselves.

I made several good connections at the ashram. The people made a 'real' effort to know our names, were interested in what we were doing, what we had done and were happy to share about themselves as well. My prior experiences at some of the Sivananda ashrams were of 'pretensious know-it'alls' who seemed to have an 'in-group' mentality. In Rishikesh, the people made us feel 'good' that we had come and expressed an interest in the classes we were taking. We also had the good fortune of being taught by a senior yoga teacher and physiotherapist, Peter, who provided a private class to myself and my partner. He made some very accurate insights about my body alginment and posture. I was impressed by this as he made these fairly quickly by observing how I was sitting for meditation and not by seeing me do any of the postures of yoga. Peter, like many of the others working at the ashram, had 'normal' lives with children, wives, husbands, etc., Yet, like Peter, they had taken several weeks off or even years away from their lives to stay at the ashram. This was a time for seva (re: work done without monetary gain) and to establish their on-going sadhana (re: spiritual practice).

Aside from the people and the schedule, one aspect of ashram life that tends to be univeral amongst all ashrams are the beautiful grounds littered with lovely flower beds and the great food. The surrounding view of the mountains in Rishikesh were wonderful and inspirational. And the food, as always, was simple but excellent! Personally I enjoy going to ashrams for the home-cooked meals. You can feel the love and care taken in preparing the food. The dining area had both low wooden tables for sitting on the floor (Indian-style) and 'normal' tables and chairs for the Westerners. At many 'traditional' ashrams you will only find one option (re: you sit on the floor). As well, there are usually signs indicating that eating is sacred and to eat in silence. Here, I did not see any notices. If you wanted to be left alone you could and if you wanted to mingle with others and chat this was okay too.

At the Himalayan insitute there was also a 'real' focus on meditation. I say 'real' because unlike the Sivanada ashram in which it is a synthesis of all 4 parts of yoga (re: raja/hatha-yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga and jnana yoga), there was a very good 'starter' class on the sitting practice. Although the ashram also offered classes on breathing, hatha-yoga, chanting, etc., there was an emphasis from the start on meditation. In comparison to my experiences at the Sivananda ashrams where the focus tended to be more on the hatha classes and kirtan (re: chanting) than on meditation in which people came and sat in on the sessions. It was my understanding that before you could do this in Rishikesh, they first wanted to go over with you several key points that are unique to the Himalayan tradition of meditation.

On a final note, this ashram was established by Swami Rama's disciple, Swami Veda; my meditation teacher. To this day, people say that Swami Rama's spirit is still there and he is influencing many things. They also say this about the ashram in Val Morin, Quebec, where Swami Vishnu-Devananda (the disciplie of Swami Sivananda) spent a lot of time. Hmmmm, who is this infamous "they"...? Well, in the end, I believe, you have to travel to these places to understand if this is the case or not.


Marco Sadhaka said...

Nice blog! I hope to be at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama by early next year. But you wrote also about the Himalayan Institute. Is it the same or a different place?

Heather Morton said...

Hi! HI is a yoga center and ashram in the US. However, it also refers to the systems of meditation as HI. Thanks for reading!

The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


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Heather Morton
is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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