My first stay in an Indian ashram

Updated: May 28, 2020

Whenever we decide to embrace a change in life, we need to create distance from our daily life and we are forced to evaluate our thoughts and beliefs. Major changes - whether chosen or not chosen - guide us to pay attention to what is happening around us and in our mind.

Nowadays I feel like many people (including myself) are too busy with our smartphones and on social platforms and do not live in the present moment. Technology has made us so busy that we forget the people around us. I mentioned it before in my first article “Disconnect to reconnect”. At times I feel irritated with people around me who constantly are fussing around with their smartphones. I came to the conclusion that, I cannot change people but I can change my reaction to them. “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.” - Leo Tolstoy

I felt like I have to change something. Life's pace was too fast, multitasking was expected from us all the time. I needed to slow down, get grounded, find inner harmony again and withdraw from everything and everybody. But how can I do this and where can I go? I remembered the words of my yoga teacher Sanjiv Chaturvedi (Head of Divine Yoga, Bangkok), who said if I was looking for a place where I could get the possibility to find myself, go to Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in India and join ashram life for a few days. The seed was planted...

I’ve never been to an ashram before. Yes, an ashram sounds to be the right place to practice and experience what I was looking for. An ashram is the least distracted place you can find. Technical devices are prohibited, you have to observe silence, work selflessly, following a disciplined daily routine and study your inner self. During your stay you are not allowed to leave the ashram. Any contact with your family or vice versa is prohibited. BSY is known to be one of the strictest ashrams in India.

For this reason I chose BSY. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, put myself in a kind of extreme situation – wanted to test myself. How far can I go and how do I feel with that. Finally I went to BSY for 9 days beginning of March 2016.

An ashram is neither a yoga retreat nor supposed to be an escape from your current life. “An ashram is a place of simple living, where you can develop a positive attitude and an understanding of selfless service. It is a place of inspiration because it does not teach or preach,” by

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (Spiritual Head of Bihar School of Yoga).

Don’t visit an ashram if you have gone through major emotional trauma the last months (e.g. divorce, death in family, etc.). You won’t be able to concentrate on your self-studies. The ashram management wants you to come strong because ashram life is rigorous. Not just physically but also psychologically. You spend a few hours a day in silent mode. You live in closed quarters with strangers and you are not allowed to leave the ashram. Do not expect to get pampered there. Everybody works internally with themselves.

Ashram means “come and work”. If you go to an ashram you must demonstrate and show that you can work because you’ll be expected to contribute your manpower up to 5 hours of “seva” (selfless service) a day. Seva goes beyond common service - it is an attitude. Be useful to others without a thought of reward. Seva involves giving time and effort for a cause and helping other people and most importantly without any expectations in return like love, appreciation, fame, gratitude or admiration of the people whom you are serving. “Doing good and bringing happiness to others brings goodness and happiness to you”, Swami Sivananda Saraswati.

During my stay in the ashram I had to work in the kitchen, help in the gardening, clean the dormitories for new ashram guests and serve food in the food hall to the residents.

One benefit of practicing seva is, you get a sense of inner peace. It comes out of the satisfaction of doing whatever you can for the common good of others. Another benefit is that society improves as a result of your seva. And the most important benefit is that it helps you progress on your path by elimination of your ego and overcoming your selfishness, bit by bit. To see all photos swipe right and left.

The ashram day is dictated by regular activities like working, chanting mantras, observing silence, attending satsangs and meal times. There is personal time 2 hours after lunch for exercise, reading, writing and resting. The days started at 5 am and finished at 8:30 pm. You have two options when you visit BSY, either you just experience ashram life (which I chose at that time) or you attend a yoga course while staying in the ashram. All above mentioned activities are still mandatory but there is less time for seva and more time for studying.

The first 3 days in the ashram I felt a bit out of place. I was not used to this strict regime and guided routine and that someone tells me what I have to do the whole day. Every morning after breakfast there is a gathering in front of the head office and supervisors put you in groups and tell you your daily tasks and chores. Besides the activities I felt irritated by the high fences around the ashram and the window grills at every window. During the nights we got locked up in the building and at daytime during the working time the dormitories got locked as well to make sure no one is going back to his room and have an easy time. Everyone has to participate in ashram work and not sneaking away.

The rooms in your dormitory at BSY are clean and simple. There is only a bed and a closet in the room – nothing else. The toilet and the shower you share with your room neighbours. You don’t need the comfortable facilities or equipment a hotel room offers you. When you start enjoying living simple, you begin to ask yourself, “Where else in my life can I remove distractions?” 

One of the most joyful experience of my stay in the ashram was observing mouna (silence). During meal times and after evening mantra chanting, talking and chatting with your peers is prohibited. At the beginning it felt odd, I had of course so many questions, but most of the time I just observed and followed the crowd. After the first three days I felt thankful not to talk all the time and just walk to my room, review the day in silence and fall tired in my bed. When your tongue stops – your mind begins to work. Only in silence you can understand and know how you figure out what is going on inside you and you know what to do next.

Before lunch time and after dinner we chanted mantras. I didn’t really enjoy chanting mantras, at that time because I was a totally beginner. I only knew at that time 3 mantras. I gave myself some peace and decided just to listen to the difficult and unknown mantras and the familiar ones, I enjoyed chanting. The purpose of chanting is to quiet the mind. Only a relaxed mind can meditate. Chanting mantras help us to forget troubles, produces a sense of connection with the others and fosters positive feelings such as serenity and joy.

The best part during my stay was the weekly Sunday satsangs with Swami Niranjanananda. I was lucky to join satsang with Swami jee two times. Satsang means sat (truth) + sanga (company) literal “the company of the truth”. Satsang is not a discussion, philosophy or academic debate - it is a reflection. People who can participate in satsangs regularly become more reflective and intuitive.

Yoga means “union”. So the task in yoga is to find union between the body and mind. Become a centered, balanced and conscious person.

Swami Niranjananda says: “Purify your body and mind through:

· cultivating awareness

· observing your own life and actions

· disciplining and restructuring your personality

· managing the mental and emotional distractions and disturbances

· developing positive qualities which uplift your nature and by expressing these qualities, then other people get uplifted as well.”

Okay, understood - but trying to put that understanding into practice and live it every day, outside the ashram with all the daily distractions, is the challenge. Of course this all takes practice and effort. It is not a teaching that you hear once and think you can master it immediately. Lifestyle changes take time.

At the end of my 9 days I spent in the ashram and I know it was only a glimpse of what I could have experienced – I wished I could have stayed longer. I felt an amazing sense of self-awareness and strong connection with the here and now. Every experience in the ashram (chanting mantras, practicing mouna, doing seva, eating a balanced diet of light and nutritious food, self-study and attending satsangs) helped to relax my mind and brought me back in the present.

I know there might be as well other ways to get rooted with yourself, enjoy solitude or try to balance body and mind. Ashram life is not for everyone but for me it was simply right. I find staying in an ashram to be very healthful and creative. A few days can do wonders, but a few weeks or even months can maybe really make a lasting difference in your life. I found in these few days what I was looking for and got even more. It won’t be my last time I visit an ashram.

Bangkok, 6th May 2016

by Helena Hoffmann

I visited the ashram in April 2018 again.

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