Can one week at an Ashram solve all your problems (or even, just a couple?)
Imagery: Phillip Pedrola
Text: Sarah Tarca // @tarca
When I decided to go to an Ashram I’d only been doing yoga for a couple years, so basically the trickiest pose I could do was a miniature crow (for maybe ten seconds). And, while I had always connected with the spiritual side of yoga, I was deep in the city lifestyle of Lululemon and insta-yogis and definitely felt that I wanted more from my practice. Yoga had helped me transition from a stressful job into a semi-permanent nomadic lifestyle and kept me grounded through the constant change and movement of my new lifestyle. I had a lot to thank the practice for, and in a completely nerdy way I wanted to see what yoga was like straight from the source.
So I booked myself, and my virgin yogi boyfriend into a weeklong stay at Phool Chatti Ashram in Rishikesh, India. It was basic but it had running water and was in an idyllic little spot outside of the main town of Rishikesh.
What I expected was a lot of fisherman’s pants, and a week of perfecting my (non-existent) handstands, and while there was definitely that (and a rather unique kilt-clad man who was decidedly anti-underwear) it was the other parts of the experience that really stuck with me when I left. It was the things that I didn’t expect that have me wanting to go back every year. Here’s the surprising things I learned from my week at an Ashram.
1. Truly cleaning your nose is one of life’s small joys
Ashram life started at 5:30am with an hour of meditation. But before we got into any asana work we all trotted down to the garden to clear our collective nasal passages. Armed with a neti-pot (which is essentially a tiny watering can for your nose) we would fill it with warm saline water and pour it into each nostril one at a time, a couple times over. Yes, it was intensely strange, messy and more than once I swallowed a hefty serve , BUT it was also deeply satisfying. My sinuses are almost permanently blocked on the regular so the sensation of being able to actually breathe was revolutionary. I have never breathed so clearly in my life, and both my asana and my mediation practice were so much better for it. It made me realise just how much crap we put up with in day-to-day life (like not being able to breathe properly!!!) and just go along accepting it as the norm, when such a small change can make life so much better.
2. Eating in silence is the key to good digestion
On the first day, we were told that all meals were to be consumed in silence. As a natural blabbermouth this freaked me out because that’s a lot of silent time, and I have a lot to say. But, this quickly became one of my favourite rituals, and it made perfect sense to me. We’ve all read a million times that you shouldn’t have dinner in front of the TV or eat in front of the computer because it makes us more likely to wolf the meals down, so this seemed like a natural extension of that theory. And, as someone with notoriously bad digestion, I was 100 per cent there for it. Eating in silence means you take everything slower. You really appreciate each bite, all the idiosyncrasies of the flavours and, more than anything, you can truly gauge when you are full. Second helpings were always offered but never needed. My stomach has never been happier.
3. You can swim in the Ganges.
Like most people I’ve told this story to, my pre-ashram idea of the Ganges was that it was not the kind of river you just go for a paddle in. But, in Rishikesh, the Ganges flows straight down fresh from the Himalayas. It’s cool, pure and a bright mineral green… but more than that it’s a deeply spiritual, sacred place. One of respect and worship, that is ingrained in Hinduism, and personified by the goddess Gangā. That week we “bathed” (fully clothed), chanted, and released intentions out into Mother Ganga and I have never felt that kind of power or magic in any spiritual place. Everyone had tears in their eyes as they released flowers that carried the fears and worries of our group down the river. She must be powerful to hold all that.
4. It’s not all about the asanas
This might seem obvious to an experienced yogi, but to someone who had learned the practice in city like Sydney, obsessed with flat stomachs, tight bums and Instagram likes, one of the most important things I learned is just how small a part of yoga the asana practice is. In fact, in a day that began at 5:30am and ended at 9, there were only two asana sessions. We mediated, we connected with nature, we discussed yogic philosophy, we chanted… and not one person discussed how long they could sit in lotus or how they’d mastered mermaid. The asanas are there to keep our body connected to our spirit, to keep us healthy and to allow us to sit in mediation without pain for a really long time. That we focus so much on the physical practice in Westernized yoga made me realise just how much we’ve missed the whole point. And it also motivated me to seek, and ask for more in my own practice.
5. You can’t fix anything in a week
Spending a week at an ashram is like a spirulina shot for the soul. At first it’s kind of funky, and you’re not sure if you like it because it’s weird and also not coffee, but you persevere because you know it’s doing you good. And then by the end of the week you feel so clear, and so fresh you wonder how you did life before it. But just like every positive lifestyle choice, a week is not enough to create any real change. It’s a kickstart to get you on track, and the experience will imprint your soul forever, but returning to every day life is where the real work begins. Making time to build these rituals into life, and to remember why we do the things we do, that’s the hard part – and it’s easy to forget when we’re caught up with deadlines and life. I won’t lie, I don’t practice all the things I learnt there every day anymore, but I am working on it. And I’m already planning my next visit, because damn that spiritual spriulina is addictive.
Want to try the Ashram experience for yourself? Contact Phool Chatti Ashram