What life is like in a yoga ashram in India

Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, Rishikesh, India

Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, Rishikesh, India

I love mornings at yoga ashrams in India – it’s a perfect time for meditation or yoga class

The first light of dawn has not begun to rise from behind the Himalayan foothills when the sound of a gong begins to echo through the corridors of Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India. At Aurovalley Ashram, on the outskirts of Haridwar, the buildings are spread out across the ashram’s acres of gardens and you have to wake yourself to be ready in time for 6 am meditation in the silent, white marble meditation hall.

This is my favourite time of day in India. The intense golden-yellow Indian rises like a benevolent god. In fact, the sun has been worshipped in India since the dawn of time. A feeling of sacred reverence seems to fill the air. In Rishikesh, it’s in the sounds of chants, bells and the song of the Ganges River; at Aurovalley, it’s in the sound of birds, the breeze in the trees and the sight of massive tropical blooms. Huge, crimson hibiscus flowers dangle from trees that line the ashram’s pathways, and whole walls are covered in fuchsia bougainvillea.

In the film Eat, Pray, Love – based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert – Julia Roberts’ character travels to Italy to enjoy food, to India to study yoga and to Bali to, eventually, fall in love. In India, Gilbert purportedly stayed in a yoga ashram in Ganeshpuri, a pilgrimage centre outside of Mumbai (Bombay). But there are countless yoga ashrams all over India.

Rishikesh, India

Rishikesh, India

A place of respite

Ashrams are places of spiritual retreat. They are not meant to be an escape from life; but a respite from worldly pursuits. They offer spiritual seekers an unencumbered place where they can spend time concentrating solely on the spiritual aspect of life. What is the spiritual aspect of life? It is probably different things to different people, but to me, it’s a chance to be quiet, to spend some time on inner reflection and to think about the bigger questions of life – in other words, “what is my purpose in life,” rather than, “when is that hydro bill due?”

There is a set daily schedule, which many ashrams expect you to religiously follow. It depends somewhat on whether the ashram caters to Indian or foreign students: the Indian ones tend to be stricter. Anand Prakash is owned and run by Yogi Vishvketu (Vishva), an Indian yoga teacher and his wife Chetana Panwar, from Toronto. Their ashram is usually filled with western students. Aurovalley Ashram is owned and run by Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji), who follows the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. This ashram attracts both Indian and foreign students – many of them from Colombia or Russia because Swamiji regularly travels to those countries. [To read more about Aurovalley Ashram, read A Haven of Peace and Conscious Living.]

The highlight of the Anand Prakash schedule, for me, is the 6 am yoga class, taught by Vishva in the top-floor yoga hall. The hall has huge picture windows that frame the awe-inspiring site of the sun coming up from behind the Himalayan foothills. In late winter, an invigorating early morning wind rushes down from the mountains – and really does feel like a blast of Shiva energy (Shiva is the god of yoga, and one of the three primary gods in the Hindu pantheon).

Aurovalley Ashram, Rishidwar, India

Aurovalley Ashram, Rishidwar, India

Relaxing daily routine

At Aurovalley, I love the profound calm of the circular meditation hall, but the day’s highlight for me is satsang, which means, “search for truth.” Every day at 11:30 am, until 1 pm lunchtime, Swamiji sits outside the ashram library, under the mango trees, and answers questions. This is the time-honoured method of spiritual instruction in India.

The day’s flow is dictated by the regular activities – a predictable mix of meditation, yoga, satsang, kirtan (chanting) and meal times. Plus, there is personal time for exercise, exploration, writing, healing (Ayurvedic therapies and massage are usually close at hand) – whatever you choose to pursue. The always-vegetarian food is served in a communal dining hall, and you have to clean your own tin thali (plate) afterward. The food is simple and wholesome, filling and satisfying, though perhaps not to a real foodie.

Breakfast is often some kind of wheat bread – roti, paratha or naan – and fruit or dal (lentils), plus tea. Lunch is usually rice and dal, plus salad or fruit or an Indian dessert such as burfi (a solid milk sweet); and dinner is a whole lot like lunch. The food is only very lightly spiced and does not include garlic or onion; and it is extremely well-washed and purified so that even the most delicate foreign tummy can handle it.

Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, RIshikesh, India

Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, RIshikesh, India

Accommodation depends on the ashram. In some ashrams, most people sleep in dorms and share washrooms; in others, you can have a private room or share with just one other person, and each room has its own bathroom. The rooms are very simply furnished, but they have everything you need (unless you need a TV, phone and A/C). The simplicity helps to clear your mind. I particularly love the simple, white rooms at Aurovalley Ashram. They were beautifully designed for maximum flow of sunlight and fresh air, and I feel they are very elegant in their simplicity. Solar panels on the roof even provide hot water showers – a treat!

The rules are simple, too: no meat, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, outside visitors in the rooms. Some also stipulate no sex, even with your spouse (though not usually at the ashrams that cater to foreigners). Previous yoga or mediation experience is usually not required. The most important thing is sincerity.

When I go to the ashram, I take only the bare minimum, which should include all the toiletries you need, a flashlight, a towel, a shawl or sweater (it can be chilly at night in the mountains), loose cotton clothes, preferably Indian-style (Lululemon spandex just doesn’t cut it), flipflops or sandals, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a hat, long scarf and oil for dry skin; and books, writing materials and mini-laptop. Even ashrams have WiFi these days!

I know that ashram life is not for everyone, but it sure suits me. I find staying in the ashram to be very healthful and creative, and I make time for it every year. A few days can do wonders, but a few weeks – even months – can really make a lasting difference in your life.

For a more photos of Aurovalley Ashram and Anand Prakash, visit my Ashrams Gallery on SmugMug. For those interested in ecotourism or green travel, ashrams are a great option.

[Note: First published in the Toronto Star as Morning is Golden.]

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37 Responses to What life is like in a yoga ashram in India

  1. Kate March 15, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    What an interesting post. It relaxed me just to look at it. Sometimes I feel too caught up in the world, always pursuing things and goals and there is a part of me that wants to step away from that part of my life at times and explore my own spirituality. I can only imagine what spending months at an ashram would do. Thank you for this post, I found it a brief respite.

  2. Janice Soderholm March 17, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    This article is full of great info for someone delving into Ashram life for the first time. Even a few days in an ashram can allow that release from daily life that we often don’t know we really need or would appreciate until we live it. Thanks Mariellen for bringing Ashram life to readers who are curious but don’t know where to go to find out what it is all about.

  3. Mariellen March 17, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks Janice. The benefits of staying some time in an ashram are so unexpected and profound, it is hard to capture in words. If people have had the experience, you don;t need to tell them. If they haven’t, they won’t believe you.

  4. Brock - Backpack With Brock March 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    Excellent post. Visiting an ashram would be a nice relaxing way to get away from a busy travel schedule!

  5. Mariellen March 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    Hi Brock, yes, very astute observation. I find Aurovalley Ashram is a very creatively inspiring place, and so quiet and peaceful. I always get a lot of writing done there … and I dream of writing a book there.

    • mahesh December 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      there is some ashram in trivandrum, i forgot the name my yoga always use to tell about it.

      • mahesh December 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

        *yoga tutor

  6. Volta March 19, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    What a great post! I have always wandered what it was like to live in an Ashram. Thank you for writing such a great post. I am fascinated with India and currently I am on my journey to study yoga. 🙂 Can’t wait to read your book!

  7. Ajeet Nayar March 24, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Hey Kate,Mariellen,Janice & Brock,
    Show me the way to peace and harmony with myself. Write back at [email protected].

    I have achieved, seen, enjoyed half part of my life but still back to Zero from where I started.
    Please help as I wanted to learn from your experiences.
    I dont mind spending entire life of few years at ashram to get my conscious and self being back
    Ajeet

  8. A. R. April 20, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    This is a lovely post! Thanks for sharing your experience about staying in an ashram in India. Thanks to your post I’ve got some good ideas to look into.

  9. parvinder singh May 14, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    It is wonderfull to feal the experience shanti&anand

  10. Helly August 9, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your experience living in ashrams. I’ve been reading about Aurovalley and considering to go sometimes next year. Could you also share about the practical arrangement? I suppose they apply the donation system like some ashrams? Or, set up a minimum donation like another? or …..? I’m thinking to first spend sometimes at Parmarth in Rishikesh then retreat to Aurovalley. I’m a mature student who expects to complete a years-long doctoral study. Hence.

    Appreciate any feedback. Namaste.

  11. Mariellen Ward August 11, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Hi Helly, Thanks for your comment! Many of these ashrams, including Aurovalley Ashram, have websites with all the information you need, and an email and phone number for questions. So you should contact them directly to ask questions and to apply to stay there. There is a daily charge to stay at Aurovalley, I’m not sure what it is now but I know they raised it recently. Have a wonderful time!
    Mariellen Ward recently posted..Oprah in IndiaMy Profile

  12. Flora September 19, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    Hey Helly, great post yoga ashram is India is awesome. I visited one the ashram of yoga in last year it was a really great experience. I found there a different happiness, had a wonderful time. Great work!!
    Flora recently posted..Prepare your Mind for Guaranteed Weight LossMy Profile

  13. ABC September 25, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Can you pls tell me how many days should we stay in ashram? And what all are the activities we got to do?

  14. Sanatanam December 22, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    A very nice post! Thank you. However, I think an ashram is much more than just meditation and relaxation. I suggest you should read up Ashram means no effort.
    Sanatanam recently posted..Questions or FeedbackMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward December 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Thanks so much for your comment, and I love the site you linked to. I am going to quote from it here: “As the world becomes smaller in terms of reachability, people are out there getting exposed to new experiences a lot more than the before-internet era. As with many subjects in Hinduism, the understanding of an Ashram, as I gather, is not clear in the minds of people. To clarify the concept of an Ashram, I’ll take help from the Vedic scriptures to get to the root of this subject.

      In sanskrit, Ashram means ‘Aryata Sramyate yatra iti Ashramah” or Ashram is a place where people strive to attain eternity.

      Etymologically, the word Ashram can also be broken down as A-shram, that commonly means No Effort. Combining the above two one can deduce that Ashram is a place where people try to reach immortality without effort! This meaning is somewhat still incomplete. The key is – without what kind of effort?”
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  15. srianandamayimaa October 30, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    Hi,
    Thanks for sharing such a great and informative article with us.

  16. Albin Harjula November 11, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    That is really a nice post, now i really want to join Yoga class. Please suggest a cheap and best yoga class for beginners … I want to spend a week in rishikesh starting 24/12/2014 …

  17. Pankaj Kumar February 3, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    The Spirituality and Yoga Tours can be pretty soothing that can let your creativity come out of you and survive the best out of you.

    Aurovalley Ashram how much it costs indeed?

    Regards

    Pankaj Kumar
    Pankaj Kumar recently posted..Masala Dosa at famous Jantar Mantar JointMy Profile

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