Ashram living

I just returned from six days and seven nights at an ashram (Sadhana Yoga Center, or see New York Times article here), located in the western part of Nepal, just outside of Pokhara. Besides being an absolutely lovely experience on its own, it was just what the doctor ordered after my taxing 17 days of Everest climbing.

The ashram was an important part of my trip. When I first started imagining this entire adventure, this particular ashram was a major cornerstone of the initial vision. In fact, I found this place on the internet more than a year ago and immediately incorporated it into my Nepal segment. I thought I might spend up to 45 days here doing an intensive yoga teachers’ course. In the end, I only had a week to give and that was for the best. I loved it but the daily routine grew monotonous and even 10 days might have been too long. The one downside: The aggressive case of bed bugs that repeatedly chewed me to bits night after night.

On the whole, the other participants were a lively, friendly crew from every corner of the earth: Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, a healthy amount of Canadians, Americans, Europeans and so on. They all, it seemed, were exclusively outfitted in the Turkish pants favored by so many Western budget travelers. The levels of yoga experience varied from zero all the way to an instructor from Vancouver, but there was no judgment in the air.

One of the best results of the ashram was meeting a wonderful woman from Vancouver, BC who I will travel with in the coming weeks in southern India. She’s a fun, open, bright woman who maintains trails for a living. She’s an avid outdoor enthusiast, gardener, and always has a smile on her face. We became fast friends and shared lots of hearty laughs and serious conversations, too. It’s a great feeling to find someone that you click with so easily, and I’m relieved and excited to have a travel buddy while in India. We may do more yoga in Goa!

The staff was knowlegable and acommodating. There was a gaggle of kids always around helping with cooking, reception and even leading chanting. When we arose at 5:30 and showed up for meditation, they were finishing their first yoga practice of the day, having awoken at 4:30. Their dad, Asanga, is the owner and founder of this ashram. He studied in Kathmandu and India. The six-day, seven-night course cost $213–about $36/day, meals and accomodation included.

For the first two days, I followed the daily schedule while eating the delicious vegetarian meals sourced from the on-site organic garden. Then I started a four-day fast and cleanse. I decided the easiest way to describe the entire experience is through the daily routine, saving the gory details of the cleanse for after.

5:30 a.m.: Wake up. No alarm clocks necessary here: At exactly 5:30 a.m. each day, a gong is struck several times to wake us all up. It works. We have exactly fifteen minutes to get ready for morning meditation.

5:45 a.m. Pre-Meditation Practice. Another gong hit signals that we should all now be in the yoga/meditation hall, fresh and ready to meditate. In reality, we’re all sleepy and dreading another long hour of cross-legged mental and physical torture.

The “pre-meditation practice” is actually a series of physical exercises, mostly designed to loosen up our achy ankles, legs and hips in preparation for the lotus position we’ll be in for meditation itself. The exercises are gentle and undemanding but seem exasperatingly repetitive by the third day.

6:00 a.m. Meditation. No gong hit necessary, and our teacher (Asanga) transitions us from the physical practice to the mental one. We start by chanting together, usually a variation of Om, and then we whisper “Soham” (“I am that”) at least 324 times in unison (In desperate boredom I counted one day–and realized 324 is exactly three rounds on the Buddhist prayer beads). Our eyelids act as a curtain between our consciousness and the sunrise taking place outside, but I could still sense it. After the 324 sohams, we stop chanting aloud and begin chanting mentally.

By day 2 we’d all revealed to each other that nobody actually does the mental chanting and here our minds freely wander to our significant others back home, what’s for lunch, what was up with last night’s bowel movement, if the mud bath will be available today, if the person next to us is asleep or in some enviable deep meditative state, if anyone else smells our feet, how much longer we can go without shifting our legs (a huge no-no, scolds Asanga) because both feet are dangerously asleep, if the subcontinental accent is sexy or disconcerting, if it will finally be sunny today (and if so, perhaps skipping afternoon meditation in favor of a hike would be a reasonable choice), if we should do the cleanse/fast in the coming days or continue to indulge in the good food, if this torturous farcical meditation we’re all pantomiming is really worth $36 per day, and most prominently, if everyone else is thinking similarly unmeditative things.

Mercifully, we are released after conclusive Om chants and a “Namaste” for good measure.

7:00 a.m. Tea Break. We are released from morning meditation to the dining hall, where warm herbal tea awaits us. First we extract ourselves from the lotus position, groaning as our joints unfold and creak in protest at having been contorted so painfully for so long. We must make a ragtag group, straggling single-file up the stairs for tea. We sit around and commiserate about how brutal meditation was, relieved that we weren’t the only one struggling.

7:15 a.m. Nasal Cleansing. As we finish our tea, another of the leaders emerges from the wood-stove area with a tray full of Neti Pots. This kicks off what is, in reality, nearly a full hour of nasal cleansing activities. We filter downstairs and out to the garden with our personal Neti Pot filled with warm salt water. We ceremoniously form a circle in the garden and our leader guides us through the Neti Potting, which is as follows.

We assume a squatting position and tilt our heads left first, pouring the water in our right nostril. Remembering to breathe through our mouths, the water moves through the nasal passage and pours out the left nostril. We do that for about 30 seconds and stop for a hearty nose-blowing. Repeat on the other side.

But that’s not all–oh, no. Now we continue squatting and do a series of a half dozen vigorous exhalations while twisting, pushing in our stomachs, touching our toes, swinging an imaginary hammer, or–my favorite–doing the chicken dance (see video). I must say, the results are compelling. The physical evidence of sinus clearage is hard to argue with. Water and snot pour out of our noses and we all stopped being embarrassed long ago, instead congratulating each other on particularly productive results.

7:30 a.m. Morning Yoga. Another gong hit and we’re back in the yoga/meditation room for our first physical yoga session of the day. We start off with a full half hour of pranayama –breathing exercises which further the cause of clearing our sinuses. The sounds filling the room are hard snorting exhalations punctuated by horn-like nose blowing. We suck in stomaches, pinch our noses, tip our heads forwards and backwards and carry on like lunatics until Asanga is satisfied with our nasal clearage.

On to asanas, then: We learn a new series of poses every day and repeat them in hyperfast succession for exactly 13 minutes, timed by stopwatch. We break a sweat. We’re all still sleepy (and unfed) so we’re not in top form quite yet, but this serves to mostly wake us up. During the last segment, we lay on our backs and hug our knees into our chests and practice laughing. Its forced at first, but we all crack up as Asanga laughs like a hyena in the front of the room, complete with slapping the ground and rolling on his back in hysterics.

The very last part is a question-and-answer session with Asanga, our sharp-eyed, highly strict instructor. We ask him anything that’s on our mind and he goes into great depth to answer our questions, often asking at the end “What was your question again? Did I answer it?” The session ends at 8:30 after a few Om chants.

8:45 a.m. Mountain Hiking. Even though between nose snorts we could all hear each others’ stomachs rumbling, it still isn’t time for breakfast. In fact, quite the opposite: Time to take a vigorous walk on the mountain. The ashram is perched atop a steep hill overlooking the valley below, but the view isn’t enough for us. No, we have to hike the hill every morning by descending steep, slick rocks down and taking the stone stairs back up. I skipped this on the second day, feeling over it already. However, it DOES feel good to work up a bit of a sweat in nature and not just the yoga hall. And since we all know breakfast is next, we’re motivated to get through this part of the day quickly.

9:45 a.m. Breakfast! What a glorious gong hit this one is! After being awake for more than 4 hours, it’s finally time to eat. Or at least it was for the first two days before some of us started the 4-day cleanse/fast. We all crowd into the rooftop dining area and hungrily gobble muesli with yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, semolina porridge, cheese sandwiches, banana lassi and/or whatever is on the menu for the day. Also present is the wonderful milky sweet chai tea that quickly became a fan favorite. Breakfast is devoured within minutes and we’re full and happy.

During the first two days of the fast, we sat at a different table during mealtimes to avoid being tortured by the spread of delicious and healthy foods. We instead snacked on chopped apples and lemon-honey tea. Day 1 of the fast meant two apples at each meal; day 2 meant one apple at each meal. Day 3 was just lemon-honey tea all day (but only six glasses). Day 4 of the fast (day 6 at the ashram) was the dramatic purge.

10:30 a.m. Mud or Steam Bath. Since it was raining most days, the mud bath wasn’t generally available. It involves being covered in mud and laying on the roof to let it dry over one’s body in the sun–a fun, giggle-inducing activity. Afterwards, our skin positively glowed. The steam bath was good fun, too: Basically a wooden box with a stool in it and filled with heavy steam. We all stripped down to our skivvies and took 7-minute turns in the booth, forcing ourselves to withstand the heavy heat that often felt like it was burning our skin off. No complaints though, and emerging from the box dripping sweat was a truly invigorating feeling. It was also the best time of day to hop in the (only cold) shower, feeling hot and ready to cool off. This part of the day took two hours and so was also a good time to read a book or take a nap while others took their turns.

Me in the steam bath

12:00 p.m. Pre-Meditation Practice. Yes, here we are again, back in the yoga hall after a gong hit. More of the same exercises.

A crowd begins to form for afternoon meditation

12:15 p.m. Afternoon meditation. We all felt refreshed and awake by now, and I actually did better, generally speaking, in the afternoon meditation than the morning. My ankles were looser and more amenable to being folded up and contorted for an hour and my mind was a bit clearer. The “soh ham” whisper-chant was still not my thing, though. Afternoon meditation was a second chance to get on board the meditative train, and I often at least got off to a good start before slowing devolving into thinking about if the cleanse/fast was going to make me pass out, if that was Brian the American guy who just farted, if I was allowed to get a chocolate mousse pastry upon arrival in Pokhara and what Eric’s visit to India would be like. Still less straying than in the morning, hey!

1:00 p.m. Lunch. Another gong hit and we all eagerly climbed the stairs for lunch–at least on the first two days. During the cleanse, we were less enthusiastic to go watch others eat the huge spread. All meals were served buffet-style, and lunch was the biggest portioned meal of the day. Most everything came out of the organic garden out back. We always had at least six different kinds of vegetable dishes, including dal bhat (rice and lentils), green beans, a pickled dish, chayote (called something else by the Nepalis) and miscellaneous others served with brown rice. We served ourselves in big sectioned metal trays with several compartments to separate elements (photo). We often went back for seconds, anticipating the days of fasting ahead. During fasting, we munched apples or sulkily sipped our tea.

After lunch was the biggest break of the day: A full two hours. I often used it to take a nap or read a book. Sometimes we just sat and socialized. Others hiked into town to use the internet or buy contraband candy bars. In reality, the break wasn’t long enough to hike into town and most people ended up missing karma yoga–sort of disrespectful, I thought.

3:30 p.m. Karma Yoga. On the first day, I reported to the yoga hall with the sound of the gong. But that was wrong. Karma yoga means participating in work around the ashram–literally accumulating good karma. For me, this usually meant peeling potatoes, which I quickly took a liking to. I miss cooking and being in the kitchen at home, so I felt happy to help in this way. I chose it over the other available tasks. Others swept the yoga/meditation hall or watered the flowers. Usually the staff had to sort of make something up for us to do, but we were all happy to oblige and the work was never very serious.

Karma yoga in the kitchen

4:00 p.m. Popcorn and Tea Break. It was almost like the staff felt bad for making us do karma yoga, because immediately following our half an hour of light work we were treated to snacktime of popcorn and milky sweet chai tea. I could take or leave the popcorn, but the tea was really something special. It’s definitely what I missed most during the fast.

4:30 p.m. Chanting. We all sat in a big, happy hippie circle on the floor and took turns playing hand drums, tamborines, cymbals and various other instruments pulled from closets around the ashram. Durga, the wife of the yogi, led the chanting and singing in a beautiful, confident melodic voice. She is a brightly spirited woman and her presence made the chanting an uplifting, celebratory part of the day.

I grew to have my favorite chants–one about Ganesha in particular (audio from the last night below). I really loved this part of the day. We’d do three chants each 108 times (one spin around the prayer beads). It sounds like a lot. It was a lot, but since the chants are in Sanskrit, it usually took me about 10-15 times to get the words right, and from there the rest of the repetitions were almost trance-like. I liked closing my eyes and singing. I realized I never sing aloud in my normal life, especially in groups. It was a social, inclusive experience and I looked forward to it every day.

Ganesha chant

It was usually raining outside, which added an additional layer of rhythm and ambience. The pitter-patter of raindrops along with nightfall made the whole circle feel grounded and organic. After we finished chanting, Durga would encourage us to be quiet and “feel the vibrations.” The first day I rolled my eyes. But she was right: the vibrations from our voices and the sounds of the instruments reverberated in my head.Those moments of quiet were actually quite rewarding ones mentally for me.

5:30 p.m. Evening yoga. The highlight of the day by far. Back on the mats and away from the happy chanting circle. When the weather was clear we did evening yoga outside under the canopy of a dusky sunset over the lake and mountains, lit by candles on a dozen Buddha altars surrounding us. Fireflies lit up in the sky, music wafted in from the edge of the courtyard, and the pleasant aroma of incense floated lightly in the air all around. It was positively lovely. The temperature was perfect and the air still.

Preparing for evening yoga

Floor asanas during evening yoga

We’d start with simple Om chants, do a series of repeated poses as in the morning, and then a series of asanas that we held for a minute each–intensive. I especially enjoyed inversions such as plow and camel. I found that the inversions (link), unlike the flexibility postures, came easily.

We ended the session with more chanting and this was actually the best part yet: Closed-mouth humming, for as long as your breath would take you, all at our own pace. With closed eyes, the vibrations of sounds coming deep from within our chests was a spiritual experience–and I’m not spiritual. I treasured those moments of deep connectedness with my fellow students and sharing our energies through sounds. There was no bashfulness or restraint. When we’d finish, we’d sit in silence and bask in the peace that followed, again feeling the reverberations of the sounds we’d just created together.

I know this sounds like a pile of hippie rubbish, but I felt it all very sincerely and I’m thankful for that. Perhaps an ashram in Nepal is the only time I’ll ever feel so deeply peaceful and light, and I’m just glad I was able to feel it at all. I daydreamed about doing chanting and meditation practice in Pittsburgh, and I like to think I’ll make time for it there, but I think the setting was most of the magic.

7:00 p.m. Dinner. Instead of hightailing it upstairs as for breakfast and lunch, we’d slowly unwind our bodies from their postures, stand slowly, and murmur amongst ourselves in the darkness on the way upstairs to the roof dining area.

Everyday new people had arrived and would be waiting to meet us there. We’d do introductions and made friends very quickly with everyone–there were no closed social circles and the whole feeling was very communal and welcoming. In terms of the food, we weren’t that hungry: We’d been eating most of the day already. We ate good dinners in anticipating the fasting days ahead. Dinner was a less extravagant affair than lunch and was usually fresh chapattis with a vegetable soup and pickled vegetable dish.

During the cleanse, the fasters exiled ourselves away from the sights and smells of the food. On the first night of the fast, the rest of the group had pakoras that looked fabulous. At that point we were eating two apples at each meal and it wasn’t so intolerable. By day 3, when it was just tea (and the night a State College resident arrived–yes, we have mutual friends), I was able to sit at the table while others ate. I didn’t even feel too hungry, but it was still difficult to see so much delicious food, being consumed so cavalierly by my non-fasting counterparts!

7:45 p.m. We’d sit and chat after dinner, but the reality was that it was bedtime already. On Day 2, one of the guys handed out candy bars he’d acquired in town that day–a real treat the night before beginning my fast!

One by one we’d filter out of the room and into our bedrooms. I had my own room for the entire time, because my only roommate left the day I arrived. Though I hadn’t requested it (and it cost $10 more for the 7 days!) I had my own bathroom attached to the room, with an Asian-style squat toilet. I loved the privacy and realized that besides one night in Southwest China, the private room was an unprecedented luxury and it was certainly my first-ever private bathroom on this entire trip thusfar. I did not take it for granted (especially during the cleanse) and really enjoyed the convenience and privacy. At night, I’d crawl into bed and read one of the many books I’d borrowed from the book exchange downstairs and slowly unwind myself into a sleepy state, usually dozing off to the cool breeze and sound of raindrops or crickets coming in the window by my bed.

On day 6, my last full day at the ashram, we concluded the fast and did the cleansing portion. I don’t know how detailed to get here. Undoubtedly some of you are interested in the gory details (feel free to ask privately!) while others probably care not to read about the purging of my lower intestines. But the rough outline is as follows.

After a day of just lemon-honey tea, we awoke and participated in morning meditation and the Neti Pot. Then we began the cleanse, which involved a series of exercises designed to stimulate the intestines. In between sets, we’d quickly drink a liter of saltwater, and then do another set of exercises, and repeat. At about 6 rounds, we all had our first sprint to the (squat) toilet. After 22 rounds, we all called it quits when we were literally cleaned out. The saltwater was totally gross to chug repeatedly. It took about 2 hours from start to finish. I’ve never experienced something quite so… cleansing. Despite having absolutely nothing in my body, I felt better than I ever have before: Clean, light, refreshed. I had tons of energy. I bounded up the stairs and immediately partook in the mud bath happening on the roof. It was a sunny day, and all of our moods were high. It was a great, exhilarating feeling, and by far the best day of the entire week.

After the bath, we were again allowed to eat, but just lentils and rice in a gruel-like mash. It was tasty enough and easily digestible for our skeptical stomachs. During milk tea time, we snuck a cup when the leaders weren’t looking. I wasn’t even that hungry, actually, but made sure to eat lots of the mash anyway. It’s a cleanse that required willpower, but its doable. I’ll certainly repeat it at home–anyone want to join me!? Having a buddy definitely helps.

Maybe the best way to talk about the other participants is through brief character sketches:
1. Justin. Born and raised in Australia, but Hong Kong by residence and ethnicity. Veterinarian. Married, wife is 5 months pregnant.

2. Johanna. Tiny, petite Canadian from BC who is a mountain bike guide and yoga instructor.

3. Brian. 34-year-old American yoga enthusiast from LA

4. Six-month pregnant German woman.

5. Laura. High-pitched, neurotic American woman from SF with a neck injury (chiropractic adjustment gone wrong). She talked exclusively about her neck injury and didn’t participate in most activities. Her yoga practice was laying flat on the mat and freaking out about her neck injury. She took longer in the steam bath because of–you guessed it–her neck injury.

6. English girls, third consecutive year coming to the ashram.

7. Daily drop-ins: Middle-aged Western women working at NGOs in Nepal would come for a yoga class and/or spend the day with us.

8. Susan. Boston-raised SF late-20s woman. S. Korean, adopted. Traveling one year after leaving her advertising gig. After being appalled at the horrors of India, she booked herself a $700 hotel room in Kathmandu –makes me very afraid for my next stop (India!)

9. Kelly and Claire. Two laid-back budget travelers from Austin. One just finished university, the other just finished a year-long Fulbright in Thailand. Chilled out, down-to-earth, reasonable folks.

10. Meghan. BC Canadian who grew up on a farm, maintains trails for a living. Bright, alive, wonderful woman. Reminds me of Meg Pinney and her name is also Meghan. She seems to like me, which makes me feel good. We plan to be travel buddies through India!

11. Chris. State College guy! Did a degree in philosophy at PSU and graduated the same year as I did. Stuck around for another 5 years and worked there in fundraising. We have a ton of mutual friends and shared the same hangouts.

12. A reserved middle-aged Japanese couple who sit apart from the group at mealtimes but returned friendly smiles.

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2 responses to “Ashram living

  1. this is just amazing what you are doing and getting to see. Sorry to hear that you couldn’t do the whole climb of the mountain, your mom and dad filled me in tthat is horrible. Have fun and see you when you come to the Island.

  2. Pingback: Three months–Halfway! | Half a Year and Half a World

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