Tag Archives: sivananda ashram

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

by Jana Thevar

Note: All images below were taken at my various ashram visits and stays from 2013 to 2017. The following pictures were taken at Yoga Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh), Dhanwanthari Ashram (Kerala), Meenakshi Ashram (Madurai), Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh) and ISKCON Delhi (East of Kailash, Delhi).

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Is stress killing you? Do you experience inexplicable aches and pains, depression, migraines, digestion issues and fatigue on a regular basis? If your regular vacations aren’t cutting it anymore, an ashram vacation may be just the thing you need. It can be a hardcore experience for the uninitiated, but I can assure you it’ll be well worth the effort.

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First Things First: What’s an Ashram?

I’m just going to quote Wikipedia’s description here, because it’s so complete:

“Traditionally, an ashram (sometimes also ashrama or ashramam) is a spiritual hermitage or a monastery in Indian religions. The word ashram comes from the Sanskrit root śram which means “to toil”. An ashram would traditionally, but not necessarily in contemporary times, be located far from human habitation, in forests or mountainous regions, amidst refreshing natural surroundings conducive to spiritual instruction and meditation. The residents of an ashram regularly performed spiritual and physical exercises, such as the various forms of yoga.

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Sometimes, the goal of a pilgrimage to the ashram was not tranquility, but instruction in some art, especially warfare. In the Ramayana, the protagonist princes of ancient Ayodhya, Rama and Lakshmana, go to Vishvamitra’s ashram to protect his yajnas from being defiled by emissary-demons of Ravana. After they prove their mettle, the princes receive martial instruction from the sage, especially in the use of divine weapons. In the Mahabharata, Krishna, in his youth, goes to the ashram of Sandipani to gain knowledge of both intellectual and spiritual matters.”

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My Experience

To me, there’s nothing quite as magical as the ashram experience. Meditating in the Himalayas as the starless, obsidian sky bursts into the blazing pink ribbons of dawn. The chanting of mantras in the dark, amidst clouds of rose-sandalwood frankincense. Exotic birds in the mist. Sun-ripened fruits. Losing yourself in the transcendental bliss of meditation.

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I’m the kind of person who burns out easily with the demands of modern-day city living, so I need my ashram breaks. Every ashram is like a temporary second home to me. Over the last 5 years, I’ve stayed at various ashrams across India (the longest stays were in Sivananda ashrams, to complete my yoga certification).

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I’m so used to ashram life that I tend to incorporate parts of it into day-to-day modern living, often without realising it. No hot water in the mornings? Improvise with a bucket of cold water. Too tired for proper dinner after work? I make do with plain rice, yoghurt and fresh curry leaves. It’s a 360 degree turn-around for a woman like me who was raised with the comforts of big-city living for most of my life.

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What’s Ashram Life Like?

It’s austere. Very basic, ascetic-style living. No luxuries or city comforts to speak of – no air-conditioning, hot water, comfy spring mattresses, washing machines, hair dryers. Ashrams in India serve only vegetarian food, often without onions and garlic (depending on the ashram, salt and spices may be omitted completely). Some ashrams provide more comfort at extra charge, but that’s usually limited to air-conditioning and hot water.

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Despite the obvious challenges of ashram life, thousands continue to throng ashrams across India for various reasons – personal spiritual retreats, study of Vedic scriptures, structured yoga vacations and more. Why are regular people who are used to a cushy life willing to rough it out? Simple – the benefits, despite the hardship, are immense.

A temporary ashram stay isn’t a vacation the way you know it. It gives your material-life overloaded, burnt-out systems a break (mind, body, soul) so you can begin self-healing on all levels.

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Generally, ashram dwellers:

1) Wake up during the auspicious brahma muhurta timing (between 4.30am and 5.00am)
2) Sleep on woven mats or thin, natural-fibre mattresses in same-sex dormitories
3) Eat sattvic food (vegetarian fare minus onions and garlic)
4) Hand-wash and line-dry their own laundry
5) Follow a daily ashram schedule, which includes satsang (singing spiritual hymns), yoga classes, spiritual talks or discourses, Bhagavadgita classes, meditation sessions and so on
6) Wear simple, modest clothing on ashram grounds
7) Perform karma yoga (selfless service) daily, usually cleaning duties within the ashram

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What’s the Reason for such Basic, Austere Conditions?

The goal of ashram living is to increase one’s self-awareness and enhance spirituality. Sensual pleasures including rich food, entertainment, sexual activity and indulgence in modern luxuries cause distraction within the human mind and subsequently, a lack of focus.

By intentionally withdrawing worldly pleasures and sense gratification, ashram life effectively tunes one ‘inwards’ and enables one to focus and channel their mental energy effectively. Additional ashram activities such as pranayama (breath control), yoga asanas (physical exercise) condition and meditation prepare the body and mind for transcendental experiences.

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Ashram life is good practise for those wanting to pursue the path of self-realisation on a deeper, more serious level. Consider it a physical, mental and spiritual ‘detox’ from the filth and imbalances of modern living.

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What are the Benefits of Ashram Living? What Changes Will I See?

I recommend that you stay in an ashram for a minimum of 2 weeks to see significant improvement. For best results, a 4-to-6 week stay will do wonders – it’ll literally transform you. However, if you can only manage a few days, it’s still better than nothing.

The first few days will be difficult as your body adjusts to the discipline and unfamiliar routine, but you’ll notice major changes on all levels (physically, mentally and spiritually) within the first 1 to 2 weeks. Most people feel lighter and more energetic. Your energy levels will increase, and you may be as surprised as I was to realize you only need 4 to 5 hours of sleep to wake up fully refreshed.

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The yoga asanas and healthy, meat-free sattvic diet will kick-start healing and rejuvenation processes within your body. Ailments, old injuries, digestive disorders, aches and pains will progressively improve. Stress melts away completely within the first few days.

Some people may experience certain ‘negative’ reactions including skin breakouts, temper flares, digestion issues and headaches in the first few days of ashram living. This is normal as the body is purging itself of various toxins and bad energies accumulated over the years. Skin will begin to take on a healthy glow within a few days, and bodily systems will usually harmonize once your energies sync with the routine and activities.

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I’d Like to Try an Ashram Vacation. Where Do I Start?

Most modern ashrams have an online presence these days. I suggest that you pick an ashram based on your needs. Are you interested in the teachings of a particular spiritual master? Do you want to visit a certain place and couple it with a short ashram stay? Do some searching online to see which one appeals to you the most. You’ll be spoilt for choice.

Remember that most ashrams are located in rural areas with limited internet access and phone facilities. Travel can be a challenge, and transportation is not as straightforward in lesser-developed areas such as the Himalayas. As such, plan ahead and give sufficient time (ideally between 4 to 8 weeks in advance) for ashram stay booking and confirmation.

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Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Sivananda Ashrams (Kerala, Madurai and Rishikesh)
Omkarananda Ganga Sadan (Rishikesh)
Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh)
Yoga Niketan Trust Ashram (Rishikesh)
ISKCON Delhi Temple (East of Kailash, Delhi)

Related Posts:

10 Tips for Women Traveling Alone in India

Everything You Need to Know about Rudraksha

Five Main Benefits of Traditional Hatha Yoga

Bhakti Yoga Through the Art of Puja

 

10 Tips For Women Traveling Alone In India

by Jana Thevar

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Dhanvanthari Ashram, Kerala – January 2013

India is an amazing country. I’ve traveled extensively through it and I absolutely love it. I don’t know of any other place with such contrasts and extremes that blend so seamlessly, forming a pandemonium of sights, sounds and flavors that assail the senses in ways you don’t expect. The vermillion and gold, spices and incense, poverty and palaces. The Himalayas. Ashrams. The glitz of Bollywood. Really, there isn’t any place quite like it.

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Unfortunately, India has earned a reputation of being unsafe for solo female travelers. That’s a pity, because some of the most amazing people I know are from India. My male Indian friends are real gentlemen, with great charm and impeccable manners.

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Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

My Experience as a Solo Female Traveler in India

I’ve traveled around India quite a bit on my own and faced no major issues. With some precautions, you can too. I’m all for women’s rights, empowering women and everything along those lines. However, it’s just wiser to take precautions as a lone female. Some of my tips may irk hardcore feminists out there, but the way I look at it, better safe than sorry.

Here are some tips for staying safe as a solo female traveler in India.

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Yoga Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh – September 2016

1: Plan all your transportation and transits seamlessly. This applies to all modes of transportation you intend to use in India, including flights, trains, busses and hired vehicles. Ensure that you won’t be waiting alone in places that could be dangerous. Take extra precautions to ensure you won’t be waiting ANYWHERE alone after sundown. It’s a lot safer to book hotel pick-up services instead of attempting to flag down local rickshaws and taxis after evening hours, although these cost a little more.

When booking flights that require transit, bear in mind that many Indian airports will not allow you into the airport premises until 2 or 3 hours before your actual flight. I have spent long hours waiting outside airports because they just wouldn’t let me in. They’re especially strict at the Delhi and Chennai international airports. Thankfully, I travel with a yoga mat, so I just roll that out on the floor and read a book until it’s time to go in.

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2. Book transportation and accommodation in advance. This applies to the major stuff in your plans, such as flights and hotels. You really don’t want to risk ending up somewhere and finding out that all the ‘decent’ hotels are fully booked and you have nowhere to stay for the night. There are just too many dodgy characters waiting around to take advantage of desperate, clueless foreigners.

The same applies to transportation; it’s just much safer and better for your peace of mind when you know you have a driver waiting to pick you up. As with most third-world countries, there are touts everywhere who will harass and try to rip you off, especially if it’s obvious that you’re not local. Most reputable travel agencies have websites and are very responsive to online enquiries. Do some research and see which one has the best reviews – TripAdvisor is a great place to start. I have always booked everything online, from transportation to hotels and even ashram stays, even for less-touristy places like Rishikesh.

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3. Carry credit cards and make sure they work. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in India these days, which is wonderful. Often, they’re lifesavers during an emergency.

Before you travel, inform your credit card company so that your card doesn’t get blocked (they may assume it was stolen if you try to use it at a new location). Check that your cards aren’t maxed out, and settle your minimal monthly payments before you travel.

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ISKCON Temple, Delhi – September 2016

4. Dress modestly. Many modern Indian men are well-educated, decent and have a global mindset when it comes female attire. However, as with anywhere in the world, people have differing mentalities. I would suggest that you carry a few large, lightweight cotton shawls that you can use to cover your chest and shoulders when you need to (for example, if you’re taking a public bus – this will prevent perverts staring down your cleavage).

Dressing like a local Indian woman will also get you much respect and appreciation everywhere. I noticed that I received exceptionally good treatment when I was dressed in a saree or other ethnic Indian attire – Indians love it when you embrace their culture, and will be more inclined to help you and treat you well.

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Ashram Schedule, Rishikesh – September 2016

5. Carry adequate medication and sort out your vaccinations before traveling. Imagine getting a bad case of food poisoning when you’re travelling alone, in a country known for bad toilets and overcrowded hospitals. Absolutely not worth it, especially if you pass out somewhere and end up at the mercy of strangers. Ask your doctor for emergency medication for diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, flu and allergies. Get your vaccinations in advance to ensure they’ll be effective by the time you travel.

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Women’s Dorm at Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

6. Have addresses and contact numbers handy. It really helps to carry full addresses and phone numbers with you in India, especially those of friends, relatives, hotels, ashrams, your country’s embassy and places you want to visit on your own.

Note down landmarks and nearby streets when possible, as this can help the local drivers locate your address easier. Many street names are similar in India, and this will save you time. Don’t rely solely on your phone – even the best technology can fail. I strongly recommend that you print these out.

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Unpacking at Hare Krishna Hills, Delhi – September 2016

7. Don’t underestimate the heat. This is especially true if you’re pale-skinned and not used to scorching sun, especially the burning South Indian heat. Stay hydrated, pack enough sunscreen, carry protective eyewear and something to cover your head.

8. Carry ‘special needs’ items with you. Some things are notoriously hard to find in India, especially in more remote areas. This includes tampons, tweezers, contact lens solution, specific types of skin care and certain OTC medication.

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Waiting Outside Chennai International Airport – February 2017

9. Don’t take unnecessary risks. I definitely believe one shouldn’t be too careful when traveling. However, if you ask me, India is not the place to be reckless, especially not when you’re a woman traveling alone. Your safety is priority at all times. Eat at clean places. Drink only boiled water or hygienically-packaged drinks. When you go out alone, tell your hotel where you’re going and what time to expect you back. Don’t accept rides, food or drinks from strangers (you can decline politely with a made-up excuse if you don’t want to hurt their feelings).

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Lakshman Jhula Bridge, Rishikesh – September 2016

10. Notify your country’s embassy before you travel. This may seem like an extreme measure, but I do this if I’m travelling to remote places alone. I email copies of my passport, travel documentation and a brief travel itinerary to my country’s embassy. In case of an emergency such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, it’ll make things a lot easier for the authorities to locate you and send help.

See Also:

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL