After a long trip involving two buses and a packed train, we’ve arrived to the Ashram, which was uphill overlooking Neyyar lake, come 30km from Trivandrum. Although it was nice to be back in the woods, this time it was with slight trepidation. Although I’ve always been a closeted aficionado of spiritual practices, and have even fantasised about pursuing them, I’ve never done it properly. My hefty dose of scepticism and cynicism was instilled in me by my atheist Father. From when I can remember, he mocked any of my spiritual pretensions and tainted chanting, meditating and reading scriptures for me. Although many of my friends and devoted believers, all of that was never really for me, no matter how much I flirted with it.
Thus, with F and M on my sides, who were more enthusiastic, we proceeded in. We were greeted by a very hot Italian receptionist, with a pierced nose and her hair shaven on the sides. She looked slightly, but sexily cultish.
This flicker of enthusiasm died when she handed us the ashram rules: strict adherence to the daily routine was required, so was attendance of all yoga and praying sessions, and if we were to leave we were required to obtain outpasses. Minimum stay was three days. There was no flirting with staff (difficult), and strict celibacy was the norm (easy). When I discussed possiblities of such an ashram with F the day before he said, that there was no way that they will force us to do stuff, that it is not a prison, that it will be very chilled. Alas, he was wrong.
I looked at him, pleadingly.
“Are we actually doing this?”
Trying not be be the one to wimp out, I plunged.
There was a half-hearted ayurvedic doctor appointment, then there was a move to the dorms, of about 10 people, and then there was a lecture about devotional, bakhti yoga. It was presented by a youngish Indian woman who made conscious efforts to make it non cultish, despite the initial discussion that the mind exists in the astral body not the brain. She was telling how the ideal was love without attachment and that once we achieve this, we can live a life of bliss. We needed to find devotion to anything and pursue it selflessly and only then we can find happiness. What continued could have been a nice discussion of what it means to strive for enlightenment, yet the audience would not have it.
When a French lady said that she selflessly likes her children, one Indian lady living in the US started discussing her expectations of her child which included not having a divorce, an angry 40-something American from LA demonstratively stormed out.
The ashram-dwellers were a tough crowd, and apart from a few who swayed a bit too much, not a cultish one. Sure, there was a lot of alternative people from around the world, but on the whole it was ok. Some of the ashram rules, which I so feared just hours before, were broken quickly: an elderly Indian was loudly watching youtube on his phone, calls to the outside world were made openly, and classes skipped en masse.
Slightly calmed, I proceeded to a strenuous asana yoga practice, led by an incomprehensible guy who I thought he was chanting in Sanskrit for good 3 minutes from the start of the class. It was English it turned out. Alas, the practice was great for a beginner like me, and I soon realised how inflexible I am. Yet I am here to learn (and scowl, although that is forbidden here) and I did indeed feel better, even despite my fear and vitriol. Not like after my ayurvedic massage in Varkala, but still better.
The food was a mild, slushy, Indian fare. We were not allowed to speak during meals so that we can concentrate on the movement. Everything there was done in a crossed legged position, which killed my back, and there was a lot of chanting and hailing. And there were many mosquitos. Alas, nobody said the path of a yogi was easy. Especially for overweight cynics addicted to technology and sitting, bent on a quest for meaning.
The evening prayer consisted of chanting hymns to Indian deities (including the famous Hare Rama, Hare Krishna chant) and although it was a bit strange, it was rather happy-clappy so I belted out a lyric or two, and ommm-ed profusely. There was also a film about the fouding swami of the ashram, Sivananda (who we are to thank before and after every activity), and who seemed like quite a cool guy, who wanted to bring world peace to yoga and through flying planes over war-zones, and did similar feats of goodnatured 70s-style naïveté.
When we arrived to our 10 person dorm, F and I went straight to bed (at 9pm) to feel the benefits of the programme. Yet it was not to be – although we laid down and killed the lights, a few of of our fratty Indian friends, behaving as if on a school trip, decided to play a bit of local music and shout at each other. I, as anyone of the path of enlightenment and transcendence, decided to bear it all and try to sleep. F, however, gave them a nasty look, after which they decided to turn the volume of music slightly down, and continue to chat loudly. In situations like these, I can only ask what would Sivananda do?
The day started with Indian dudes singing at 5am. But that was ok, because that was the scheduled wake-up time. A strenuous, silent, walk to the nearby artificial lake followed, so we could chant while the sun was coming up. We were warned not to engage with the villagers, and avoid the trappings of chai places, as well as not to bathe in the crocodile infested lake. My knee-jerk reaction was to scowl, yet immediately I decided to make the most of it. The whole experience was stunning: the peaks of West Ghats over the lake were wonderful: one was almost perfectly conical, while the others were a jagged, surreal mess, rosy in the early morning light. The sun came up, hymns were enthusiastically sung and my heart, was lifted up. At that point, I thought this may not be too bad – shock horror: I am liking the ashram.
Once we returned, we were given chai, and then whisked off to the morning yoga session, where I actually I could do much more, mostly because of the talented teacher. Almost falling asleep during savasana, I decided to book myself for a massage the following day, as I decided to stay with F and M here for another day and then go straight to Delhi.
We then did a bit of karma boosting (or karma yoga) by lugging dirty and dusty mattresses from one unused dorm to storage. The yoga instructors who were directing us, wanted to give us a nice a neck and back stretch so we piled two mattresses on our heads and improved our karma. Even this I enjoyed, although a Swedish girl complained about something biting her. “Bedbugs”, I added helpfully. A bit of general happy-clappines died at that point.
F and then had a q&a session on meditation with one of Ashram staff, a lovely Indian lady who worked in Advertising and then found herself in yoga. She was quite frank that all we needed to do is concentrate, on a mantra or aspects of deity.
“But what if I do not have a particular Hindu deity to focus on”, F asked, a bit sullenly.
“You can meditate on Jesus of whatever you are devoted to.”
“But what if there is nothing we feel so strongly devoted to?”, I asked.
“There must be something you are devoted to and that you like”
“Nature?” I fired off, inspired by that morning’s vista. “Travel?”, F chimed.
“Well, you can think of aspects of a flower…or something”
The session continued, I found a focal point for meditation in my solar plexus. She told us to be open to grace.
Then we were whisked off to yet another activity. Ashram life is in many ways like school. You need outpasses if you want to step outside the smallish compound, and you are not supposed to be skipping any of the 8 daily, usually 1-2 hour long activities that they cram in 16 hours of waking time. All in all, this leaves you feeling a bit claustrofobic and slightly force-fed yogic grace.
After yet another lecture by our meditation guru-ess, this time spoiled by the American’s protestations about the speed with which were going through the material, I realised that F’s enthusiasm waned. He looked positively sullen, and didn’t even conform to the ashram guidelines by buying long white yoga pants (he continued rocking fresh-off-the-yacht-look, with linen shirt and bermudas).
“When are you thinking of leaving tomorrow?”, F asked.
“Well I thought I might stay here with you and M the whole time… I think it is not that bad”
“Oh…well I think I am going tomorrow.”
“Can’t handle this shit?”
“Umm… I am just not in the right mindset. It is a bit oppressive… and all this chanting. I want to be free to do what I want on my holidays. Drink beer. Meet people. Read. Not eat sludgy curries.”
“Ok, so we are off tomorrow”
“You don’t need to”
“Yeah, I don’t think that I can stand this for another day”, and despite my enthusiasm that day, I felt it was a bit too much.
“I hope we have beer for dinner. And then some chocolate”
At that point my cynicism about the ashram reared its head again. The following asana class with the incomprehensible teacher, I found myself thinking that yoga is crap. I wanted to run. Do things. Yet, at the end, after the final bout of relaxation, again I did feel a bit better.
Another sludgy curry followed. We raided the ashram shop for non-existent chocolate. We spoke to one of the wiry instructors, who was from Northern Kerala. He complimented F on his lean physique and after asking me about me weight (I estimate three times his), patted me on my jelly-like thighs and told me that if I do yoga I will be healthy and fit. He does it every day for two hours and then goes jogging.
At the end of the daythere was a lot more chanting presided by a more senior teacher (who was in her late 60s and apparently from the UK) who gave us a sermon on how we need to defeat our ego, drawing from the example of Durga, a fearsome Hindu goddess. There was even more chanting afterwards – my heart just wasn’t into it.
We said bye to M. Again I was struck by how much she is an awesomely mature young woman. Briefly I contemplated how fearless she must be to do this all on her own. She said she will miss us, and will stay in the ashram for another 6 days. The three of us, alone under a mango tree made fun of ashram practices. The few strangely aggressive people (e.g. The American, The Indian-American Mom). The constant chanting. Cynicism’s sharp, sour smell hung heavy in the moist air. Even in our dorm, the Indian frat guys started fighting while we were all trying to sleep.
The final chanting was nice. The last yoga class brought me a bit of faith back into the ashram life. It is not for me, but I appreciate it for what it taught me. I can now sit cross-legged for 15 minutes. I now know a few mantras. I even felt a glimpse of bliss, the much coveted aim of yogic detachment. It showed me that there is another way to being: a nice, mindful, blissful one, if remote and slightly solipsistic.
We said our goodbyes. I had a painful massage in the ashram, during which I yelped a few times. The hot Italian receptionist gave us our outpasses.
Then, smiling, F and I went off to Kovalam, a nearby beach suburb of Trivandrum. On the way to Kovalam, we discussed life and freedom. Did we need all this freedom we had? What did we want to devote ourselves to? Then we thought of founding a liberal-style ashram, potentially on a Greek island, where we would discuss all these questions, in a less cultish atmosphere.
Once we arrived, a throng of salespeople descended on us (“you will buy my pineapple, promise?”). Another guy offered us hashish, marijuana an opium.He thought Opium would be the best for us. A 40-something, pickled British expat, was boasting about him being in the thick of Kovalam croissette and how he was pounding a chick in Thailand. F had a beer. I ate a curry with onions, which was prohibited in the ashram.
With a few chants stuck in my head I went into the rough sea on the beach overlooked by a lighthouse. I realised that in the past few years I missed religion, and higher purpose, and stillness that those provided, which I tasted last time while I was going to even-songs in Oxford (New College was the favourite). Still, unlike the yogis, I realised that I do not want to detach from the worldly life, and cynicism, dirt and pain it holds. Being in the midst of it all makes you able to do something – to fight for what you belive in (once you find that), to love fully – with attachment, to discover good and bad sides of yourself – not smooth them away. Although I am sure that there are many to prove me wrong, I do not believe that you be detached and still truly care for things. And without care, and love for things, as they are, in this messy, often awful world, there is little to life, apart from egotistic joys and empty contentment in own bubble (or “posh isolation”, as Belle and Sebastian would put it).
Still, after returning to my routine of switching between FB, Instagram and general anxiety, I missed the calmness of the ashram and the bliss-lite it provided. I even sang a few mantras…After I shared this with him he told me that my parts should thank him from wresting me away from a cult, but that I should try to incorporate mediations and exercise in my normal life. Maybe I do. Maybe it was all just a bit of immersion tourism.
Nevertheless, a bit sad that I am leaving him and going to Delhi alone, I went off to Trivandrum airport, whose zombiefying smell and security routines, shared by airports around the world, gave me a strange sense of calm and belonging.