Ashrams, Donkeys and Dogs Barking – Retreat in India
In December 2014, I was lucky enough to travel to India with Tam from Yogaphysio Brisbane and some other yoga teachers and friends to the Anandamai Ma Ashram in Omkareshwar, India. We completed 9 days in silence during our 12 day stay in the Ashram. What an experience! The ashram has a busy school attached to it, kindly patronized by some European disciples of Ma, and is a busy working environment. It was a happy alive place full of laughter and good cheer. An ashram is not necessarily a place of calm and quiet but is certainly a place of spiritual retreat.
The Ashram itself is situated on an island in the middle of the holy Narmada river which is a popular sacred bathing site for Indians. Water taxis navigated the river regularly during our stay, bringing bathers to and from the island. There is huge dam across the Narmada river from which water is released at intervals across the day and night accompanied by what sounds like a World War 2 air-raid siren and a loud voice, no doubt giving safety warnings of impending flood waters. The whole island is a sacred site. A guided walking tour of the island, towards the end of our stay, revealed how spiritual a place India is – there were ashrams and communities of varying sizes and fame, shrines, ancient temples, and stalls selling religious paraphernalia as well as families eking out an existence on the sacred island.
Our daily retreat routine consisted of rising at approximately 4.30am – thanks to Craig my alarm clock - in order to join Swami Gurushananda [the head Swami] for an early morning meditation session from about 5 am to 6am. Pranayama and more meditation followed and then there was the opportunity to attend a daily fire ceremony to which we were welcomed unreservedly. After the ceremony, there was the possibility of joining a group asana session with other members of the ashram and then breakfast was available. Mid-morning activities included a self-directed 90 minute asana practice and chanting with our group led by Tam and then a brief break until Lunch. We had a couple of hours of free in the afternoon until Satsang with Swamiji. The theme for the retreat was the 10 Mahavidyas [Wisdom Goddesses]. The ashram is dedicated to the goddess Kali. More chanting and meditation took us into the early evening when dinner was served in the main dining room. Evenings were free with the possibility of more personal practice or attendance at Arati prayer in the Ashram. The daily round became routine after a few days and there was a chance to immerse oneself in spiritual practice unhindered.
Meditating up to 2 hours a day was a luxury but sometimes a trial as there was usually background noise. Being silent is also a challenge when you want to get to know and share your experiences with the people you are with. Being silent somehow brings your “stuff” to the surface and there is a realization that most of what we say and talk about is superfluous. Somehow the “little things” about others also become “big things” that annoy us – that is part of the learning! To share this whole experience with like-minded others was a privilege.
One early morning session, I recall, was particularly difficult as dogs barked non-stop, across the river from the Ashram, for what seemed like hours! The repetitive ill-timed cacophony carried in glorious detail straight across the water and into my ears as I attempted to withdraw into stillness and silence. Other background noises usually included the ablutions of other residents of the Ashram who bucket-bathed and cleaned sinuses in the bathroom directly under where we sat. The challenge, then, was to be present with the breath and inner space and to allow the distractions to sink into the background – good practice. Somewhere along the way braying donkeys [I love donkeys] and jumping monkeys also entered the mix!
I am grateful for my Indian experience and can’t wait to get back to the Ashram. Somehow the very air of India feels infused with spirituality juxtaposed with crazy consumerism, poverty, pollution and over-crowding. People go about their daily lives with a taken-for-granted recognition of the presence of the divine that is lacking for most of us in the first world. As we hurtled along in jammed cars driving on the wrong side of the road passing yak-drawn carts, I realized that one just has to let go and be and that this place trains you to do this! As I tried to do up a seat-belt during one transit the driver said to me: “don’t worry we don’t need them in India”. What do we need then? Perhaps gratitude for one’s life and for the opportunities we have been given and the loving people around us who sustain and support us.