First the book, and then the movie; “Eat Pray Love” has intrigued a lot of people the world over. Especially in the western world, there is a growing interest among people to come and live in a yoga ashram in India. Surely there are lots of questions which come to peoples mind, as one book or a movie is not capable of answering the numerous question. So we decided to throw some light on this subject.
An ashram in general, and a yoga ashram in particular is a place which is dedicated to the deeper study of the subject matter of spirituality, and the science of yoga. The tradition of Ashrams is very old in India. It emerged much before the foreign rule which made modern India known to the world we know of today, much before the emergence of Christianity or Islam. The system of Ashram or Gurukula was the only system of imparting training to the masses, enabling them to take care of themselves, and to live properly in the society in peace and harmony with others. There are many references in the history of India where Ashrams have been described. In fact it was a norm for almost everyone to go and live in the Ashram for some years, to learn the skills for life. It is because of the Ashrams and the Gurukula system tradition the Vedic culture of India could be saved, and Yoga is just one of them. So it would be just right to say that Ashrams served in a great way to preserve and propagate the knowledge of Yogic sciences to all. In an ashram dedicated to the practices of yoga, a yogic lifestyle is adapted. Yoga is lived there, and the yoga is not limited to just the physical practice – the whole philosophy of yoga is learned. Spending some time in such a place works on many levels. Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual. In an ashram there is always a Guru, a teacher or a master who guides the people coming there. The teachings are imparted in a non-formal way, unlike the class room setup. The Ashram provides a safe and secure space for higher spiritual practices, and the sadhana done there is very efficient and fruitful.
This another question people keep asking. One can join a yoga ashram very easily. But before that the question needs to be asked: what is the purpose in doing so? If you want to join an indian yoga ashram to experience yoga in the traditional way, there are various places, one being SWAN Yoga Retreat in Goa. If you are looking at joining an ashram to adapt the life of a sannyasin (monk) then it requires a lifetime commitment. There are several orders and traditions of sannyasa (monk hood), primarily 10, where one can dedicate its life for the learning and teaching of yoga, and higher spiritual practices. In such an ashram there is always a spiritual guide or a Guru. Under whose guidance the ashram is run. To join such an ashram, a very strong will is required. An example of this kind of ashram, is the Bihar School of Yoga. Ashram life is not easy or comfortable, and this is not the priority. The priority is spiritual growth. In most of the Indian Yoga Ashrams the living standards are very basic. Austerity is one of the practices to be followed. There are set rules and regulations to be followed, as communal living requires a certain amount of discipline. Most of the Indian Yoga Ashrams require prior appointment to be made before you arrive there. In some you may just walk in, but it is best to make reservations. Most of the yoga ashrams are now represented on the internet, so doing some online research in this area is highly recommended.
As stated before, the tradition of yoga ashrams in India is very ancient. In the old times most of the ashrams were supported by the head of the state, kings or the ruler of the area where it existed. We live in different times now. A lot of ashrams across India still function on donations made by people. In a lot of ashrams one can get free stay and food, but this is mostly provided to wandering monks and sadhus (holy men). The facilities are very basic and the food as well. These ashrams are open to all, mostly. It is best to make proper enquiries before arriving there. There are some yoga retreats and spiritual centres which now function on the principals of an ashram, and yet not compromising on the comfort side. The sprit of an ashram is imbibed, the lifestyle of an ashram is practiced, but in a more easy and comfortable set up. These ashrams are now becoming very popular for yoga beginners, and also for solo female travellers who want to experience the lifestyle of an ashram in a safe and secure setup. And in these indian yoga ashrams there is a fee for lodging and boarding. In such kind of yoga ashram retreats there is generally a schedule which is followed. Which primarily includes practice of meditation, asana (physical practice), pranayama (breathing exercises), chanting of mantras, yogic detox/cleansing practices, ritualistic tantric practices etc.
The answer to the question is Yes, but you will have to make your own choice. What are you looking for? Yes, there are ashrams where one can get free food and accommodation. And yes, there are also yoga ashrams where you have to pay for the services provided. Some personal research and/or guidance and recommendations will always be helpful. One thing should be understood: the free yoga ashrams are also incurring expenses to run, and it is run on donations. It is an age old tradition in India to support such activities, and people weather rich or poor do make donations to such places, so that they can keep running and doing their service to the society.
No, a yoga ashram is not a cult. On the surface sometimes it may seem so. Ashrams are places of higher spiritual practices , so a certain kind of discipline, rules and regulations is maintained. In an yoga ashram the drive is towards the deeper understanding of the philosophy of yoga. And then there are also other ashrams which deal with other practices of the six major philosophies. Depending on which area of yoga and tantra you’re interested in, you may choose your kind of place. In some indian yoga ashrams, a certain dress code is to be maintained. In some, one has to shave their head or not shave at all. Different places have different set of rules and guidelines. It is highly recommended that you should make proper enquiry in detail, before you pack your bag for your spiritual journey.
As stated above, most Indian yoga ashrams are following a tradition or a lineage which goes many years back. There are certain rules and codes of conduct to be observed. This can vary from being very strict. to mild restrictions like no smoking and drinking within the campus. These ashrams are centres of higher spiritual growth and deeper studies in the human consciousness. Living in an ashram requires a lot of self discipline, and also keeping away from the world outside. To encourage this, some of the ashrams don’t allow any kind of modern communication devices to be used within the the campus, like mobile or laptops with internet. However with the modern times some of the ashrams have adapted to the changing world, and the rules have been made more flexible.
We hope that this article may help you in finding the right kind of yoga ashram in India for your own spiritual journey.
Article by Gyanmitra Saraswati
Copyright 2016- SWAN Yoga Retreat Assagao Goa, India.