In the beginning of 2010, I spent a month in India as a solo female traveler. For seven of those days, I locked myself up in an Ashram to breathe deeply and practice yoga. Here’s what I thought of the experience:
Day one: I arrived off the train from Delhi and already knew I would love it up there. There were actually green trees, rivers, and much less chaos. The drive to Rishikesh took about an hour and the whole way you are driving through tree lined streets up into the mountains. When I got out of the car at the ashram, I could really feel a positive energy. And I’m not trying to be a new age hippie-dippie but you could see and feel that everyone was peaceful and happy. I was given a handbook when I arrived with the rules…? No flesh foods, no sex, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no hallucinogens, no exposing too much skin, silence between 9pm and 9am. Good thing I gave up all my vices to come to India. My room was like a large dorm room that I am not allowed to decorate, standard and basic, it almost takes me back to college. Lunch was interesting—it’s served in a dining hall where you have to remove your shoes before you enter. Also, you sit on the floor at these little tiny tables that fit only your metal tray, metal spoon, and metal bowl; there are probably about 50 of them scattered around the room. Then you hand wash your own dishes and keep them until you check out. So I placed them nicely on the table next to my bed where they sat waiting for my next meal. At the ashram, there was sitting room and balconies, a courtyard and a rooftop terrace. And the yoga classes were amazing; 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening. Then chanting. Which I did not attend. I can only stretch my bohemian self so far (no pun intended).
Day two: My alarm went off at 5:15am and after throwing on clothes and brushing my teeth, (this was day 16 of brushing with a bottle of water instead of the tap!) I went upstairs to the morning yoga hall. I expected there to be a handful of people doing individual meditations but it was already packed by 5:30 for a 6:00 class, I was lucky to get a spot in the middle of the floor. So I laid down on my mat, did some breathing exercises, stretched and tried to clear my mind—which even before sunrise is impossible. In walks the guru and this yogi who is quite possibly, no positively is, the smallest, skinniest, oldest man I’ve ever seen in my life. And wrinkled. Very wrinkled. The guru introduced him and told us that he would be teaching class. He was 100 years old. He could also bend his skeletal little body in ways I’ve never seen done nor will ever attempt on my own. At the end of class—through the gurus translations—he talked to us about what he does to stay healthy. What I got from him is that raw food, sprouts, and 20 glasses of orange juice a day do the trick. Who knew? I also bathed in the Ganges River and found almonds, mandarins, and toilet paper at the market. Pure bliss.
Day three: I turned 24 and no one knew. I’m took the opportunity to think about all of the people in the world who never get to celebrate their birthday or don’t even know when their birthday is. I am fortunate in my life to usually be surrounded by those who I love who enjoy feeding me cake and giving me presents—which I gladly accept. So, this being said, I thought I could skip one year. I gained a roommate (it really is like dorm style living here in the ashram). Her name was Yuki, from Japan, and she smiled a lot and spoke little to no English…and most importantly didn’t snore. Another dawn session of yoga and an afternoon session of the same. My entire body hurt, like actually aches from my toes to my nose. 4 hours a day, I’ve realized, is pretty strenuous but highly rewarding. I also snuck in a birthday present to myself; an Ayurvedic massage (I know, how American of me). In my book this translates to an Indian body massage using oil. Although I am certain that it was not 100% hygienic (what exactly in India is?), it was awesome and made for the perfect relaxing evening. And to cap it off, a hot shower!
Day four: So, I lied. There was one person who knew it was my birthday. She was the Indian girl/woman who worked at the front desk of the ashram. She called me out of my room and presented me with a rose, handmade with corn silks as a belated birthday present. It absolutely made my day and enforced me to appreciate even more the simple things in life. Quite Humbling. Speaking of humbling, I also took a one hour ride to see the Himalayas. It was the scariest ride of my life…in an ancient car with no seatbelts, climbing these tiny one way streets up the side of a mountain and the only way to hopefully secure that you don’t get hit by oncoming traffic—because these are two-way streets we’re driving here—is to beep your horn when you go around corners to let oncoming drivers know. But once we got to the lookout point it all made sense. There is a temple that I had to climb 1394 stairs to get to but it overlooks the hills, villages, and gives a peak of the Himalayan mountain range; breathtaking, stunning, spectacular, whatever you’d like to call it, although I prefer to think of it as humbling.
Day five: this day was Holi which is an Indian holiday that celebrates color, sound, and the welcoming of spring. What happens is children go around hosing people down with water and throw vibrantly colored powder in people’s faces, on their heads, all over their bodies, basically wherever the powder will stick (im told that some types of this powder is made with such strong chemicals that it can cause blindness). Men take this day as an opportunity to get drunk (which is mostly looked down upon in the Hindu religion) and roughly grope women. So, with that being said, we were encouraged to stay in the ashram for the day and not get mixed in with the madness. I talked to a couple girls who tried to go out to buy chips but couldn’t even make it into the markets because they were completely surrounded as soon as they got to the main street. Indians take their festivities to heart, apparently. Happy Holi.
Day six: a routine day that goes like this: yoga, back to sleep, lunch, exciting outing to the markets with an Australian born, Hong Kong ex-pat friend I made, reading, yoga, dinner, reading, sleep. While it had been relaxing, I was getting the itch to get out of there and back to the real world. Living in an ashram is a bit like a commune summer camp with a harmonic cultish twist to it. Does this make sense? Everyone is so damn peaceful, happy, and obsessed with genie pants/shawls/head wraps/beads/etc it makes me wonder what they are clearly lacing the food with. Have I mentioned the food? The food that is prepared here is all vegetarian, locally and organically grown and follows the sattavic diet which means no onion, no garlic, not too much spice, and nothing else to interfere with the meditative state of mind. So, for me, a girl who is in the ‘every possible thing on the planet is better with garlic’ camp it was a hard concept to swallow (no pun). I day dreamed about westernized food like it was nobody’s business—even things that I rarely ate at home anyway. It was beer and philly cheese steaks (Jim’s, naturally), beer and ribs, beer and steak (which if you know me well enough you know that I never ever eat steak). Do you see the trend here? I felt like a man. But I found myself in the middle of yoga, my body contorted in seemingly unnatural positions, fixated on anything from cheese cubes to chicken sandwiches when I’m supposed to have a clear head or at the very least be thinking about rainbows and unicorns.