Our Introduction to the Yoga Niketan Ashram
Our tuk tuk driver pulled up to a random spot on a dark, secluded road. We followed along on MAPS.ME as he drove, and the map appeared to indicate that we had arrived at the Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. The driver noticed our confusion, and pointed to an open gate across the road that led straight up the hill.
We climbed up the switchbacks of the wire mesh enclosed corridor as we made our way to the ashram's entrance. It was still before 6 AM and Sunday; all was calm.
We signed into the paper log book that every accommodation requires its guests to fill out in India. It's so old school and always blows my mind that a paper log book is still the modern method here. There was a column that asked for our reason or purpose. Naturally I skimmed the spaces above my name to see what other people wrote, but only one other person had signed in on this page. Their reason for visiting the ashram? Duty.
The Journey to Rishikesh
When we first came to India, we had a rough outline of where we wanted to visit. We were starting in Goa for less than 24 hours while we waited for our first sleeper bus, we traveled east to Hampi to visit ancient temple ruins and the hippie rock climbing haven, then Goa for a beach vacation, we went up to Pune to spend New Year's at a music festival, returned back down south to the back waters and tea fields of Kerala, then flew up north to Punjab and Rajasthan to spend two weeks with my parents. We had 10 days left before our 60 day visa expired and after quickly falling in in love with India, we booked our flight out for day 60 without any plan or idea how we would spend the last 10 days.
So how did we land on Rishikesh?
During those first 24 hours in India, we slept, ate spicy food, and sat on the beach for about an hour before hopping on our sleeper bus. While laying on the beach, we watched a group of Indian men ask to take a selfie with a blond, curly haired, blue eyed, shirtless Brit that looked like everything I thought a hippie Westerner on a beach in India would look like.
When he walked by us, Mr. Social Simmons retorted how he was quite the popular man. He laughed and asked if we were new. Yes, first day new.
We started chatting for a little bit about where we were going and where he had been. He just finished a two month stay in Rishikesh, reveling in yoga and meditation classes and was headed home tonight. He had a certain glow about him that I could only place as the happiness he had from his time in Rishikesh. He explained how it was challenging, but now as he leaves tonight to return home, the real challenge would be to continue this yogic lifestyle.
He continued to ramble about how everyone is all about business and handshakes back home. When he returned, he wanted to embrace people more and hug instead of reach out in formal handshakes. He described how you could tell a lot about a stranger by whether or not they are (1) willing to hug you, and (2) how they hug.
This is the kind of situation in which Mr. Social Simmons thrives; of course Jesse wanted to know what his hug said about him. The answer? That he certainly wasn't afraid to embrace new people and was comfortable in his hugs. He may not have been ready for the Indian "manship" hand holding that is the cultural norm here, but hugging he could do.
We finished our conversation to the distant giggles of school children playing in the waves and said our goodbyes. Jesse was left with good feels, both of us smiles, and me - I was left with a growing curiosity about Rishikesh. I had no idea where it was though at the time; India is so much bigger than I originally realized. I also could barely remember the name of the place where he did his yoga. Ricka something.
The next time we met someone raving about Rishikesh was a few days later in Hampi. We shared a meal on the cushioned floor with another Brit who just finished a yoga teacher training course and loved her time there. This time I had her write down the name of the place so I could do some research. Rishikesh is northeast of Delhi, which would work well for us since it was close enough to where we needed to fly out of once our Visas were up. Jesse and I started to strongly consider spending our last week here at this point, but didn't make any real plans to come for about another month.
Flash forward to Kerala. We met an elderly couple from Wisconsin who had been traveling to India once every year or two for the past 50 years. Their favorite place? Rishikesh. Their energy was infectious every time they talked about the magic there. At this point we decided we needed to come and see what it was all about. India is the birthplace of yoga after all and we would be remiss if we left without a yoga immersion experience.
Two weeks passed, and we met four guys from different countries and totally different walks of life. We all traveled together for a few days in Munnar and Claude, an older gentleman from Portugal, also sang praises about the energy of Rishikesh. We were just over the halfway point of our stay in India and everyone we met basically told us the same thing; accommodation books quickly here and we needed to find a place to stay before we went. The problem was that we had no idea what we wanted out of our time there, other than to take some yoga classes.
We started researching yoga and meditation week long retreats and found a bunch on Trip Advisor and many other travel review sites. The cheapest one was around 250 USD for one person in a 6 day stay, all inclusive of accommodation, meals, and classes. This may seem cheap if you're back home reading this for what is included, but for budget travel in India, that's expensive and over budget for us. We were going to splurge a little and go for it, but it looked so touristy. We just didn't know any better for where else to look.
We reached out to Jesse's aunt Laura who has traveled to India a few times, and she suggested a few ashrams in Rishikesh. I had no idea what an ashram was at the time, but it definitely wasn't a fancy western yoga and meditation retreat like those we'd found on Trip Advisor. There was only 1 that didn't require a reservation months and months in advance, so we reached out and emailed the ashram. I learned that an ashram is a school of sorts where people who are serious about learning the yogic lifestyle stay for a while and become students of yoga gurus and masters.
We received a response within a day that began with the greeting of “Dear Kind Soul”. After reviewing the daily itinerary we realized that this would be much different than the cushy hand holding of the western yoga retreats. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but we wanted a more authentic experience to learn about yoga and how to meditate, and this ashram looked perfect. Before we arrived, the yoga classes were what we looked forward to the most, but after our time there, the physical yoga wasn’t even close to our favorite.
An Introduction to Yoga Niketan
I stared at the sign in book again. Duty. Well that's a tough one to follow. Learning? That seemed like a good enough answer from 6 am me, groggy from an overnight bus that arrived a few hours earlier than anticipated. The sleeping aid I usually take on overnight travel days wears off around 7:30 so I was still out of it.
I “practiced yoga” in college for a while. I put this in quotation marks because the Western definition of practicing yoga is completely different from what yoga is actually meant to be. Most people in the US, included me in the past, say that they do yoga. Usually what this means is that they go to some class and workout to the physical portion of yoga. But yoga is so much more than physical. It’s emotional, spiritual and mental too.
So I say I “practiced yoga” because I went to elective classes in college twice a week where I got a really good workout, improved my flexibility, and (to the credit of what I now realize was an even better yoga instructor than I thought at the time) I felt good about myself because of what I thought was all the “fluff” she did and said in class. If I’m being totally honest with my younger, more judgmental self, I thought she was just a hippie who said and did some strange things. I’m glad I’ve grown up and learned to be more curious and less judgmental now. I did really enjoy all of my classes with her though, so much so that I even became a teaching assistant for her class the next year.
Side note: Can you believe I actually got paid to be a teaching assistant for a yoga elective class in college?
Anyways, my lack of experience and exposure to what true yoga was clouded my already very biased opinions of yoga in the past making me think this was just a cool hippie thing to do in India. Looking back, I wish I learned more from my college yoga teacher when I had the chance, but I knew I would learn even more here in Rishikesh.
So, Jesse and I were in Rishikesh here for 8 days to learn and see what the eight branches of yoga are all about. Here’s a snapshot of our weekly schedule at the Niketan Ashram so you can get an idea of just how immersive this experience is designed to be. We saw this schedule before we committed to the ashram, but after a week of living and breathing this schedule, we’ve realized that the yoga is so much more than just a workout class.
A Taste of What We Learned
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but we weren’t even sure which religion we were about to learn about before we got here, or if what we were learning was connected to an oriental religion at all for that matter. All of the sessions, with the exception of lecture, are given by yogi masters or gurus. The lectures are given by a Hindu monk, who despite his teachings of the Bhagavad Gita seems to teach with the most inclusive perspective of all the teachers. Maybe that’s because his sessions are more knowledge based and lend themselves more to discussion and ideas, but still. We’re learning about Hinduism, and tiny bits of Buddhism and even Christianity. At the end of the day though, the ashram doesn't teach any religion; it teaches about the reasons behind the yoga lifestyle and how to practically apply yoga to your life.
We joked around all week that we were “DRINKING THE KOOL AID,” but a lot of what we learned really resonated with us. Not because of the principles were from the Bhagavad Gita, but because the principles from lessons from this book at the core of our moral code and what we believe to be true about health and love and peace.
Now there is definitely a lot of stuff that Jesse and I roll our eyes at after class that we don’t believe, but at may points during the week, I was all like, “Hey, that kool aid flavor was bomb. Can I have a second glass?”
In one lecture our teacher talked about how true happiness comes from the absence of desire. My back was hurting from the criss-cross applesauce all day every day, so when he saw me try to get comfortable by sitting against the wall before class started, he told me I could get a chair if I wanted. Sure, why not? Well, I was then subject to answer all of his questions for the rest of class.
At one point he asked me why I was in India? I didn’t want to answer like a complete idiot since I was clearly one of the people in the room that was here for “tourism” and not a repeat multi-stay attendee coming to search for truth months at a time in Rishikesh.
I simply said to see. I think he was secretly proud of me and was slightly taken back by my non-materialistic answer. I was happy with my answer too. We are here to see. That’s why we quit our jobs to travel around the world for a year. To see the world. Plain and simple. We were definitely seeing what true yoga is all about, and we couldn’t be happier with our decision to stay at the Niketan Ashram instead of paying more than our budget allowed for a cushy Western “yoga retreat.”
The yoga lifestyle, according what we’ve learned this week, is all about energy transfer and balance within all parts of the body, mind, soul, and ultimately the everness of self. And we’re learning how to use the asanas (physical poses, and what most westerners see as yoga), pranayama and digestive breathing techniques (intentional ways of breathing that go way beyond in and out) and meditation (to focus your thoughts and develop mental self-control) to realize the full potential of our “I” and happiness.
Ever heard that happiness can only come from God or that at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can make yourself happy? I’ve heard these phrases more times that I can count from Sunday school, my parents, teachers, books, etc… It’s something that all types of people say, everywhere, and in many religions. It’s the essence of the yogic lifestyle too. Except that at this ashram they believe and teach that God and self are one and the same. They believe that everyone has a true self or soul, that it's ever present and the same everywhere, always. It’s much more complex than that, but at the end of the day the yoga lifestyle is about practicing all eight limbs of yoga to give your body and mind the time and space to find the happiness of the true self that already exists within you.
Side Note: Before we arrived, we looked forward to yoga class the most, but we actually enjoyed lectures and question and answer sessions more, followed by meditation, then pranayama breathing and the physical asanas, or poses. This week is the exactly why we travel: to learn about other cultures and ways of life, to find similarities and differences between us and people halfway around the world, to question what we believe, to seek truth, and to challenge ourselves to continue bettering ourselves and the world around us.
At first when we met that guy on the beach talk about how now the real challenge would begin for him to live a yogic lifestyle when he goes back home, I thought he was a little strange. Again, I’ll admit I was being judgmental. Now though, I completely understand what he meant. Our challenge is to continue to act consciously in everything we do, to be more thankful to God and the earth for everything we have, to continue searching for truth, to do good things just because they’re good, to be silent more and think more before talking, to make time for meditation/prayer and yoga, and to continue practicing adjustment, tolerance, and acceptance in our marriage.
Life at an Authentic Ashram - The Silence Within
Now for what life was really like at the Yoga Niketan Ashram. I know that each ashram is different, and I’m sure that during any particular week, the people staying at the ashram can influence the culture at any moment. This is just our experience during one particular week.
The morning bell was loud, and the ashram was huge, but our room was conveniently located directly next to the library, dining hall, and yoga/meditation hall. This meant that we woke up without fail to the ringing of the bell at 5:00 AM each morning. I think the only day we chose to wake up that early other than for the occasional travel day was to see the milky way reflected on the salt flats in Bolivia. On the plus side though, proximity to the library meant proximity to the router, which meant WIFI whenever we wanted.
And to have a schedule like this, or a schedule at all? It’s been so long since we had a schedule. That said though, it was really nice to have 8 whole days completely planned out for us. It was like college and middle school combined into one. We walked from our double private ensuite dorm room to class, we grabbed our metal lunch trays and received a scoop from three pales of whatever was being served at that particular meal, the bells signified the next thing on the schedule, and we always dreaded the walk uphill to the front entrance of the campus.
During our first “silent” breakfast, we weren’t sure what to expect. Would people actually be silent every meal? We went into this expecting that yes, people would be silent. Many were, but the people we sat next to started talking right away, so we followed their lead and joined the conversation. There were silent signs with a smiley face and a shhhhh finger over the mouth all over the dining hall that said things like “silence boots your immune system, silence improves your memory, silence energizes your body, silence calms your mind and helps you sleep better,” but it apparently wasn’t a strict rule since even the yogis talked while they ate at times.
Thursday, was silent day. Or it said so on the schedule anyways. Someone in the group of people we became friends with mentioned this Wednesday night at dinner and a Canadian girl Genvieve, said no one really follows that. I was disappointed. I was really looking forward to trying to be silent for an entire day. Jesse and I have thrown around the idea of a week-long silence retreat in Indonesia at the end of our trip and this would be a good test to see if we thought we could handle such a large amount of silence. Well apparently everyone else was disappointed too because within a minute about 10 of us committed to silent Thursday.
Thursday morning’s bell came and instead of the usual good morning Jesse and I say to each other, we just shot out of bed and kind of looked at each other. My back was hurting particularly badly that morning so it took me a few extra minutes to get ready. I thought about trying to mime to him to go ahead without me to save us cushions for meditation (I usually am out the door first,) but I had no idea how to communicate this without words. I quickly suggested he go without me only to receive a hushed shhhhh. He had his quiet finger over his mouth, but wasn’t all smiley like the posters in the dining hall.
Meditation and yoga classes weren’t difficult to keep quiet during. Yoga here was pretty silent anyways. There was no music to get your zen on like you usually have in the USA; just the sounds of the teacher’s instructions and intentional breathing throughout the hall.
Breakfast came and our little group of students all sat at the table we’d grown accustomed to. We waved and smiled as we ate our breakfast (and later our lunch) in silence. A few observations:
Silence is much harder than it sounds. We are human and social beings in nature and want to converse. Someone would come sit down and you couldn’t help but want to say hi and ask how their morning was so far.
Sitting at a rectangular table filled with people on each side who aren’t talking can be awkward at times. When I’m talking to someone, I make eye contact. That’s natural in Western culture. But when you look at someone you barely know from across the table without saying anything, it’s awkward. So most of the meal peoples’ eyes darted from their plates to the table, to the wall trying to avoid eye contact at all costs. Of course Jesse and I make eye contact, but we’re married so it’s different.
I was way more conscious of the physical act of eating when I wasn’t talking; I really thought about how much food I put in the spoon for each bite. I thought about how quickly I ate each bite. I slowed down way more and really chewed instead of just inhaling my food like usual. I paid attention to the textures and even occasionally played around with what our yogis would call conscious actions. Instead of just eating, I consciously told my body what to do. "Okay hand pick up the spoon. Now put this strange, yet delicious string noodle and vegetable breakfast into the spoon. No, not that much, put some back. That would have been a big bite. Actually that was the size of a normal bite for me. Go ahead, put some back so you aren’t stuffing your mouth full. Now arm, move the spoon to the mouth. Okay, insert spoon into mouth. Tongue and lips, work together to slide the food into my mouth. Now teeth and everything else inside there, chew slowly." I don’t think I’ve ever chewed my food that slowly or fully before that day. So many of our routine actions are things we perform unconsciously. It really made me think intentionally about what I was doing.
Back to the socializing. I didn’t think about this during breakfast or lunch on silent Thursday, but I am now as I write this. I’ve worked at schools in the past that require middle schoolers to eat in silence for one reason or another. I’ve somewhat understood the rationales I’ve been given for the why behind the decision. Kids need to actually eat their food, they need to be trained to have appropriate mealtime conversations, it’s easier to manage… I don’t even remember the exact rationales that previous administration teams have given for why silent lunch is the way it is, but I know the first time I experienced it I was shocked and felt really uncomfortable with the idea. Kids are kids and need to socialize. But if that’s the way things are at your workplace, that’s the way things are. Unless you want to try to be a part of a changing the way things are and speaking out against the current systems and creating solutions for an improved culture, but that’s a totally different ball game and this isn’t the place for that. So now I’m writing and thinking back to that lunch. Our German friend Frank took one of the hot peppers with his meal. Now I know from watching Jesse try one earlier in the week that these things are HOT. Jesse likes spicy food, not white people spicy, but Indian spicy food. He can handle way more spice than most people, but even he struggled to talk or finish his meal after taking a tiny bite of the pepper. It was just me, Jesse and Frank at the table when we saw the pepper and we all giggled like little school kids, you know, because we aren’t supposed to be talking. As more people sat down, the three of us kept giggling as he took a bite, struggled, then for some reason took another bite later on even though you could tell it was way too hot for him. No one else knew what we were laughing about - it was our little secret. In reflection, this must be what students in silent lunches feel like when they communicate without words. Teachers can have eyes in all parts of their heads, but in most cases, there is still so much communication happening between students during silent lunches. Did the other people at the table feel left out and wonder why we were laughing? If we were middle schoolers, would this small interaction have caused us to get in trouble or make another kid feel self-conscious for being outside the supposed inside joke that was happening? There is definitely a time and place for silence. I mean, look at all the thought that came from just two meals in silence for me. And I agree that silence can energize you, but is a school cafeteria, middle schools and ashrams alike, the time and place for silence? Or in a more unbiased question, what should social interaction look like in a cafeteria? I’ll let you chew on that for a while.
After breakfast that Thursday we had lecture class, and we all sort of made an exception to the no talking rule when our instructor asked us questions or interacted with us. He did the vast majority of the talking though, so no one said more than maybe 10 or 15 words each.
Library time was always optional. You didn’t have to actually sit in the library and study. You could come as go as you pleased and do whatever you wanted. Pretty much everything was optional here really. No one was going to kick out if you skipped a session (although our introduction emails said that they could not only ask you to leave the ashram for not adhering to the schedule, but for not keeping a tidy room.) If you skipped things though, the instructors noticed and some weren’t afraid to make comments regarding your absence.
Jesse and I spoke 2-3 sentences during library time that Thursday so we could discuss what we were going to do. We went down to the edge of the campus, sat high on the hill, read our student manuals while relaxing and watched the Ganges River flow downstream. The purpose of the self-enforced silence was to really think/meditate on whatever your reason for silence was. Ours was to reflect upon our time so far in the ashram, what we were taught and what we had experienced. Reading the student manual really helped to draw all three of these things together.
The manual discussed the purpose of yoga (both the movement portion and the mediation portion), as well as the practical such as the different techniques of meditation in yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. When we combined the information from this introduction booklet with our trial and error meditation earlier in the week, we were starting to feel like meditation might make sense. The meditation sessions at the ashram were largely unguided, which meant that the guru leading the session lead the group in a few mantra chants, maybe 3-5 minutes of talking you through what to think about, then let you to navigate 30+ minutes of silent meditation on your own. While this may be perfect for someone deepening their meditation practice, it made meditation difficult for us as beginners. The student manual helped give us the push we needed though to keep on trying, and gave us a few techniques for things to try during our next session.
After lunch we went to digestive breathing, which was one of my favorite classes. Essentially you start by sitting on your knees with your legs under you, toes touching, heels apart, and butt rested on the feet. This is supposed to cut off a lot of circulation to the lower body, leaving lots of blood/energy flow in the stomach region and organs to help digest the food. Then you lay in shavasana, or corpse pose, which basically means lay on your back like a flat board. You practice deep conscious breathing here. You start with your consciousness fixed on your nose as you inhale, moving your concentration to the stomach as the air fills your lungs, then in reverse from the stomach and back to the nose as you exhale. You do this 5-7 times, and then roll to your left side with your left arm above the head and right arm on your straight body. You breathe with the same technique, adding a focus of breathing in and out primarily of the right nostril, for 21 times. Back to center 5-7 more times. Then to right for 21 conscious breaths, back to center for 5-7 breaths, left for 7, center for 7, right for 7, center for 7, and ending with the same position that you started in.
We went to this class each day, but Thursday was the first day I consciously took every breath. Most of the time I started with conscious breathing, but I usually got distracted and just breathed normally without deliberately thinking about it. This time though I was intentional with every single breathe for the entire 30 minutes. I think I was able to do this in part because of the silence all morning. I’m not really sure why, but the two were definitely connected somehow. I tell you what, I was feeling myself too; this was probably the closest to “bliss” as I’ve ever had in yoga while finding my true inner happiness. I couldn’t stop smiling and enjoying myself. Jesse even said that at one point I was breathing so intensely that he turned to see if I had fallen asleep, only to find me with one pashmina draped over my body and another over my head and face. I left a small hole for my nose through the careful draping of my pashmina so I could breathe properly, and clearly was enjoying myself, my arms spread out, hands in perfect mudra.
There’s definitely something to the whole silence for a day thing.
After lunch though we talked for a second to make plans for our free time and quickly 2-3 sentences turned into 10 and we decided to be done with the silence for the day. This was also mostly due to the fact that we realized we scheduled a 7 hour bus to the Delhi airport on the 10th when our flight left on the 11th.
If you’ve never had a day of silence, I highly suggest trying it just to experience it for yourself. If you want even more out of your silence, give it a purpose of thought (not that I’m anywhere close to an expert now.) It brought all kind of good feels. Or maybe it’s just all the kool-aid I’ve been drinking. I choose to think it has its benefits, and a silence retreat remains on our list of possible ideas for Indonesia.
During the week, my body was sorer than I expected. If we could do it again, we would have practiced some physical yoga, or physical anything, prior to coming so we could handle the 2 asana sessions each day.
I have more questions now than when we started our stay at the ashram, but also more clarity in some regards too. We’re definitely going to keep practicing elements of yoga that we’ve learned this week for the rest of our travels and hopefully when we return home too. We plan to research a lot more about the science behind the benefits of meditation before we go full fledge into it. Not science as in yoga science, but as in scientific method science. Jesse is an engineer even though he's unemployed. I’ll be reading “The Joy of Living” next by Eric T. Swansan to keep educating myself about the philosophy and science behind meditation.
There is something truly magical about India, especially about Rishikesh. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it has such positive vibes.
This experience will always have a special place in my heart, and we can see ourselves coming back here for months at a time once our kids (that haven’t been conceived) are all grown up and moved out of the house (that we don’t yet have) someday. Thanks Aunt Laura for such a quality recommendation!
I wish that everyone reading this finds happiness within themselves today. And if you've made it to the end of this and are a music lover, check out these three incredible videos from music meditation sessions we went to while in Rishikesh. The quality isn't the greatest, but enjoy!