Ever since I first read “Eat, Pray, Love” five years ago, I have wanted to have my own spiritual experience in India. And after three frantic weeks of constantly battling crowds and dirt and trains (read about all three here!), I was even more ready to seclude myself away in the mountains and at the very least get some much needed peace and quiet–a commodity not often found in this country of 1.237 billion souls.
Despite my excitement, I was nervous to go. What if I hated it? What if the bathroom situation was deplorable? What if I, the pickiest eater in the world, couldn’t stomach the food?
My worries were soon put to rest as the taxi bumped down a rocky dirt road. I stepped into a flower filled courtyard in the center of a sprawling white complex hugging the banks of the Ganges River. And when I saw that my cozy little bedroom had its own bathroom AND a western style toilet, my major fear was immediately assuaged. I realize that being so concerned over the loo doesn’t sound very enlightened, but hey, baby steps!
The mornings began at 5:30 with the wake up bell, then meditation, yoga, chanting, breathing and neti pot cleansing before breakfast at 9:00. As I ate my porridge and fruit on the roof, surrounded by the mist covered hills while a soundtrack of rushing water in the background, I couldn’t help feeling utterly relaxed and finally feeling some love for this country.
My fellow ashram attendees hailed from France, England, Germany, Australia, Spain, Canada and America. We were an unlikely mix, but bonded over treacherous hikes and countless sun salutations.
Twice daily intensive hatha and ashtanga yoga was enough to ensure that I slept like a baby, despite the spiders, crickets, ants, moths and mosquitos that shared my room with me. I cannot deny that my personal mantra that I created just for India, “I am calm, I am happy…” (repeated to the nth degree) was chanted by me many a night in my small, hard bed.
At first the karma yoga (mine was cleaning toilets), the daily dahl and chapatis eaten from a metal plate on the floor and the evening pooja prayers were not my favorite. My muscles were sore from constant yoga, hiking and the many stairs within the ashram complex. I couldn’t focus during meditation, a problem they call “monkey mind.” (I had to agree when Frederika from Germany said, “I have a tribe of monkeys living in my head and they are having lots of babies.”) And I didn’t feel very spiritual during the evening prayers and chanting.
But as the week wore on I found myself melting into the program. Suddenly, I could touch my head to my knees in a forward bend, I was surprised to find myself humming a chant as I cleaned the toilets, and I smiled and swayed almost as much as the resident swami when we chanted the ancient sanskrit words to Shiva and Rama.
I can’t say that I attained enlightenment or anything, but the ashram has given me a sorely needed new perspective on India, and that in itself was worth the visit.