Om Namah Sivaya. One week in an ashram.

“Om Namah Sivaya. It’s 5:30” will always hold a special part of my heart.

The past week, I had the pleasure of spending a week in an ashram in Northern California, more specifically in Grass Valley. For those who don’t know what an ashram is, it is a monastic community of Buddhist individuals, always located off the beaten path. The ashram I visited was located 30 minutes from town (if you can really call that town) on dirt roads that got so confusing, I truly don’t know how people managed without GPSes. The main reason for visiting this ashram was for their yoga courses. They hold weekly workshops and classes and even though I attend yoga classes at least once a week, I wanted to take the Beginners Yoga course to just further my strength and yoga knowledge. And I am very happy with that decision for that fact that I have never been so physically exhausted or sore before in my entire life. Overall, I had an amazing experience, and I would, no I WILL, definitely go again after I am done with Peace Corps. Below are snip-its of journal entries about my experience and the lessons that were taught each day during Satsang. Don’t worry I will explain that below as well.

My daily schedule:

5:30am – Wake up bell

6-8am- Morning Satsang (30 minutes meditation, 1 hour chanting, and 30 minutes lecture)

8-10am- Asana class (a yoga class that focuses on the practice of Sivananda Yoga)

10am- Brunch

11-12pm – Karma Yoga (one hour of selfless service; I was on kitchen duty)

12-1:30pm – Workshop Lecture and Discussion

1:30-4pm – Free time

4-6pm – Asana class

6pm – Dinner

8-10pm – Evening Satsang (same as above)

10:30pm – Lights out

What I have learned about myself:

  • 45 degrees is just way too cold. I need more layers and more socks!
  • Wake up bell is at 0530 and brunch at 10, I need something to eat before then or I could possibly feel light headed.
  • Even though sandals are recommended because they’re easy to take on and off, sandals are not meant for winter weathers and sandals + an iced bridge = no bueno. I speak from experience there.
  • I can survive off a vegan diet, even if I would prefer not to.
  • Anyone who said you can’t read two books in one week is wrong. It is very much possible.
  • I am an animal whisperer. I befriended three cats, a dog, and a llama.
  • I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it, like living in a monastic society for a week.

12/11:

This sort of isolation makes you think about yourself. My first night here when I realized this wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, I almost left. But then I realized, if I was going to leave after living one day in the woods in California where everyone speaks English, how was I going to manage living in Madagascar, where I was going to be the complete outsider? That was not going to be an option. So I woke up this morning with an open mind and besides of the fact where I felt ill for a few hours (I think it was from the shock of new and different food), I feel like I am really adjusting to this “lifestyle.” Yes, there are aspects of this culture that I do not fully agree with or understand, like the praising of an alter during Satsang, but I will still be respectful of their beliefs because after all, I am a guest of THEIR ashram.

12/12:

I find it very impressive that people have been here for years before leaving. Ramma said he’s been here for nearly two and a half years. Me, I’ve only been here for three days and I’m already sore from four hours of asanas everyday, an hour of back paining meditation, and counting down the days until I can get some Taco Bell, or what I’ve really been craving right now is a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. I know strange. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is great for being mostly vegan, vegetarian if not, but I still miss my norms for food. No milk products, eggs, sugar, caffeine, meat, that’s basically my entire diet. My cabinmate, Sydney, was laughing at me during dinner tonight because I got all excited that I recognized something on the menu, white rice. Man I love my rice.

Swami Padma is one of the sweetest people here. For someone of his stature, it is nice to see him intermingling with not only the volunteer staff but also the guests. He and myself had a twenty minute conversation about Facebook and its benefits. Yes, he has a Facebook! One of the most unsuspecting things ever to me.

12/13:

Muscles ache that I never knew could ache from yoga. My hands, the tips of my feet, my neck. But my back has definitely suffered the most. Plow, Fish, and Leg Lifts get more and more painful each asana due to the repetition. This place is sort of an underestimated boot camp of sorts. And that meditation, you think it would be easy, but you’re just kidding yourself. A minimum of twenty minutes of no moving, absolute silence, in perfect posture—that’s just hard. At minute 8, I can feel sharp pains traveling up the spine of my back. That makes it merely impossible to even focus on your breath or let your mind not drift.

We tried something really cool today called Yoga Nedra. Rather than normal Savasana at the end of each yoga posture, we pushed our shoulders toward each other so that there is a sort of crevice between the middle of your shoulder blades and an arch in your back. It’s really hard to explain, but we laid in this posture for 45 minutes. We mentally repeated what the teacher was saying, relaxing each part of our body. It is believed that if you mentally tell yourself to relax, you will actually consciously relax. I really can’t even explain it, but during these 45 minutes, it feels like you’re in REM sleep but still awake because I heard everything that Durga said. I went into the asana feeling exhausted and wanting a nap, and I came out energized and wanting to go for a run up Siva Hill—and for anyone that knows me, knows running and I don’t really get along.

12/14:

I find it funny that I hum the chants that we sing twice a day during Satsang, at 6a and then again at 8p, rather than the mainstream songs I would have sung in Irvine. No Taylor Swift song since I have gotten here…I know! Big shocker right? And while I have cell phone reception if I hike up Siva Hill, what feels like a sixty-five degree incline, I really have not been having the cell phone withdrawal problems that I thought I was going to have. Gives me some hope for Madagascar.

12/15:

Tonight during Satsang, I got to partake in a ritual called Puja. Essentially, it’s the cleaning and clothing of certain deities or important statues in the Hindu religion. There were five in total, and I remember one was Vishnu-devananda, Sivananda, Ganesha, a Sivalingam I think it’s called but from my understanding it’s a rock devoted to Siva, and another one that I cannot remember. They washed each in milk and water and clothed them in orange and yellow clothes. Each was given beads of necklaces and they were showered with rice and rose petals. I was hesitant to actually participate in the ritual because I felt unless you were actually committed and practicing of the religion, you should not just move thought the motions and it would be disrespectful. Swami Padma however wanted everyone to participate regardless of believes because it was a learning experience and he thought everyone benefit positively from the ritual. And I have to admit, overall I did. It’s very touching to see the people handle their Gods with such love and care, sort of like how Christians take pride in our crosses.

And on a side note, one of my friends from my beginner’s workshop is being inducted into the ashram tonight. She will be assigned a spiritual name and chose a mantra. Today her name is April, tomorrow who knows. Stay tuned.

12/16:

She was given the name of Parameshwari or “Divine Mother.” I have gotten to know her over the past few days, and it is so fitting. April is a mother of two and during meals and at free time, she was always talking proudly of them. How it works, is when someone feels they have adopted this lifestyle and it rescinated in their hear, they can be “inducted” into the group of believers of sorts. The Swami gives them a spiritual name and helps them choose their mantra (a mantra is sort of like their motto that they will chant during meditation to help them focus). You are only given your mantra when inducted, and while I probably will never be inducted because I have many discomforts with the religion and practices, I love Om Namah Sivaya as a mantra. Om Namah Sivaya was the mantra of Lord Siva, the destroyer of all evil. It is believed that when chanted, this mantra destroys all negative tendencies, gives harmony, and protects oneself from the effects of bad karma. This is what I woke up to every morning when Ramma made his rounds around property.

So after this week, I like to think of myself as a Christian Buddhist. Christian in my spiritual beliefs, but Buddhist in my behaviors. I will continue to meditate because it allows me to focus and is very calming. I also believe in asana practices because it growths strength and the lessons of Swami Sivananda regarding living life to the fullest, keeping positive thoughts, and Bhakti (or love).

Well that’s all for now; till next time,

Nielsen

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