Mumbai is India’s commercial and financial hub. It is filled with skyscrapers and slums and has an increasingly dominant Western influence. But just several hours away is Trimbak, a small town mostly unknown to tourists. Trimbak is located on the banks of the Godavari River and is surrounded by lush, rolling hills and waterfalls that cascade off mountains. With a population of roughly 10,000 compared to Mumbai’s 16.4 million, Trimbak is not what you would typically expect from India.
Trimbak maintains the vibrant energy found in the rest of the country. In the heart of the town there are temples and ancient relics on every corner, hawkers selling everything from cleaning supplies to antiques and chai runners offering tea by the roadside. Just outside the city centre there are expansive green fields and valleys where knee-high grass is kept manicured by herds of buffalos and cows that freely graze.
Farms and villages are scattered across the sweeping landscape and, aside from the warbling of birds and chanting from neighbouring villages during religious festivals, it is still and silent. This area was chosen as the site for an ashram precisely for these reasons. Originally, there was nothing around for miles. No roads. No electricity. Just nature. Although in recent years dirt roads have been dug out and telephone towers have popped up, it remains a serene location and the natural environment thrives and is awe-inspiring.
The ashram is nestled between two perfect, dome-shaped hills. A statue of Shiva greets visitors at the entrance, along with a huge “Hari Om” sign. I stayed in this ashram for 28 days to complete a yoga teacher’s training course. Contrary to popular belief, ashram life does not have to involve joining an obscure religious sect, shaving your head and wearing white robes all day. Ashrams have a longstanding and respected role in Indian culture and history as places of spiritual enlightenment.
According to Hindu mythology, a young Lord Krisha went to an ashram for deeper spiritual knowledge. India’s holy men and gurus such as Sai Baba had ashrams, as did Gandhi. Ashram life offers the perfect mix of the yogic lifestyle and India’s rich culture, and the experience is open to people of all faiths and beliefs.
On arrival to the ashram, I am led to the living quarters. All the buildings are prism-shaped and are a peachy-pink colour with painted murals of Ganesh and other gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology. I’m sharing a room with four other women. The view from the women’s dorm is something you’d only find on a postcard. As the last row houses in the living quarters, our room has an unobstructed view of the sweeping mountains and their strange boulder formations. Banana and papaya trees frame the hills and the occasional grazing buffalo can be seen in the distance. The front door of our house has a shin-high wooden partition, a makeshift mechanism to keep snakes out. The room is spartan with four single beds, each with a paper-thin mattress and mosquito net as well as a table and chair. After unpacking, draping sari material over the mosquito nets and burning some sandalwood incense, it becomes home.
In an ashram there are a number of rules we abide by: no outside food, no talking during meals, no tobacco, no alcohol and no meat. Only clothes that cover the shoulders and knees can be worn, one set weekly day off is allowed and a strict routine is to be followed. The first week of the course is all about getting us accustomed to the schedule that will follow for the rest of the month.
Each day begins at 5am. Our wake-up call comes from the brass kitchen bell being clanged three times. It’s still dark outside and, due to a temperamental generator, we more often than not shuffle around, try to find our yoga mats and get ready for class by torchlight. We then head to the hall to begin chanting. Chanting is led by a volunteer. He sits in the lotus position on the stage wearing a freshly pressed white kurta. He parts his lips and begins a very soulful and protracted “Oooommm...” We repeat after him and try to stay centred while we swat away insects. The chants echo and vibrate across the hall. It is a meditative and uplifting way to start the day.
Chanting is followed by two hours of asana practice. Practice always begins with 14 sets (sometimes more) of Surya Namaskara (Salute to the Sun), accompanied by mantras for each round. The windows of the hall look out onto the lush greenery and as we honour the sun we are rewarded with a magnificent view as it slowly awakes and rises high above the hills. Our teacher, Prashant, has a melodious voice and leads us through the mantras. He even sings when he’s not chanting. He sings as he counts us through each step of the asanas and sings as he delivers instructions. “Take a deep breath in,” he chimes as the tone of his voice rhythmically ascends. “Slowly breathe out.”
An hour of karma yoga follows asana practice. Karma yoga is described in detail in the sacred Hindu text, Bhaghavad Gita. It is selfless service performed without recognition or reward. It might be cleaning the hall, sweeping the walkways with a broom made of bundled-together sticks, picking out by hand the weeds that grow in the cracks of the pavement or helping out in the kitchen. By now, it has been almost five hours since waking and tummies are starting to rumble. Thankfully, breakfast is next on the schedule.
Every meal at the ashram is eaten in complete silence. The only sound comes from the clanging of the stainless-steel cutlery and bowls. We are told we should ideally chew each bite 32 times to experience the full benefits of our food. This, along with eating in silence, allows you to concentrate and be in the present moment.
There are other guidelines in place when it comes to meals. We follow a strictly sattvic diet, meaning all food served works to maintain balance in the body. Specific ingredients and foods are used that will not increase the heat of the body but will not cool it down too much, either. Only fresh, local produce is used and the food is light yet nourishing and promotes mental clarity and good health. It’s far from bland, watery dhal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal is a kaleidoscope of colour and a different sensory experience, including fruits and vegetables, rice dishes, Indian breads, hearty lentils and dhals, chutneys, bhajis and more.