The simple life

written by Veronica Joseph

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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.

 

Before you can properly practise yoga, you must understand its foundational basis. Consequently, lectures make up a considerable part of the day. Assessments and exams are also undertaken throughout the course. Lectures are given by our guru, other teachers and Ayurvedic and medical doctors. Lecture topics range from the teachings and philosophy of yoga to anatomy and physiology. They offer the perfect combination of theoretical musings and straightforward facts.

We then break for lunch and have two hours’ free time. Free time, however, is more an opportunity to catch a power nap, handwash your dirty clothes or, if you are feeling energetic, hike up the surrounding hills. Then there’s more yoga practice (usually a more rigorous routine), meditation and Havan (a Hindu ritual involving chanting a mantra 108 times), dinner and then discussion time; or, if it’s a Saturday night, bhajans.

Bhajans are songs of devotion. On bhajan night we gather in the hall and sit on our yoga mats in a large circle. Our teachers and other ashram volunteers take the stage and lead us through chants. Accompanied by the tabla and harmonium, we chant and manically clang bells, clap and yell Jai (victory) in between breaks in the music. The energy is vibrant and we all join in a hokey-pokey-like dance where we clap and jump into the middle of the circle and then jump out again.

By week two we’re well and truly into the course and have been broken into the ashram lifestyle. In this week we start our micro lessons in which we build our teaching skills by instructing small groups of fellow students. We also have our first day of silence. It is so rarely in life that we get to relish and enjoy pure quiet.

Although on the first silence day my mind is like an iPod shuffling between sonatas and Sanskrit chants, after a while the jumble of thoughts (and random songs) gives up and slowly clears. On silence days I notice that the mountain in front of the ashram, which have become commonplace, have waterfalls that were there one hour, gone the next and reappeared later. I notice the tiny frogs that swim in the muddy puddles in the footpath and the clip-clopping of cows trudging down the road. The silence days allow us to simply be in the moment and re-evaluate and appreciate the surroundings.

During this week, the 10-day festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh, also begins. Ganesh is a highly revered god and is known as the Remover of Obstacles. During the festival, sweets — a particular favourite of Ganesh — are shared at mealtimes. Everyone anxiously arrives early for dinner and crowds around the Ganesh shrine adorned with marigold garlands and surrounded by conches and offerings of bananas and coconuts. As we chant, we clang bells and makeshift gongs of stainless-steel plates and spoons. We then line up for the sweets. Sometimes it’s a laddu; sometimes it’s a sweet mixture of coconut and sugar. We ravenously lick up every crumb from the first dessert we’ve had in weeks.

In the third week, our exams begin. We prepare for our lessons as well as written assignments. Two more days of silence follow to allow us to completely focus on our studies.

As the course progresses, asana practice becomes more intense as well. Prashant, our human-pretzel teacher, contorts his body with such ease into postures that leave even the most experienced yoga practitioner in awe, though most classes don’t focus on these circus-like postures. The ashram follows a very traditional Hatha yoga style and focuses on yoga’s foundations. Patanjali, the father of yoga in the Yoga Sutras, says the purpose of asanas is to prepare the body for meditation.

You have mastered an asana once you are able to comfortably hold the position for three hours. The ashram instilled these essential ideas in our practice. The poses taught are mainly static and are held for extended periods of time to help cultivate the mind. Prashant encourages us through five-minute asanas such as ardha matsyendrasana (half spinal twist) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand), saying we should aim for sthira sukham asanam — a steady and comfortable position. “Always breathing normally, breathing normally,” he adds harmoniously.

To experience the authentic yogic lifestyle we also undergo cleansing techniques towards the end of the course. Jala neti and vaman are part of the six shatkarmas in Hatha yoga, otherwise known as cleansing techniques. Neti involves pouring warm salt water in one nostril and letting the water flow out of the opposite nasal passage. Vaman is more unusual and involves drinking six to eight glasses of saltwater on an empty stomach and then vomiting up the fluid. Although the prospect of undergoing these techniques is slightly unnerving, they are strangely enjoyable and leave the body purified, light and refreshed. The aim of the techniques is to help one reach a deeper yogic state and eliminate the toxins that have built up from our polluted, industrial lives.

Even with the calm and tranquillity of the ashram, the weekly day off is always eagerly anticipated. One of the weekly days off coincides with the last day of the Ganesh festival. On this day, masses of pilgrims flock to Trimbak for the celebrations and to visit the sacred temple, Trimbakeshwar, one of India’s most important shrines to Shiva. The temple is an imposing structure surrounded by stone fortifications.

Barefoot worshippers form a queue that extends well beyond the temple gates and patiently wait to enter the holy compounds. The women wear their finest saris and flowers and fruits, which are given as offerings to Ganesh and are strewn everywhere. Clumps of grass lie about on the street as people feed the sacred cows and red ochre is thrown in the air and smeared on the faces and hair of the pilgrims. The energy is electric. It’s impossible not to be caught up in it.

A procession has started through the main strip of the town, not far from the temple. A statue of Ganesh sits on top of a truck. Three young boys sit by the idol and throw flower petals into the air. In the back of the truck a sound system blares out distorted, Hindi techno music. A crowd of revellers and drummers gathers and follows the truck down the street singing, dancing, jumping and throwing red ochre about with wild abandon. It’s a religious rave.

An excited, robust man comes up to me and smears red powder on my eyebrow centre. He excitedly shakes my hand and wishes me many happy returns. I learn that the procession is moving toward the river. Once at the river, the Ganesh icon will be immersed in the water to complete the ritual. The whole town has turned out for the celebrations. It’s an amazing sight and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

Back at the ashram, we have our own celebrations for Ganesh. We are sad to see him go. It’s also a reminder that our time at the ashram is coming to an end. Our final week flies by. We are all busy preparing our final lessons where we will teach two one-hour classes. The final exam comes and goes and, as the sun rises, we perform our last asana class together as a group.

On our graduation day, our guru reminds us to continue practising yoga daily. We may now be yoga teachers but it’s really just the beginning of the journey. There’s so much still to discover and learn. But in saying that, India and the ashram lifestyle have already given me an entirely new perspective.

The refreshing 5am starts and watching the sun rise over the hills offer something that sleeping-in never could. I discovered there’s something so satisfying — perhaps it’s the effort involved — in pouring a bucket over your head that a warm bath can never give you. My skin is clearer, my teeth are shiny and my body feels strong and healthy. I haven’t raised my voice or felt tense, anxious, angry or depressed since I’ve been here.

It was a simple lifestyle but what else do you need? Everyone’s experience in India is different but they all say the same thing: India captures and changes you. Words have never rung truer.

 


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Veronica Joseph

Veronica Joseph is an accredited yoga teacher who loves to share her yogic journey from travels in India, cleansing techniques, her favourite poses and their benefits and tips to remember when practising.