Eat Pray Love: Inside an Ashram

Eating and PrayingABC News
Karen Russo explores the spiritual side of India.

My best friend Beatrice and I arrived at the lush palm-tree filled campus of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram late on a Saturday night. We could have reached there hours earlier, but we'd heard about the ashram's dietary restrictions so we stopped at roadside stands to carbo-load with hot naan--Indian style bread-- en route.

Although I've lived in India for nearly three years, I haven't explored the "spiritual" side of the country. Our yoga teacher in Delhi recommended this spot because he had trained there and respected its commitment to yoga and meditation, and raved about its beautiful location in India's southern state of Kerala.

Two signs greeted Beatrice and me, after we walked up the steep cement steps to the entrance.

The first which said, "Be Good, Do Good, Be Kind, Be Compassionate" inspired me to be a better person. The second warned of shoe theft throughout the center. "If you must wear shoes consider wearing shoes you are NOT attached to," it read. This inspired me to question what types of characters frequented the ashram

We waited at the check-in counter for several minutes before a slightly grouchy man greeted us. We tried to win him over with our enthusiasm and bright smiles. He was seemingly unimpressed

An ashram can be an intimidating place for the uninitiated. Do I need to be quiet? Serious? Is my yoga practice strong enough? Will I survive on just two vegetarian meals a day

We were told that evening prayers had already begun so we should go to our rooms until morning. After paying the off-season rate of about $20 per night for a two-person shared room with twin beds and bathroom, we were handed our two "sheets" (more like sarongs), a pillow about the size and softness of a hard-cover coffee table book, and a mosquito net. Guests are asked to leave their mobile phones at check-in. Internet can be used at designated times.

We carried our bags up the short hedge-lined sidewalk to our room. We unpacked our luggage - including our essential supplies of Skoal and a two-foot-long bar of dark chocolate - undeterred by the sign indicating food could attract bugs and critters. Unfortunately, we had forgotten toilet paper and yoga mats which we couldn't purchase until the store opened in the morning.

We barely finished before it was "lights out." No talking is allowed after 10:30 p.m., but we quietly gabbed until we fell asleep a few hours later.

A Day of Meditation, Yoga, and Prayer

At 5:30 a.m. we awoke to a loud bell ringing just outside our door. We both fell back asleep until 6:10 a.m. – ten minutes after satsang (group mediation, chanting and lecture) began.

We quickly dressed then quietly entered for the remainder of the 1 1/2 hour session. Sitting still for several minutes can be a challenge. I forced myself to gently close my eyes, though I preferred to observe the newness of my surroundings and watch the leader singing morning prayers.

During the half-hour tea break, Beatrice and I searched the campus for boiling water which we used to make instant Starbucks. We weren't sure if this was allowed, but we didn't ask; our mutual caffeine addictions were too strong to break for the short stay.

After swilling our coffee, we chose the advanced yoga class over the beginner's course for the first of two daily yoga sessions. Throughout our retreat we went back and forth between the two levels, appreciating the focus on fundamentals and precision in the basic class while enjoying the more intense positions during the advanced session.

After class, we headed to the dining room where we sat crossed-legged on the floor, eating "brunch" at 10 a.m. The meals varied but were always a combination of rice and vegetables which we ate with our hands. Mindful of my seven-pound goal, I avoided the rice, then returned to my room only to refuel on our chocolate supplies. Between bites of the enormous chocolate bar Beatrice announced "I need to lose ten pounds and tone my body."

I've often wondered what types of people are drawn to meditate, pray and do yoga from morning until night. More than that, who can afford to drop out of society for extended periods of time to live in an ashram?

Short Visit is not Enough

It turns out that aside from the airfare, it's actually not too expensive. But the mental and emotional commitment can be huge. The early mornings of prayer, followed by lectures and then yoga classes are exhausting and far less about letting go than staying focused.

I wasn't sure how much benefit I could receive from the short retreat. But somehow, the quick experience unlocked something in my body that allowed me the freedom to think and daydream.

During yoga sessions, I fell hard asleep and experienced intense dreams in short 60-second rest periods between positions. Throughout classes, I recalled the images of places I hadn't visited in years. I had visions of a friend who I had not heard from in months; he emailed me several hours later.

By the third morning I knew I should stay at the ashram for another month. My body was beginning to crave the deep stretching during yoga and the intense schedule became a source of comfort. If I could carve out the time, I would like to return or explore another ashram for a longer period of time.