Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hare Krishna!

Of all the places I visited in India my favorite was the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram. At least ninety per cent of the monks and other people staying at the Ashram were foreigners. Many of them were studying to become teachers of the Ashram’s particular school of yoga. The rest, like me were there for a “yoga vacation.”

The yoga vacation was a bit like boot camp would be if the point were to train for inner peace instead of war. Accommodations were Spartan. Vegetarian meals were served twice daily with seating on the floor and diners were expected to eat in silence. Attendance at all services, classes and lectures was mandatory. It felt safe, clean and friendly but it was by no means luxurious.

The typical day (and pretty much every day was typical) began with a wake-up bell at 5:20. At six, we assembled in the main hall for 20 minutes of silent meditation, followed by maybe 40 minutes of chanting in Sanskrit. The head monk would then read something from one of their guru’s books and explain some of the ideas he wrote about. Then it was time for morning tea. At eight we had a two-hour yoga class followed by the morning meal which they referred to as brunch. After eating it was time for Karma Yoga during which time we had the opportunity to improve our lot in the next life by raking leaves or cleaning toilets.

In the afternoon we had some free time followed by a lecture at two and then another two-hour yoga class at 3:30. Having finished that class we walked our limbered up bodies back to the dining hall for the evening meal. At 8 we gathered again for another round of meditation, chanting, and discussion of Swami Vishnudevananda’s (the spelling checker didn’t have any suggestions for that one!) teachings. Lights out at 10:30.

Are we having fun yet? Fun may not be the right word, but it was certainly pleasant. While I did not understand or agree with all of their ideas, living according to their routine had a very positive effect on my mind and body.

Have you ever heard of churches or religious orders offering a free meal? I guess the deal they are proposing is that they will feed you and in return they expect you to submit to their attempts to brainwash you. The situation at this ashram was the same except the carrot in this case was yoga instruction rather than a free meal. The whole package, including lodging, meals and four hours of yoga instruction daily cost about ten dollars a day. Most of the yoga vacationers were interested in those classes and feelings about getting up at six and chanting in Sanskrit ranged from enthusiastic to resentful. The chanting in particular seemed to rub a lot of the westerners the wrong way. The highly repetitive chants were mostly invocations of Swami Sivananda, his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda and various Hindu gods. Most of the yoga vacationers were not Hindus, did not speak Sanskrit and had never heard of Swami Sivananda or any of his disciples. So the chanting felt a little like a non-catholic might feel attending a catholic mass in Latin.

I personally didn’t mind. The chants were a bit boring and didn’t do anything for me but the tunes were kind of catchy and they started growing on me after a while. Besides, the monks and other volunteers at the ashram were not in the least pushy. In fact, they were very sincere and friendly. What I was being asked to do was not onerous and considering what I got in return I felt it was a good deal. The quality of yoga instruction was quite good and the effect of four hours a day of asanas on my body was amazing. When I lay down to sleep I would hear popping sounds from my back and neck

The monks at the ashram emphasized that they had a different definition of the word yoga than we have in the west. To westerners yoga is associated with certain postures and movements. It is a physical exercise for strengthening and stretching. To them the physical exercises are only one part of a way of living that promotes inner peace. They could describe it in more detail than I but suffice to say it emphasizes clean living, humility, devotion, and discipline in addition to the physical exercises. For some, but not all of the yoga vacationers those other aspects of yoga were a hard sell.

One of those aspects was karma yoga which they translated as “selfless service”. For my karma yoga I was assigned to help serve food at the meals. Perhaps in a previous life I was a glutton who gorged himself while others starved. I don’t know but I kind of liked the job and there was plenty for me to eat when I was done serving. Food came from the kitchen in stainless steal buckets with ladles to serve it. I would walk up and down the lines of diners seated on the floor with a bucket of curried vegetables, for example, and dish some more out to whoever wanted seconds. The tricky part was that no one was supposed to talk during the meal. People broke that rule frequently, of course. Often, they would say, “om” to get my attention, as if that were cosmically more appropriate than saying “hey, you with the curry.” Most of the communication was non-verbal, though. I would look for eye contact and when someone nodded at me I would slop some more food on their plate. When I was seated to eat and wanted seconds (or thirds) I found the most effective way to communicate my desire was to hold my plate up.

“Om” was actually a pretty popular word there. They told us what it meant but the definition was so abstract that it seems to have floated away from my mind. They believe that simply by uttering certain words, karma can be improved and one’s lot in the next life might be better, which I guess is why they’re so big on the chanting. But they even used the words in more mundane contexts, for example when I said hello to a passing monk instead responding with, “hello, how are you?” she answered “Om nimashyvaya.” At the snack bar, where one could order delicious fruit salads or “bliss,” which in this case was a little ball of mashed up dates, the volunteer who took my orders would ring her little bell and call out “om” instead of “order up.”

My first meal at the ashram was the final meal for the 180 students in a month long teacher training course. They had just finished some rigorous tests and their mood was jubilant. As they lined up outside the dining hall they enthusiastically clapped and sang out, “Hare Rama, hare Krishna.” I wondered what I was getting myself into. Over the next few days the teacher training course students left the ashram leaving just the yoga vacationers. With their departure the customary pre-meal chanting withered until it was just the poor guy on the microphone leading the chant with hardly anyone joining in. I felt bad for the guy and by the end of my one-week stay I was chanting and clapping and hoping more people would join in. I don’t know what to think about karma and reincarnation but why not just do as the Romans? It certainly couldn’t do any harm.

In the office there was a bin where people leaving the ashram could leave reusable items they wanted to get rid of and anyone else could take them. I lightened my load by leaving the lotus flower I had carved and as I made my way down the hill toward the bus stop I felt light hearted and ready for my next adventure.


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