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India Ashram: Feature Article
March 2008
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India Ashram: Downward Facing Boyfriend
One couple's reluctant quest for enlightenment in an Indian ashram.
Text by John Falk
   Photographs by Daniel Pepper


Photo: The author and his girlfriend doing yoga


OOOMMMMM: Right: The author makes a breakthrough in his second week. Left: Girlfriend Mara McFalls meditates. 


The Love Test: Ashram Photo Gallery >>

Adventure Guide: Plan Your Retreat >>

It sure looked like "God's own country," as Indians refer to this part of the subcontinent. Dead ahead loomed a towering wall of misshapen granite, the Neyyar Dam, behind which the jagged, 6,000-foot (1,829-meter) ridges of the Western Ghats cut up the horizon. To the right, over a footpath traversing several cascading sluices, lay Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, 30,000 acres (12,141 hectares) of tropical evergreen that shelter wild elephants, sloth bears, and a pride of endangered Asiatic lions, according to the brochure.

Our driver, Rukesh, an enthusiastic Keralite oddly outfitted in a sailor's uniform, pointed to a narrow roadway that snaked up through a ramshackle village and into the jungle foothills. "Ten minutes more, sir," he announced, ramming the taxi back into drive. "Maybe eight." 

The idea for this trip had come months earlier, and like most really bad ones it began with a toxic mix of pillow talk and cowardice. At the time I had been dating my girlfriend, Mara McFalls, for six months. I couldn't have been happier. She felt the same. So much so, in fact, she started murmuring about marriage, which was way, way, way ahead of my internal schedule. To slow her down, I erected a clever roadblock. If Mara wanted us to move forward at anything faster than the minimum dating-to-matrimony cycle—which I conservatively calculated to be three years—we would first have to undergo "love tests." I defined these tests as a series of gritty adventures designed to take us out of our comfort zones and into a relationship pressure cooker. As a foreign correspondent, it was more my world than hers. But incredibly, she went for it. One night weeks later, while in bed reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Mara mused "how incredible" it would be to study on a yoga ashram in India like the book's author. She said that it would make a great first love test. "To be drenched in spirituality," she added. I said nothing, thinking it best just to let the threat blow over. Mara read my silence another way. "You know, that's what I love about you. Most guys would make fun of that idea," she said. "But not you."

Now, four months later, Rukesh in the sailor suit was driving us up that serpentine road to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in the state of Kerala in southwest India for a two-week intensive "yoga vacation." Slightly short on details, the ashram's pamphlet billed the retreat as a "conducive environment for self-transformation and the pursuit of spiritual ideals," with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, coffee, television, and sex strictly forbidden. Coincidentally, these same six amigos had seen me through the past 15 years of my life. I glanced at Mara, a yoga devotee for a decade, who gazed out over the blue reservoir. I can only describe the look on her face as demented enthusiasm. As predicted, in eight minutes we pulled up alongside a ten-foot-high (three-meter-high) masonry wall and eased to a stop at the base of a stairway that led to two large wooden doors 20 feet (6 meters) up.  

"You do yoga, Rukesh?" I asked.

"Me?" he said, pointing to a row of faux medals on his chest. He enjoyed a good laugh. "No, sir."  

Mara and I climbed the stairs and entered a covered entryway with the words "Serve Love Give Purify Meditate Realise" painted on a wooden beam. At the check-in window we paid ahead two weeks on MasterCard (all-inclusive for $11 a day each), were handed laundered tie-dyed sheets, mosquito nets, and pillowcases, and led separately to our dorms. Carved out of a 12-acre (5-hectare) swath of jungle, the ashram is centered on Shiva Hall, a hockey-rink-size, open-air building of brick arches and slate flooring. The men's dorm is set on a hillside and made of thatch and tethered poles, my cot one of three tightly packed in a stablelike room on the stifling second floor. After warning me about the frequent electric outages, my escort ran down a few additional rules: Attendance was mandatory for every event; no tight-fitting garments or public displays of affection; bathing was cold water only; and the use of toilet paper, although not prohibited, was discouraged. Finally, in order to preserve the purity of the experience, venturing outside the walls of the ashram was verboten unless we secured written permission—a sort of spiritual hall pass—from a swami.

Walking back down into the commons to meet with Mara, I could see into Shiva Hall, which now held a large group sitting on the floor before a fat, balding man. They wore an array of colorful T-shirts and cotton pants, the fat, balding man a flowing saffron dhoti. He spoke in English lacquered by a heavy Italian accent, lecturing on the topic of spiritual enlightenment through proper bowel movements. I found Mara under an Indian rosewood tree, listening in.  

"Whaddya think?" I asked.

"I wanna leave," she said, her lower lip quivering. "It feels like a creepy, cultish church camp."
 
In ancient India, ashrams—a name derived from a Sanskrit term meaning "religious exercise"—were cloisters set in nature where swamis, or sages, sought spiritual enlightenment through, among other sacred disciplines, the practice of yoga. Over the centuries these swamis began hosting commoners seeking spiritual instruction. Ashram life remained primarily an Indian phenomenon until after World War II, when Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and others began blazing the '60s Hippie Trail across Central Asia. But it was in 1968, after the Beatles retreated to an ashram in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, that the ashram concept shot straight into the Western mainstream. By the '70s terms such as "ashram," "guru," and "karma" had become commonplace in the West, and yoga an accepted form of exercise. Today tens of thousands travel annually to ashrams in India. Some of these retreats are little more than sex clubs with stretching, while others, like the one Mara and I had come to, offer no-frills yogic beatdowns. And that's what I reminded Mara while we huddled under the rosewood tree. This love test was her idea, and if we were ever going to be "drenched in spirituality," this had to be the place. Plus, we had nonrefundable airline tickets. 

The fun started the next morning at 5:20 sharp to the clang of a bell. Men sleeping beside me stirred under their mosquito nets, cursing the morning in their mother tongues. A few conversations started up but were cut short by a young Australian who scolded two Brits for blowing his "tranquillity" by speaking during "sacred silent time." At 5:50 I wrestled on sweatpants, grabbed my new yoga mat, and followed the others shuffling down the path through the dark to Shiva Hall.

The hall was dim and overflowed with hundreds of people folded in various lotus poses on rows of straw mats. No one spoke. On a raised stage in front sat three older men in colored dhotis and a striking blonde in a yellow sari who looked like she'd been airlifted out of a California juice bar. One of the men, an English swami, pulled a microphone to his lips and intoned, "Ooommmmm. . . ." The congregation responded in kind. The air hummed. We were off.

"Close your eyes," the swami said softly. "Clear your mind of all thought, of all worries, of all distractions." He instructed us to sit cross-legged, to breathe deeply, to observe our breath, and to repeat our mantras inwardly. For those without a sacred utterance, we were to loop through our inner dialogue "the universal mantra, 'om.'" The swami then edged the microphone away and fell silent. Unsure what I was supposed to accomplish, I mimicked Mara. As the sun rose over the Ghats and the jungle birds woke, I twisted myself into a human cruller, swaying as I grew numb from the gluteus down to my big toes. Mara, like almost everyone else, remained ramrod still for 25 minutes; the Englishman summoned us back with another "om." The stunning blonde then struck up a hypnotic melody on what resembled an accordion. Without pause everyone opened copies of the Sivananda Chant Book, and for the next hour we chanted uncomprehendingly in Sanskrit, a near-extinct Indo-Aryan language.     

At 7:30 a.m. we filed out into the commons for steaming cups of black tea cut with fresh cow's milk. While most of the ashram attendees were from Europe and North America, and English the lingua franca, it was still a veritable United Nations of Germans, Thais, West Indians, Swiss, Japanese, Spaniards, Israelis, and Indians. All seemed to come from means, the men lean and the women disproportionately beautiful with perfect posture. There were even two traveling swamis, wizened men in red dhotis with white and orange prayer paint crusted on their foreheads. They kept to themselves.

After a few minutes another bell clanged and I followed two Germans with yoga mats holstered in embroidered slings to my first ever yoga class.

Yoga means "unity" in Sanskrit—as in the unifying of mind, body, and spirit—although the actual practice of yoga has been anything but unified since its inception in the Indus Valley around 3000 B.C. Incorporating intensive meditation in physical poses called asanas, yoga promised spiritual liberation from the pain and suffering of the temporal world. Over the next 5,000 years it went through many permutations, often an ever shifting emphasis on meditation over asanas and vice versa, with the spiritual aim slowly evolving from one of worldly transcendence to the more modern quest for inner peace and "living in the moment." Yoga arrived in the West as early as the 1920s and ever since has been viewed either as chiefly an exercise regimen (e.g., hatha yoga) or as a spiritual lifestyle, as it was during Woodstock and is once again today. Swami Sivananda, the guru who founded the style of yoga taught at the ashram, was instrumental in introducing yoga's spiritual aspects to the West. Through the consistent practice of five key disciplines—asanas, meditation, vegetarianism, proper breathing, and relaxation—Swami Sivananda's disciple Swami Vishnudevananda taught that people could become one with Brahma, or God. This extremely rare "union" is called "self-realization." At its highest level, it is marked by a sense of pure bliss followed three days later by the detonation of one's physical body.

The beginners' class was held in an open-air hut on the shore of the reservoir near a sign reading "Crocodiles: Swim at Your Own Risk." The floor was made of pounded cow dung. Our instructor, a thin, gray-haired Canadian dressed ethereally in white linen, soon entered stage left. He introduced himself as Will and announced that over the next 14 days he would teach us the 12 asanas of Sivananda yoga. Our first, he said, would be Corpse Pose. As if on cue, a lion roared in the safari park across the reservoir. We lay flat on our backs with legs and arms spread—the trick, we were told, was to remain perfectly still, the mind focused only on one's breathing. After ten minutes of this we rolled up into a cross-legged position for a quick chant, heavily stretched for 30 minutes, then spent the next hour learning the Sun Salutation, essentially a methodical squat thrust. Will assured us things would quickly become more strenuous as we added poses. He said nothing of self-detonation.  

Breakfast was at 10 a.m. in Shiva Hall, with the entire ashram entering barefoot chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Hare Krishna." We sat on the floor before a carefully prescribed meal of raw vegetables, sticky rice, okra, and boiled lentils, which we ate with our right hands and in enforced silence. After cleaning our metal plates with coconut husks, it was back to the lakeside hut for our daily lecture given by a middle-aged Frenchwoman who used the spiritual name Lalitambika. Her job was to teach us about the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of yoga. At noon I received my daily chore, called karma yoga, which entailed sweeping Shiva Hall for an hour with a primitive hand broom. Then we did it all again: tea, two hours of yoga, a silent meal, and at 8 p.m. another hour and a half of meditation and chanting. When it was all over, I was exhausted.

I walked Mara back to her dorm. Shaped like a mushroom and ainted like a ladybug, it looked like a crash pad for Smurfs. Breaking the rules, I gave her a big hug.                        

"Can we leave now?" she half-joked.

"No," I told her.
 
Ashram life felt a lot like hippie boot camp, with its rigid dawn-to-dusk schedule, endless chanting, and spiritual lessons. Making matters worse, the neighboring village had a nasty habit of blasting supremely eerie chants around 4 a.m., using massive loudspeakers that could have moonlighted on a Metallica tour. The wake-up call, rumor had it, was a kind of sonic retaliation for the ashram's hard rule prohibiting its guests from leaving the compound without permission, an edict that stemmed from past guests wandering into the adjacent village to score dope, which in turn was "fast changing the indigenous culture of village life," as Lalitambika euphemistically put it during one of our lectures. The silver lining was that the pockets of free time we did have became precious, little snippets to catnap or, better yet, mingle.  

The Health Hut was where the cool kids hung after dinner. Run out of a straw kitchenette serving half a dozen bamboo picnic tables, the Hut afforded the best views of the surrounding countryside—waves of jungle green cresting 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland against the formidable face of the Western Ghats. Over a mean lemon-honey soda, I got to know my two stablemates. Claus, a senior editor of a sailing magazine in Munich, was a workaholic bachelor in his mid-40s who was looking for a healthy dose of spirituality. Mike was a former Mr. Montreal, an intense 40-year-old who had recently suffered both a debilitating back injury and a self-described "midlife crisis." Enrolled in every conceivable program the ashram had on offer, including a 14-day purification regimen called Panchakarma that can involve herb-induced purging, colonics, and bloodletting, Mike's aim was to "set [himself] straight for the next 40 years." About half the guests fit this midlife profile; the other sizable demographic was recent graduates. For the gap-year set, the ashram was just one stop on an extended Asian Grand Tour that might include a season of surfing in Vietnam and six weeks volunteering on an Indonesian nature preserve. Then there were the few heartbreaking lost souls still hitching the old Hippie Trail, emaciated catatonics who looked as if they'd dropped acid one Tuesday in 1974 and never come back.

Another break in routine came during Lalitambika's 11 a.m. lesson in the lakeside hut when "guest lecturers'' pitched us their wares. A powerfully built woman from San Francisco dressed in monk garb offered "a life-changing spiritual tool" via an intensive meditation course that cost $800 and a ten-day vow of silence. The resident ayurvedic doctor, a handsome practitioner of ancient Indian health care, offered his healing services balancing mind, body, and spirit à la carte in a traditional Keralite clinic called a vaidyasala located by the sacred cow pen.

A longer respite came during the weekly Silent Walk. Instead of heading to the 6 a.m. session in Shiva Hall, the entire ashram left the compound and walked two miles (three kilometers) in absolute silence to the opposite side of the reservoir to watch the sunrise. On the way we passed through two tiny villages, each a string of low-slung dwellings made of sun-dried brick and corrugated tin abutting the road, which was littered with wrappers, cans, and plastic. The towns stank of rot and sewage. On the opposite bank our group sat in a meandering line on a sloping retaining wall and watched male villagers wade into the reservoir in their dhotis and lather themselves into foam balls before slipping under the surface to rinse. As a crocodile had recently killed an elderly woman in roughly the same area, it was a slightly tense spectacle. The sun emerged from behind the mile-high Agastya Malai, a sacred peak in the Western Ghats named after one of the seven founding Hindu sages. A thick mist swirled up from the water, and a lone osprey cruised out of the trees above the skeletal remains of a boat and circled into the rising air. 

The backbone of the program was the four daily hours we spent doing yoga down by the water, learning to execute the 12 poses properly. As Will had promised, we added new asanas of increasing difficulty to our repertoire by the day, including Tree, Bow, Fish, Downward Facing Dog, and Dolphin. Not the most limber, it took me a few days to loosen up, but then I quickly began to enjoy myself, leaving each class drenched in sweat. My breakthrough came with Crow Pose, which entails supporting your entire weight with your hands, feet off the ground, and knees resting on your elbows. But it was while I struggled with Crow (often crashing face-first into the cow dung floor before I got it) that it finally dawned on me why yoga practitioners consider it more a spiritual practice than exercise. Yoga is about putting oneself in physically challenging positions for prolonged periods and then training the mind to dissociate itself from the discomfort. It's about mind control. My fondest memory of the yoga, however, was physical. It occurred in the second week. While staring into a massive spiderweb wickedly spun in a high corner of the dorm, I was suddenly overcome with the welcome sensation of standing upright for the first time in my life. This was odd, as I had never thought I was hunched. But at that moment I felt a half inch taller and 20 pounds (9 kilograms) lighter, and I knew that the trip was worth it.

By that late juncture Mara was still a devoted yoga class attendee but had long since bailed on the interminable chanting sessions. For someone who dragged me halfway across the globe to be drenched in spirituality, it took gall to hide out under three layers of mosquito netting reading back issues of US Weekly while I was down in Shiva Hall chanting for world peace in Sanskrit. "I expected this would be a deeply enriching experience, like taking the very best essence of a yoga class back home and extending it out over two weeks," Mara told me, as we shared a fruit shake at the Health Hut. "Like epiphanies around every corner. Like, people here would be tapped into the truth."

"Not to freak you out or anything," I said, pretending to levitate out of my chair, "but as for me, I think I'm about two days away from detonating."

"And it doesn't help that my wingman is a cynic," she added. "If I'd come with a flaky friend, I might have been able to go deeper."

With only days left I felt the need for us to make one last push on the spiritual front. I finagled a private audience at dusk for Mara and me with the English swami on the stone steps outside a small candlelit temple for the Hindu deity Ganesh. Nearby, several Indian students chanted in a cloud of mosquitoes before an outdoor altar adorned with fresh garlands. I wanted the swami to tell us how we could live a good life, a life drenched in spirituality. A youthful 45, thoughtful and deliberate, he related to us the "divine spiritual experience" that had led him to become a swami. While in his 30s, during intensive meditation, he felt himself unite with Brahman, the cosmic, godlike force from which everything derives, to which everything returns. This, he admitted, was the quintessentially indescribable "you had to be there" experience. As it seemed attainable only through severe renunciations on my part, akin to living as a monk, I left feeling a bit dissatisfied.

But on our second to last day, during morning teatime in the commons, Mara and I hit cosmic pay dirt, sitting on a stone
bench next to a 100-year-old itinerant swami. Dressed in a fire red dhoti, Vishnu was a much revered sage from the neighboring state
of Tamil Nadu, his traveling companion explained. He wore a leather thong around his neck laced through a small silver ark that held a black amulet made of a sacred stone. He was incredibly sprightly and forceful, especially for a centenarian. Seizing the opportunity, I told him Mara and I might be getting married someday. He tapped my leg, as if to say, "Good job." "In case we do," I went on, "could you tell us how to live a good life, one drenched in spirituality?"

Without hesitation he said, "Get up early, shower, and be a good boy."

"That's it?" I asked, as Mara beamed.

"That's it," he said.

Ashram Photo Gallery >>

Adventure Guide: Plan Your Retreat >>

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