Chaos and Peace of Ashram Life and Creating My Curriculum

Waking up from my jet-lag slumber, my room at Sivasoorya Ashram is dark and hot. It’s 2am in Kerala, India and suddenly I’m afraid of the dark. I jump out of bed and hurry to hit about five switches before I find the one that turns the light on. I see the dirty blank white wall of my room. It is horrible looking, it felt like a prison to me. 

Upon arriving 15 hours earlier, I was taken down a dirt road with trash strewn upon either side of it, leading up to the ashram gate. Inside the gate was one medium-sized building consisting of six bedrooms, two Ayurvedic treatment rooms, the reception area/meditation hall, an outdoor yoga balcony and a dining room with a long table to accommodate up to 16 guests. Outside of the building was a beautiful garden, though it felt small to me. I had imagined the ashram would have walking paths and nooks to lose yourself in meditation. I pictured it like Yogananda’s Self-Realization Centers in Los Angeles. This ashram was not that and although the garden was lovely, it wasn’t more than 100 meters across. I felt confined on the ashram and between the noise of airplanes landing and taking off at the nearby Trivandrum airport, the temple music, the street music, dogs barking, angry-sounding hawks yelling and the construction drilling happening on the ashram, I was confronted with the chaos that is India. 

Everywhere you go, there you are.

Yes, the Ashram and India could be considered chaotic, but it was mirroring my own state. All the chaos was running me into a flurry and I had no one to turn to but myself and I was not well-equipped to manage this.

Appalled by the dirty blank white wall, I shut the lights off again. I gasped. I was more afraid of the dark than the wall. My chest was tight. I sat up on the twin-sized bed, staring at my phone and then the wall and then the door. It was stiflingly hot in the room without windows or air conditioning and even though it was nighttime, the tropical temperature didn’t drop too much from the daytime heat. I opened the door. A mosquito flew in. I went to sit outside in a plastic stackable chair for a few minutes. When I was done being prey for mosquitos, I came back to my twin sized mattress and dirty blank white wall. 

I was thirsty but I could barely drink the water. My throat was closing. I wanted to cry, but I knew I might not stop and I couldn’t think of what good crying would do when I had a limited supply of toilet paper (I was warned that was the only roll I’d be given).

I tried pranayama, but I couldn’t get out of my head. I picked up my journal to try to catalogue what was going on. About a paragraph into it I realized how freaked out I was and the tears came. I stopped myself. I was going mad. The emotions were beyond uncomfortable. Alone with no one I could think to call and honestly, not wanting to admit out loud how bad this panic was. I felt ashamed and I felt like an idiot. Why had I put myself in this situation? I was tired, confused, hot, heart-racing, displaced and scared. 

My next move: I began to plan my way out of the ashram. I knew I could not sleep in that room for one more night. I texted Joy who had traveled through India for some advice about the south. Joy wanted to talk. I hesitated because I didn’t want to cry and then use up the limited supply of toilet paper and not be able to breathe again. 

Thank god she called me. I did cry. I blew my nose all over the bath towel as I bellowed: How could I be so stupid? Why did I do this to myself? How lonely I felt then. How I missed home. What I would’ve given in that moment to be looking out at the Pacific Ocean again. 

I worked on a short term and medium term plan to get myself to my shema place. (Ok now that its the second time, Shema is the holiest Hebrew prayer, it’s a meditation, it is devotion to Self and a reverence for life. Rabbi Lori Shapiro says “find your Shema place” before we sing it at Open Temple Venice, meaning, find a peaceful place within you where you can hear (the literal translation is to listen) what God/Spirit/Universe/Intuition has to tell you). 

I spoke with the manager of the ashram and made sure I would get moved to another room. He moved me to the villa I’d share with two other women during teacher training. He felt bad enough for me that he gave me my own room and bathroom. No one else in the entire training has this luxury. I also got a/c. This score is so major, you have no idea.

I was living day by day. On Day 1 I didn’t expect I’d make it through to Day 2. On Day 2 I needed an out and I was pretty sure it needed to be Day 3. 

On Day 3 I saw the Arabian Sea. At Lighthouse Beach, I crawled up on the rocks in front of the more dilapidated of the two lighthouses and meditated, remembering many of the bodies of water I’ve meditated with, from my home at the Pacific Ocean to the waters in the Gulf of Thailand, Bali’s Gili Islands, Lake Powell Arizona, the lake at Peaceweavers in upstate NY and even the man-made pond in mom and dad’s community. Maybe my love of water is thanks to Mom who made sure I grew up like a fish, teaching me to float and swim as a toddler and challenging me as a teenager to complete a mile swim with her at the Princeton University's pool two days a week. Or perhaps seeing how happy the Adirondack lakes made dad and mom when we would take family vacations there. Dad would jump right into the lake, it didn’t matter how cold it was, he was all in, he’d swim quickly about 10 meters before we’d hear a “woo!” that usually meant the water was frigid, but refreshing. 

Ashram life is a lot of going through the motions since it’s a strict clockwork schedule:

5:00: Wake up
5:30: Meditation
6:30-9: Chanting, Kriyas, Asanas
9:15: Breakfast
10-11:00: Karma Yoga (aka clean up the ashram)
11:00-1:00: Lecture
1:00 - 1:30: Lunch
1:30 - 2:30: Free time
2:30 - 4: Study hall
4 - 6:30: Yoga Asanas
6:45: Dinner
8:30: Lights out

In the first week, I was acutely aware that I was going through the motions and often dead about it. With the ashram's rhythm I quickly found what worked for me (I was easily rising at 4:30am and I even kicked my coffee habit). There was also quite a bit that didn’t resonate with me. Still, I found myself improving a great deal in the flexibility of my body and spine. I was going deeper in poses than I had ever tried in the past decade of my yoga practice. I was learning the Indian way of teaching yoga and the intersection between yoga, meditation and spirituality as a means to benefit one's overall wellbeing. 

By the end of the first week I was excelling. I was the first student who taught the class and I became a tutor for others, supporting them with knowledge of the poses and sanskrit. 

Despite feeling cramped and a bit caged on the small ashram, I found my peace within it. I easily could’ve stayed at the ashram for the entire month, but after 17 days, I didn’t feel I needed to stay anymore. I wasn’t looking for a certificate to be complete, I was recognizing the feeling from within that told me what to do. The curriculum is my own and the learning is expansive.

There was one woman on the ashram I didn’t care for very much. She was a swiss lady who got angry one day when she noticed a man mopping the dining hall when that was clearly not listed as his karma yoga. “Why are you doing Jordana’s karma yoga?” She was livid.

The man had pleaded with me to mop the floor. His wife was supposed to help me do it and he wanted to help her. He said that I shouldn’t have to do it either anyhow because he loves mopping floors. I didn’t quiz him much further, I shrugged and handed over my mop. 

The Swiss woman wouldn’t take his happy candor as a sufficient response and finally she barked, “You can’t do this! It’s not fair! Jordana needs to do her karma yoga! She is lazy!” She ran off. The man and I tried not to laugh. 

As I thanked my fellow students for their time with me on my journey, I expressed my admiration for their determination and their spirits. And that’s when Swiss girl came back to fire again.

“It’s very bad that you aren’t completing the course.” She laid her judgement all over my gratitude. 

“This is my choice and I’m happy,” I told her. 

“But you’re not going to benefit at all,” She replied. Was this slumpy sad woman like the devil on my shoulder? I very badly wanted to yell at her, tell her what I thought of her frizzy hair, her face, her intellect. Perhaps have it out with her in a yoga battle to the death. 

I took a pause. I took a breath. Then I took her hands and said, “I know your intention is good. Thank you for caring enough about me to express your concern. You and I have different paths and make different choices. What’s best for you and others, isn’t necessarily what’s best for me and I know you want what is best for me. I am so happy with my choice to leave. I have gained so much and I am ready. Thank you thank you thank you for seeing me off and for continuing your journey just as your heart desires.”

Her disposition settled. She smiled and agreed that her intention was a good one.

Throughout my time on this ashram I had wavering thoughts about “should I stay or should I go?” It wasn’t easy to make the decision to go because the rhythm of it had gotten comfortable for me, but my desire was to experience something else. And to feed myself healthier foods that didn’t leave me feeling heavy, bloated and internally inflamed. That ashram wasn’t the place for me anymore. Standing lovingly firm in my decision, Mahesh, my tuk-tuk driver took me to the next stop on my ashram tour of India: Sivananda Vedanta Ashram in Neyyer Dam. Here I would meet many more people, continue my learning and heal my inflammation through Ayurvedic medicine. Stay tuned...

Love, J