While still living in Ecuador, one of the motivations for deciding to move back to the Netherlands is that I will be “closer” to being able to go to India. I had lived in India for six months in 2010 and it made a long lasting impact on me. While I am grateful for my time in Ecuador, and I know that it was a necessary period of growth and life experience, I had always kept the yearning of going back to India. After 6 years in Ecuador, something inside me started saying it was time for something else.
2016/2017 YEAR OF ADAPTATION/SETTLING
It is impossible to see my trip to India independent of the period and events prior to it. I had told myself on leaving Ecuador: If I move back to the Netherlands, my one and only yearning is to go to India. Yes, I have to settle down, rebuild a life, find stability…but I can do this after having been to India.
So in retrospect, I can only be so grateful and amazed at how the universe can be on your side. Ideas truly are mental, subtle forms that somehow manifest when they have to.
In my first year back in the Netherlands, somehow the exact necessary things and people came into my life and before I knew, I had a ticket booked to India for November 2017. 1 year and 2 months after leaving Ecuador.
On the one hand I know that India is not really a place in which a plan or itinerary should be made, because literally anything can happen along the way. But on the other hand, I wanted to form an intention with regards to my trip. Why do I actually want to go there? What is the cause of this yearning? What am I looking for?
During the 4 years of studying with Gilles and Valerie, my curiosity for the subtle and energetic has kept growing. I had been to India before, but this time it would be to experience a more ‘unseen’, mystic, subtle, energetic India. With Gilles and Valerie I had learned a lot about meditation and more subtle practices, and although I know that the internal sensations and experiences shouldn’t depend on the external place or situation, I started having the feeling that I would like to experiment the internal and subtle in the external and material place where it came from. At least my theory is that it MUST have an effect if there is such a long history of the practices and philosophy connected to the place.
So the intention behind going to India would be to see if it is really a place that one’s meditation practice can evolve and deepen. To experience Ashram life and just be open to why this place is calling me so much.
I’m not sure how I got to know of Swami Rama. Maybe he appeared in one of my many google searches on spirituality, maybe I had read about him in books, maybe through Gilles and Valerie. There isn’t a specific moment that I remember being the first time that I read about him or saw him. But the fact is that I feel very attracted to his teachings, what he radiates and for a long time I have had the habit of watching his lectures on the Yoga Sutras on Youtube.
A few years ago in Ecuador I had the pleasure of meeting a man called Stephen Parker. He gave a weekend workshop on Yoga Nidra, and I had the pleasure of being his translator from English to Spanish. His workshop made a big impression on me, and I thought that I would love to one day visit his Guru, Swami Veda’s ashram in India.
While searching for ashrams to visit during my trip, I looked back to see if this ashram might be suitable. To my surprise, after writing some e-mails and being referred to the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, I realized that I had stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for! (coincidence or not?) Swami Rama had been the guru of Swami Veda! And I had been accepted to stay for 10 days in the ashram that Swami Veda constructed in honour of his guru, in Rishikesh.
SO WHAT’S UP WITH RISHIKESH?
A long flight, 2 nights in Delhi, a train, bus and rickshaw later, I finally arrived to my first main destination: Rishikesh.
As I always travel on a tight budget, it’s always interesting to see where I end up. The hostal I booked appeared to still be under construction, and I was the only guest…
The upside is that, as all hostals in Rishikesh, they had a yoga room. And since I was the only guest, I could have the key and had a personal yoga space for the next three days.
Rishikesh is a good place to acclimatize to India. It has a good mix of india-india and adapted-to-westerns-india. There are things I loved about Rishikesh, and things I couldn’t handle more than 3 days.
Tapovan area (where I stayed) is a cute town on the hill and around the beds of the Ganga river. If you close your eyes to the multitude of yoga/healing/teacher training/spiritual centres it is very nice and picturesque to walk from the Laxman Jula to the Ram Jula. These are two bridges that connect the opposite sides of the river.
The feeling I got from this place, is that essentially it is a spiritually and energetically powerful place that has been kind of abused and mutated into a ‘spiritual’ Walhalla where it is confusing and hard to identify and filter the authentic from the commercial and neo-spiritual.
For me personally it was fun to walk around, buys some clothes, malas, gifts and stock up on my ayurvedic supplies. The whole environment confused me somewhat as being a place to study peace, meditation, self reflection and internalization, as it is a place that constantly calls you outside…cafés, shops, meetings, parties, more shops. However I cannot judge as I have friends that study frequently in Rishikesh and they are dedicated and wonderful human beings.
Wandering over Laxman Jula bridge and going for my chai (of course, observing all the different people that pass by) would make me reflect on the external vs. the internal. When observing (all the crazy, interesting, funny, weird, Indian, foreign) people (and myself) I ponder on what it means to be a ‘yogi’. Externally expressing it maybe through what you wear, or what you read or talk about, or who you choose to be around. (I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some of the deep, spiritual conversations going on about self healing, finding oneself, being vegan 😉 ) But essentially none of this matters! Really none of it! Actually I don’t think it is even possible to really externally ‘recognize’ whether someone is really yogi or not, because essentially it is an INTERNAL practice. We do the external practices, yes, but to transform the internal. To distance ourselves from ego (who loves to express itself externally), drawing nearer to our true essence and embarking on an internal quest towards God (i.e. Love, i.e. our truest nature, i.e. Liberation)
One place that was definitely worth while in Rishikesh is Sivananda Ashram. Since my first real yoga book was from the Sivananda Institute, it was a big deal for me to come here. Kind of like paying homage. The chanting room is amazing with the walls covered of pictures and paintings of all the enlightened masters and yogis of India. The meditation hall, but especially the shrine of Sivananda carries a very particular energy. I actually went in twice, just to make sure this wasn’t just my imagination. Below some images of the ashram.
I was happy to leave after three days towards the south of Rishikesh. The rickshaw drove further and further away from the ‘touristic noise’ and we passed through local neighbourhoods, markets and streets. Just as I started wondering (and getting a bit nervous) about whether we were going in the right direction, we stopped and the driver showed me towards a big gate. Immediately after walking through the gates, I felt such a relief. Peace & quiet. Birds chirping. Honking and ‘India’ sounds were there, but in the background, far away.
I was very, very pleasantly surprised by my room. Somehow, I still don’t understand how, I got my own room (a lot of people got put into shared cabins) and bathroom. Right next to the propertie’s two temples. Shiva temple and Tara Devi. (I will get back to this). And bonus! I had just enough space for my yoga mat!
The ashram maintains a daily schedule. Nothing is compulsory.
4:15 bell rings
5:15 -6:45 joints & glands (I did this for a few days, and then returned to my Ashtanga practice for the rest of the time)
8:15 breakfast (in silence)
9:00 karma yoga
12:00 Breathing Practices
13:00 Lunch (in silence)
14:00 Self study
16:15 Hatha Yoga ( I did this for a few days, and then returned to my Hatha/Raja yoga practice the rest of the time)
19:00 Dinner (in silence)
For those of you who know me, you can imagine how excited I got about this schedule. A whole day filled with prayer, meditation, reading, eating delicious Indian food, resting, writing, practicing and going for walks.
Maybe for most people ashram might feel like a purge, or a retreat, but for me it feels like coming home.
JOINTS & GLANDS
The first days I attended absolutely everything.
Early, even before dawn a bell rings. A small group of people shuffle to the meditation hall and the Ashram staff who know all the prayers and sing them so beautifully lead us through them.
After prayer starts the Joint & Glands class. This was something very interesting for me. I had learned about Pavanmuktas (preparations) with Gilles and Valerie, and this was basically a whole class dedicated to them. Not quite asana, but moving every single joint in the body as a preparation on the day and especially the hour’s meditation afterwards. The movements are very simple and soft, but it literally takes more than an hour to pay attention and loosen every joint in your body, starting with the face (eyes, cheeks, mouth, tongue) en moving down along neck, shoulders, arms, spine etc towards the feet and even the toes! I wish I could have the time to do Joints & Glands every day before my actual asana practice, but then I would need a whole morning 😉 Swami Rama recommends that students practice these excercises for at least four weeks prior to beginning more demanding asanas. It is a good way to reconnect with the body, develop a basic balance & flexibility, improve posture, body awareness and learn to coordinate movements with breathing.
The central goal is to stimulate blood flow to each area of the body, flushing out wastes and toxins, supplying the body with fresh nutrients. By doing these slow, concentrated movements, the body becomes calm and relaxed. Concentration improves and hormone-secreting glands are regulated. The session always concluded with a systematic relaxation.
In the front of the meditation hall a big picture of Swami Rami facing towards the devotees. One of the Swamis of ashram staff would always go to offer a flower and light the candles. It felt as though he was really there, sharing his energy guiding us inwards to go explore the depths of our being.
In front of Swami Rama, there is always a row of Swamis, also facing towards the devotees. It’s like they form the indestructible foundation of the energetic web created in the room when everyone close their eyes. Sometimes I wondered if they were ‘doing’ something, like helping us to keep concentrated somehow. All I know is that in the 10 days meditation morning and evening in that hall, with Swami Rama, his Swamis en the other devotees, my meditation went from uncomfortable and hurting after one hour to focussed, one pointed, not wanting to stop when the bell rang. Of course it would vary with the days but in general I felt a strong convergence in concentration and internalisation. It is a very, very personal process where you come face to face with yourself, your light and your darkness. More of my experiences during meditation I prefer to share only in person with my friends and students.
BREAKFAST, LUNCH & DINNER
What can I say… my perfect eating situation. Low tables and sitting on the floor. Delicious, freshly prepared Indian food, silence. I felt so glad that finally I didn’t have to feel weird about saying my prayer before eating, as almost everyone was doing it! And I was pleasantly surprised to see part of the prayer I learned from Gilles & Valerie hanging on the wall as food/digestive/thank prayer. And the best part…after dinner Indian sweets and hot milk. They have ‘happy’ cows on the ashram grounds where the milk comes from. And as I would always sit and observe around me, I soon discovered some of the ashram staff asking the cook for ‘haldi’. A big container of yellow powder would appear and soon I was also asking the cook for my dose of turmeric to mix into the milk with some jaggery (unprocessed cane sugar). Yes sir, the original golden milk!
I was excited to follow the classes as it is always interesting to follow a class and experience it from the other side again. The classes were very well dictated. Very similar to what I had learned from my teachers. However after a few days I decided to return to my self-practice, as it was really a class for beginners/new comers and I think it was fine to say that a few classes were enough for me.
So this was only my first days in Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. Apart from meditation and practices I was crazy about the video lectures. I wish I could have seen more of them, because they have ones that aren’t on youtube! Seeing the lectures and Swami Rama talking in ‘real life’ is so much better than reading his books.
And finally, my favourite part of the day, visiting my baby cow every day after lunch. He had been put apart because he was drinking too much milk. And he had the company of a new born baby of 11 days. They are the sweetest cutest animals born in massive bulky clumsy bodies.
India Blog part 2 will be about the 5 day Breath Retreat I attended in the same ashram.