First the Beatles and then Elizabeh Gilbert (authour of 'Eat Prayer Love') have taken advantage of India's spiritual wealth through the use of an ashram. Now it is our turn. Jen and I decided to trade our backpacks for yoga mats and mantras.
(If you're reading this with the intention of traveling India, write down Phool Chatti Ashram. Set up for beginners, it presents Budhist style meditation and yoga in a comprehensive and approachable way. You likely won't find enlightenment through their week long courses, but there are victories to be had in touching your toes, opening your lungs, and concentrating the mind.)
We arrived after a whirlwind two day train-bus-bus-metro-bus-rickshaw-walk-jeep combo journey and quickly fell under the soothing spell of 'ashram life' and the gentle roar of the Ganges. Meals at the ashram were taken in silence and we came just in time for lunch. Given a plate, spoon, and cup for the week, we were wordlessly directed to join our two dozen fellow victims sitting in rows on the floor of the dimly lit dining hall. Two Indian men, appropriately named Happy and Me-too, continuously circulated the room scooping food on to our plates with only mild consideration to our hand waving objections that were suppose to indicate we were full. Channeling the persistence of the rumbling Ganges, they functioned as classic Indian mothers trying to fatten us up for an unknown purpose.
We were then given a tour and caught our first glance of our instructors. Lalita Gi is a 20 year resident of the ashram and, like all the permanent staff, she never stops smiling. She has a very Indian way of speaking, skipping words and using 'the' in extra places to compensate. She instructed us in tangent with Brandon, a wandering thirty-something year old with a forgotten home in Florida. They are both natural teachers and gracefully cracked open the mysteries of meditation and yoga while we cracked them from their serene way of living.
Aware that we were the last week of the season, our group was determined to be special. Daily silence is suppose to be held from evening until midday the next day, but our collective lively spirit was not always obedient. It didn't help that on our morning silent meditation walks we were once bombarded by a party of nearly naked and very drunk Indian men and another time two thirds of us got completely lost in the countryside. By the end of the week silence was broken regularly enough that Lalita Gi went so far as to say we were 'the sounding like the railway station.' That day, we had a sacred fire at a remote mountain temple, where we obediently recited our mantras hundreds of times in serene monotony. We were model students, until none other than the instructor, Brandon, made a joke of our concentrated monotony by shouting 'Shambo' at unexpected moments. We obviously exploded with laughter and celebrated our interconnectedness by continuing with more lively harmonized chanting.
Despite the interruptions and chatty behavior, the ashram remains a sacred and calming space to be with God and to be with oneself. It's hard to not feel at peace here. The small collection of all white ashram buildings are surrounded by both wild and manicured gardens at the base of the Himalayas. The shady edge of the fruit trees has overgrowing hemp, flowers, herbs, vegetables, and plants for aryuvedic treatments. The crumbling path that cuts through the garden to the roaring Ganges River, where we scampered to for a swim during every break, passes by a blooming lotus pond. Here I saw my first lotus flowers which I was starting to think were mythical. Although, I'm still not convinced that upside down cross-legged meditation position called 'full lotus' is a real possibility for me. I am inspired by the first Swarmi of Phool Chatti, who was buried, not cremated, in a tomb at the ashram temple, to sit eternally in full lotus position.
The wealth of knowledge at the ashram was appreciated and I learnt a lot, but greater than my new yoga and meditation skills, I am taking away new friends and a wonderful sense of interconnectedness. This may sound obnoxiously flaky, but give me a break I've just spent my week trying things such as loveandkindness meditation and laughter yoga.