After initially having been rather overwhelmed by the craziness and loudness of India, we found committing ourselves to a week in an ashram the perfect antidote. The Hindi equivalent to a monastery, an ashram is a peaceful place where one devotes oneself to a disciplined life style and a spiritual daily practice. By recommendation we had learned about the Phool Chatti ashram and without hesitation we signed up for a weeklong program of yoga and meditation.
Phool Chatti Ashram
Situated at a lonely and wild bend of the River Ganges, the 120 years old Phool Chatti ashram consists of a couple of white buildings and a small temple. Attached are a big garden for the home-growing of vegetables and a stable for dairy producing cows. All food served here is vegetarian and prepared in the communal kitchen. Nearby is a rocky beach, and everywhere the sound of the roaring sacred river can be heard. Many Hindi gods are worshipped in the ashram but with her proximity, the goddess Ganga appears to be the closest at heart.
Ganga in Haridwar
A couple of kilometres downriver from Phool Chatti is the town of Rishikesh. This was where the Beatles back in the happy hippie days found their guru of transcendental meditation and lived for a month. The town is filled with ashrams and yoga centres, and tourists, painted cows, holy men and women stroll the car free streets.
Meditative monkey in Rishikesh
Further down, the town of Haridwar marks the place where the River Ganges finally leaves the Himalaya foothills. It is one of four holy places in India to which every Hindi religion follower is proposed to make a pilgrimage. Families come from a far to bathe their feet in the water, light candles, and offer flowers to the green coloured river.
Ganga Aarti rituals in Haridwar
In the Phool Chatti ashram, we were a group of about thirty program participants of very mixed nationalities. People had come from faraway places like Argentina and New Zealand, while others, such as a group of chubby false-singing Indians from Delhi had come from closer localities. The program had a very full schedule. The morning bell rang at 5:30 every morning where we would crawl out of bed and drag ourselves to the meditation hall to meet our teacher Lalita Ji.
Meditation and yoga
Dressed only orange and purple colours and sporting a long black braid down her back, Lalita Ji would guide us through all the week’s sessions with a stern facial expression. She was however not without humour and her long dedicated life to the ashram was inspiring.
Preparations for karma yoga
After meditation, we would do chanting, nose cleansing with a neti pot, breathing exercises, and one and a half hour of hatha yoga before breakfast at 9 o’clock. Having stuffed ourselves with heaps of fruits and porridge it was time to do karma yoga (which basically meant cleaning the ashram) and then a meditative nature walk before lunch. All of these morning activities were conducted in complete silence. The afternoon program consisted of lectures, astanga yoga, temple rituals, more chanting, more breathing exercises, and finally another round of meditation before bedtime.
The days were indeed busy and a strict discipline was required. Nevertheless, we soon felt calmer than we had done in a long time. After months of travelling and making countless decisions every day it was nice to for once follow a repeating routine and have the days planned out for us.
Bathing in the Ganga
During the week, we had several emotional experiences. For instance, we visited a heart wrenchingly beautiful subtly drizzling waterfall in the middle of the forest, and, also, we were fighting to hold back tears when a Brazilian woman started crying during a ritual bathing in the Ganges where we we’re all singing the mantra ‘Om Ganga mai, Ganga mai, Ganga mai mai.’
However, the single most unique experience for me was when we one evening did a chanting meditation. The group sat close together in a dark room, eyes closed. Lalita Ji was playing an accordion, and we were all singing the same song over and over again. As time passed, the instrument music faded, the voices gradually died out, and more and more people silently left the room. My back was aching but I felt kind of hypnotised by singing the mantra and couldn’t stop. I could hear Brecht’s voice as well and a couple of others. We kept on singing.
Time passed and in the end, we were only a very small group left. Right behind me sat Thomas from England. At one point, the two of us got out of sync with the rest of the group and suddenly I felt like I remembered neither the words nor the melody. It felt like the song had left me. The others halted as well. Without a word, we all went off to bed, and I was shocked to see that almost two hours had passed since we started.
In writing, I don’t know if it makes sense why this was an emotional experience. Also, I am not always sure that I understand the point of meditation. Why try to clear the mind when daydreaming is so pleasant? Nevertheless, both Brecht and I felt that this specific round of mediation was something very special.
The week of order and quiet has now come to an end, and we are off into the Indian craziness again. Our road from here will lead east towards the border of Nepal. The first round of India has soon been completed and it has brought us both peace and stress. After a week in an ashram, the score has gone up: India vs. team meep 1:1. We are looking forward to the second round when we will return in January.
Thank you for reading along. Love from Brecht and Mia