31 January 2016

A different kind of spirituality – Yoga retreat in Santosh Puri Ashram

So, I am back. I Landed on Goa two days ago and decided that today was the day to take care of all sorts of computery things, including the blog.

The last couple of weeks have been trying, to put it mildly. It took me a while to get to this post since I really don't know what to say about my experience in the ashram. It will take much longer to process all of it (if I ever will), but I'll try to put something in writing, as much for myself as for you readers.

So, here goes. After spending a day and a night in Delhi and enjoying myself, it was time to finally start my way towards Haridwar and the Sanosh Puri ashram we'd be doing the yoga retreat in. The other yoginis had managed to get to India and they picked me up from Paharganj around 8 in the morning. And off we went. Out of Delhi, into the countryside. I would like to say that the scenery was picturesque but it really wasn't. Or there wasn't much of anything to be seen. A thick layer of mist/dust/smog wrapped the landscape in a milky sheet of nothingness, from which cars and donkeys and mopeds and tractors and the occasional camel emerged and into which they again receded. The atmosphere was quite dreamlike, and I found a profound stillness settle upon me. It seemed that the more chaotic it got outside, the more quiet it got inside. A wonderful experience!

We stopped at a roadside restaurant to eat amazing palak and paneer pakoras and I had the most tasty aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry) I've ever had. Also the chai was divine. The other yoginis were very tired and rattled by the sheer overwhelm of everything that was India, but my spirits were high. It seemed I'd gotten a head start and had already forged some kind of a bond with the country of abundant color, noise and movement.

The ride to Haridwar took around 6 hours, and everyone was very relieved when we finally stretched our cramped muscles on the yard of the ashram. There were a couple of long time residents besides our group in the ashram, but all in all it was quite a small place, not one of these huge guru ashrams some of the westerners go to seek spirituality. The gurus of this ashram, an Indian babaji and a German-born mataji have both already left their bodies (as they say in these circles) and the ashram is now run by the children of the guru/disciple couple: son Ganga and two daughters, Alaknanda (who works as an ayurvedic doctor in a nearby hopsital) and Mandakini.

Everything is hand-built to look natural: there are few sharp edges or straight lines in nature, so also the traditional ashrams are built accordingly.

The two temples: left for Babaji, right for Mataji

And so our trip to deepen our knowledge of yoga and spirituality had begun. And what a trip it turned out to be.... I'd tried to come to the ashram without expectations and thought I could handle what was coming, but the Universe had other plans. First of all, the all emcompassing damp cold took everyone by surprise. It was like we were on a camping trip in the early Finnish springtime: there was no such a thing as comfortable warmth to be had anywhere. The temperatures dropped to 5-10 degrees during the night and even in the daytime when the sun was shining, I still needed to wear a couple of pants and long sleeved shirts for most of the day. And you couldn't escape the cold, it went everywhere with you. Indoors was colder and damper than outdoors. The shower was usually lukewarm at best, and the two times I actually got a hot shower felt like little slivers of heaven. Most of the time I wore at least 3 pairs of pants, 3 shirts and 3 pairs of socks and carried a blanket with me wherever I went. Yes, it was seriously cold. And I had nowhere enough clean warm clothes, so I ended up wearing pretty much the same stuff for 2 weeks, day and night. Taking my clothes off and setting my feet on the ice cold tiles of the room seemed like the worst idea ever, but most of the time I could persuade myself to have a shower every two days. I could go on, but you get the picture probably. And who knows me, also knows that I really really dislike being cold. So it was a real struggle.

And like these things go, there was more. My body decided that it was not amused and rebelled in every way. My bowels turned to water accompanied with a mild fever. I developed a hefty cold. I also had my period and let me tell you that using a mooncup in such conditions where you really want to avoid any type of internal contact with the local tapwater was an artform in itself. And my mind was resisting it all so badly and resenting my body for letting me down once more. So, my spirituality practice basically ended up consisting of trying to deal with my condition and not breaking out in tears of desperation and frustration all the time. I was being taught patience and acceptance in a very tangible way. And at some point I did come to terms with the fact that no, I would  not be having such a yoga retreat I though I would. Instead, I would need to learn to listen to my body, take it easy and not rush it. So so difficult. But I did manage it in the end.

Yantra panting. Our living quarters in the background
And luckily we had the ayurvedic doctor Alaknanda there to take care of me. As a supplement and self-medication enthusiast it felt very cozy to again have a row of bottles and jars containing all sorts of weird powders and liquids and pills lining my nightstand. I wasn't made to take any of it of course and I could also use my own western medicine, but after the initial internal battle and worry I decided to trust her and use these two weeks to try to heal myself slowly. And I did, more or less. The energy levels fluctuated daily, sometimes I was super exhausted and the mind was cloudy and dull (which also causes worry in itself) but there were also clear moments. I tried not to think in terms of good or bad but to let things unfold the way the were.

A side stream of the Ganges

Papu and Pushti the fat labrador

Another thing that I had thought the yoga retreat to bring was time to be by myself and to reflect. To be somewhere quiet and serene. Not so: the day was scheduled from beginning to end and a temple to Mamaji was being built, so our daily routines were accompanied by building noise. The wakeup-call was at 4 (I made it maybe 3 times), and we got to bed after 20 in the evening. Yoga classes were 3 hours, which in my conditions were not doable in the beginning and I only got 4 or 5 classes in during the 2 weeks. Meals consisted mainly of fruit, wheat, rice and root vegetables with the occasional lentil thrown in. But in my case, my main fare was kitchari, an ayurvedic stomach-friendly and balancing gruel made out of rice and daal. Which I really did enjoy and was very grateful they made the effort to cook it specially for me.

We also had lectures: on Bhagavad gita, an ancient Hindu holy scripture and Patanjali yoga sutra, the origin of yoga. The highlight for me was the cooking class we had the first week, and the yantra painting on the second week. We also did a daytrip to Rishikesh and Haridwar city center (separate posts to follow).

Palak paneer in the making
To sum it all up: Did I enjoy myself? To be honest, most of the time I didn't. It was so challenging physically that I couldn't really concentrate on anything else that much. I also learned that ashram life as such is a bit too rigid for me. Was it a valuable experience? Totally. And I really don't know what would have been a better place to be ill in India. But it does seem that despite what I thought before coming here, there is no such a thing as a soft landing. This country just overwhelms you in every way. And my stomach still hasn't recovered... but I still have a month and a half to go, so maybe during that time it will come to grips with the local bacteria here. Fingers crossed!


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