Finding an Ashram in India
Find an Ashram, Find Yourself
Before we begin this journey into finding an ashram in India, let us first start with a simple experiment:
Who do you see when you look into the mirror?
As you do this, try not to just look at the physical you; fix your awareness into your own eyes, your own inner-self. Who is there behind the physical form? What is this person like? How does this person feel, think, act, and experience life?
Go a little further now: How does it feel to truly look into yourself? Are you scared, embarrassed, angry, or confused? Or do you feel calm, loving, and gentle?
In yoga we teach that what we see in the world is a projection of our own self. This is not a new concept. But its implications are misunderstood.
The world which we see before us is a collaborative creation of the human experience, the 'good, the bad, and the ugly' as they say. Yet what we see and experience in this world is a direct result of our projections.
Now we are closer to starting our journey, because we can now see that what we search for is a modification of who we are internally. To be honest with ourselves about who we are is an essential prerequisite for understanding what we are looking for, and what we are looking for can only be found if it is a part of reality. Otherwise we are liable for disappointment.
Let us just say this: spirituality is a lifelong journey, and what an ashram can offer is only as great as what we are ready to realize through ourselves. Ultimately we walk this path alone, but with the love and support of other spiritually minded souls our veiled hidden potentials and unconscious inhibiting weaknesses can be see so that true inner growth can be actualized. An ashram is a place of self-realization, emphasis on self because it all begins from within!
- Tureya Ashram and Institute in India
This is an Ashram in Southern India that is devoted to the spiritual growth of the Student. It also offers a variety of yogic practices and courses in yoga therapy and psychology.
Finding an Ashram in India is easy. Finding one that fits your needs requires some self-reflection.
Why we shouldn't just pick up our bags, passport, and dreams and run off to an Ashram in India.
First off, before we delve into the real nitty-gritty details of the spiritual system of Ashram living, I would like to make a few suggesting of places to visit online to learn more about the spiritual systems of India. These are place where you can begin your journey into the spiritual philosophies of India through the web that I think most people will find of value. Throughout my lifetime I have had the privileged of meeting many wonderful souls who have brought life into my life. My lifeline, upon whom I have come to call my guru, is swami Tureya who's website is tureya.com, but there are many more who have affected my life on so many level and they too are a source of my spirit's awakening. I wish I could give reference to them here but most of them have not put resources online, though I am working with a few to do so and I'll keep you, my friends, updated as the journey continues.
Another website which I would recommend for learning yoga online and at home is studyofyoga.org. This website was put together by Dr. Adam Cohen who is a dear friend of mine and a thoughtful and thorough guide in the spiritual journey.
Now onto the discussion of studying at an Ashram in India!
If you really want to spend some time in India and have an experience of the culture and its spiritual wisdom, you should first take the time and effort to look into the variety of options available. While this might be obvious to the expert traveler, it may not be so apparent to someone who is visiting India for the first time.
Although there are hundreds of spiritual centers throughout India, only a few will fit your needs as an individual on your own spiritual journey. There are so many different forms of yoga that are available, and each is designed to fit the character and personality traits of specific individuals. Some of the major forms of yoga that are part of the ancient tradition of spirituality in India and are still taught today include:
- Raja Yoga: Yoga that is mainly focused on developing the intuitive sense and works to evolve what some may considered a psychic sense.The primary vehicle for the spiritual practices in this form of yoga is the mind.
- Bhakti Yoga: Yoga of devotion and song. This type of yoga raises ones sense of connection to God and is usually done through the median love, compassion, and devotion. The primary practice taught in bhakti yoga include: kirtan (song and chanting), meditation, and prayer.
- Jnana Yoga: Yoga that is focused on developing the mind and wisdom. It is very much the philosophical side of Yoga. Self-study and inquisition for the basis for this style of yoga.
- Karma Yoga: Yoga of service and action where people work for the good of humanity and the earth. The primary purpose of this practice is to build a humble and compassionate character that is selfless and free from the bonds of karma.
And of course there are many other forms of yoga that exist beside the ones mentions above, but this is just to give you an idea of how diverse yoga really is. In all, there are 6 primary philosophies of yoga, but between these there are said to be hundreds of other divisions that date back as far as 10,000 ago during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization.
So what are the key points to look at when choosing an Ashram in India?
- Price: Some ashrams in India are really only interested in making a profit and will give you little spiritual benefit. While it might sound nice to relax on the beach for a few weeks, the benefits of a real yogic practice will extend into every part of your life. While going to the beach may give you a week of relaxation, a yoga practice, when done consistently, can introduce a stable state of calmness into your life that will not perish. Even in seemingly stressful situations, yoga teaches us how to be balanced and gives us the ability to confront any challenges that we may come to face with confidence and strength.
- Teachers/Gurus: Who is teaching you? In today's modern world and tourist industry you really need to keep your eyes open. Some ashrams will provide you with a place to stay but will not teach you anything. Others will teach philosophical concepts that are ambiguous and will not really assist you in your spiritual life. Look for ashrams that are grounded and offer extended courses. Also, try to find out who is teaching the classes at the ashram as there are many ashrams that claim to have a guru, but when you arrive they will never be available. It is also important to find schools that teach in English, otherwise it may be difficult to understand the teachings.
- Location: This is a big one! Just as a little personal note, much of the Himalayas (Dharmasala, Rishikesh, etc.) have become the tourist center for spiritual travelers. This has changed the culture of these areas because the local industries have shifted toward tourism to make more money. Now this is not to say that there are not good school in these areas, but in a general sense they are places for tourism and you will find a high concentration of foreigners in these areas. If you want to find the real yoga look outside of the tourist map. A question to ask yourself is "if I were a spiritual aspirant in India, is this a place I would go for spirituality?" Also if you plan to travel in the summer find a higher elevation.
- Lodging: Simple living is ideal for someone who wants to learn spirituality. Less is more in this context because it removes distractions from the environment and allows you to focus your mind towards the stuff that really matters.But it is also important to be realistic. For someone who has spent their life in an air-conditioned house with 10 inch thick matresses, living in an open air room and sleeping on the floor in a city like delhi will be very difficult. Be modest but also be realistic as to what you can handle. If you are not able to feel joy in what you are doing, nothing in spirituality is possible.
Be bold, but not ignorant.
This is obvious for most, but you really need to be brave to try a new style of living for some time. But I guarantee that you will find much more satisfaction in the long run if you go for the change and challenge yourself. Just keep your eyes on the details and try to find a humble and spiritually vibrant location that will help you grow.
About the Author
Swami Omkarananda is a disciple of Swami Tureyananda of the Tureya Ashram. As a devoted student of spirituality, Swami Omkarananda main mission in life is to be a facilitator for the inner-awakening within his friends and family in the spiritual community. Originally from the United States, Omkarananda now lives in India, working with schools to encourage the use of yoga as a part of the daily academic and extracurricular activities.
Through yoga and other spiritual practices primary, secondary, and higher education students are able to utilize the potential of their beings while establishing themselves in a strong vision for the future which is built around internal directives and self-motivated creative-based incentives.When not active at the schools, Omkara interacts and teaches with his guruji in southern India, guiding courses in Vedanta and the esoteric practices and philosophies of Tantra Yoga.
Follow up and further Information about today's ashrams in India
The vast majority of "Spiritual Center" may rather be "Tourist Center." Never before in history have so many people traveled to India for the purpose of tourism and sightseeing. This of course encourages a new bread of businesses that are focused on making a profit off of this industry.
If you think about it, yoga is now a household concept and practice throughout the world which has sparked new interest in India because people are very familiar with the fact that India is the birth place of the Yogic and spiritual traditions. People in India also realize this fact.
Last year alone people in the US invested over 7 billion dollars in Yoga, an astonishing number for a system that was known only to a handful in the west less then 100 years ago.
Due to the dramatic investment in yoga, many companies and wise business men and women are using yoga as a way to make profit. They establish ashram and yoga schools with the intention of accumulating financial wealth, not spiritual wealth. But do not dismay, there are many ashrams that still teach the real essence of yoga and traditional spirituality!
In my opinion, web sites are not a good indication of the level and devotion to spirituality. While many of the companies online might be very driven towards developing a profitable business there are also many ashrams that post web sites in order to encourage spiritual teachings. They may also want to make themselves available to a larger community of individuals in need of spiritual wisdom.
How to identify a real ashram as opposed to a business? This is somewhat difficult, and I must issue a forewarning here: malas (neck beads), Saffron Dress, and a beard and long hair do not make an individual spiritual. Spirituality is measured on an internal level that you cannot see through any photo or video. Do not be misled by this fact.
Since spirituality it measured on an internal level, you may be able to evaluate an ashram based upon merit. Some ashrams will have a vast amount of money and invest only a parcel of the money to help the unimaginable amount of poverty that roams India. Other ashram centers will act as centers both for human welfare and spirituality, and distribute their money to help develop the local communities. Just because an ashram asks for money for programs and activities does not mean that they are businesses. They may be using this money to support both your stay at the ashram and others, especially neighboring lower-class communities. Again how do you know? You can ask, or try to see if they are working with established non-profit organizations in community development. But again, it will be difficult to measure online.
Besides the issues and conflicts mentioned, there is also one other misconception about spirituality that usually goes un-noticed by the vast majority: the true practice of yoga is not always about living in a cave or a hermit lifestyle. A true accomplished yogi is one who can live anywhere in the world without being disturbed or losing their divine joy. While it is ideal to live in a secluded location for some time in order to develop the inner life of spirituality, eventually you must work towards living within society while also cultivating your inner spiritual life. For the most part, ashrams are a place for you to intensively study spirituality for some period of time after which you should return to your life and work to develop and evolve your new spiritual practices.
There are a few important facts about ashrams that are totally cut-off from society: 1) they do not exist, at least in the large numbers that might have been a few hundred years ago 2) unless you have a direct relationship to them, you probably will not be allowed into the ashram and 3) If you are coming from a western lifestyle, it will be very difficult to adjust to their arduous and regiment schedule and living accommodations.
Many books have glamorized the idea of renouncing everything and living in seclusion for the rest of life. They have also given the impression that you can only find enlightenment if you leave everything behind and live a hard and disciplined life until all is revealed to you. But again spirituality is not about how you live on the outside but how you live on the inside. Many great teachers, including Sivananda, Yogananda, the Dali Lama, and Vivekananda lived among the masses up until their deathbed. They were accomplished yogis because they preserved the values of yoga while also sharing them with anyone who was interested in learning.
With all said and done, we must change and reform our perception of yoga and India before choosing a place to develop our spiritual practices. One of the oversights of what I have written is that what has worked for Indians living 100 years ago will not work for westerners who have been living a very different life from the moment they were born up until now. You can find enlightenment and you can find spiritual wisdom, but there is a new process to this event that you must consider when looking for spirituality. The human mind is very complex, and in order to cultivate it you must have a refined system that works through the individual towards the divine. Yoga works on an individual basis, and feed the soul through a gradual process of revelation. An ashram is an ideal place for spiritual practices, but you must make a valiant effort to find one that suites your needs.
While I am reluctant to suggest any ashrams, I feel as though I can give guidance to those who are truly interested in the spiritual traditions of India. One ashram that I know well is the Tureya Ashram in Southern India. They have a wonderful balance of spirituality and community service, and they have also developed a specific training program to help develop the spiritual life for people coming from modern lifestyles. If you have any additional questions, please continue the conversation within the post below.
Online Exploration to Finding an Ashram
Humanity, over the last decades, has made a significant shift in the way we exchange, receive, and transfer information. Today, for the first time in history, human-beings have the ability to interact and transact with people from around the globe in a matter of seconds. This is no doubt an astonishing accomplishment for humanity, but it has also enforced a number of interesting qualities in psychology of human beings. The first, that could be considered relevant in our search for spirituality in a digital world, is the infinite amount of resource available in a fraction of a second. Unlike the past where only a limited amount of information was available through books, television, radio, or conversation, the modern digital empire presents a nearly infinite amount of information on all topics in just about every language known to be in existence. The advantage of this is obvious; we can search any topic of interest without being limited to physical resources (outside of the computer and perhaps the amount of money we have to purchase things like online journals, etc.). The disadvantage is that we too often have too much information available which makes it difficult to focus on a particular topic or execute a decision of substantial commitment.
Another inevitable quality of the digitalized world is the substantial fact that anyone can contribute to its growth and expansion. Again the advantages of such an environment is that no one can limit, monopolize, or dogmatize an idea, leaving the components of subjectivity and objectivity open to the discretion of the consumer. However the disadvantage of the open-source component of internet media and information development is the lack of filtration on resources that are out-right invalid, dishonest, or directly harmful to others, with clear examples being that of child pornography, totalitarian hatred, and prompted racism.
When we enter the digital world to seek out information, knowledge, resources, or products, we are required to use a great deal of analysis and discrimination in order to find information we believe to be most relevant to what we seek, or information that appears to be closest to the truth. For every outstanding comment that promotes an ideology or entity there is one that negates it, and choosing which is right and which is wrong, or which is closer to the truth, is totally up to the consumer. However, do to shift in the brain structure and perception of human beings, we have become more prone to exploitation as our attention and focal awareness has been reduce through the introduction of electronic media. Research conducted in the University of California has shown that the amount of tv a child watched is directly related to his/her attention span; the more they watch, the less they have. For this reason, a significant spike in the amount of attention deficiency and ADD have developed, leaving more people with a lack of ability to concentrate and execute rational decisions based upon extended research and contemplation.
Replacing rational contemplation is a state of emotional reaction. College students throughout America where survived on the quality of their students, and many teacher reported that they have had to ‘dumb-down’ the information presented each consecutive year as students were less likely to read books and materials as well as pay close attention the lectures. Instead of collection information, students were more interested in key concepts and ‘punch-lines’ as opposed to detailed information. Because we do not take the time to take an in-depth analyses of the topic of interest, we must execute our decision based upon another form of judgment; emotions. Yet emotional responses are not often based upon information but rather a response to an event, stimulus, or our past impressions. The movie industry, for instance, has focused the content of films based upon our emotions and not upon what we can learn from the movie. We want to feel happy, sad, scared, or astonished, and when we leave the theaters we often do not remember the content of the movie but rather our overall emotional reaction that was stimulated by the plot. This is not a bad thing when we want to enjoy a night out, but it can interfere with our daily lives when we base our response to event or subject around our emotional reactions.
In yoga, we seek to balance our emotions, thoughts, and feels and gradually develop a state of concentration in which we can form a foundation for an inquiry into the deepest secrets of humanity and the universe. But if our mind is not focused, such inquiry cannot develop as our minds are not in a state capable of grasping the subtle details that are gradually revealed.
Although at the moment we are not talking specifically about self-realization, we are talking about the path which leads us towards it, the journey to a yoga ashram or spiritual center where we can learn the skills and techniques to envelop our spirituality. As we seek out a spiritual refuge, we must begin to practice the qualities of logic, contemplation, and inquiry as they are required in order for us to find a real place in which we can develop our spirituality and self-awareness.
From meeting and interacting with students interested in journeying to India for spiritual transformation, I have found that too many people are basing their inquiry off of emotional experiences, avoiding the critically important process of scrutinizing the details and developing a peripheral observation of the topic they are interested in. While yoga does encourage things like intuition and psychic abilities, these are typically not formed until much later in the practice when the student has undergone significant transformation through countless hours of self-study and inquiry. Many of the yogis who have developed such skills have done so by first laying the tracks of spirituality, one which are supported by many years of study, practice, and contemplation. If we have reached this point, than we have accomplished much in spirituality. However if we are just entering the path, we must still use our minds and contemplation in order to make significant decisions, otherwise we may fall victim to an emotional response, which can be fulfilling in the moment, but ultimately will not survive our long term goals and aspiration.
As we begin our quest for spirituality online, we should try to use the resources at hand to find useful and relevant information before we make a decision or commitment. Every topic, or in this case ashram, will have positive perspectives and negative ones; yet it is our duty to ourselves to choose those which will help us and those we do not find relevant.
For those of you who are seeking out an ashram online, here are some ideas of how you can expand you critical analysis of the place you wish to visit:
- Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the place you are planning to visit about specific qualities of their ashram, beliefs, studies, and community. This is the easiest way to find out if they are right for you or not.
- Try to find other 3rd party reviews of the ashram. Just remember than when you go to the general public for information, people will generally promote things they love, or spend a significant amount of time negating something they hate. The people in between probably don’t have the time to post reviews. But it is important to keep in mind that everything is subjective, and what works well for one person will be intolerable for another. This is especially true in yoga where the practice is refined to fit specific individuals.
- Request contact of students who have studied at the ashram in the past. Not every ashram has time to answer every question, and getting in contact with past students will give you an opportunity to see things from a 3rd party who has lived at the ashram.
- Seek out materials or resources from the ashram. Sites like www.studyofyoga.org or www.dlshq.org have free resources available for students interested in learning more about their system of yoga. This way you will know if the system is right for you.
- Collect the information, and make a decision. You’re not going to know everything before you arrive. Though you may be uncertain, maybe because you’ve never been to India, or don’t know what it will be like to actually live at an ashram, eventually you will have to make a choice and follow through. Remember, it is easy the change to a new location if you need to. But it is important to give the new environment a chance because it will be very new to you.
So I challenge you, as the seeker and explorer of yoga, to find a place to stay after you have done some research. Take the time and effort, as in the Indian tradition we consider that our devotion to an ashram lasts a lifetime, and although this is net mandatory, we should be willing to give our time and energy to the practices and lessons for a longer period of time.
It is important to examine all the details you are given; some ashrams will be free, others will charge 4,000 USD a month; some will have beds, others you will sleep on the ground; some may have a population of 300 students while others only 4 or 5; some will strictly enforce devotion to a Hindu while other open to all religions. What is important is to select an ashram that encompasses the qualities you are looking for. It may not fit your exact profile, but its ideologies and practices should at least be in tandem with your goals and aspirations as an individual and as a student of yoga.
Updates After Everyones Wonderful Comments!
Thank you all for sharing your ideas and input. Below are some general ideas I would wish to express after reading through all of your wonderful comments.
India: Safe or Unsafe?
Just like any country in the world, there are good places to go and there are places where you have a chance of dying. States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala boast some of the best police forces and have a well educated public which make these states pretty safe for a traveler unless you do things like travel in the middle of the night, follow a drug dealer into a dark ally, or travel as a single woman on a public transportation (many woman do travel alone in these places without any problem though). In contrast, states like Bihar and Jammu Kashmir are plagued with bloodshed and strife that put you, as a traveler, in great danger. Some major things to remember, especially if you are making a spiritual journey is this:
- In North India many drug dealers and criminals wear saffron and dress like Swamis/Saddhus because the Northern Indian government is not allowed to touch Hindus due to religious issues. For a drug dealer, this is great because they can do anything when they look like a Hindu Swami. This is why some people end up dead after following a ‘Saddhu’ into some dark place in cities like Varanasi. They will tell the tourist “I will give you the most sublime realization you have ever had, just follow me to my temple.” Than they are never heard from again. But do not take this wrong by thinking that ‘Oh my! What a terrible place’ because you just need to know some of the ins and outs of how things work. For instance, you wouldn’t go into the middle of some gang territory of the Crypt in New York asking where you could find the natural food store. By using some basic discrimination you can get by without much or any problems.
- India is not as dangerous as you think. I’ve traveled all over the country on public buses for 18 hours and 5 day train rides in 3rd class without any incidents. In fact, I’ve felt in much greater danger in some cities in Europe than I do in India.
- Do not follow people into random places. They will offer you this opportunity or that, but it is most likely that you will not get what you were told, and you put yourself in danger. Move freely, but do not allow yourself to wander into strange places unless you know what you are doing.
- I have to re-iterate that in all my time in southern states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Goa I have had very, very few incidents, none of which I felt like my life was endangered. If you want to get a feel for the Indian culture without any worries or pressure I would start here. Places like Goa and Pondicherry are really westernized whereas some of the places in Tamil Nadu are very cultural but also safe. Personally I would avoid Goa because it is basically a model of any European beach.
Must every ashram be traditional and should it be totally free of cost? Would we really want what a traditional ashram has to offer us? First off, a real traditional ashram (1,000 to 2,000 years old traditional) is a Gurukul Ashram which means that it is more designed as a place to teach children between the ages of 12-25 the science of the Vedas and Samskaras. It is meant for the “Twice Born” or upper Varmas/castes of Hindu society to learn rituals and to memorize the sacred texts like the Vedas. So if you are discussing a traditional ashram in the historical sense this is what you are generally talking about.
Next, let us also consider the significant role Samskaras play in a Traditional Ashram. Samskaras are basically forms of worship which involve elaborate rituals most of which are designed to invoke the Gods and bring blessings upon the place of worship. Such benefits of the Samskaras or Yagjas include: wealth, good health, prosperity, long life, and of course spiritual radiance. But if we look at thing from the perspective of modern spiritual practitioner these things aren’t going to be very beneficial. These ritualistic forms of worship need to be done continuously, and if they aren’t than their effects ware off quite rapidly. For someone who only has a month to a year to stay in India, these types of spiritual practices are not going to be very beneficial. We need something practical that we can carry into our dynamic lives within our dynamic cultures.
Next is the notion that all ashrams should be free. Only philosophy posed the question " if this is true why do you pay for things like your television, car, and even your house which are far less valuable than your spirituality?" It is true that a lot of people are cheating in the name of God and Spirituality, but it is also true that there are ashrams that live for the science of spirituality and that use your donations to make the world a better place. If you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get on an airplane just to land in another country than making a donation to an ashram is not something that is going to detract from your life. In fact, there is a Buddhist saying which says that by giving to a monk or sanga (buddhist community) your life will be filled with the light of Buddha which will give you a rebirth as a deity or even spiritual saint. So by donation to an ashram you are not only giving life to that light of spirituality but you are also acknowledging that your spirituality is something of value, hopefully more valuable than a car or an ipod. If you don’t value your spirituality than who will?
Some might argue ‘well yes my heart values spirituality which is different from my wallet. Real value does not involve money.’ If this is you, I would say that ultimately you are absolutely correct. But at the same time if you do not view money as something of great value than you should not mind in sharing that money, especially if that money is being used for the right cause.
And on top of all of this, ashrams have always been receiving money from the people. In Indian culture it is implied that you give a portion of your money to an ashram in order to support your family guru. By donating to the Divine you are both symbolically and literally saying that you value spirituality. Because people valued spirituality the heart of their culture became spiritual. Just look at the early Buddhist Monasteries. Some say that Buddhism exists today because of the massive donations people made to support the early Buddhist monks who were teaching people about the 4 noble truths and the harms of the caste system. This type of support from the people and society allowed for the ancient sciences of Buddhism and Yoga to exists even up to this very day. So even if we look at the historical tradition of ashrams we find that they were not free but simply another institution of society. Lucky this institution was one of supreme value!
By sharing some of these thoughts I hope to encourage some new inquiry into both the history and diversity of spirituality in India. I would also like to promote some ideas that I feel many people are not looking at, perhaps because these views conflict with their supposed ideologies or simply because they did not previously know some of these facts. Whatever the case may be, In the grand scheme of things I do not know much and I still have so much to learn. But hopefully what I have obtained through experience and study may be able to shed some light on new areas of insight for the spiritual seekers amongst you.
Thank you again for all of your comments! Keep sharing!