What is an Ashram?
My time at the Ashram
To answer the question, What is an Ashram, you could literally translate it as being a hermitage, monastic community, or other place of religious retreat for Hindus. However, this would not be a complete definition. As I would agree that an ashram is a hermitage, monastic community and/or religious retreat I would not say it was exclusive to Hindus.
I spent over two years living in an ashram in the Sierra foothills near Grass Valley, California. I look back at my time there as necessary for my personal growth and necessary for the next stage of my life.
Personally I was still searching for meaning in my life. I knew there was more to me and life then what I was currently going through and I was open to change. I was in India when I decided to live in the ashram back in California. I just found out I was pregnant, I didn't want to stay in India, I had know where to go in the States and in an act of desperation I sent an email to the Director of the ashram in Grass Valley. When I sent that email I felt helpless. I had no idea what I would do if she didn't let me live there and so I trusted that if I wasn't to live there then something else would present itself to me.
Let me back up a little. Before I went to India I had spent an intensive one month living at the ashram going through their yoga teachers training course. For one month all students are completely immersed in the yogic life. We had to wake up at 5:30 am and be in the meditation hall by 6 am for a half hour of meditation every morning. After meditation we had kirtan or singing and after kirtan there were discussions about life. The whole morning routine was called Satsang which is a Sanskrit word meaning "highest truth" or "company with an assembly of persons who listen to, talk about, and assimilate the truth". It was our time for devotion and we began and ended each day with Satsang.
After morning Satsang we went into our first of two asana (yoga postures) classes. Asana class was twice a day, once after morning Satsang and before our first meal and again in the afternoon just before our second meal. As mentioned, we ate twice a day 10 am and 6 pm. All the food was vegetarian and organic. Between meals and yoga class we did karma yoga or selfless service where we were assigned a daily activity to help out around the ashram. Some of us helped out in the kitchen preparing vegetables, some washed dishes, others cleaned toilets while others worked in the gardens or in the upkeep of the grounds.
The whole program at the ashram was about learning about yourself. This was done through discipline, meditation, exercise, discussion and intake of healthy food. There wasn't anything to distract a person from their practice; no television, newspapers, telephones. We did, however, have access to internet which was squeezed in whenever possible.
The month was intensive and I fell in love with being able to work on myself. I loved meditating and having to do yoga class twice a day. By the end of the month I felt fantastic and I had a strong desire to try to live there long term, but life circumstances would not allow me to live in the ashram yet. However, eleven months later, found me back at the ashram for good; or so it seemed.
I was pregnant and the Director, I'll call her Swamiji, agreed that I could live and work at the ashram until the baby was born and then I would have to leave as the ashram was a monastery and not a place for children. I agreed but once little Krishna was born Swamiji changed her mind and allowed us to continue to live there.
Ashrams are ran by a head Swami or monk. Traditionally Swami's are men, but there are now more and more women taking vows to become Swami's. Ashrams traditionally follow the Yogic teachings that guide devotees to learn meditation, yoga, study of religions, music, discipline and so much more. Ashrams are also generally situated away from built up areas in the mountains or beautiful valleys in nature.
I found that the quiet time to learn about myself was perfect for my personal growth and I was lucky to have had the experience. Would I live there again? Probably not. I'm not in the same place I was then and I don't feel that I could benefit from living there again. I would, however, spend time or vacation there. The food is great, the discipline is great and the discussions and music can lift up anybody feeling negative about life.