Spots of Time

April 13, 2004

Take Me to Your Guru

Hello everyone! Spots of Time continues, again - sorry for the month long break! I'm still in India, working my way north again after having spent THREE weeks in the yoga ashram and a week or so laying around on a beach - enlightenment can be exhausting! :)

Hope you are all well! Love, Melanie

"Who is your guru?" the man in the Indian coffee shop asked me, after I told him I was in Trivandrum to study yoga at a nearby ashram. I had no idea how to answer. The term "guru" brought to my mind images of serious old men with long beards and flowing orange robes. I, on the other hand, was in southern India for a fun two-week yoga holiday in the land of its birth. The concept of gurus, mantras, and swamis were no where in my thoughts when I planned this part of my adventure.

While volunteering in Thailand, a Danish girl told me about her experiences in a yoga ashram in southern India and her tale stuck with me. Two weeks after my arrival in India I found myself at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in the town of Neyaar Dam, near the southern tip of India. I had reserved a spot in a two-week "Yoga Vacation" and expected lazy days filled with yoga classes, writing in my journal, contemplating life and India and generally relaxing and rejuvinating my travel-worn body. I was wrong.

My first few days at the ashram I learned that yoga, contrary to how it is marketed in the US, is not just exercise, but likened to a science or philosophy of life. It encompasses not just a strong body, but a strong mind, selflessness and a devotion to God - all prerequisites to self-realization and ultimate unity with God. Unlike a religion, yoga has no dogmas and no church and each person's spiritual path is individual - many roads leading to the one final destination of self-realization, enlightenment, etc.

The days at the ashram started early - really early. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we awoke to the sound of a cow bell clanging and calling us to Satsang (or "association of wisdom") our group gathering that included meditation, chanting, lecture and annoucements. A quick cup of tea at 7:30 a.m. was followed by morning asanas (yoga postures) or what most westerners think of as yoga. Brunch, the largest meal of the day, was at 10 a.m., followed by a morning lecture on the science of yoga at 11 a.m. and Karma Yoga (action and selfless service) at 12:30 p.m. Tea was served again at 1:30 p.m., followed by an asanas coaching class at 2 p.m. and our 3:30 afternoon asanas class. At 6 p.m. the ashram met for a small dinner, and then had free time until evening Satsang at 8 p.m. where we did more meditation, chanting and usually had some kind of entertainment (a flute performance, traditional Indian dancing, a film on vegetarianism, a documentary about Swami Vishnu-Devananda, a Kathakali performance, etc.) Lights out was at 10:30 p.m. every night.

Initially, the ashram freaked me out. An independent individual who had spent much of the past year and a half traveling alone, my shock at the group living and community aspect of an ashram was significant. In my first day's journal entry I wrote the following:

"One radio voice, many stations. The Swami's description of there being only one true God but many different religions "broadcast" in unique ways - that's all I'll take from Day One of my two-week yoga "vacation." Lying here sweating under the mosquito net in a room I share with 30 women, I'm not sure I'll last two weeks - I'm not sure I want to. I've been bitten alive by mosquitos, feel like everyone knows everyone else already, been chanting god-knows-what the past hour only to have to get up tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. to start it all over again. There is no free time and I feel like I am surrounded by people every waking and sleeping minute!"

Just a few days later, however, I was enjoying myself. The turning point, for me, was meeting other people who shared my feelings of being a fish out of water. We all vented our frustrations and then just as quickly became accustomed to the schedule. We learned to appreciate the energy of the chanting sessions, we commiserated on our aching knees during meditation and basically decided to embrace the situation instead of rebelling against it. "Take what you can from the experience and don't worry so much about the rest," one of the women said.

The ashram was set up by Swami Vishnu-Devandanda, in honor of his guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, who sent him to the US in the late 60's with the message, "people are waiting." He set up ashrams in Canada, the US, and other spots around the world, teaching yoga and its concepts to a western audience, before returning to India and setting up ashrams in his home country.

Western people throw the term guru around indiscriminently, using it as a synonmym for teacher, when in reality it is far more. Guru, in Sanskrit, means "remover of darkness" and is considered to be "one who knows the true reality of God," or has attained self-realization. A "Swami" on the other hand is a teacher, but not necessarily a guru. (More on this later in a future column, "Interview with a Swami").

Three weeks after I arrived at the ashram I decided it was time to move on. I had stayed a week longer than I originally planned, mostly to improve my asanas but also to think about the messages that had been relayed regarding meditation, positive thinking, detachment and the yogi way of life. I'm not certain that yoga will become an integral part of my life - just like I'm not sure that being a (new) vegetarian will stick. I don't know if I ever will find a guru, or if I even need one. But, I can confidently say that I am better for the yoga ashram experience. That my eyes were opened to new concepts, that misconceptions were clarified, and that some ignorance was replaced with knowledge.

Will I ever attain self-realization or enlightenment? Maybe, maybe not. But, I'm not so fussed with the details. It's something that comes from within, and when I'm ready, I'm sure my "path" will be revealed to me.

If not in this life, then there is always the next one. :)


Next week's "Spots of Time" column: The Five Points and Four Paths of Yoga