Monday, 22 February 2016

Ashram Life 101 - The Importance of Retreat for Transformation.

Ashram,  its a place that is remote in terms of Western understanding, perception, or practice.  You really cannot get much further from ashram life in our consumeristic society.  But for a healthy, balanced and evolving experiance, that needs to change.

Ashrama - according to Yoga Journal means " “that where effort is made”: a hermitage; also a stage of life, such as brahmacharya, householder, forest dweller, and complete renouncer (samnyasin)"   Its a place of work.  Not just external, physical labour,  that is a mode of integration and exploration,  but more importantly a place of internal work -  transformation, evolution.

Whether you are consciously working on transforming an aspect of your human experiance, eg. moving through depression, anxiety, PTSD, or if you consider yourself healthy and want to go deeper into exploring yourself, the principles and teachings are the same.  This is because the teachings are not directed at the personality to which these characteristics cling,  but to the Soul.  As the Soul embodies the teachings,  the personality aspects that cling to discord, disease and suffering start to fall away.  

An ashram is a simple place,  on the outside.  There can be great activities, projects, festivals and activity,  but the essence is simple.   Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate,  Realize.   An ashram is made up of simple buildings,  simple food,  simple clothing.   In the west we have allot of psychosis around what we think we can and cannot live without.  "I can't live without hot water,  I can't live without a flushing toilet,  I can't live without my morning coffee."   99.9% of that is hogwash,  and delusion that actually holds you in tremendous amounts of physical and mental tension.    Ashrams are designed to create a set of circumstances and conditions so that you can strip away all the fluff of "I need I need I need" into an experiance of the essence of what you actually need.  Shelter, to sleep without fear,  good nourishing food,  purpose in action,  real connection with others (community),  the ability to be content - alone.   Creating this clean slate of essentials,  you can start to witness more cohesively the fluctuations of the mind, and see how it is your own perception that creates a thriving or a stunted reality.

Boundaries = Freedom
To the outside world,  or to people who equate safety with control,  an ashram can seem too constricting in its guidelines and boundaries.   To others,  the stripped down need for independent thought is absolute freedom.   For me, being someone who when out in the world, juggles my duties of wife, motherhood, a farm, bills, cooking, cleaning, teaching, and retreat centre,  i'm bombarded with decisions day in and day out.  By contrast, my time in ashram life is wonderful.  Its a place where I don't have to worry about anything.  I just need to put full effort into the tasks I am assigned.  I don't need to think about what i'm going to eat,  I don't need to wonder how something is going to be financially managed,  I don't have to think about what needs to happen next.  All I need to do is get up do as I'm asked.  Its bliss!

Food is such a loaded topic for most.  The intertwining between societal and cultural indoctrination of what is "healthy",  our drive for emotional fulfillment from sugars - fats - salts,  and how we play out, sometimes completely unconsciously, our need to control food to feel safe and how we connect food to positive or negative memories.  Yet in the ashram,  food is not designed nor cooked to emotionally satiate your neurosis, it is to nourish your physical body into optimal working and preparation for meditational practices.  From the western point of view,  you can walk away vowing to never eat rice and subji (cooked vegetables) again.   Only to turn around 2 months later find you are craving them as a thread to memory of your time in retreat.  Food is a great opportunity to really take a look at how we are medicating ourselves to feel better in our day to day lives by using something external. 

Viveka - Discernment
An ashram is set up so you really have an opportunity to witness your monkey mind against a base line of high vibrational yogic practices such as havans and puja.   To witness the mind while in action and watch how our personality ebbs and flows between happy and grump purely based upon experiencing likes and dislikes.   This is key in shifting our primary focus from personality/ego to souls experiance.  We always suggest that people are fully engaged with their task, but leave a space in the mind to be focused on the Divine, through mantra, or devotion, so that the personality of the mind has something higher in frequency to focus on,  leaving no space for the mind's decent into negative, unhelpful through forms - which it often does when it is bored or not fully engaged.  

Vairagya - Dispassion/ Non Attachment
Vairagya, or non attachment can be one of the most challenging aspects of ashram life,  as it really has to have a foot firmly rooted in Īśvarapraṇidhāna - or surrender to the Divine.  It is hard in the west to let go to opinions/ideas, likes/dislikes, especially when you feel you have a better, easier or more concise way of doing something.  But that is not what ashram life is about,  it is about letting go of all you think you know, emptying out the righteousness of the little “i”, and allowing something new, softer, and more expansive to come through.

Svadhyaya - Self Study
Self study is such an amazing and humbling practice that we are simply not taught in the West.  Its a muscle that in many of us is atrophied.  We spend allot of our energy examining others behaviour and others decisions, without turning the spotlight on our own.   Many are scared,  make that terrified, of what they will see.  Acting from a deep rooted belief that we are not good enough,  loveable, and sometimes fundamentally flawed people.  To have the courage to really look at our best qualities, and humbly acknowledge our shortcomings can be a very challenging exercise.  But I tell you, its where the gold is!   How tightly we hold onto, and try and hide, our shortcomings from ourselves and others take allot of energy!  Thats where all the stagnated, unused, frozen energy lies. When you liberate that energy, thats when you have the courage to make the changes you need to make.  Once you have taken a good look, you realize that we are all multifaceted humans, that have tremendous potential to grow, if we are willing to look at what is planted, where we need fertilizer, where we can use a pruning.  

Shraddha - Faith
A combination of all of the above cumulates in an act of faith.  Committing, before you even arrive in the ashram,  that whatever your experiance is going to be,  be it blissful,  or excruciatingly challenging, is the perfect experiance for you,  here, now.  FOR YOU GROWTH.  Sometimes upon leaving the ashram, I cant fathom leaving without knowing when I will be back.  Its the only thing that gets me on a plane back to Canada. The memories of the amazing time I have just had, and the knowledge that I am committed and welcome to come back.  Other times,  I have had such challenging time,  that I couldn't wait to leave!  Convinced that “I've learnt all I can from here”  and “ maybe this isn't my path anymore”.  Only to realize 6 months later that the hard parts were such a deep mirror to my own relationship with integrity, indignity, humility, insecurities and courage that I have still much road ahead of me.  So,  I go back,  and once again, and have another perfect experiance for me, here and now.  It is such a humbling act of faith to show up for yourself, over and over through the platform of Ashram Life.

Ashram Life, is such an important platform for any practitioner of Yoga or aspiring Yogi.  Or for anyone who wants to grow and heal.  For it is through being challenged, that we grow.  It is through setting aside our needs and wants,  that we realize our own strength.  It is through retreating to the inside,  that we evolve.  

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