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            <<  Phool Chatti Ashram, 16-Dec-2012  >>


Shiva, Shiva, Shiva, Shambo.
Shiva, Shiva, Shiva, Shambo.
Mahadeva Shambo, Mahadeva Shambo.

I just finished the week in ashram.
Hereby I renounce all my worldly possessions, I have taken wow of celibate, I’m going to dedicate my life to study of Vedic and Puranic scriptures, and I shall be from this day on known by my new name – Sai Maharishi Vatsanapata Babhrava.
This is my goodbye note to those whom I used to know – May you be happy, may you be well. I take refuge here, in the foothills of Himalaya.

OK, I’m kidding.
But, this week WAS GREAT. Absolutely GREAT. I didn’t use the computer, phone or even iPod for the whole week – therefore I was totally freed from any influence from the world outside the ashram and I, like all the others at ashram, dedicated the whole week to study of yoga in broad meaning: asanas (the postures, the western understanding of yoga), meditation, chanting and bhakti (devotion and worship of Hindi gods). This was once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I strongly suggest to everyonet o try it. If you’re going to live for 75 years, which is 3 900 weeks, if you spend 1 week like this, it’s only 0,026% of your life, but it can really influence the rest of your life.

Phool Chatti Ashram is located 6km from Rishikesh, at confluence of Ganga and a small river/stream, in a most serene and one of the most beautiful surroundings that I have ever seen. Steep green valleys and incredibly beautiful Ganga. While I think it’s safe to say, that Ganga in Varanasi – as I had seen it 4 years ago – is the most disgusting river which I have seen , it’s also safe to say, that Ganga here in Rishikesh is the most beautiful river I have seen. It’s so clean that you could snorkel in it, and I’m serious about that. Ganga rushes here from Himalaya, and these foothills of Himalaya are the last stretches of river before it enters the great Indian plains and becomes the main sewer of India. The setting of ashram was definitely more beautiful than I expected.

Ashram life is quite simple:

1. You get up at 5:30 a.m. to ringing of a bell/gong (that is unless it’s your turn to be the bell-ringer for the day, as I was on Saturday, and yes, I did volunteer for that). 5:30 is around 1 and 1/2 hour before the sun rises.

2. At 6:00 starts silent meditation in yoga hall. Great way to start a day. Includes bit of chanting, which is used as means of relaxation and focusing of mind.The following mastra still follows me everywhere I go:
Om, treyambakan, yajamahe,
Sugandhim pusti vardhanam,
Urva, rukamiva bandana,
Myirtor mokchi amrtitat.

3. At around 6:30 it’s cleansing time! Now, you will love this. By cleansing, I mean cleansing of your nose like this: you are given a small “watering can” (without the sprinkler) – volume cca. 200ml, which they fill by warm salty water. Then you squat, bend your head to one side, open your month wide and breathe by the mouth, stick the pointy end of the can to your left nostril and wait until the water passes through your nasal cavities and pours out from the other nostril. Then you switch the nostrils and do it again. And then you spend 5 minutes blowing your nose in all possible and impossible positions, jumping and exhaling like a whale. It’s supposed to clean your nose from bacteria, pollution and everything else. It was quite weird and very disgusting looking, but not as hard or annoying as it might seem.

4. The cleansing was followed by the first portion of yoga pranayama (breathing) and asanas (stretching) exercises. As my joints are terribly weak, I was among the top 2 most “stretchable” persons in the whole group (there was 15 of us staying in ashram), and so I did not terribly suffer, but still suffered a lot. Of course I could do almost nothing from what the teacher was doing,. Oh, I forgot to mention, that luckily, the people (I mean the guests, tourists) that came to ashram were much more normal than the esoteric crowd in the town, and I was very thankful for that. No one wore third eyes, or pretended to be in possession of deep cosmic truths or something. It was much less cliché here than in Rishikesh itself.

5. At 9:00 (and I draw to your attention, that this means 3 and 1/2 hours after waking up) was the breakfast. It was much nicer to have breakfast after the exercises, compared to our European standard to rush to the breakfast as the first thing you do in the morning. The breakfast – like all other meals – was eaten in complete silence.

6. At 10:00 started “Karma Yoga”, which is basically the same thing as karate teaching technics of Mr. Miyagi’s in Karate Kid – cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the floors, and other services. The concept of Karma Yoga is that one performs services for the others (in this case for the ashram) without any expectation for benefit – neither financial/material nor in form of praise.

7. 10:00 – 12:00 was time of meditative walks. This was amazing thing. Walks in the forest, but not in form of normal walks. This was basically meditation, when your attention had to be focused on your feet and all sensations which they give you. We were walking in total silence, one after another, you could only look 1-2 meters in front of you and you could not look around, react to anything, or do anything else. You just had to focus on your feet and steady pace of walking. This was really nice and strange. Try not to look around when people are passing by, cows are passing by, the surrounding is beautiful etc. The funniest part was when one of the dogs from the ashram came with us and we met another dog. For 5 minutes they were barking at each other, just 1 meter from me, and then they got into a terrible fight. I saw the beginning because they started to bite each other just in front of me – so within my “sight zone” - but then they got few meters aside and I (and everybody else) could hear the desperate sounds of the bloody fight. Now, try not to look around! At the end of the walk there was a place to bath in a river or take a shower in waterfall, and for around 20 minutes, we were finally allowed to look around (still in complete silence) and meditate. And then again, meditative walk back. On the fourth day we performed ritual bathing in Ganga instead of the walk.

8. 12:30 – Lunch time. All the food was of course vegetarian (and extremely yummy I have to say), was served on the stone floor in the dining hall. We also sat on the damn cold stone floor (with crossed legs) – not very comfortable at the beginning, but later it was just fine.

9. 13:00 – 15:00 – Free personal time, and finally we were allowed to speak. I usually used this time for reading.

10. 15:00 – 16:00 was “Lectures and discussion time”, when the basic concepts of yoga were explained (and I here I have to send you the message that yoga does NOT mean physical exercise, but holistic way of life according to Indian traditions and that main point of all that stretching is just preparing your body for long meditation).

11. At 16:00 started the second portion of yoga exercises – more intensive than the morning session.

12. At the sunset (around 18:00) started Pooja – holy ceremony performed by the local resident swami (holy man) and his assistants. This ashram was devoted to Shiva (among Brahma and Vishnu one of the 3 main gods of Hinduism), so every evening we worshipped Shiva Lingam, alias Shiva’s penis –which is the traditional object of worship in Shaivite (devoted to Shiva) temples.

13. After Pooja stared Kirtan – singing of holy songs / mantras. This was my favorite part!

Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambo. Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambo.
Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambo. Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambo.
Mahadeva Shambo. Mahadeva Shambo.
Mahadeva Shambo. Mahadeva Shambo.

O Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai Mai.
O Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai Mai.
O Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai Mai.
O Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai Mai.

14. 19:30 – Dinner and afterwards little bit of socializing near the fire and then beginning of total silence again.

15. 20:30 – Guided evening meditation. Breathing meditation, meditation with rosary (silent chanting of mantras), music meditation, yog-nidra (guided relaxation of body / sleeping with your mind awake), … Really nice different methods of meditation.

16. 21:00 – Going to sleep.

So this is how each day looked like. Speaking was strictly forbidden from 20:30 until 12:30, but the only times when you were supposed to speak was 13:00 – 15:00 and few minutes after the dinner. During all other times, we were supposed only to ask practical questions about the exercises, but otherwise as much silence as possible was expected. This is was not very difficult to follow for me, because during the last few days I anyway seldom spoke – my only “meaningful” conversation was the chat with tea vendor in Mussoorie, otherwise I just spoke to drivers, waiters and hotel staff – so actually even if I spoke only for few minutes a day in the ashram, I probably spoke more than when I was outside of the ashram :-)
Although 1 week is really short time for any major makeover of personality, I can say that this ashram stay really gave me great experience and tools for improving the focus of my mind. I’m continuing to be a vegetarian for some time, and I’m going to wake up at 6:00 every day and practice daily meditation. Let’s hope it will bring some fruit.
And what I forgot to mention is the cold. I thought that I was going to India to warm me up, but hell, this was the coldest week of my life. Although the temperature in Rishikesh was supposed to be quite nice – highs around 23 degrees – the problem was that, first of all, there were very few sunny days, second the ashram is located in the forest and in a deep gorge of Ganga, so the temperature there was much lower than in the town, and third, of course there is no heating and the nighttime temperature dropped to around 7’C so imagine now it felt like to wake at 5:30 – freaking cold and complete darkness. I spent most of the week shivering in my jacket and winter cap. Luckily, the physical exercise of course warmed us up. But, as special bonus to not using computer, phone or iPod during the whole week I decided not to use one more thing – shower. The hot water was anyway available only in bucket, so you couldn’t really take hot shower, but I decided to avoid the hot water completely and I bathed only in really cold Ganga, little bit “warmer” little river – tributary of Ganga – and icy waterfall. No shower gel as well. Back to the nature. There are few better things than to meditate almost-naked kneeling down on a large stone, on banks on Ganga, when it’s 16 degrees outside after bathing in 13’C waters of Ganga. (Yes, Ivan, I know that for you this would be like bathing in hot tub, but I’m just a lousy sucker, so for me this was hardcore).
But otherwise, don’t get too romantic with your idea of the ashram as some primitive dungeon hidden deep in the forest. It was rather modern facility, with normal beds, small rooms (basically darkish cells, but still normal rooms), western-style toilets and hot water available.
I suggest to everyone: TRY IT!
Now I’m back in Rishikesh, back to civilization :-(((

PS1: By know I’m vegetarian for almost 2 weeks and I haven’t drunk any alcohol for even longer. Who said that I won’t survive here? And during the ashram stay I also avoided beedees, so I guess that my body is now cleaner than ever. The only problem with vegetarianism is that after all those lentils, beans and peas that we ate all the time, I think I rank among world’s top 10 contributors to global warming by methane production. If someone trades free quotas on emissions I buy.

PS2: Once we did Laughing Yoga. Google that, it was really fun.

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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak