The Ashram

Blessed The second train wasn't as bad as the first. Maybe I had settled into myself or I was so set on going the way I had planned... That I just kept seeing it through. I flew from Kolkata to Chennai and then took a taxi to the train station to go to Madurai. Bigger bed, less stops, and no delays. It arrived at 5:30am before the sun had risen to meet the dusty sky. The platform was busy with coffee pushers, rickshaw drivers, and lingering families gathering their items for the next stop. Mine was the Sivanada Ashram. I took advantage of the "first class" waiting area and gave myself a little bird bath to prepare me for negotiating and bargaining with the rickshaw driver. He quoted twice as much as the ashram warned. I held to my price and he huffed and puffed but off we went. Me with the map in hand, and the camera aimed at the sunrise lingering in the morning sky. We must have stopped half a dozen times to jump start the vehicle. I, patient with anticipation and exhaustion, rode the 45-minutes in the crisp, biting exposed air, with a smile on my face.

Upon arrival, I was handed a cup of chai by a yellow clothed devotee and escorted to the office to check in. After going over the rules and expectations of my stay at the Sivananda Vendanta Madurai, I was given sheets and a blanket. The volunteer showed me the large dormitory room where the women stayed. She pointed to the east and said if I wanted to see the sunset, better beds over there, or if I enjoyed the setting of the sun, this window may be nice. Almost as if she could read my haggard undecided mind, she said you can always change your mind. I found a bed on the east side of the room hoping to catch some sunsets through the far windows. It was an "off day" for the volunteers and students, which meant the campus was quite quiet. I made my way to the temple, and bowed deeply to the adorned altars and deities, colors that tantalize the senses and expand the minds eye. Later, I caught the yoga class offered by a graduated student and the sequence and instruction were solid. The food for a simple lunch was amazing. As people started to arrive for the 300-hour teacher training that would last a month nd fellow "yoga vacationers" landed for days or weeks from all parts of the country and the world, I started to settle into my home for the next two weeks.

The daily schedule was written on a white board outside the men's dormitory, where we gathered for chai tea around two large tables in the morning and in the afternoon. There is nothing like the (un)mindfulness that can come with yogis hungry and urgently trying to get tea. The practice of patience and acceptance was always within reach.

6am satsang: silent mediation, Kirtan, and talk. 7:30am tea. 8am asana class (always with pranayama to begin and Sivasana throughout. 10am breakfast. 12pm karma yoga. Break. Tea. 2pm lecture: philosophy and principles. 4pm asana class. 6pm dinner. 8pm satsang. 10pm lights out.

The details between classes and meals are the colorful ahhhha moments and the challenging internal workings of structure and intention to be here in the ashram and to hold sacred the teachings and  inspiration of Sivananda and Vishnudevananda. It was the exchanges across the dining hall, with a nod or a smile; there were many times I felt held and honored and other times where I felt misunderstood and under represented. This is not about me, I would think. This helped.

I made a friend or two. I also created a lot of space for the doing of nothing and found that my mind wandered to getting things done or life before and after the ashram. I went to class and enjoyed the sequence but recognized my struggle with repetition. I loved the Kirtan but got sick of chanting; I respected the order but became short with the senior students watching and accounting my whereabouts. I made connections with the kitchen staff and decided to volunteer even earlier in the morning, to chop and prepare the vegetables for the meal, thriving on the 5am wake up. I skipped only a few gatherings or kirtans: I was sick; I was tired; or I was not interested. I tried not to judge my every move and just accept who I am. I lingered outside the library looking for wifi to be connected to my NYC poet. I updated and tagged photos that claimed a witness on my eternal experience. I walked off campus to a nearby temple, a fruit stand, and scene on the side of the road that felt so deeply imbedded in India, I could only capture it in my minds eye and never as adequately in a photo.

There were many auspicious days that coincided with my stay. There was the unveiling and opening of the new practice platform that included local politicians and social servants, a big feast of a lunch, and a great display of ritual and invocation. There was the placement of a deity, a stupa on the temple, inviting a cow and her calf in a symbolic dance of reverence and ceremony. So many flowers, candles, incense, chanting. Swamis, devotees, students, and tourists... I bowed over and over again. I was blessed, I was marked with ashes and dots to my third eye. I took selfies, I stopped documenting and tried to experience. I kept riding the waves of overwhelming systems of order within chaos and brilliant insights that are so simple I can't remember exactly why I was smiling and crying all the time.

After week one, I was ready to leave. Too much structure, not enough nakedness. My friend and I got into the habit of being dissatisfied. I almost left. He did. I stayed. I'm glad I did. The 13 days spent on this land, walking around the nearby forest, around the lake and finding my way to the temple almost everyday day to sit with the local women who chanted and prayed in a linage I didn't speak but my soul knew to listen...Sivananda had made its way into my questioning heart and my body and mind was clear with the sequence and the routine and the value of sitting under a tree and doing nothing except maybe sipping chai tea.

The goodbyes came throughout. People came and went. Info was exchanged, Facebook added and offerings of visits and being in touch. Or not. The rhythm was more about transitions and process and less about attachment and promises.

I hugged an Austrian swami, I gifted a scarf to a friend; I did a scorpion, and I had a crush on everyone. I cried myself to sleep. I read. I sang. I saw the softest part of me not being afraid. I glimpsed a lifestyle not out of reach but not an ideal or a destination. I gathered my senses. I ate well. I prayed. I gave thanks. I fell in love with India and as it started to end and become more and more real that I would fly not one or two, but three flights to get to Thailand, I mourned a companionship, a kinship, and sourcedness that I will always relate to my India. This vast country of reverence and chaos. It was time to end this chapter, this book, this section of my epic journey was closing and I was about to carry on east... To Thailand. Next stop: Koh Tao.