By Joy Illikainen
“How was your vacation?” This is the question I get from friends and acquaintances each time I return from India.
“It really isn’t a vacation,” my answer begins. “It’s more of a pilgrimage.” Insert strange look from friends.
“Is it like missionary work?”
“Well, no. I lived in an ashram and got up before 5 AM each morning for prayers, chants, 90 minutes of yoga followed by one hour of meditation, all before breakfast. Then there are classes, time for japa, more meditation and breath work by the River Ganga, deep personal work, and…”
“Is it like Eat, Pray, Love?”
“No. Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t seen that movie.”
The more I talk, the more strange it all sounds. Each ashram is unique and special. The ones I have visited or stayed at have many similarities. If you are hearing the whisper to visit India, here are some of the pearls of wisdom I’ve learned about ashram life.
Despite the incredibly long journey (36+ hours from Minnesota) and the culture shock with people, monkeys, and cows everywhere, I’ve had the time of my life.
As you can see there is meditation, Bhagavad Gita lectures, breathing practices, Hatha yoga, and more. A yoga lovers dream!
Meals: Most likely everyone takes meals together. They LIVE ahimsa (non-violence), so meals are vegetarian and mostly cooked. Delicious! Where I stayed, meat and alcohol were prohibited. A small detail, which reminds you that you are IN INDIA, is that many meals are made with rice and dal. The food isn’t as spicy as Indian food in the U.S. and the milk may be buffalo.
Many people talk and worry about becoming ill. One of my teachers recommended that we eat only ashram food. This has probably been the best advice I’ve received. As tempting as street food, beautiful roadside fruits and veggies, and sweets are, I never wanted to take the chance. I was never sick. In fact, I’ve never felt better- more energetic, happy, and healthy!
Another tip is to bring a bag of crackers for times when you just need a taste of home or have an upset stomach. BE AWARE- in February, a monkey jumped into my cottage and in one looonnnnggg “Hanuman-like” leap, grabbed my container of crackers, and took OFF!
Most ashrams have reverse osmosis water or water “safe for westerners.” Drink a lot of it. Buy bottled water whenever you can, to mix it up.
Bathrooms: Many locations have “western style” bathrooms. Sometimes, however the facilities are questionable to say the least. You should be ready for this, no matter where you stay during your visit. The learning curve is real! You may find yourself in a BR with tiles surrounding a hole in the floor and a small pitcher of water. It will be different than you are used to. Bring your own hand sanitizer. How to use an Eastern bathroom. Scroll to the video, it’s worth it!
Bring a Journal: If you’d like, choose a journal that is beautiful and meaningful to you. A simple notebook will also do. There will be plenty of time dedicated to Svādhyāya (Self-Study) and Jnana Yoga (using the mind to study your own nature, wisdom, and knowledge)… precious moments to check in with yourself. You may want to jot down quotes from teachers and highlights from lectures, passages, and texts to look up later. I’m reminded of a haiku from Catherine Larson found in my favorite version of “The Yamas and Niyamas” by Deborah Adele, “know yourself so well that you will grow into your wholeness and greatness.”
Temples, Rituals, Spiritual Ceremonies, & Holidays: Most likely while you are visiting India, there will be some sort of celebration or holiday. I suggest checking dates to find out what is happening while you’re there and read about the event beforehand so you can fully participate. Do the same for temples or shrines located where you are staying and visiting. Being knowledgeable about their meaning, history, and significance makes for a deeper, fuller experience. For example, on my last trip, I visited Kunja Puri Temple near Rishikesh. According to Hindu mythology, the father of Sati was not pleased when his daughter married Lord Shiva. After an argument, Sati jumped into a fire and died. Lord Shiva arrived and carried Sati’s body on his shoulders towards the Himalayas. While carrying her body in his arms and wandering through the mountains, some of her body parts fell down at different places. The Kunjapuri temple is located where her chest was reported to have fallen. Knowing the story made my time there meaningful and heartfelt.
What to Wear: Some ashrams have a suggested color or clothing type. Most that I have visited or stayed at recommend Sattvik clothing which are light weight, light colors, and modest. Depending on the time of year, layers are a must! Indian style tunics with a scarf, partnered with cotton or yoga pants, transition easily from asana class to meditation, lectures, meals, and even a trip into town. They are easily found on Amazon and in some local stores (in Duluth, I favor Global Village). From my observation, one will want to avoid shorts, capris, tank tops, and very short-sleeve shirts.
Shoes: Bringing 3 pairs worked best for me; a strong sturdy pair for long walks and hikes, a lighter weight pair for tours, visits, or shopping (I brought Merrells, that can easily blend with a dressier outfit) and, of course, a pair of flip flops.
Yoga Mat: Most places will have mats to borrow. Personally, I take my mat everywhere I go- yes, my favorite, full-sized (albeit heavy) mat. It has been all over the world with me. There is no way I would not take my favorite mat to India, the birth place of Yoga! You can easily find travel mats that are lightweight and convenient.
Phone, Internet Plan: Check with your carrier for a global package that will fit your needs. Plan ahead since you don’t want to come home to find a $900 cell phone bill. What worked best for me was the smallest data package possible. I decided to unplug from any social media and purchased a text package with approx .30 cent/minute cost for calls. I traveled alone and wanted to be available for emergencies or when I just needed to talk to my family.
Controversial Shots and Recommended Vaccinations: Check and see what is required and recommended where you plan to travel. I decided to forgo any shots and to prepare ahead of time by increasing my yoga and meditation practice about 30-45 days prior to these trips, taking chyawanprash, and incorporating a special mantra for safe travels, health, personal protection, and inner peace. I brought along a broad spectrum antibiotic, in case of travelers’ diarrhea or worse, because I didn’t want to ruin my trip should I start feeling ill. Luckily, I never needed it.
Packing: The first thing to pack is A LOT of patience. The good news is that you get to travel with extra pounds for an International trip. Remember, however, once you enter India, if you travel around by plane, you now fall under the domestic guidelines and you’ll pay extra for the same bag. I learned this the hard way, as I’m not known for traveling light. While scarves and malas don’t weigh very much, books and statues do! If you are like me, you’ll find great deals on “must have” books, AND that perfect Ganesha or Sarasvati statue for your altar. Trust me…save room in your suitcase for these trinkets.
Best Places to Purchase Books: Any ashram bookstore. If you are in Rishikesh, don’t miss the bookstore immediately on the left before you walk down the steps to Laxman Jhula (bridge). It is so worth it. There is a cafe with the best view.
My personal practice just seems different in India. Maybe it is because I have more than ample time for asana practice, meditation, contemplation, japa, and silence without the daily distractions and time constraints most of us usually experience. I found myself saying “So, this is what it’s like when I can devote undivided time to my spiritual life and growth while being in the presence of teachers who are there to support and share, as well as others who are learning.”
Yes, living in an ashram can be the embodiment of yogic life. After pressing the “reset button” during your stay, the challenge and question then becomes, “How does one return home …be here now, and carry India in your heart, when a shift has happened and everything has changed?” It is a gift that keeps on giving, unfolding, and revealing gems for months afterwards. It is delicious.
“Yes,” I end up saying to my friends, “my ‘vacation’ was awesome, and it was JUST like Eat, Pray, Love.”
Hari Om… Namaste