What Living In An Ashram Taught Me
Life in an Indian ashram is markedly different from the Western lifestyle to which most of us in the United States are accustomed. You wake up at sunrise, breath, meditate, chant, practice yoga, and spend a lot of time holding space for spiritual practices and philosophical thought.
When staying at an ashram, you’re happy to do as they do. You’re so taken with the rhythm of ashram life that you don’t even mind that everything you’re doing is compulsory.
I completed my yoga teacher training at Barsana Dham Ashram. That month taught me a lot about, well, pretty much everything, but most specifically the gifts of pure simplicity.
There’s no separating the ashram from Indian philosophy and spirituality. The spiritual practices ask you to reconsider yoga as a physical workout. Having to remove your shoes before entering the temples only seems weird at first, and you even grow to like walking in bare feet. Meditation feels like self-care and becomes essential to your daily routine.
Yes, there’s internet access… But it’s limited, and it’s spotty.
Like every other aspect of ashram life, the food is uncomplicated and simply prepared. The diet is vegetarian, Ayurvedic, and nourishing. That wasn’t new to me, as I was used to a plant-based, mostly vegan diet and had been eating that way for years. My body felt good and well-nourished by it. Yet I had never really considered the gifts of simplicity, in and of themselves.
All of the food is home-cooked, and seva (selfless service) may ask that you help clean the kitchen or serve the meals as part of Karma Yoga, or the yoga of action. Meals are taken and served as a gesture of devotion, an exchange of energy and spiritual connection. Lunch is the largest, and most elaborate meal of the day, while breakfast is usually warm grains or fruit, and dinner is light, maybe soup or vegetables and rice. Many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs are picked fresh from the garden and full of flavor and prana, or life force.
In an ashram, you can eat anything with your hands. Yep, anything. Eating with your hands is not a rule per se, but utensils aren’t always available. There’s something primal and indulgent about eating with your hands, like connecting with the earth on a visceral level. You are engaging with the food wholly and in a way that your fork and knife just can’t deliver. You are zero degrees removed from the sensory experience.
Meals are observed in silence. At first, the idea of a room full of people seated closely around long rectangular tables in perfect silence had me feeling apprehensive. I thought that the clink of forks (or fingernails!) on plates would echo like a heavy refrain within the quiet of the dining room, resounding awkward and intrusive. I half-seriously pictured a round of the party game charades, arms and hands frantically gesticulating in an effort to communicate thirst or pleasure.
Instead, the silent meals were mindful and introspective. I looked forward to them the way I had waited for the fall season premieres back home. Hmmm.
I came to the ashram already knowing that I loved delicious food, but I left with the understanding that food actually had meaning, intention, and more nuance than I had previously contemplated.
The food is indeed delicious, thoroughly satisfying in flavor, aroma, and texture. In an ashram, eating is not only about the sensory experience. It’s about the sacredness of the cow, the sanctity of all life, the highest respect and gratitude for the earth, and the nourishment of body, mind, and spirit.
The simplicity of ashram life stands in contrast to the overly busy and stressed lifestyles of Westernized cultures, and it helps us recognize and understand how much we unconsciously take for granted. It also allows us to see our habits and attachments, and teaches us to differentiate between what we want or what we’re simply used to, and what we actually need.
Ashrams provide a safe space for emotional and spiritual release. With distractions removed and simple but meaningful routines put into place, we have time and energy to reflect on deeper meanings and the true purpose of life. We have permission to simply do nothing and just be. When we eat, we are simply eating. But that simplicity is layered with meaning that remains untouched when distractions and demands requiring productivity and efficiency redirect it towards the shuffle of our daily routine, where it quickly gets lost.
I have heard that, although we may retreat to places like ashrams in search of a spiritual experience, each one of us is a spiritual being having a human experience. Living — — and eating — — in an ashram pulls back the curtain on that human experience, revealing what beautiful things are hidden underneath, ready to be seen and celebrated for the simple things they are. I never would have predicted that eating with my hands in silence and service would’ve driven this point home for me, but it did.
Stacy Nelson, AWP, CYT, RM is a Holistic Nutritionist, a certified yoga teacher, and a graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and the San Diego College of Ayurveda. She has also studied at Rutgers and Stanford Universities. She lives in southern New Jersey. To find more check out her website (https://wellbystacynelson.com/)