Desolation Row

Desolation Row

Indian Ashram Life


2009: I was sick of just sitting in my little house in Byron Bay watching DVDs, TV and going to the beach occasionally with my mates. I was feeling depressed and isolated and bored with too much time on my hands and another failed romance. I went to yoga classes for awhile and had the odd massage, but I longed to be back in the ashram environment, where i had lived for 16 months in 2002, feeding my Soul and nurturing my spirit, and keeping busy all day long with like minded others. And doing Yoga teacher training.Living in community with others was kind of my thing too, being an old hippie as well and having lived in communes when I was younger. During an unshakeable bout of Depression and stressed out, i wrote to the NSW ashram in 2001 asking if I could go and live there.

Flash forward: It had been about 6 years since I had left, (under a cloud, which is another story….)They emailed me saying that if I spent three months in Rikhia, the Indian ashram, I could go and live at the NSW ashram again. (45 Mins from Gosford in a lovely green valley) I’d heard Rikhia was tough and that they worked you really hard, but I was determined to shake myself out of my spiritual and physical funk. I had The Blues...big time. My life felt meaningless....

I got it all organized and off to India I went. The three months I stayed there was the hardest, most depressing and lonely three months in my whole life, despite having a few happy days and magical moments within some other rather flat days - like when a regular visitor, a small Indian girl would jump onto my knee or run over and give me a stunning smile and a big hug - i have a special affinity with children and animals - I put these happy times down to Shaktipat (called guru “transmission”) and also the yoga and meditation and service I was doing, plus a healthy vegetarian diet of basically lentils, veggies and rice, were beginning to pay off and to shift my depression and elevate my general mood as I began to feel human again. My natural enthusiasm for life was gradually restored. Yoga works! However it is a case of persevering. Doing the practices regularly (in my case, daily) over a stretch of time, and living the healthy life style. On special occasions or celebrations at *Rikhiapeeth (*Rickhia is the tiny village and "peeth" means "seat of higher learning." It was a place of purity, serenity, and it radiates peace;) we were given yummy ice cream and other treats for dessert after dinner. I was initiated into the first stage of Sannyasa (i.e. an "orange person" or initiate into spiritual discipline and spiritual life) years ago, so I wore my robes and turban. (I was amazed one day when some Indian kids threw themselves at my feet, touching my sandals and saying “Swamiji!) The weather was stinking hot. I had gone at the hottest time of the year. Sometimes hitting the late 40s and maybe even 50 degrees. Up at 4.30am to meditate and do yoga.

Lunch was at 10am and we were sent back to our dorms between 11am and 3pm as it was too hot to work. I made one friend there. Hardly anyone spoke to me. I was feeling too introverted and shy to approach anyone. They all stayed in their groups. It was pretty cliquey. There were people from all over the world. The dorm was beautiful. Tall marble columns and marble floors. High ceilings. A very large space. I mopped the floor every morning. Ashrams are very clean places!

My day began at 4.30am. I’d get up and do at least 30 minutes of yoga asanas (yoga postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) etc. Then I’d take a cold shower (I loathe cold showers, even in summer- I was the only one to yelp when the cold water hit me first thing - what a wuss!) and head down the dusty dirt road to the main compound to eat breakfast. I often disliked the breakfasts. Sometimes they were a congealed gluey grey blob of cooked/fried tapioca. It was tasteless. Revolting. I went to the room where they did the frying one day and the oil was black! Indians have dinner for breakfast, and I really missed my porridge. No eggs, and very rarely, some horrid tasteless tinned cheese – a tiny sliver put onto a white bread sandwich. The soups and subji and dhal (veggies and spicey lentil sauce) were quite nice. I love my dhal and subji and rice.

Despite the hard slog and not perfect conditions, the yoga, meditation and chanting, the regularity and routine and the physical *work (*called Seva or Karma Yoga - i.e. working and giving to others with no attachment to outcomes or reward)...ashram life began to work it's magic and my Depression and malaise lifted and life changed for the better at the end of my stay.

Sometimes in the evening Satsang ie communal spiritual gathering, we would be entertained by The Boogie Boys. Local village Indian boys (skinny young teens) who idolized Michael Jackson and would emulate Michael's dance moves to his music. Great fun. They were utterly charming. It was also fun to watch the cute little Hindu tiny tots aged two and three dancing along with livelier bhajans (sacred songs). At times we All good got up and danced, joyful and free and feeling connected to our Higher Power. Some call it Guru worship.But as I said previously I was never big on guru devotion. The one think we all had in common was that we were spiritual aspirants or seekers...desirous of finding a deeper purpose and meaning in our lives.

I actually did make one friend, and she is still a good friend today. I was sent off to work at the “Bookshop” which sold everything from sacred literature, to clothing, and also we packed Prasad (gifts for visitors to the ashram who were initiated or had completed a course, and for the dirt poor villagers who had just about nothing, no clothes, no pots and pans, etc.) Often two women villagers would share the one Sari. Many of us have no concept of real poverty in the West.

Swami Jyotimayananda (Jyotir for short - pronounced Joe-tee) was a lovely person, my boss, and a real character. At 72 she can sit cross legged and has the agility of a teenager- many years of yoga pratice. She could lose her temper with me and yell at me but she’d get over it really quickly and we’d be friends again. We spend many days in the lunch break sitting side by side reading our books and occasionally drinking a forbidden cup of coffee when somebody received a jar of Nescafe in the mail. Work started at around 6 to 6.30 am and the day didn’t finish til after 8pm.

Every day at the Bookshop was grueling for me. I had to do things totally against my slapdash nature and count and sort endless saris and clothing into sizes and types and put them in perfect order in this ginormous stack of shelves in the huge storeroom. We also packed bag after bag full of Prasad, again in different categories and sizes. Then we’ lug them all into another store room Very hard work in the heat. The guru didn’t believe in providing fans or air con. Suffering was all “tapas”, good for purifying the Soul.

I’d often go to the bathroom and wet my long scarf and tie it around my head. I wrote the office a note saying that I was a very good typist if they needed anyone in the office. I was so sick of all the physical work in the Bookshop. It was wearing me out and getting me down. To my surprise they gave me a job as a typist working half a day in a very hot, small room and the other half day in the Bookshop. I lost a lot of weight in Rikhia! I was sweating every day. The electricity would often fail as well, so we would have to resort to cleaning the already clean office when the computers went off.

I was counting the days until I could leave Rikhiapeeth. ( The full name for the ashram.)

When I look back, I don’t know how I did it. To me, it was like being in gaol and awaiting parole interspersed with moments of inspiration, divine grace and happiness. Thank heavens for those good times. They kept me on track. Most of the time I was just plodding along every day feeling very alone in my introverted state of mind, in my bubble of isolation, trying to not get over-heated and keeping up my water and electrolytes. But hey, I was getting over my Depression and doing good work helping the villagers, etc. Not even the evening Kirtan (Sacred singing) could cheer me up. I hardly ever smiled. Jyotir was a treasure. She told me to get electrolytes and where to get them and gave me other good advice when I was there. We had some great conversations. She had been there for many years and had joined the NSW ashram many years ago. I couldn’t understand how others seemed to stay there for long periods, and come back for more; then I realized that they were doing yoga training courses, not working all day in the heat.

One afternoon, one of the head Swamis came to me and said that she’d noticed I seemed down. I cried and said that I was very depressed and isolated. That evening I received a basket of fresh fruit (Prasad, or blessed food) “from the Guru’s kitchen”, apparently quite an honour. It was a kind gesture meant to cheer me up. But that’s as close as I got to a real conversation with any of the residents or other visitors apart from my new pal Jyotir. I don’t think the Swamis really gave a toss. So much for preaching compassion! As a Sannyasin initiate you were supposed to be self dependent and to “walk alone” and not have friends, (I think this is just silly!), just devote yourself the Guru and service for the Guru.What is life without loving friends....

Even the (second in command) venerated Guru passed by me one day (quite close) and snubbed me. He only seemed to smile at people who had been around for many years. What a prat! I was never big on gurus anyhow. I’m too much of a feminist for all that bowing and scraping. We are all Sacred Souls, and all equal. Although I do think Gurus can be pretty amazing, most of them are also corrupt in some way. Hypocritical. Often preaching purity of mind and action but abusing women, children (and men) in the meantime. I was later introduced to the senior Guru and spiritual head of the ashram at Darshan. (A group session listening to the guru's words of wisdom and spiritual teachings).

He had started the ashram when the village was just a pile of dirt. He at least smiled at me and called me by my spiritual name (Atmabindu). He was a kindly old yogi. Finally the great day came when I was going home! I was so proud of myself for sticking it out. I didn’t end up going to the NSW ashram after all. I was advised by one of the senior Swamis to go to the Victorian ashram. And this was really good advice. Its right in the middle of the Wombat Forest near Daylesford, on 25 acres...a beautiful, peaceful place.

I was thrilled when my friend Jyotir came to live there too. It’s much smaller than the Sydney ashram. Quieter. And the food was better.

So it wasn’t exactly like the “Eat, Pray, Love” experience of an ashram. More like “Eat, Pray, Suffer”! I felt much better being back in the Australia ashram and I certainly enjoyed the food much more, especially my morning porridge! And I made some good buddies there. I left the ashram after three years of cooking cleaning and teaching yoga and meditation, and now enjoy my independence. I have a whole room to myself, a double bed, can eat what I like, be messy if I want to be, and come and go as I please. Wonderful. Its a tiny flat, but I don't have to share a room. Luxury. And I have a charming little pussycat. I am making new friends and doing part-time paid public speaking for a health service in Brunswick.; I'm running a support group for people recovering from chronic illness, I've joined a lovely group of people in Creswick U3A doing fun activities like Croquet, cards, Ping Pong and mahjong. And I'm a full time uni student (Bachelor of Psychology) plus I play guitar and sing with my great bunch of new musical friends at Creswick Folk Club. Oh, and next week I'm in a Radio Play for Ballarat Heritage Weekend! From a life of the ridiculously futile to the sublime....a full time table indeed. What heavy karma I had to shift. LIke that huge rock poor Sisyphus continuously pushed up that steep hill, yet after I began my healing "Hero's journey" that rock rolled a little less farther down each time...

So, after my whole life being like the myth of Sisyphus who was doomed for eternity to push an enormous rock up a steep hill only to have it roll back down- so he had to start over and over again …the curse is broken, and at 62... life is (at last) Beautiful. Every day now I feel contented and serene. Very seldom does anything shake or rile me. It took all of my tenacity, courage and faith in myself and my own healing to stay - living the ashram life. I did a lot of crying. Every day for months at one point, and many years before that too. These days I only cry if something moves me. Its not about my past anymore. Much cleansing and healing. A mammoth task. Five years of 24/7 ashram life. (And that was at the end of a period of fifteen years of intensive therapy - a diverse range of modalities and alternative therapies. I was determined to break my Sisyphus curse!) So ashram life for me was a very blessed time. Om Shanti Om.