A Trip to An Ashram in India

Ever since I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, ages ago, I’ve been intrigued by ashrams. If you read the book, you know Elizabeth is in a deep depression and existential crisis after a nasty divorce. She travels to Italy to eat, India to pray at an ashram and Bali to find love. When the opportunity arose for me to go to India, I thought this could be MY Eat, Pray, Love moment I’ve been searching for. Here’s my story about our visit to an ashram in India.

Before I begin the story, let me explain a little bit about ashrams. Ashrams are spiritual places where communities of like-minded souls gather to chant, worship, sing, meditate, etc. Spiritual people come together to be and do spiritual things. Most ashrams are Hindu in nature, but you don’t have to be Hindu or religious to attend one. All you need to have is an open mind.

During my yoga teacher training at Cambio Yoga in Colorado Springs, I had the opportunity to spend a few days at an ashram. Since I had been to one already, I had a pretty good idea how this whole ashram thing would go down….or so I thought.

Our story begins with meeting a nice Italian couple in Hampi, India. It was our last night in Hampi and after speaking with them, we discovered that we basically have the same travel itinerary. Later that night, we exchanged phone numbers and attempted to meet again in Mysore.

So far, the irony and association with Italy and Eat, Pray, Love is still there. 

We arrived in Mysore a day before them and used that day to explore Mysore. Unfortunately due to some train delays and a bout with Dehli Belly, we were unable to meet up. At this point, we thought we would probably never see them again. 

We left Mysore and headed south to Kochi. Kochi was a surprisingly pleasant city. The second day there, we floated on a ferry across the backwaters of Kochi to the old Dutch city, Fort Kochi. As we were wondering around the streets of Fort Kochi, to our surprise, our Italian friends were standing in the street right in front of us!

Surprised by this serendipitous meeting, we made plans to meet later that night for a drink. We traded travel stories over a few beers and ended up riding the ferry back to Kochi together. During the ferry ride we starting talking about yoga and the spirituality in India. They were heading to Amritapuri, an ashram, in southern Kerala for a few days.

At this point, we had been traveling through India for a little over three weeks, and I only had a few days left to find my guru. Maybe this was my Pray opportunity!! 

I snapped a picture of the website and did a little bit of research. I quickly realized that this wasn’t any old ashram in India, this was THE Ashram of Amma, “The Hugging Saint.” Still to this day, I can’t remember where I read about Amma, but I was seeking and she was a teacher.

We took a two hour rickshaw ride from Alleppey to Amritapuri. The rickshaw driver dropped us off on the other side of the river, at the steps of a large bridge. The buildings on the other side matched the pictures from her website. We jumped out and proceeded over the bridge. 

As we crossed the bridge, many thoughts were spiraling through my head. Both of us were a little timid about what we might find on the other side.

The Ashram

We followed the fence to an opening, turned the corner and walked in. We were amazed to find a community of roughly 5,000 people living in this mini “city.” People were walking around everywhere. This “city” had everything you need: two temples, doctors office, grocery stores, clothing stores, juice bars, a few restaurants, etc.

Everyone was wearing white, modest, lose fitting clothes. I noticed I was wearing a tight fitting black and white summer dress and Karl was wearing shorts, a hat and a t-shirt. We instantly felt out of place.

It was extremely hot carrying our backpacks around so we needed to check in first before exploring. We took the elevator up to our room which was on the 11th floor. It reminded me of my college dorm room; high buildings, simple rooms, not so fancy beds, and white concrete walls.

My first priority was to buy some clothes so we didn’t look so out of place. On my way down, I was stopped by a woman who joined me on the elevator. She told me that I “should wear something to cover my shoulders”. She continued, “I know it doesn’t seem like an Ashram, but it is.”

Inside my head I thinking, “I’m trying lady, I’m trying! Trust me I wasn’t trying to disrespect you or the ashram culture. I’m on my way right now.”

As I reached the bottom, I stayed on the elevator and went back up to get my scarf. As I was riding down the elevator the second time, I thought to myself “This place seems intense and I thought enlightened and spiritual people weren’t supposed to judge……..”

Eventually, I was able to buy some cheap lose fitting clothing from the used clothing store on “campus” and felt like I was ready to get my spirituality on!

Outside our room there was a cork board filled with advertisements for activities, just like in my college dorm. Except in this instance, the advertisements were for yoga classes, meditation practice, volunteer opportunities, etc. Not fraternity bbq’s or Pizza Hut coupons.

I took my little black notebook out and wrote down when and where these activities would take place. Everything appeared easy on the surface until we tried to do it.

For example, I wanted to do yoga because I’m in India and I’m at an ashram. They wanted you to sign up for yoga ahead of time instead of just signing up when you went to the actual class. So we tried to go to the “yoga office” to sign up for yoga, and it was closed. Then we would walked across campus to check out one of the workshops just to find out they didn’t start for another month.

Then we tried going to the information counter and they weren’t much help either. At this point we were tired of scavenging and wanted to stop for a drink at the juice bar. Guess what, it’s closed from 2-4. Nothing seemed to be going well and it was very frustrating. On the surface, things seemed so organized but also very disorganized.

I didn’t want to give up yet. I’m still willing to give this ashram a try.

On one of the flyers, I noticed there was an astrologist on campus. I wanted to have a consultation with one. My next task was to try to figure out the hours the astrologist was available and how to make an appointment. We tried going straight to her office, that didn’t work. Tried going back to the information desk but there was a line.

Sensing our frustration, a nice Canadian started talking to us. We started to get to know her and she explained that things at the ashram run on “higher vibrations”, a different frequency, so to speak. Things seem to work just fine for people who live here, but to us from the outside, it seems like a discombobulated mess.

She continued, “if something doesn’t work out for you, then maybe you weren’t meant to have that experience.” Ahhh okay….. so this is the lesson. This information helped me let go and yet again I surrender in India. Do not let the frustration set in. India is India and will always be India; complex, sometimes confusing and always a paradox.

Then there was Amma. She was the real reason people came to this ashram. People didn’t come for the yoga or astrology; they came to get a hug from Amma! Amma is a very well-known name in India. She’s given financial help to the local community, built numerous schools and universities throughout the country and donated money for disaster relief efforts around the world. She turns no one away and feeds anyone who walks through the door.

Like everything at the ashram, we attempted to figure out where and when we could see Amma. We were told that we should just listen for the bell to ring and then follow all of the people?!?!

So later that afternoon, I heard the bell and I followed the people. It lead me to a massive open air temple. The temple had a stage, where Amma was sitting, and a shrine of one of the Hindu Gods (the shrine was too far away for me to tell what God this was). It was here that I would meditate with about 500 other people and then I would receive my hug from Amma.

I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t I want a hug from her?” People come from all over the world searching for healing from their pain and Amma is the one; the one that hugs all the sorrow away.

For me, the excitement was watching everyone else getting hugs. It was fascinating seeing the people waiting in line. Some were holding massive portraits of the saint, in hopes of getting it blessed, some were crying and some were very anxious. According to the welcome video we watched, Amma once gave hugs to suffering fans for 20 straight hours. 

It was my turn and the hug itself was nice, but a little uneventful. Despite the buildup it was just a nice hug from a very special lady. I didn’t feel some miraculous shift or that existential revelation I was searching for, but at least I got a hug.

Looking back on this experience, I now realize I had an unreasonable expectation that my spiritual guru would just show up while traveling through India. I don’t think the universe would just hand a spiritual master and mentor over to me like a gift.

There is no doubt India has changed my life forever, but not in the ways I had expected. This experience may not be exactly what I was looking for; not my Eat, Pray, Love moment, but it allowed me to surrender and realize that this is just another one of the many complexities of India.

It may take me a lifetime to truly understand India but this was just one step closer to realizing the multiple levels and beauty of this culture. I am forever grateful that I was able to visit this ashram and have this unique experience. I will keep searching for my Pray moment as we travel to our next country…….Sri Lanka.

Tell us about your spiritual experiences? Where these experiences similar to ours?

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