“Yoga is the journey of the Self, to the Self, through the Self.” Bhagavad Gita
Several years ago, I spent a month in an ashram in Kerala in order to get certified as a “yoga teacher.” I had been practising yoga for almost fifteen years, beginning with an introduction in the gym in my workplace in California. For almost a decade however, I had engaged in solitary practise at home, at least five days a week. My disciplined practise of yoga had been the main reason I had remained healthy and sane during a traumatic period of my life. Not a subscriber to Shilpa Shetty’s videos or the YouTube channels of other new age gurus, I swore by my copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.
When a good friend chanced upon a 200-hour Yoga residential program that was certified by Yoga Alliance and asked me if I was interested in joining her, it seemed like the right time to embark on this bucket-list activity that I had been putting off. I was intrigued by the curriculum that included Bhagavad Gita and Vedanta lessons and required a written final exam. How hard could this be?
I had always thrived in an academic environment and actually enjoyed exams; this would be a piece of cake! What transpired however, was a truly humbling experience that busted several myths about myself that I considered to be the unvarnished truth.
Myth # 1 – I am a morning person
At home I enjoy having some time by myself each morning, a particularly productive time for introspection, inspiration, and initiating the day in a peaceful way.
At the ashram, it took about three mornings in a row of waking up to a bell ringing in the distance to announce that the meditation session would begin in 30 minutes , at 6 a.m. By day seven, I was ready to get rid of the bell or the person ringing it, whichever was easier.
Myth # 12 – I am a highly disciplined person who thrives in a structured environment
When I am at work, I enjoy the fixed routine into which weekdays and weekends fall into. When I am busy, I am motivated to accomplish more.
At the ashram, the morning and evening asana classes, the early morning and late night meditation routines, fixed mealtimes and unyielding regimen was similar to an army boot camp. Each day I contemplated running away from the tried, tested, pre-decided schedule.
Myth # 3 – I am open and accepting of others
At work, I worked well on teams with people from different countries, backgrounds, cultures, and personalities.
At the ashram, every action of our batch of 120 students composed of people from 20-odd countries, was monitored, every absence noticed, and every aberration censured. I don’t know who I hated more, the teachers who seemed inhuman in their dedication or my fellow classmates who noted attendance.
Myth # 4 – I can get along with a variety of personalities
I grew up in a small apartment with two brothers, parents and a finicky grandmother. No personal space, no privacy, no problem. Or so I thought.
My immediate neighbor in the dorm would keep the lights on and stay up well after bedtime rubbing cream into her face, and spend an additional half hour on her hair each morning. For stealing these precious moments of time, I came close to throwing a pillow at her, not caring about the consequences..
Myth # 5 – I am not picky about food
A lifelong vegetarian, I love eating vegetables, happy to eat healthy.
The ashram food was timely, adequate, and wholesome, day in and day out. Oh, how I missed my daily caffeine, my regular desserts, my occasional junk food!
Myth # 6 – I am physically fit
I have maintained a healthy weight all my life, practiced yoga regularly and gone for walks almost every day. I have as much stamina as people who spend hours in the gym each week.
After the 2+2 hours of asana classes each day, with multiple rounds of surya namaskars and pranayama, I could barely drag myself up the steps to my dorm, and collapse into a disturbed slumber.
Myth # 7 – I can deal with heat and humidity
Mumbai is blessed with a hot and humid climate. I grew up playing outside every summer, traveled by local trains overflowing with people, and lived in a home with no air-conditioning.
At the ashram I learnt that the months of March and April in God’s own country of Kerala should only be enjoyed from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. I could never be sure if my t-shirt was wet from sweat after an asana class, or just by breathing, because it was always glued to my body.
Myth # 8 – I am trained to do my work myself
My mother was a neat freak and wanted us to be self-sufficient. This meant learning to wash your clothes, cook your meals and keep your room clean.
A week into the ashram routine after I ran out of clean under and outer wear, I would have gladly paid anyone to do my laundry. Why couldn’t the ashram have a laundromat?
Myth # 9 – I like being around people
Perhaps as a result of growing up in a big city, I feel safer amidst crowds than on deserted streets.
With 120 classmates constantly hovering around from 6 in the morning, there was no place to hide, have a private conversation, or even think. A quiet day by myself seemed a distant luxury.
Myth # 10- I love practicing yoga
I really do. Yoga came into my life after the birth of my daughter and had been the bedrock of my daily discipline.
After 4 weeks of a brutal regimen, I had to seriously think about my relationship with yoga. Instead of a constant companion like it was in the ashram, I learnt that I preferred yoga to be a regular but undemanding acquaintance.
The unvarnished truth
Ashram life was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to acknowledge the limitations of my body as well as my personality quirks. I was happy, but not completely surprised to discover that it was my mental strength that helped me stay the course. My favorite part of the program was the spiritual discourse on Vedanta, something I am sure I will revisit in the future.
What did I gain from the experience? Self-awareness.
Am I a certified yoga teacher? Yes, on paper. But as our asana guru said, “You can never be a yoga teacher. You can only be a yoga practitioner.” That was what I was when I entered the ashram and that is what I am today. The journey continues.
Would I do it again? No.
But I will forever cherish the lessons of that magical month.
Photo Credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives