The Ashram: “A Step in the Journey of Life”
by Morgan Bee
Background As defined by the dictionary, an ashram is a hermitage, monastic community, or other place of religious retreat. An ashram is a place where an individual tries to accomplish a personal goal, whether it be spiritual, yogic, or ascetic (a monk or hermit). The main purpose of an ashram is to recenter people into spiritual and physical wellbeing. Additionally, an ashram typically houses a guru, a spiritual leader of the community. Ashrams are a subculture of the religion of Hinduism, however they have dispersed throughout the years. Traditionally, ashrams are located a fair distance from human life, in a very rural setting. They originated in India but now are found all over the world. Typically, ashrams in the west are very yoga centered. Many of the ashrams here in the United States serve as a place to take a yoga class, participate in a meditation retreat, or take a training course in order to become a certified yoga teacher. Inside the ashram, the food is by no means limited, however it could be considered restrictive by many Americansâ€™ standards. Ashrams are all vegetarian, and do not allow intoxicants such as alcohol or smoking. In stricter ashrams, it is possible that they will not allow sugar or caffeine. Furthermore, each individual ashram has its own characteristics unique to that particular ashram, generally associated with the specific goals that participants achieve during their visit. Community service and selflessness is another important factor of ashram life, and there is time cut out in the daily schedule for â€‹sevaâ€‹, or shared community work such as gardening, cleaning, doing dishes, or other activities. Ashrams are relatively poorly known in most US cities, so there are few stereotypes about the institutions. However, a fundamental part of ashram culture is meditation and inner
peace. In todayâ€™s world, meditation isnâ€™t correctly defined and there are several misconceptions about the practice. For example, many people think that meditation is an exclusively religious practice. Although it was created with religious intentions, generally it is practiced for the health benefits derived from it. Along with that, meditation is not solely about living in the moment. This is definitely an added benefit to meditation, but it also includes several more components such as introspection, a heightened state of consciousness, and a fully relaxed body. Personally, I have no previous experience with the ashram sub-culture. I have studied a small amount about Hinduism in other classes, however I am ultimately a beginner in this topic. I wanted to choose something interesting, different, and completely new to me for this project in order to gain new perspective and appreciation for the multitude of different cultures and subcultures around me. I have practiced yoga a few times, and I have never tried meditation. A close family friend of mine studied at an ashram in order to receive her certification to be a yoga instructor, and the interest and inspiration for this project sparked from her experience at an ashram.
Research Analysis The ashram is a very specific location of study for an ethnography, and unfortunately there has been little research done on this interesting and engaging topic. However, there have been similar ethnographic studies conducted that examine on the religion of Hinduism, globalization, and specific types of yoga used. These broader focuses that pertain to the specific topic of an ashram will assist in planning well-conducted fieldwork and creating a thorough and accurate ethnographic study. A fascinating research project conducted by Ajaya Kumar Sahoo focused on cultural diaspora and its effects on religion, specifically Hinduism. Sahoo wanted to know more about the “views of diasporic Indians and their reconstruction of religious and cultural identities” as they participated in a movement called Sathya Sai Baba (a movement that believed in the internalization of religion by mixing Hindu religion and western culture) (Sahoo 34). Initially, Sahoo used the 2001 census of India to determine that 80.5% of the Indian population report to be Hindu. Using these records and following where hindu immigrants went and investigating their current lives, Sahoo found that even in the diaspora, Hindus “continue to maintain symbolic, cultural, linguistic, familial, business, and spiritual contact with India” that demonstrates just how incredibly bonded this culture is, even when separated immensely by geographic distance (Sahoo 25). This spreading of their culture makes ashrams in the west almost completely authentically Indian, although not without some type of western adaptations.
Following researching the census, Sahoo conducted an experiment himself. He gave nine page questionnaires and in-depth interviews to understand specific aspects of the Sathya Sai Baba movement. Not only do these immigrated Hindus continue to believe in their native religion, practices of their “religion and culture are significant aspects of daily life” which allows them to maintain spiritual ties to their mainland and their congenital culture (Sahoo 30). Furthermore, several movement headquarters called “Sai Centers outside India also offer programmes such as yoga and meditation wherever these is sufficient demand” (Sahoo 32). This movement from the 1940s-1970s probably was the cause for so many authentic ashrams to be present and active in the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere today. A different study, written by Deirdre Meintel and Géraldine Mossiére, examined 100 religious groups in Montréal, Canada. These groups included both Christianity and religions brought by immigration (HInduism, Islam, and Buddhism). Select people from each religious group participated in lengthy interviews, each one no less than an hour and a half. The two researchers wanted to investigate “individuals’ personal and religious trajectories, the role of the religious group in their everyday lives, [and] the level of their economic, social, and ideological commitment to the religious community” and try to see if they could come up with a hypothesis for Religious Cosmopolitanism (Meintel, et. al. 60). With the information found in the interviews, the duo found that cosmopolitan openness “involves religious ‘others’ and their beliefs and practices…[and] promot[es] Hindu-inspired meditation techniques and other spiritual practices along with various forms of yoga” that closely correlates with the methodology of religion in Millennials and Generation Z, where there is generally more spiritual feeling that physical evidence of religious involvement (Meintel, et. al. 64).
The study most relevant to the topic of ashrams outside India was conducted by Asha Persson, who delved into the phenomenology of Satyananda Yoga. In order to carry out her research, she “participat[ed] in the same wide-ranging activities as the community members themselves, such as regularly attending classes, retreats, and workshops...yoga, making friends, chatting, arguing, singing, sharing in communal meals, helping out in ashram kitchens...and doing a daily personal practice” (Persson 1). These activities not only made her a part of the ashram community, it also allowed her to really appreciate what the ashram stands for and the reasons behind their ways. Unfortunately, Persson also noted that “yoga in the contemporary West, including Satyananda Yoga, is vastly different from ‘classical’ yoga as described in ancient Indian texts” which means that all research done in the United States or Canada will still pertain to a certain culture, but it will not reflect perfectly what is actually occurring in India (Persson 1). These three studies, although varying in purposes and methods, still have similarities that show the characteristics of the core Indian and Hindu culture. Persson found that the center in which she studied in Australia “differs from many yoga schools...in that it emphasizes yoga as a ‘complete path’ that incorporates all aspects of life and has a clear philosophical and spiritual underpinnings” that is similar to Meintel and Mossiére’s findings of religious cosmopolitanism (Persson 1). The Satyananda yoga movement in Australia, according to Persson, “follows the Indian tradition...a practice seen as essential in classical texts” that correlates with Sahoo’s research on those in the diaspora who continue to pursue familial and spiritual ties with India (Persson 1).
My research will most closely reflect that completed by Asha Persson, although I will not have the time nor resources in order to do extremely extensive fieldwork. Working with minimal previous knowledge about the yoga community in Boulder, Colorado or ashrams all over the United States, all of the observations I record will be new information to me, and the fieldwork will serve as an incredible opportunity to learn more about a culture outside of the everyday norm. I will not include formal interviews or questionnaires in my ethnography of the ashram in Boulder, because I want to remain as inconspicuous as possible, be treated as a yoga student, and to not intrude on anyoneâ€™s beliefs or sensitivity about sharing their thoughts and opinions with a complete stranger. In order to conduct my fieldwork, my mother will accompany me to a Drop-In Day Class at the Shoshoni Ashram outside of Boulder, Colorado. We will partake in a yoga class, a meditation session, and share a meal with the people there, including those who are residents of the ashram itself. During these activities, I will observe how the people who belong to the ashram dress, how they interact with the opposite sex, the kind of foods they eat and how it is prepared, and the environment in which they live, work, and worship. I am hoping to find interesting information that is different from life in a traditional American suburban community, however I know due to technology and globalization, outrageous conclusions may not be drawn. However, I believe the research and analysis of a culture that is different from your own, even on surface level, is vital exposure for oneâ€™s adult life.
Methods In order to conduct the fieldwork for this ethnography project, I will use the method of participation observation. This means that I will participate in a social event with the particular subculture, the ashram. For this specific ethnography observation, I will be visiting Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in around Boulder, Colorado. Shoshoni Yoga retreat started as a group of yogis who came to Boulder, Colorado in 1975. They opened a vegetarian restaurant and saw the potential for not only the companyâ€™s growth, but also for their personal development. The establishment morphed from a restaurant to a bakery and finally into the ashram that is there today. They believe in working from their heart, soul, and mind, to benefit themselves and everyone around them. At the retreat, they practice Shambhava Yoga, which is based off the ancient tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. Kashmir Shaivism sees the entire world and all of its inhabitants as the
manifestation of one divine being. Shoshoni offers daily yoga classes, meditation sessions, retreats, and even childrenâ€™s yoga and meditation. Not only does Shoshoni offer a wide variety of class types, they also cater to those who have never tried yoga, and well-versed yoga instructors alike. They also have several housing areas for instructors and those partaking in extended retreats. At Shoshoni, they grow and make all of their own food, and follow a strictly vegetarian diet. On Sunday, November 5, I will be traveling to Shoshoni Yoga retreat with my mother. We will participate in their weekly half-day visit, where we will practice yoga (in the form of a group classroom setting), attend a short meditation session, and share a meal with instructors and other students from our classes. After the meal, we will also probably partake in seva, service for the ashram that could include anything from cleaning up the dishes from the meal, to helping with the maintenance of their dormitories or garden. During the yoga class, meditation, and subsequent meal, I will observe what each person is wearing, how they conduct themselves, and if they act differently toward their fellow instructors versus the students. I will also note whether there is a discrepancy in the amount of male and female teachers, and take into account the average age of the instructors. During the meal, I will observe what their pre- and post-meal practices are, including offering small prayers, shaking hands with others, and general etiquette that I am not familiar with in my personal life. I will not be asking and recording specific questions, as I would not want to disrupt the authenticity of how each person and instructor carries themselves and acts toward everyone else. This research is very similar to that described in the ethnography study conducted by Asha Persson. She also participated in the yoga and meditation classes, shared meals with the
other students and instructors, and participated in Seva. Her work was thorough and interesting, and I hope to achieve the same type of discussion-worthy research. Although Persson’s research was conducted at an ashram that practiced Satyananda Yoga as opposed to Shambhava Yoga, I believe that our final analysis of the cultures will be fairly similar. The method of research I chose, participational observation, is important because I think it is best to attend their classes and eat their specialized meal, in order to truly gain a perspective on their central mission of spiritual, mental, and social connection. Without this exposure to how ashrams operate, how they treat their students, and how they act towards each other, it would be impossible for me to give an accurate conclusion about ashrams in order to help other interested people. Because ashrams are generally unknown in the United States, my research is important because is shows that they are exciting and interesting subcultures in our areas that most people don’t know about and will never encounter. I think this can raise a small bit of awareness for yoga retreats such as Shoshoni, for people who need an escape, or are looking for an alternate way to express themselves. Fieldwork For the fieldwork of studying the subculture of ashrams, I hope to gain knowledge about the ashram as a whole, and see if it truly is its own distinct subculture. I had intended to seek out differences in gender at the ashram, as well as how the community works together as a whole. To conduct this portion of the project, as aforehand mentioned in the Methods section, I traveled to Shoshoni Yoga Retreat outside of Boulder, Colorado. To get there, my mother and I drove through Central City, Colorado and continued on a small, two-lane highway for several miles until we reached an inset dirt road. We turned into the drive and continued for another few
miles before we arrived at the gate that announced we had arrived at Shoshoni. The location was extremely secluded, but also serene, with heavily wooded grounds that made the area seem like its own little world. There were several small cabins, a larger building that turned out to the one of the yoga classrooms, and a large white building with a blue roof that was the temple. We parked in the almost vacant parking lot and walked along the dirt path, following the handmade signs to the office building. Inside, there was a check-in desk, a small store where one could buy t-shirts, books, and other souvenirs, and a narrow hallway that led back to the dining room. When my mom and I checked in, I was slightly surprised to see that they utilized iPads for their check-in process. I didnâ€™t know how much technology there would be on site, as the website portrayed the ashram to be like a separate world, where one was cut off from most modern devices. Throughout the day, however, I noticed that the iPads at check-in were the only devices used in the entire facility, as there was no cell service. This added to the seclusion factor of the area as a whole, and it was nice to feel relieved of the stress of everything happening in the outside world. The woman at check in was extremely nice, and seemed excited that my mom and I were there for the day. She spoke in a soft voice, but did not wear any unordinary clothes or jewelry. She gave us a short tour of the campus using a map, and directed us to the beginnersâ€™ yoga classroom that we were to go to. So, we walked across the single dirt road and went to the classroom building. Within the building, there were also dorm rooms. I did not go into any of the rooms as they were mostly occupied, but the bathrooms were open. They were separated by gender, and had sinks, toilets and showers. In lieu of doors in the bathroom, each of the stalls were protected
by curtains. I could tell that the ashram was very environmentally conscious, as the only light coming into each room was natural light through windows, and every sink, toilet, shower and lightswitch had signs with the gentle reminder to save water, paper, and electricity. Walking towards the back of the building towards the classroom, I noticed how extremely quiet the whole place was. Whispering to my mom felt like screaming, as the only noise that could be heard was the faint wind coming from outside. In fact, it was so quiet that I was surprised to see that the instructor was already in the classroom. At first, my mother and I were the only two people in attendance, but later more women and eventually one man joined the group. Altogether, the class was composed of eight students and one instructor. We grabbed yoga mats and blocks from the cubbies on the periphery of the classroom, and sat down to begin the breathing exercises customary to starting any practice of yoga. It was a fairly simple yoga class, with emphasis on stretching and breathing, and lasted one and a half hours. It was much different than the few yoga classes I have attended before because there was no background music, and the instructor was having open conversation with several of the students while we were transitioning from pose to pose. Although the class was small and I felt slightly embarrassed at first due to my lack of yoga abilities, it was one of the most relaxing and laid-back yoga classes I have ever been to. The instructor, a young woman of about 20 years old conducted the class and kept reminding the students to focus on what the body is telling the brain. This was very interesting to me, as if the brain and the body were two separate beings, yet each carried by the same person. Focusing on how my limbs felt during each pose made me feel hyperconnected to myself, and made me aware of each movement I was making. The class ended with Shavasana, which is basically laying flat on your mat with your eyes closed, while you
focus on your breathing and try to let all other thoughts go. It was a peaceful way to end the class, and then the instructor began conversation again and invited everyone to stay for meditation. My mom and I remained in the classroom while everyone else packed up and put away their mats and blocks, and so we were the only students left for the practice of meditation. The instructor demonstrated several different breathing techniques such as closing one nostril at a time, or exhaling for longer than you inhale. Then, the three of us sat in serene silence with our eyes closed. The instructor suggested repeating a mantra in our heads in order to focus on the task at hand, yet I still struggled with preventing my mind from wandering. The whole meditation session lasted about 30 minutes, and I was shocked at how quickly the time went when I was trying to focus on breathing and the mantra. After yoga and meditation came lunchtime. We walked back across the dirt road and into another door of the check-in building. There, the classroom sized cafeteria was filled with long community tables flanked by benches on both side. Along one wall, there was a line where we got our food. The staff working there served us each equal portions of mushroom soup and homemade bread. They are vegetarian at the ashram, so I was not surprised to see no meat products during our meal. My mom and I sat down at the end of one of the tables, and were quickly joined by our instructor and several other instructors from the ashram. There were already many other people from the beginning class and the advanced classes eating and mingling. Everything seemed extremely laid back, especially when the instructors felt no hesitance in sitting down and chatting with us. Through conversation, we learned that the staff had been at
the ashram Although a main focus of the ashram is spiritual connection and mindfulness, there were no pre- or post-meal prayers. The instructors chatting with us asked one another who made the meal, so it was clear that every employee at the ashram rotated the responsibility of certain duties. Through talking with them, I learned that the mall group of instructors there had been at the ashram anywhere from a few months to a few years. The woman who taught the yoga and meditation I attended actually did her teaching certification there, and loved it so much, she never left. Their warmth and openness to talk with my mom and me showed the relaxed, laid-back nature of the ashram as a whole. Throughout yoga, meditation, and lunch, I did not observe any differences between how the men and the women acted at the ashram. Everything allowed both genders, however the majority of both the instructors and the students were female. Additionally, there were no barriers between the students and the instructors; everyone was treated as an equal and the instructors were welcoming and excited to have newcomers. Unfortunately, there was no seva the day of our visit, so we were unable to participate in that. I would have enjoyed to see what other responsibilities there are at the ashram, other than teaching classes and cooking the meals. Also, it would have been nice to interact with more of the other students there that day to ask them questions about their experiences at the ashram. The temple was also closed so we could not see the inside of it, although it was beautiful from the outside. Conclusion
From my time visiting the ashram, I learned that it is definitely a remote community, distinct from anything like I have ever experienced. Each person there felt like a vital part of the ashram, and every action there happens with intention and purpose. The interdependence the staff had with one another as well as the individual personalities of each instructor made for an interesting visit. I loved how welcoming, warm, and excited each person was; it seemed like it made their whole day just to have a new visitor come tour the grounds and take a class. It also gave me the impression that they are all truly happy with themselves and completely content with their lives while living and working at the ashram. Overall, I enjoyed my time at the ashram. I thought the yoga class and meditational practices were calming and made me aware of how my body was working. I was surprised at how quickly two hours could pass by when you are focused only on your breath and simple movements. Being far from a yoga expert, I was happy that the ashram offered beginning classes, and didnâ€™t just jump straight into an advanced practice. I found it interesting how much the instructor focused on listening to the body and following exactly what it says, as if the body and the mind were disjoint. I was disappointed that I was unable to take part in everything they had to offer there, such as participating in seva and visiting the temple. I think it would have been important to see every aspect of the ashram in order to conduct totally accurate and well-rounded fieldwork, but I still think I learned a fair amount about a new community that I had never known about before. My research was important because it shows that there are small communities everywhere that can be completely different from the world you live in, even two hours from your house. I think it would be interesting to visit other ashrams, both in the United States and in
India and to compare and contrast the different aspects of each. I think Shoshoni is an Americanized retreat, as it had many people with modern technology visiting every day. If I were to conduct further fieldwork on the subculture of ashrams, I would dive well past surface level. In contrast to this ethnography, where I just dealt with the overall physical experience of being at an ashram, I would conduct more, formal interviews with both the instructors and the students. I also would hope that I would be able to participate in both the seva and a service at the temple, and also explore the differences between one ashram and the next.
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