Rolling out my mat upon a bed of granite which I had found emerging from a rice paddy like the belly of Ganesh, some words came to mind that someone had spoken to me a few weeks before. I was on a silent meditation retreat in a small leafy ashram on the plains beneath Arunachala mountain when a teacher had said ‘Don’t do someone else’s practice’. The retreat had encouraged deep rest, compassion and connection with nature. It coincided with the Pongal (harvest) festival so a nearby loud speaker had been spontaneously blasting out scratchy pop music all week – but it didn’t matter. By the end of the retreat my heart felt as big as the mountain.
We were in the final trimester of a trip to India which had begun in Kerala at the Sivananda Yoga ashram in Neyaar Dam. Here the practice of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda is faithfully replicated every day of the year. This no-nonsense approach, despite first appearances (rows of determined looking Westerners engaged in synchronized Kapalabhati and Surya Namaskar) is a sure way to strengthen your will power and bring stillness to your mind. The month-long teacher training program I had undertaken the previous summer had been life changing. As well as finding a contentment and grace I never knew existed, I got rock hard abs and the complexion of a 6 year old! At the ashram in Kerala it was cultural week and the undisputed highlight was the performance of a Baul singer; a wandering bard from the Bengali Tantric tradition. She played a single-stringed ektara, a duggi drum and ankle bells whilst pelting out songs of primal antiquity that embodied the ache of devotion and the longing for union. The tears were unstoppable. After a week at the ashram however, and another five rounds of Sun Salute in thirty degree heat, when a shiny-faced kid in a yellow and white outfit whispered in my ear ‘can you cover your shoulders please?’ the urge to screw up my face and poke out my tongue was fairly strong. It was time for us to move on.
Two weeks later with the sun rising behind us and the Arabian Sea lapping in front, we began our morning practice on the beach beside Amritapura ashram. The Guru, Amma, or ‘The hugging Mother’ has a very big heart. The hugs she gives out to queues of eager devotees every day are symbolic of her love and affection for all living things. The gravitational pull of her love has attracted thousands of pilgrims to the ashram. Leaning on a mop in the temple one girl told us she hadn’t left for seven years. She spoke feverishly of her intense love for Amma, and more surprisingly, of her deep repulsion for ashram life and the other residents, ‘I am here only for Amma’. Life had been tough for this devotee and the ashram was clearly her sanctuary. Her assertion that devotion should be concentrated on a single guru made us feel a little like voyeuristic ashram junkies as we planned our next foray into ashram-land.
The last ashram on our trip was the Sri Ramanashram in Tamil Nadu. This tidy, long established centre sits at the very foot of Arunachala; Shiva’s holy fire mountain upon which The Guru Sri Ramana Mahrishi lived his entire life. The ashram was built by Sri Ramana’s devotees who lured him down from the mountain in 1922. His teaching seems easy enough: ‘be as you are’, but somehow this is the most difficult practice to follow. We had spent the previous two weeks padding around some of India’s largest and most feisty Hindu temples in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. These impressive pieces of architecture with their stone carved idols, pillared halls and enormous rectangular water tanks are jaw dropping. But after a few epic sweaty bus rides which culminate in a sign saying ‘no Hindus in the inner sanctuary’ the awe somewhat loses its sparkle. It feels a little bit hurtful to be turned away from the effigy whose name you have been merrily singing in a be-carpeted hall in England. Consequently by the time we reached Sri Ramana’s ashram we were a bit ‘templed out’ so didn’t join in the hectic Hindu Pujas, or the marathon chanting sessions and we didn’t even circumnavigate the shrine of the 'great guru'. Instead we sat on the floor of a tiny room while an old Indian man lovingly read aloud from a book of Sri Ramana’s teachings, and we rested in the shade of gigantic old trees, and we climbed to the top of the mountain.