Location: Isha Yoga Centre, TN
Now for something completely different – yet fear not, still very Indian: I spent the week at an ashram – a sort of yoga temple community. No cycling, no chaos, no padded shorts. Instead peacocks – presumably wild – calling and displaying after the 5am drums – lily ponds and silent spiritual seekers all embraced by the foothills of the Velliangiri hills.
Frankly, I wouldn’t consider myself a very spiritual person – soulful I’d happily aspire to, but not spiritual. The idea of staying in a temple community therefore brought up images of uncomfortable sitting and annoying indoctrination. That said, like Odysseus, I may be lashed to the mast of the (western) enlightenment but I do prefer to keep my eyes open.
In particular, I enjoy yoga, the feel of being stretched back to ‘neutral’, aware of individual muscles and how to tense or relax them, and connected to your body via your breathing. To create this must have required a profound understanding of how the body works and I’m intrigued that it was developed by feel, experientially, rather than analytically chopping to bits. Exporing the other meditative and spiritual limbs of yoga, less discussed in the west, at a yoga ashram was therefore appealing.
The ashram, and its ‘guru’, Sadhguru (I was one of only a few who had not heard of him) both seem more spiritual than religious – unaffiliated and open to all but grounded in Indian yogic/hindu tradition. A key part of his contribution is, I think, his synthesising of east and west, scientific secularism with Hindu spiritualism, Iconoclastic logic with experientialism. Or, perhaps simply an updating of Indian spiritual tradition for the world’s modern angsts, attitudes and language: Yoga as an ‘inner science’ with ‘tools and technologies’; I extended my stay for a couple of days to do their introductory retreat tellingly called ‘inner engineering’ and yet part of the course involved sitting in front of a giant Linga while listening to sounding bowls and drums. The size and extent of his social volunteer run activities is also inspiringly impressive.
I continue to wonder whether we might better understand what matters to our bodies and minds if we looked at cultural, particularly religious, traditions with less cynicism just as the 18th and 19th century scientists took inspiration from nature in their scientific enquiries. Here, just like in Botswana, examples cropped up aplenty: chanting ‘OM’ sets your whole body vibrating – it would be odd if this didn’t have some effect on you; we are all mesmerised by fire, or ripples on water, but when that is proceduralised into ‘meditation’ we become resistant; here they take a cold bath before entering the temple to make them more ‘receptive’ – as I gave it a try clad only in a short orange towel, the parallel with the Swedish sauna to snow practice, which definitely leaves your body pulsing, seemed very close!
The people here are mostly Indian though with a number of impassioned, lost or curious westerners. It is an open community, giving, friendly though inevitably inward looking and meditative: collective, delicious, south Indian meals eaten in silence served and prepared by volunteers. Not too dissimilar from the friendly yet superficial interactions I’ve been having along the way. It was different on the course, 5 days with the same group, a pan-Indian array of the middle class – spoon and fork users; barristers and doctors, businessmen, and (software) engineers, their concerns, delights, talents and angsts would have been thoroughly recognisable to us in the west.
I have noticed one particularly Indian foible though – their fondness for a fanciful story. It reminded me of my favourite Indian book, Midnight’s Children, which captures this so wonderfully. I am still not quite sure what to say when people share seemingly sincerely the promise of benefits that strain belief: ‘Eating this once a day means you will never be ill, never get cancer’, ‘If you drink tea after a meal it can kill you’.
Perhaps this springs from the strong but unconfident sense of pride in India’s past traditions I keep seeing, so keen to share what is special about Indian culture, to hear what you think, but sometimes, like an unsure adolescent, drifting towards guesses, exaggeration, towards blame (usually England though with no personal venom) or to stretched readings of the past: ‘we managed to develop such rich culture because until the invaders (I think the Mughals rather than the Europeans was intended) came we weren’t troubled by wars like Europe’.
So how was the course?
- There was a logical, ‘your life is your responsibility’, side which chimed well with how I think.
- There was an ‘enlightened’ worldview which I will get back to you on.
- There were physical techniques to connect you more consciously to your inner self which seemed to work and are definitely worth exploring.
- And there was the spiritual explanation for why these techniques work, which I am less sold on.
Stimulating, yet also calming for body and, better still, my rattling thoughts. You shouldn’t consider me a spiritual convert yet though!