When you're a kid, going away to a special spot surrounded by nature its called summer camp. When you do it as an adult, it's called a retreat. I'm somewhere in between here at Ayur- Yoga Eco Ashram located about an hour outside of Mysore in Southern India. (You know you're getting close when there are more cows than cars on the road.)
It took 5 terrifying hours to get here from the Bangalore airport in the middle of the night but once I arrived, and had a nap, I realized I am in my own personal paradise.
The Ashram is spread out over several acres on a grassy slope that leads down to a river. The dining hall is at the top of the hill above a small studio and about 20 cabins. The main octagon-shaped studio looks like a giant gazebo and is situated down closest to the water with panoramic windows and a red, concrete floor. The rest of the land belongs to nature and is a mixture of organic fruits and vegetables, trees and flowers. (They grow a lot of our food here as well.) There are colorful clumps of flowers dispersed like confetti across the grass. Butterflies come in just as many colors as and mingle erratically with the flora. Seriously, I don't remember the last time I saw so many free flying butterflies. They're everywhere.
Although it's August and the rainy season, the weather is still pretty incredible. It's often cloudy and rains intermittently throughout the day, which causes the horizon to disappear into a haze in all directions. Sometimes if the clouds dissipate enough, you can see the silhouettes of the hills in the distance and heaps of palm trees in front of them. And once in a while, we'll be treated an incredible view of the night sky when the clouds feel like giving the stars a little time to shine. The temperature hovers around a perfect 80 during the day and drops just enough to need a light hoodie or sweatshirt at night.
Our cabins are the perfect size and level of comfort. There are singles and doubles and they are adorably constructed, almost fairy-take like. The beds are ful- sized, as opposed to twin-sized, and the pillows, sheets and mattresses are all clean & comfortable. We have a large cabinet to share as well as a desk and a nightstand. The bathroom has a toilet capable of flushing toilet paper and the shower has hot water, supplied by a solar powered heater! There is a small porch out front where you can read, admire the view or hang your wet, bucket-washed clothes to dry.
So here's a typical day at yogi summer camp.
Someone walks around with a wake up bell at 5:30. I'm already up because I always wake up at 5. I'm usually braiding my hair by the time the bell gets to my cabin.
Meditation led by Swami Prabodh starts in the gazebo at 6 AM, for which we all wear white clothes. It's kind of cultish but kind of cool at the same time. I didn't have room for any whites in my rucksack so I was happy to scavenge some from a bag of clothes left behind by previous students. I got an embroidered tunic and linen drawstring pants with two little wooden balls on the ends of the strings that fit very comfortably.
Mediation lasts 30 minutes. Everything is still pretty dimly lit at dawn when we start and by the time we're done, the sun is up and the sky is bright. I'm still struggling to find the perfect position that doesn't make one of my legs go numb. It looks easy from the outside but being alone with yourself and your thoughts is one of the hardest things to do.
At 6:30 we have the option to walk up to the dining hall and have a "hot drink." It not quite tea - just hot water with some natural flavoring a like lemon or ginger. After a few minutes it's time to head back to the cabin and change for morning yoga practice led by Vinod which starts at 7 AM and lasts two hours. Vinod is like a compact-sized, shaved-bald basketball player with lean muscles and the most animated personality. An incredible & admirable teacher.
Every day is different but one things remains constant: sun salutations. I hate the way we are taught to do them here - seems choppier and more awkward than the vinyasa flow that I learned back home. I can't help but get angrier with each repetition. I think our record so far has been 20 in a row, which is more like 40 because you do the same sequence on each leg. Thankfully they're always at the beginning so after we get them over with, I am on a steady incline towards bliss at the end of the practice. (Unless we do core work, then I'm a bit angry again, lol.)
During practice and meditation, there is no music. Just the birds and crickets trying to out-chirp one another.
After class everyone makes their way back to the dining hall for Breakfast. I think the dining hall is intentionally uphill, as far away as possible from the studio to give us more exercise. We have to earn those meals! We grab our round, metal trays and progress down the line to fill up the four sections buffet style. The general formula is: raw veggies that they define as a salad, a protein dish containing lentils or chickpeas or beans, chapati, some kind of other veggie dish and your choice of milk tea or ginger lemon tea.
Oh and quiet time is from 10 PM til 10 AM so we are silent until after breakfast, which is actually pretty nice. When you're not distracted by other people, you notice so much else. For instance, there are so many birds and butterflies fluttering around that it feels like I'm in a vintage Disney movie.
Ten thirty marks the beginning of our first class, Yoga Sutras, with Swami. P. He's like a brown, balding, gray-bearded yoda/smigel that tends to talk in circles. We sit, constantly shifting and fidgeting, on mats and cushions on the floor and he sits perfectly cross-legged facing us at the front of the room and delivers esoteric lectures on subjects like consciousness, detachment and the correct meaning of I. Sometimes it's hard to stay awake so I maintain my own consciousness by massaging my feet. Then students are allowed to ask questions and he sorta-but-not-really answers them and lastly we have to chant the 51 Samadhi Pada yoga sutras in Sanskrit at the end. (Basically the same themes and ideas from the movie Avatar.)
Free time starts after class, about noon. You can either do some extra asana practice, read, take a walk or take a nap. At 1:30 lunch is served which is fruit and fruit juice. Everything tastes so fresh and so clean (clean) and the selection is different everyday. My favorites have been pomegranate, papaya, mango, this rice/rice flake/banana mixture and drinking coconut water straight from local coconuts with a straw.
Our next and more technical class Yoga Anatomy & Physiology (and a bit of history) starts at 2:30 led by Krishna. He's tall and sinewy with a short black ponytail, glasses and shorter grating beard. His toes are well separated and his voice slow and soothing - pretty much the ideal image of a yoga guru. This is where we learn how yoga affects, interacts with and often improves the systems of the body. It's very interesting and practical advice and information.
Our last class of the day is a teaching workshop at 4:30, again led by Vinod, where we examine a few asanas (poses) at a time in more depth. We discuss the common corrections you need to help students make, injuries that can prevent someone from doing them and their overall affect on the body. It typically ends with us splitting into pairs and teaching each other.
Then it's finally dinner time at seven o'clock and we all trudge back up to the dining hall for the fourth and final time that day. The selection is similar to breakfast and some random days it includes a small dessert. Dessert days are my favorite days of course. The food has ranged from ok to incredible but my tummy hasn't felt this good in a long time, so that's the best part.
Some nights there are activities after dinner like watching a video or chanting with instruments. The videos have been an interesting supplement to our daily schedule but I still can't say I enjoy the chanting.
By this time it's getting late, and by late I mean 9 PM so I try to squeeze in a quick hot shower and some reading before bed. I am beyond grateful for this incredible experience.