Ashram Life

Ashram life.  I’ve been so caught up in my thoughts I haven’t had a chance to describe what it’s like to live at Santosh Puri Ashram. Santosh means contentment, and it’s a good descriptor for this life.  Outside the walls, there is mud.  There are assorted vehicles blaring their horns, spilling around you on all sides as you try to walk to the English bookstore to buy mala beads for your friends.

Inside, there are flowering trees and there is always tea.  There is Mataji, who usually offers you fruit if you catch her eye; her son Ganga, who is alternately wise and frustrating because he thinks he is wise; her daughter Mandakini, who teaches cooking and just married Vikram, who pretended he couldn’t swim to woo her.  There are 10 or so workers, building another set of buildings on one side of the compound.  There are the ashram monkeys, leashed until they become pets that will protect the gardens from the bad monkeys with red butts.

There are the ashram dogs – a German Shepherd named Shikara, a huge chocolate lab named Mongolam and a 12-week old white lab puppy named Pushti.  Every morning after Aarti chanting, yoga asanas and breakfast, I take the dogs out to walk the jungle path along the Ganga.

Santosh Puri Ashram is on the outskirts of Haridwar, one of India’s holiest cities, where glacial melt streams from the Himalayas into the River Ganga.  The ashram faces the Ganga.  Right now the river flows quietly through grassland, only slightly polluted, foam bubbles collecting behind rockpiles and the slight sheen of oil or something slick on the surface in still places.

Mataji is always reminding us that it is dangerous along the jungle path, but I feel safe with my posse of dogs.  Every Indian man I have met along the way is either meditating and oblivious or runs at the sight of the big dogs.

Today, as we walked past the near-naked dreadlocked saddhu sitting in padmasana near his hut constructed of sticks, I tried to be quiet.  I shushed the dogs and motioned for them to pass quickly.  He looked like a holy man and I didn’t want to disturb his meditation.  Then his cell phone rang.

On the way back into the ashram garden from the jungle path, I always stop to greet the calves, who are 10 and 14 days.  The cows live in a lovely apartment facing the jungle.  Each morning, the floor of their house is scrubbed clean and each evening, fresh straw is put down for the calves to lie on.

They ring the bell at noon for lunch, and we sit cross-legged around the grass at the center of the courtyard, being served rice, dahl, vegetables and chapatis.  Sometimes there is a glass of fresh buttermilk from the cows.  We chant thanksgiving mantras in Sanskrit, sprinkle the food with water to bless it, and eat in silence, using all the senses to offer food to the temple of the body.  The Indians eat everything using the thumb and middle two fingers, a mudra signifying fire, water and air – the elements needed for proper digestion.

After the meal, we sit in vajrasana, on the knees, to promote digestive fire, and we place the right hand beneath the left arm to encourage the right nostril to flow, which also activates the digestive system.

After lunch, I take the puppy Pushti, some sticks and a blanket up to the rooftop courtyard, and read, write and meditate.  I try to watch my negative thoughts so long they turn into contented thoughts.  This system generally works, to a degree.

In the evenings, we again have Aarti (chanting in Sanskrit) around a fire.  We move to face the Ganga for a portion of the ceremony, and then gather around a temple for the last bit, where Mataji offers us a prasad (sweet) at the end.  I am now addicted to the Prasad at the end.  Even though I vowed not to have refined sugar ever again after Panchakarma, I justify this sweet because it is blessed and holy!

I like the rhythm of the days here, and the aspect of devotion that accompanies every action, no matter how mundane.

I keep thinking I should go visit Rishikesh; I should immerse myself in more stringent yoga to master some poses; I should see what I can during these last two weeks in India.  My brain rebels against staying here at Santosh Puri for two more weeks.

But, like it says in the second chapter of the Baghavad Gita, we can roam to and fro trying to learn more, and see new things and add more to our lives.  The secret lies in sitting down in the place where you find yourself, and growing roots a little deeper.

As Krishna tells Arhuna in the Gita, you have everything you need right now.  How can you find happiness in anything unless you are contented right now?

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