September 2014 - First Impressions
We've all heard the word ashram and in the west, have images in our head more often than not from Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. The yoga courses I've done in India have usually been held at what you might consider a 1 or 2 star hotel - single rooms and toilets, with minimal furniture but functional. Coffee is allowed, and talking is the norm during meals. In all my years of yoga, my stay at Parmath Niketan was really the first time I've truly had an ashram experience.
Parmath Niketan is an ashram in all senses of the word. The place seems to exude worship, serenity and devotion. Silence is required at meals for course participants, and encouraged throughout the day to foster a mindset of contemplation and reflection. A strict dress code of modest white attire for course participants is followed. The ashram runs a wide spectrum of social services for India's needy and is involved in environmental activism as well. In fact, while we were there, Swamiji was attending the UN Climate Change conference in New York. Of course, the evening aarti ceremony on the Ganga is known widely for the beautiful chanting of mantras and lighting of lamps, a time every evening to offer light, love and devotion to God. The ceremony draws hundreds of spectators and participants every single evening!
The yoga course
Our group of 17 hailed from many corners of the globe, including India, Singapore, UK, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Brazil, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, and the US. Surprisingly, we weren't all that young either - ages ranged from 19 to 50+ with most participants in their late 30s and early 40s. Our two teachers, Sadhvi Abha Saraswatiji (referred to simply as 'Mataji') and Indu, were brilliant, kind, considerate and caring souls. Both are deeply knowledgeable about so many different aspects of yoga, and both of them have gorgeous voices that guided us through movement , prayers, chanting and discussions.
We started with chanting every morning at 5:30 a.m. Mataji led the chants - I've seen her over the years at the Ganga aarti and love her voice. What a treat to walk into a yoga hall and see her on stage, looking resplendent in orange. Her voice as she chanted Sanskrit prayers was melodic, and I listened to it with my eyes half closed, aware of the birds chirping and the sky gradually becoming blue.
After prayers, Mataji led us in pranayama breathing practices. We started with kapalbhati, exhaling forcefully for 60 breaths and then 100. We shifted to covering one nostril, then the other. This was a new pranayama practice for me and it quickly builds heat in the body. 'The benefits of this pranayama are countless,' she said. 'It not only cleanses the respiratory system, but goes deeper and further in ways we cannot even comprehend.' She reminded us of the importance of consistent practice. 'You don't just read one day and then say there, I've read all day, I'm done. You read the next day too. Same with pranayama - be consistent.'
Mataji then led us through warm up practices and several rounds of sun salutations and standing asanas. I was amazed by how spry and limber she is - a clear testament to the power of yoga and a regular practice. I worked up a sweat through the sun salutes, and her gentle verbal cues got me further and deeper in Virabhadrasana than I've been in quite awhile.
We chanted om numerous times throughout the practice. At one point, Mataji said 'never forget the countless blessings that you have been given.' This was a two hour practice to mark the first day of a 12 day intensive yoga course.
Indeed, what a blessing to be at Parmath Niketan!