My Ashram Experiment

My Ashram Experiment
Sivananda yoga ashram after a morning walk
Sivananda yoga ashram after a morning walk

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that:

One: Two weeks in an Indian ashram was my ‘cheap shot’ at accelerated self-discovery.

Two: I was your textbook epiphany-seeker (no thanks to Eat, Pray, Love, which I never read).

Three: I now have firsthand experience of living out an old cliché, indulging a quarter-life crisis, trying a headstand with close to zero yoga experience, and dangerous chocolate-deprivation for two weeks.

Well, I’m still not sure why I went.

I guess, in a world measured out by Foursquare check-ins and cardboard cheeseburgers, the threat of unreliable wifi and a strict vegetarian diet might have just stricken me as refreshing at the time… Or it might have seemed like one of those trips that would give me granny-cred when I’m old and toothless.

In any case, I packed three of my oldest T-shirts, an insect repellent, iPhone and concealer into a 10 litre Deuter backpack and left for Sivananda Kerala, India.

15 days of curry vegetables, eight unsuccessful headstands, and a close encounter with a hairy palm-sized tarantula later, here’s are three random things I’ve gleaned:

#1 Everybody’s in some kind of crisis

The interesting thing about a clichéd vacation is… well, everyone else was thinking exactly the same thing – everyone in a short-term or chronic crisis seemed to converge at the ashram. I’ve never met so many people with quarter-life, mid-life, three-quarter life crises. There were people who couldn’t get jobs, people who hated what they were doing, tired people, confused people, people who were unhappy for no particular reason…

And perhaps it just seemed like the place for it, but well, people just shared their stories more freely.

The thing was, it wasn’t ‘solidarity of the miserable’ at all. On the contrary, what I realised was that everyone’s got some kind of half-formed plan too. I met a girl who wants to start a sustainable community in Costa Rica, a woman who lost a job she’s had for 19 years and suddenly decided to be life coach, and an ex-banker reinvented as a stopgap-hippie prepped to take on India.

Through their eyes, I saw a vast world of infinite possibilities, only limited by my imagination and courage. And somehow, I started to believe that all we need is a half-formed plan, and then we’ll make the rest up along the way.

#2 Epiphanies are over-rated

I may be saying this because I didn’t have one spectacular ‘moment’… like in the movies. No lightning spark went off, no ‘highlights-of-my-life’ flashbacks occurred – sorry to disappoint.

On my first day, our yoga teacher took us down to the river to mediate. Because every tree, every rock, every weed, he said, has vibrations and ‘memories’ that can heal the mind and soul, and so we’ve got a secret stash of positive vibrations right in our backyard.

This may sound a little new-agey, but I did feel just a tad calmer for that, and it made the crucial difference. I’m starting to think that perhaps, sometimes, instead of waiting for life-changing epiphanies, all we need is to calm our mind and think quietly.

#3 The monsters are really just in our head

No surprises – Monday is the day I hate most – it’s the day the world drags you out of your warm bed and across the street in your sleeping clothes, your hair bedraggled and your knees scrapping against the pavement, and makes you do a stupid tap dance.

The ironic thing was, Monday morning chased me right up to the ashram in India. I had no forgotten deadlines, no early morning meetings, no embarrassingly stupid powerpoint slides, and yet I felt the same sense of anxiety, the sense that I was somehow late for something, had forgotten something, had missed my shot – don’t ask me at what.

Maybe because, as they say, we can run halfway across the world, but we can’t run away from our own demons, fears and anxieties.

And of course, the other ironic thing was that I had to run halfway across the world to truly appreciate that.

More on why I love to travel: Wanderlust
And other Places On My Bucket List

Wanderlust

Wanderlust
From my trip to Agra, India
From my trip to Agra, India

After visiting 23 countries over the 31 years of my life, I must say that there are only three things I absolutely hate about travel – touts, toilets and packaged tours. Why? Because touts are always make me feel like a money tree, exploring new toilets feels like an incalculable risk, and package tours are really just like watching 18 poorly edited trailers back-to-back when you really just want to see one good movie.

Having said that, these are the five reasons I brave such ‘untold dangers’ to hit the road time and again.

#1 Mental Detox
Packing for a trip helps to un-clutter my life – because unless you are Paris Hilton or her chihuahua, you usually only have one or two bags of luggage space. And deciding what to bring helps you pare the thousands of creature comforts and cool toys you have down to the essentials.

I never realise how many things I’ve amassed and how much time I spend sorting them out until I pack for a trip. And somehow, deciding that I really don’t need to bring another perfume, pair of shoes or gadget helps me clear up mental space, sift the essential from the fluff, and ultimately put things in perspective.

#2 For An Adventure

It’s either the white noise or the plastic chicken, but taking a plane always makes me feel like I’m in some kind of fake temporary limbo, and when I emerge on the other side, I’ll be entering a different world, a new Narnia where I can be someone else for a while, and even vanquish a Minotaur or two. Regardless, I always up for an adventure again on the other side.

#3 For New Perspectives

Remember Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams gets his students to stand on their desks to see the world from a different perspective? I’m starting to think that maybe as we grow older, we start to take ourselves too seriously to ever flippantly climb a table again, or see anything special when we do. That’s why we need to climb mountains, castles, 100 storey observatory towers in search of that same sense of wonder again.

#4 To Find My Pace

Don’t get me wrong: I love travelling with friends. But it also somehow feels like travelling in one big cloud of familiarity. Solo travel is a refreshing change because it helps me discover a new place, discover myself and find my own pace again. In a world where we are always scrambling to keep pace with others, I think everyone should try solo travel at least once.

#5 Because The World Is So Beautiful And We Are So Small

Travelling makes me believe in the magic again.

Taken in Rajasthan, India
Taken in Rajasthan, India

A Passing Memory

A Passing Memory

Many years ago, I was assigned to write a story on a hospice for a small Singapore-based health magazine.

The PR person for the hospice scheduled me to interview two patients, both of whom seemed happy enough to spend one precious day in the last days of their lives sharing their life story with me.

On the day of the interview, I came down with a bad cold. I didn’t want to infect terminally ill patients so I rescheduled the interview. When I called back a few days, I was told that one of my interviewees had passed away from complications.

So I did my interview with just one patient who was down with 4th stage lung cancer that had spread to the bones. I only remember that throughout the interview, she kept telling me, with a brittle smile, a hoarse voice and a twinkle in her eye, that she knew she’d be well and home with her family by Christmas.

She passed away a couple of weeks after.

                                                                                                        —–

At that time, I was very affected by this. I was not quite sure if I was inspired or simply depressed.

Because of a common cold, I lost the opportunity to meet a dying man with a story to tell. The woman who I did speak to was frail as a leaf, but so tenaciously optimistic – a poster girl for infinite human capacity to hope. And if that wasn’t enough irony and pathos, why would two people on the brink of death chose to spend their most treasured time speaking to an utter stranger when two years ago, they might not have spared me the time of day if I passed them on the streets.

Having said that, I really don’t want to milk this experience for moral summaries or trite truisms.

It was, as I told it.
It moved me and shifted the course of my life forever (if only by a micro-inch) – just like all the people we’ve met, books we’ve read, movies we’ve watched, places we’ve been to… everything that left a lump in our throat.

I’m starting this blog because I believe that extraordinary and ordinary inspirations happen every single day. And I don’t want to miss them.