I came to BYB to do the one-year Diploma course. I arrived in July 1999 on Guru Poornima, amidst chaos, thousands of visitors, incredibly hot, exhausted from the train journey, carrying far too much luggage and in desperate need of water and a place to sit down. Before entering the lift to go to my room someone pointed out Swami Niranjanananda. Who?
I slept a long, long time, motionless under the fan in my sparse but spacious room. I woke rested but hungry and completely disoriented. I was in a room in the middle of nowhere. I found my way to the kitchen, or rather a kind, smiley swami (later known as Prembhava) showed me the way and arranged some food. Fingers or fork? I was given a spoon. Oh, why does every single thing have to be so strange? God, give me one familiar thing to hold on to. No? All right then.
Then there was all that singing and having to sit still in a cross-legged position on the floor with a straight back for long periods of time, and trying to look like you really do have the faintest idea what's going on and that you do this sort of thing all the time.
Then, horrors! Everyone had to get up, line up and walk past the man I saw yesterday. He's obviously very important. Who is he? He's Swami Niranjanananda! Oh, right, yeah, what I meant to ask was, "What do I do?" Some other helpful soul (later known as Jayadhara) tipped me off. Say, "Namaste." So I did and felt many butterflies in my stomach and a little ridiculous too.
I really didn't understand what was happening. But for me, the finale was to come - the singing, the dancing, everyone going mad to Krishna Krishna Hare Hare. Oh, if my friends could have seen me then! Before I left London the parting comment of one concerned friend was, "You're not going to become like one of those orange people with the shaved heads and the bells in Oxford Street are you?" "Oh, no," I assured her, "don't be daft!"
So my first experience of ashram life was overwhelming. I expected peace, tranquillity, lots of time to sit and send love to the world from my lotus position and learn how to 'breathe properly' so that I might pass on this knowledge to others. Not a rave! Of course I now know I arrived bang smack in the middle of one of the ashram's biggest events of the year.
It's not possible to recall all the experiences one has at an ashram without it becoming a book no one wants to publish. Equally, it's hard to summarize their overall effect. I can make wonderfully sweeping statements like, "You will never be the same again," because it's true, because every experience changes you to a degree so that you are never quite the same again. Having found your way to an ashram, it's likely that your life has already been filled with some big life-changing experiences already. The ashram will provide you with plenty more - be sure of that. The ashram is full to the brim of tests waiting to happen, and being in an ashram activates those tests and as soon as you pass one, another is activated.
For me it was a bit like being thrown naked into a room full of people. Then slowly you realize you've been so concerned about your own nakedness and trying to cover it, you failed to recognize that everyone else is also naked. And you see that, despite the different shapes and sizes and colours (and obvious gender differences), we are all pretty much the same. A connection develops, a sense of unity, the more vulnerable you become, the less there is to fear - what a strange concept!
There were times when I was negative, when I just couldn't meditate or sleep or even cry, when faith went AWOL and if one more person had suggested karma yoga, I'd haveaaaahhhh!!! It's the mind, resistance to change making you want to fall back into old familiar patterns of behaviour, not because they make you feel better. In fact, you know they don't. But when your mind is so mean it makes you want to get out of it - doesn't it?
People do and will think you are mad to lock yourself away from the world for a year or four months or whatever. Who is locked up? Who is free? But sometimes they seem to be right! Sometimes you would do almost anything for a cheese (real cheese) toasted sandwich, or a glass of red wine, or a swim in the ocean! Oh! Wouldn't that just be heaven! The questions come, "Am I mad to have come to India to take this one year course in yoga? Do I really need to do this? Can't I learn as much on a beach in Thailand? Well, no, I don't think so. Well, yes, actually, just not as quickly."
I don't honestly believe that there is anything to be learned in an ashram that can't be learned outside it, but most of us need to be shown what is staring us in the face. Sometimes the lessons are quite sharp. The difference then is that in an ashram, life is lived with love and magic, blessings and truth. It's as positive or negative as your mind. To understand the mind, it's sometimes necessary to experience how terribly hard it is to be positive even/especially in an ashram. You feel that the grass is always greener on the outside when you well know that it's not - so where to go? Where is the grass greener? On the inside, always on the inside.
The ashram is not for everyone and definitely not for the faint-hearted. I had a tough time at times, however, I'm looking forward to going back because at other times I've never been so happy or at peace. I think I feel like everyone else who has spent time there and at Rikhia, very blessed and grateful - even/especially for the tough times.