Ashram life is the basis of practical sannyas training. Only in the ashram can the necessary intensity be generated to awaken and maintain higher consciousness and spiritual inspiration.
Ashram life revolves around the fundamental principle of maximum effort directed towards higher consciousness, under the guru's guidance. This is a period of great purification, when mental stability and spiritual understanding are developed in the young sannyasin. Only in this environment can the guru lead the disciple into confrontation with his own inadequacies and weaknesses, so that his personality evolves and his strengths are consolidated. Spiritual evolution accelerates dramatically, because the mind has no diversion.
The life of a sannyasin is based in simplicity and hard work. A sannyasin is very active, always preoccupied with his work, and has no time or opportunity to brood over personal problems. The guru constantly challenges his disciples by forcing them into situations in which they cannot escape from themselves and their weaknesses, and can only confront and overcome them. The guru's only motive is the development of his disciples, and the disciples' only thought is to serve the guru.
In the ashram there are two kinds of labour always going on. Firstly, the spiritual effort made for one's evolution is hard work. Secondly, the physical work each sannyasin contributes in ashram life is hard work. Ashram comes from the Sanskrit 'shram', meaning 'effort'. The ashram is a place, separate from society, where one makes this double effort.
Ever since ancient times, ashram life has been organised, under the guidance of the guru or preceptor, for those who sought to accelerate their evolution. The sannyasin disciples came to stay for a twelve year period, during which they lived a very simple, communal life. In ancient times, even kings and emperors used to stay in the ashram and live the simple life of a sannyasin for some time. Ashrams were, and still are, designed along principles of utter simplicity, so that everybody can find his answers there. People from all backgrounds discover the joy of self-fulfilment as they participate equally in ashram duties.
When one lives in an ashram for some time, he has an opportunity to see himself and to simultaneously develop a strong inner faith. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and lack of self-confidence can be mended by even a short period of ashram life. When everybody participates enthusiastically in activities, work becomes contagious, enjoyable and voluntary. This is how individual growth occurs in ashram training in a beautiful and orderly fashion. Although the guru is there, he is not the director of activities, but is the source of inspiration. Ashram life gives the sannyasin a chance to investigate his real personality. The direct association and interaction with others which results from living together in a spiritual community, makes him aware of, and able to face up to the idiosyncrasies of the mind. Without this he would never even know the dormant prides and prejudices which he is harbouring. During this period of training, the sannyasin's mind undergoes a definite change. Balance and peace of mind are developed so that when the sannyasin goes out into the world later on, evolution of his consciousness continues with great speed.
In the ashram, the routine of eating, sleeping and working is harmonised with both the seasonal and the inner hormonal and physiological cycles of the body. Therefore the ashram day commences at 3 a.m., just before the time of brahmamuhurta, the hour of creation when the world is awakening with the first invisible rays of the sun. At this hour the body's physiological rhythms and hormonal systems are awakening into activity, having passed the level of lowest activity at about 2 a.m. when the whole body is almost completely shut down and resting deeply. Arising at this hour sets the pattern for the day, and allows the sannyasin to meditate in the hours around 4 a.m., which are most conducive to spiritual awareness, psychic attunement and physical quietness.
Ashram duties commence by 5a.m. and from then until sunset the sannyasin is fully occupied with his work and responsibilities - writing, typing, printing, teaching, cooking, gardening, marketing etc., interrupting his work only for short meal breaks. In the evening the swamis gather for satsang (spiritual discussion with the guru) or kirtan (singing God's name together to release pent up energy spontaneously and creatively). Then they retire to meditate and sleep by 9 p.m. The pattern is the same 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year, with slight seasonal variations. After several years, this pattern becomes firmly established and the sannyasin spontaneously arises early and works ceaselessly and creatively throughout his life.
In modern sannyas life, male and female sannyasins work side by side, without bias or restriction. Only their sleeping quarters are separate. It is necessary and natural for male and female sannyasins to work together towards the evolution of higher consciousness. In a spiritual institution, the relationship between man and woman need not be judged by any one, single scale. In a society suffering from much sexual neurosis, it is important that young swamis learn to live openly and with a clear outlook.
The sannyasin's life is based on simplicity and lack of material possessions, even though the institution may sometimes be quite large and well equipped. There is no contradiction here, because the sannyasin's attitude remains the same, while a sound financial base is necessary if an institution is to efficiently disseminate yoga to the world. The sannyasin chooses to eat and dress simply, to have no possessions or relations, because it makes him self-reliant, fearless and secure within. Nevertheless, he will use whatever is necessary to carry out his duties most effectively. He only avoids the attachments and worries that ensue from them.
Swamis have relinquished everything, and they have no rights. They want to do good for the society, and the society must support them. If a community wants a yogashram, it must be run by swamis. They are the best people to run ashrams because they actually do not want to do it. They are detached from personal motivation, and therefore serve selflessly. If someone threatens to take away an ashram, or destroy it, the swami will not fight. It is up to the society to support and protect its own ashrams.