An ashram is a place of temporary retreat where great effort is undertaken to accelerate the transformation process towards self-realization. It is a place of spiritual retreat and growth where you come to know yourself. An ashram fosters and encourages various types of discipline without which hard work and effort are not possible. It also teaches us how to live with simplicity, rather than indulging in the passing whims of fashion or social trend. The very atmosphere of the ashram environment is infused with spiritual ideals for us to reflect on and absorb.
As we master the ashram lifestyle we develop an immunity to negative tendencies both within ourselves and the world around us. We encounter people from all over the world and from varying cultures and backgrounds. We learn how to tolerate difference and see the value in anothers opinion, and to understand the concept of unity within diversity. As we develop and grow away from an egocentric attitude, we accept opportunities to help and support others with joy and enthusiasm. And we learn, in time, to see the divine in every person and in every circumstance.
Ashram life focuses on character development. As we interact and work with others, we gain an insight into our capability for future growth and creativity. Untapped potential is released, and a transformation of negativity and pessimism into positivity and optimism occurs, as we live each day more fully and more spontaneously. We learn to live life not in the past, nor dreaming about the future, but in the now of the present moment. In the experience of living in the now we find the answer to who we really are.
We can experience ashram life as a visitor for short or long periods where we participate in the daily ashram activities and/or attend seminars or courses. Secondly, we can participate in a more intense manner, by living in the ashram for a lengthy period of time and undertaking training in sannyasa life.
In an ashram, the knowledge that transforms the individual personality is learnt through the personal experience of living with others in a community whose energy and environment is governed and directed by or through a guru. This is known as the gurukul lifestyle. In ancient times disciples were trained within a gurus household. Kul means family or community. Gurukul means the family or community of the guru.
The gurus presence in an ashram can be physical or non-physical. It is necessary to have someone who embodies the teachings to a degree that we can accept and emulate. The gurus role is to guide the disciple through removing the layers of darkness built of ignorance and fear. As these layers fall away, through the effort undertaken in the ashram, the light that is already in us is revealed, and we have a clearer consciousness of our real being or higher self, together with an overwhelming aim to serve others though selfless service and unconditional love. However, all this takes a long time and many lives. The role of the ashram is to accelerate this process. How does it do this?
In an ashram, yogic practices and teachings are applied to accelerate the transformation process which takes place primarily through purification and the deepening of awareness. The three central yogic paths in ashram life are jnana yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga, the practices and teachings that work on our heads, our hearts and our hands, or on our thoughts, emotions and deeds. It is these main yogic paths that make the ashram lifestyle holistic, as they are working on all levels of our being to refine impurities, release blockages and readjust disharmonies. Awareness is the most important aspect of all yogic paths. The yoga practices begin by training us to consciously note the physical movements of the body and the process of breathing. Then we are led to extend our personal awareness through yoga nidra, pratyahara and dharana practices.
In yoga, awareness means the ability to become more of an impartial witness or spectator, rather than letting our initial awareness lead us to an involvement in the thought or emotion being generated. In this way our awareness is without judgement or criticism. We gain distance from what is going on within, as we gradually develop the ability to be in control of our mind, rather than remain its victim.
Acceptance of both the pleasing and less pleasing aspects of our mind and its contents leads to tolerance and non-attachment towards our present stage in the evolutionary process. Being able to accept our own frailties helps us accept those of others, and this increases our powers of discernment and understanding. We are then able to act on our weaknesses with impunity and with a gentle but firm action plan of transformation. Awareness leads to acceptance, and acceptance to action.
Awareness helps us to be more aware of what is going on in the world in general, and this ability to witness and detach ourselves from the hurly-burly of life reduces the effects of stress and tension so rampant in society today. With awareness we become increasingly knowledgeable of the manoeuvrings of the ego and how self-centred our lives are. We understand that it is the ego, and its sense of separateness and estrangement, that is preventing us from becoming who we really are. The ego tries to prevent us realizing our true identity by keeping us asleep. Yoga, and all major spiritual paths, awaken us to the reality of the spirit.
Most of us require challenge and conflict to wake up. This process often involves suffering, and the discomfort of recognizing that the limitations we project on to others are reflections of our own inadequacies and have little to do with the other person. We begin to see that the ego mind is one of illusion and, as we acknowledge this, the ego increases resistance to this knowledge, and further suffering is experienced. The ego is frightened of losing its power and control, and it resists any surrender of itself to allow the atman to govern in its stead. Learning that what we project on to others and hate or resent about them are really those qualities in ourselves that we wont accept takes a lot of awareness and courage. It demands a decision to change the way we view others, and their relationship to ourselves and ours to them.
In the contemporary world many people are disillusioned with the major institutional religions and feel abandoned and estranged from any credible belief or philosophical structure. This is especially so with young people and has led in recent years to a marked increase in youth suicide and drug addiction. Yet a large percentage of young people tend to be innately spiritual and keen to embark on an ideological or spiritual quest that will satisfy their hunger to know who they are and the meaning and significance of their lives.
There is an emerging need throughout the world for spiritual paths that provide meaning for people without the restrictions of rigid dogma and antiquated theology. People need freedom to express their individual spirituality but without a sense of isolation or insecurity. We all have a need for the communal support that can be found within a spiritual tradition, but this tradition needs to be based on wisdom and compassion, rather than on superstition and restrictive rules or regulations. It is not the teachings of the founders or inspirers of the major religions that have caused the present dilemma, but the institutions and the cultural expressions of the teachings which have not adapted as the centuries have moved on.
How does an ashram fit into all this? The concept of the ashram in todays world is one solution because, although there is a tradition within both yoga and sannyasa, there is an inherent code of flexibility which makes them suitable for the modern world. One of the attitudes governing ashram life is change, and we have to learn how to adjust, adapt and accommodate to the continually changing circumstances of life. The tradition within yoga, sannyasa and ashram life is founded on the fact that nothing is the same from one moment to the next. Life is change, and the only still point is spirit.
Todays ashram provides opportunities for individual spiritual expression which suit each persons personality, creative talents, and cultural and religious roots. Yoga, the central pillar of ashram life, is a science and discipline that covers all aspects of life. Through its inherent lifestyle and vast body of yogic wisdom and guidance, the ashram is able to adapt the essence of its various traditions to meet historical need and particular circumstance.
As Swami Satyananda has said, An ashram is a storehouse and generator of spiritual energy. Just as the vibrations of a tuned violin can bring all the other violins into attunement, so the sattwic nature and spiritual emanations of the ashram draws out the innate purity and dynamic spiritual energy of all who go there. Negativity turns into positivity; despair and frustration are replaced by keenness and eagerness to face life squarely. The atmosphere, lifestyle and spiritual vibrations of the ashram restructure the emotional, psychological, psychic and spiritual makeup of the individual until one is able to tune into the higher frequencies reverberating within.