I still remember the look on my mother's face when I told her I was going to India, alone. My flatmate had been years before, she captured her time there in pictures and small watercolour sketches. As soon as I saw them I was fascinated by the magic, the colour, the people's faces and the landscapes. I knew it was a place I had to visit.
It was 2006, I was in a rocky relationship that wasn't going anywhere and needed to end. When it did finally end, it was messy. So many friendships were intertwined and loyalties tested. It was a difficult time. I knew then that the only way I was coming out the other side, remaining in tact, was to go off on an adventure, a voyage to find myself again. A couple of years ahead of the film 'Eat Pray Love', but if you know it, yes there are similarities but my experience, not quite so glamorous.
The day finally arrived. After a long flight from Edinburgh I had arrived in New Delhi. It was dark and misty as my taxi drove to the hotel. I remember looking out the back window and seeing absolute chaos on the streets. Cows! Cows lying in shop doorways, trucks, rickshaws, bikes, cars, people everywhere. It was such a scene. At this point I was excited, exhausted and terrified in equal measure.
I woke in the morning to the sound of children playing in the school yard below my window. It was a dusty, sunshine view, and it appeared that the chaos had quadrupled while I slept. I later came to realise that, this was just Dehli 24/7. Which was all I needed to know, to get my stuff together and get out of there.
Heading north in search of a little more peace and tranquillity, I boarded a bus headed for Haridwar. This was where I met the River Ganges, the river that became a fundamental part of my journey to finding a little peace.
Each day I sat for hours, thinking, sketching and watching people bathe or wash clothes in the river. There was no urgency or need to do anything, I had arrived, I had made it to India. Now all I wanted to do was soak it up. After a few days of exploring temples, drinking Chai and trying as many curries as humanly possible, I had to visit the train station to book my next destination. The infamous train ticket booking experience. Wow, it was hot, sticky and there were hundreds of people queuing in front of me, when I say queuing, I mean that in the loosest possible sense. It was more like a scrum to get the counter.
As I walked out of the train station I noticed a big guy standing amidst the madness in full safari gear, looking rather forlorn and very sweaty, I asked him if he needed help. He had been struggling to make sense of the destination board, and had no idea how to get his ticket. we finally got him organised, as a thank you he offered to buy me a chai tea, its sold on every corner and too delicious to pass up, so I said yes.
It was this chance meeting and chat over a cup of chai that mapped out the next few months of my trip. The big American, let's call him John (it was a long time ago I'm hopeless with names at the best of times) told me all bout an Ashram he'd been to in Rishikesh. He talked about the compulsory 4am meditation, yoga three times a day and the silence. He wasn't speaking highly of this place, but then he clearly enjoyed a more luxurious style of travel, he wasn't a convert to what he called 'spiritual woo woo'.
I on the other hand loved everything he was telling me and I couldn't wait to go. My excitement wasn't even dampened when he mentioned bathing with a bucket of cold water, sleeping on a wooden bed and snorting water as a cleanse and detox. Silence, meditation, Yoga - Bring it on.
The Ashram, Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama Dhyana Gurukulam, was a beautiful oasis of calm, lush green trees, a tended garden and the most stunning view of the surrounding hills. All within a stones through from the River Ganges.
The course I signed up too was designed to give participants a taste of ashram life. As such, there were rules, no one was allowed outside the gate after 6pm. We were discouraged from using mobile phones and were told we must observe silence after 9pm. The only hot beverage on offer was boiled Ayurvedic water (as appealing as it sounds). A host of other substances were banned including alcohol, nicotine, meat, fish, eggs, even garlic. My room was stark only furnished with a wooden bed. No hot water and a bucket to wash in. Despite the lack of comfort, my love with yoga and meditation had begun.
The first thing I learned was that Yoga isn't just a series of physical poses - it is an entire philosophy, influencing every aspect of life from what we eat to how we behave. Of the four paths, (Bhakati yoga, jnana yoga, Karma yoga and Raja yoga). Swami Rama, favoured Karma Yoga the path of action and serving others, and so we were to make ourselves useful by doing jobs around the ashram. Physical yoga began at 8am with the second two-hour session in the afternoon. Meditation was at 5am for an hour and then again in the evening.
Yoga was held in the main hall, behind it was a dining room and a noisy kitchen where meals were cooked on open fires. An ever changing array of curries, salads, idles, curd and paysam. Meals were eaten in silence and by using only our right hand. Even after the first week I could tell the food was doing wonders for my health, I felt more energised and energetic. I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience this discipline around eating, which along with the regular yoga, was proving so beneficial to my mind and body. It wasn't until a few weeks in to my time at Swami Rama, that I realised the subtler change. Peace.
Universal peace begins with inner peace. It is such an obvious lesson and yet so important, especially with all the hate, cultural ignorance and political division in the world today. The Ashram with its philosophy of trying to improve our conflict driven world is a vital place, a special haven. Today there are few institutions actively seeking to promote peace, even fewer welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds. Perhaps, if there were more, we might see less hate crime and fewer atrocities.
I stayed for over a month at Swami Rama, and as I travelled through India I sought out this peaceful and tranquil practice of life. I practiced silence for 10 days straight, what an amazing feeling, I kept up with yoga and meditation too. I can honestly say I've never felt happier or more present. It's a feeling I now strive for everyday, amidst the busyness of family life and work.
I urge anyone that can go to India and experience this to do it. It truly is the best way to get to know yourself and in doing so practice some of the most fundamental principles of being a good human. Compassion, self care and care for others, respect, happiness and peace. Its an experience I will always cherish and reflect on. An experience that has shaped my believes and behaviours to this day.