How to get ready for your ashram adventure in India

HAVE you considered going to an ashram in India? This is the second part in a 3-part series on where to go, what you need to know and what to expect. You can find Part 1, How to ‘do’ a yoga ashram in India, here.

Part 2: What to pack and how to get ready for your ashram adventure

Once you’ve decided to stay at an ashram in India, and you know where you’re going, it’s time to start getting ready. Find out everything you can about the ashram – including the amenities, daily routine, accommodations and what you need to bring. Talk to people who’ve been there to find out what it’s really like.

Shiva, Rishikesh, India

Shiva, Rishikesh, India. Pic: Mariellen Ward.

Ashrams are not hotels, they do not come equipped with mod cons and supplies. They tend to be very simple, and you have to bring almost everything you need with you – but remind yourself that you are not going to indulge in luxury. Bring what you need, but bring the bare minimum, such as:

  • all the toiletries you need, including soap, shampoo and medications,
  • a flashlight,
  • a towel,
  • a shawl or sweater (it can be chilly at night in winter and in the mountains),
  • loose cotton clothes, preferably Indian-style (Lululemon spandex just doesn’t cut it),
  • flipflops and/or sandals,
  • sunscreen,
  • mosquito repellent,
  • a hat,
  • long scarf (for women),
  • oil for dry skin,
  • books,
  • writing materials (pens and notebooks),
  • mini-laptop (even ashrams have WiFi these days),
  • several small cotton hankies.

You may have noticed that toilet paper is not on the list. Indians don’t use it. Indian toilets were not built to handle toilet paper. Indians wash with water (a plastic cup, like a measuring cup, will be provided to you for this purpose) and dry themselves with a hankie. It’s a good idea to follow this cultural norm in India. It’s fast, clean, environmentally friendly and you may decide to bring this habit home with you.

Likewise with washing: Indians tend not to shower, but to have “bucket baths,” which is also a great habit, once you get used to it. You sit on a small plastic stool, pour water over yourself from a bucket, lather up, and pour more water to rinse. If you’re lucky the water is warm; but many ashrams only have cold water.

Ashram food is always simple and vegetarian (lots of rice and dal — lentils), and there is no drugs, alcohol or meat allowed. You can get your system used to this diet ahead of time by weaning yourself off meat, alcohol, dairy products, refined foods, sugar, coffee and junk food; and adding rice and lentils – otherwise it could come as a shock.

Another way to get ready is to start getting up earlier, and going to bed earlier. Most ashram routines start at 5 a.m or 6 a.m – which sounds a lot worse than it is. In India, the sun comes up early, and it coats the world in a gloriously golden glow. I love being at ashrams in India in the morning.

Yoga ashram on the Ganges / Ganga River Rishikesh, India

Ganga (Ganges) River near Rishikesh, India. Pic: Mariellen Ward.

Ashrams give people the opportunity to be in a peaceful setting where they can spend time in quiet reflection. It is a time to look inward, rather than outward – which is the rarest form of luxury in the modern hurly-burly world. It is really a far more useful, productive and restful thing you can do than going on a typical vacation or even to a health spa or luxury resort.

We almost never get a chance to get to know our inner selves – but you can at an ashram. So get ready to turn your attention inward. Bring lots of empty notebooks and pens, and be prepared for transformation.

You can also get ready by reading books by teachers associated with the ashram, to get acquainted with the teachings; or other spiritual books by Indian teachers and writers such as J. Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Aurobindo, T.K.V. Desikachar, as well as The Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

But no matter how prepared you are, adjusting to ashram life is both easy and hard. It’s wonderful to completely unplug, but as your nervous system unwinds, you may find yourself going through a few days of “withdrawal symptoms.” It helps to know this is “normal.” Let it happen. Let it be.

Part 1: How to ‘do’ an ashram in India
Coming up next in Part 3: What to expect

Mariellen Ward is a Canadian freelance writer and travel blogger, well-known on the Internet for her love of “all things India.” Mariellen has traveled for more than a year altogether in India and publishes an India-inspired travel blog Breathedreamgo. She writes about India, meaningful travel and yoga for newspapers, magazines and many online sites and recently published her first book, Song of India: Tales of Travel and Transformation.