by Mark Weightman, a 23 year old who spent six months in the ashram from January to June 2017
The continuous existence of ashrams throughout the past few thousand years would suggest that ‘spiritual seeking’ is not an ephemeral trend but a powerful part of the human make up. In fact, all religions agree that our ultimate purpose is to seek ‘God’, regardless of their philosophical differences around this topic. This considered, there has for a long time been the cultural trend of rejecting organised religion in our teenage years in favour of ‘fun’. Yoga offers a middle path in which one can enjoy what life has to offer whilst still maximizing our potential as human beings. It offers a framework through which we can safely navigate between asceticism and the extreme hedonism of modern culture. A hallmark of most people’s teenage years and young adult life are the extremities of emotions that we feel as a result of life’s happenings. Most of us are used to being thrown around by the result of external events. Yoga is a process of discovering our true essence, one that is joyful in the face of misfortunes and durable in times of hardship. It is the science of reorienting our locus of awareness so that we do not identify totally with the mind and its consequent ups and downs, like and dislikes and subsequent mental conditioning which can rigidify how we live and react to things. The ashram provides a great space to discuss these ideas with fellow seekers - residents and teachers alike - all offer a varying approach to yoga and its application to everyday life. I have often approached Swami Nishchalananda & Swami Krishnapremananda (1) with every day issues ranging from my smoking habit to girlfriend issues and they respond often with humour but also showing how yogic philosophy can be applied to everyday life with compassion.
A question that is often posed during the morning meditation here at the ashram is How can you be that which you are observing? It is a question that stimulates existential inquiry into our true nature, Who am I? Yoga offers a variety of techniques through which we can understand the true nature of things, be it our perceptions of the world or how we perceive ourselves. If we persevere we may eventually realise the essential ‘I’ which transcends even the koshas (five subtle layers that compose our being). Again, the purpose of these practices is to make us more steadfast in the face of difficulty, more present in stormy times, to be able to act with equanimity of mind and thereby produce the most fruitful action for us and those around us in any given circumstance. The yogic philosophy rests on a simple bedrock: that our fundamental nature is joyful and free, not bound by external events, labels, categories and other people’s definition of us. It is a nature beyond words and concepts, but one that can be known experientially by all once the chatter of the mind calms and comes to stillness. An ashram is the perfect place to find that stillness.
There are now, paradoxically, more platforms than ever enabling ‘self-promotion’ with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but many feel overwhelmed and lost as to their place in the wider scheme of things. Western culture is ever-increasingly pushing the notion that we should be identified with our possessions, wealth, our jobs and social hierarchies that organise around this. From birth we are assigned a name, treated according to our gender, and told to identify with our physical bodies and mind. All of this is understandable on a superficial level as it enables society to function and interact, but it also entrenches our mode of identification thoroughly in the material realm. The dialectical surrounding our fundamental nature hardly exists, or is obscured to say the least. Ashram life removes us from so many of these distracting and destructive aspects of culture and forces us into a mode of introspection. There is no TV here at Mandala Yoga Ashram and with limited internet access and lack of late night parties there is certainly time to cultivate sincere yoga practice (Sanskrit: Sadhana). Starting every day with a group mantra session and meditation is a way of preparing the mind for the day ahead. It can help calm any unnecessary mental chatter whilst simultaneously invigorating us, allowing us to live more presently in each moment. Of course, day to day, the mind still persists in its old habits of toiling over the past and trying to predict the future, enjoying certain aspects of our karma yoga and disliking others according to our preferences, but the extremities of these two opposites seem to lessen over time as we start to accept both the rough and the good as integral parts of existence. This is the most noticeable change that I have witnessed in myself during my time here. I feel I am a little more able to observe my reactions to life’s situations rather than get swayed by the emotion into a blind reaction. Although I’m still so far away from “the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness” that Patanjali(2) spoke of, I have learnt many practices which could take me there and, most importantly, enjoy the journey along the way. As the adage goes “Happiness is not a destination, but a way of life”. This is all the more relevant as I embark on starting my university course along with the other things that university life brings.
I was initially brought to the ashram on a whim; with a vague notion that ‘looking within’ was the way out of suffering. Excerpts from Buddhist texts about non-attachment and compassion had percolated around my mind as I smoked late night cigarettes, but consistently applying these principles in everyday life was incomprehensible. To use an old analogy, I was captaining my ship with a blindfold around my eyes, too easily lead astray by subconscious urges. I knew that I needed a radical shift in my lifestyle and environment and taking the leap to visit the ashram was, in hindsight, one of the best decisions I have ever made. With a feeling of deep gratitude I thank the teachers and fellow residents of Mandala Yoga ashram who put up with my strange mannerisms and supported me in my practice. I am grateful to the hundreds of guests who have passed through the ashram gates over the past few months whom I have cooked food for, who have shown me such gratitude in return and made me feel valued. I am grateful to have experienced the inter-dependence and inter-connectedness of human nature and indeed all sentient life through the food that we grow ourselves here in the poly-tunnels. I also appreciate the different departments of Karma yoga that keep the ashram running, from maintenance to household. Ultimately, these experiences rest upon the ability to centre our awareness in the here and now: nothing is experienced without consciousness. The more we can wipe away the dust that gathers on our windows of perception, the happier we become; the more grateful we become; and fundamentally the more aware we become of the nature of existence. Who knew that chanting the Brahmarpanam(3) food prayer before every meal would make it taste that much better!
(1) Swami Nishchalananda is the ashram director, and Swami Krishnapremananda is a senior teacher
(2) Indian scholar and philosopher and compiler of the Yoga Sutras – a classical text on yoga theory and practice. He is sometimes regarded as the founder of yoga. The reference given above was from sutra I:2.
(3) The Brahmarpranam is the 24th verse of the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and is a traditional prayer or blessing chanted before a meal to offer gratitude to the food, the cooking preparation and the original food source. Also to recognise that all these aspects, including the person eating, are all expressions of One ineffable Source.