The really long account of my first experience at an ashram
Disclaimer: The information about the ceremonies are my own very inexperienced descriptions. I learned a lot… but much of this is through the lens of someone with a week of trial and error into these practices. Fair warning. I am telling this story from a completely novice perspective because it is the experience I had. You could view this somewhat as a spoiler because your time at the Ashram will obviously be different so proceed at your own risk. If you’re interested in visiting the Ashram you may change the experience you would have by doing more homework than you need to. Follow your gut first and foremost. Had I known everything I’m about to write I would have viewed my experience very differently. That being said, on to the novel…
“I… don’t know, honestly?” became the canned response accompanied by a bit of a shrug and a knowing grin. A knowing grin because I knew what came next. The uncomfortable stir in my stomach when I had to admit to people that I believed in something more than I could explain with logic. Babaji had brought me to Crestone. A friend had gone to Crestone Colorado months prior and mentioned going to an Ashram there. My response was the same as everyone else who had ever wondered anything about their own spirituality and looked into any kind of eastern religion or philosophy without prior knowledge. There is some hidden key in the ancient practices, right? Some kind of mysticism I can learn to be at peace with myself. Tell me more! Yep, that’s how it always goes.
At the time I hadn’t really given it another thought but the serendipitous cosmic breadcrumbs I keep finding day-to-day lead me to the Haidakhan Universal Ashram for a week where my perspective, thankfully, changed for the better.
Preparation: I often don’t know why I do the things I do. I’ve learned to trust my intuition. To trust my gut has rarely lead me down the wrong path and often when it seemed like the wrong choice initially I would come out ahead in the end with an important lesson or some other nugget of wisdom I wouldn’t have otherwise obtained. I don’t question anymore. When something tugged at the curiosity strings in my mind and there weren’t any obstructions to my venturing southward I knew it had to be so.
My suspicions were confirmed while trying to secure transport for the 4 hour drive from Denver to Crestone when magically Ramloti, the Ashram director (for lack of a better title), said she happened to be coming to Denver and could give me a ride to the Ashram. That’s right; Hansel and Gretel didn’t have shit on my instincts. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to wear, what to bring, or what to expect. I had asked questions and skimmed over the website but I didn’t feel prepared. The site mentioned Karma Yoga? Okay? I’ve done yoga… I can dig it. Aarati? Prayer? All right, I’ve been to church. But, did I need to bring slacks? What the hell does “modest clothing” mean anyway? So, I threw my camping gear, t-shirts, backpacking pants (for versatility) and some shorts in my bag and hoped for the best.
The magic began as soon as I met Ramloti in person for the first time. She was dropping off her kids and their kids at Denver International Airport and as she approached me I knew I’d be okay. She was inviting and just kind of had this calming presence about her even in a chaotic situation. Though I didn’t notice it at the time I already found myself wanting to give. I carried her kids’ bags to the check in counter, I took photos of all of them for the sending off, I hopped in a strange car that needed to be driven back to the Ashram for a complete stranger without any hesitation. I hadn’t noticed it yet, but that is where the magic started.
The drive down to Crestone is gorgeous. Down Colorado highway 285 through tiny mountain towns along a river, across the gorgeous valley near Fairplay that might as well be in Big Sky Country, and towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the name “Blood of Christ” redeems itself every time the sun sets. Needless to say 4 hours passes quickly. It isnt until we were on a gravel road that the reality hits of exactly where I will be for the next week. Rural is a fair description.
As we drive up the steep incline to the Ashram I’m greeted by a funny looking rooftop, which I later learn, is the “Earthship” and a handful of other cars in a parking lot. The Ashram is comprised of 7 buildings: the Earthship, a greenhouse, a yurt, a dormitory, the temple, and 2 individual homes. There is also a rather swell garden, plenty of clotheslines, and Havans peppered around the Ashram which I learn are used for fire ceremonies. Uh, what? Will there be ritual sacrifice as well? Next up i’m lead to the yurt, which will be my domicile for the next week and feel the first twinge of snobbery creeping up in my guts but only for a brief moment. My head is saying “So… I’m sleeping on a 2-inch thin mattress with some donated bedding for the next week…” but consciously I get myself in check and drop off my gear. Ultimately, I slept fine. Everyone I meet is unquestionably serene, open, welcoming, inviting, smiling, and a whole list of other words that should be used to describe those without judgment for others and contentment with their path. It was also interesting to note the concentration of other spiritual centers in the area which I would later learn is due to the notion of an energy grid in the area or the sacred ground in which Indians wouldn’t even fight on back in the day. Either way… it is unique and radiates the entire time you’re there.
Though I was only there for a week it felt like a month, in a good way. Time slows down. The routine was the same, roughly, every day. Wake up between 5:30 and 6 am. Stretch, do yoga, meditate, stare at the ceiling, or wonder why in the hell your body isn’t fighting you to stay in bed when you’re waking up so damn early. Next up is bathing which comes in one of two shared locations. Either way you’re not at the Ritz and you’re going to be sharing facilities but at least the water is warm and the shower head isn’t low flow, phew. I also found out it isn’t uncommon for people to make their way to a pool in the creek to bathe as well. Not my cup of tea personally. Two words: scared turtle.
After bathing Aarati starts at 7am. More on what happens at Aarati later. Then a fire ceremony and then breakfast! All the food is vegetarian and organic at the Ashram. Often I found myself eating yogurt with granola or oatmeal for breakfast. This is also my first encounter with green smoothie. A staple of ashram regulars; the green smoothie is a vita-mixed blend of garden picked collard greens, kale, oranges, a lemon, apples, and some ginger… pulp is not optional, it’s included. After everyone eats and helps clean up we’re all given some kind of directive for the day. This is where we learn what karma yoga is. Karma yoga is work. Flat out, plain and simple, elbow grease, lift and bend, do work’ness. I did everything from scrub and clean an entire pantry with 20 shelves to chop wood for the fire. I picked greens from the garden and helped with an estate sale by lifting heavy furniture and boxes all without question or hesitation.
Come 1 o’clock its time for lunch and you’re generally ready for it. Thankfully the Ashram has part time help which generally prepares a fine meal. After lunch, you guessed it, more karma yoga! After getting my ass kicked by chopping wood I did finagle an afternoon nap into my schedule for a few days though. When 5 o’clock rolls around its time to bathe again prior to evening Aarati. No fire ceremony this time, do not pass go, do not collect any spiritual bonus points. Go directly back to the Earthship for dinner! Often large Indian families are passing through and prepare fantastic Indian meals. After everyone helps clean up it’s generally 8:30pm or so and you’re on your own for the night with journaling, reading, stargazing, or just trying to make sense of what you’re feeling from the experience.
There are a couple of ceremonies you’ll become very familiar with at the Ashram. Aarati is one of them. First and foremost shoulders and legs are not allowed to be bare in the temple. I wore dark grey pategonia pants as jeans seemed less than acceptable and I wasn’t going to bring slacks. They had sarongs to wear if you were unprepared but I wasn’t prepared for that business either. The temple is simple (see what I did there?) with concrete floors covered in rugs. Photos adorned with flowers and other gilded fare. The main thing that stands out is Haidakhandeswari or the murti of the Divine Mother. Her clothing, flowers, and offerings are changed daily and vary on color based on the day. I didn’t learn the nuances of each outfit or the different elements of the temple and it didn’t hinder my experience in any way. Aarati begins with a person waking the divine mother with an offering and blessings. Everything happens in threes. Chants, sprinkling of water, and the waving of a metal dealio with fire in it all happen for the Divine Mother, Babaji, and other pictures in the temple. If you want to sing along you can. While this is happening bells are being rung and it’s good to chime in too, if you will. The morning Aarati adorns you with Chandan where 2 pastes (yellow sandalwood, and red something else) and a piece of rice go where your 3rd eye would be on your forehead.
After the Aarati is kicked off, Chandan applied, the would-be worshippers receive the blessing of fire and water as well. You waft the fire towards you 3 times and direct it at your heart or your head. I never inquired to the official practice here or its meaning. Next is water, which is poured into your right hand in which you slurp the excess and rub on the top of your head. At this point I’m just watching what others are doing and trying not to piss off the Divine. You sit on a round cushion you’ll recognize if you’ve ever meditated and have a 30-page book of hindu hymns to wrap your brain around as your weapon in this adventure. You sit, wait for it, indian style and make sure not to point your feet at anyone being worshipped. Some people sing and some don’t. Sometimes there is a drum or a harmonium. Sometimes it’s just a few dudes singing alone but all are welcome.
The puja is the offering. You’ll receive dried fruit, unsalted nuts and sometimes even a little chunk of chocolate. Take this with your right hand and only eat it if you’re not singing, because singing with your mouth full is rude… jerk. After the songs are sung, the puja is eaten, the offerings are made and the Divine are praised you’re on your way and you realize it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and the hymns are pretty catchy. I ended up learning about 3 of the songs and enjoyed singing them aloud. An Indian fellow flattered me by saying I sung them better than he did even though he knew the language.
The fire ceremony comes after the Aarati. It is important to note there is a large fire ceremony at the new moon and full moon monthly. Everyone sits around a square fire pit where blessings and offerings are made. Flowers adorn the edge and an “altar” of sorts represents the Divine mother. Babaji’s photo is carried out to have the offering made to. A mixture of rice, dried fruit, and unsalted nuts is put into a plate that is the offering. After each mantra a pinch of this mixture is thrown into the fire without using the pointer, or ego, finger and “svaha” is exclaimed. Everyone does this in unison sitting cross-legged with his or her right shoulder inward towards the Havan Kund or fire pit. The last 5 offerings are made with two hands and your offering plate must be emptied on the last one.
There are mantras sung through most of the ceremony which are pretty easily picked up on should you want to come along. After another round of fire offerings for everyone (like in the Aarati, 3 wafts) and 3 wafts to the altar, Babaji, and the Divine Mother while holding said fire apparatus. Ash from the fire is smudged on the forehead and chin of each participant and lastly Babaji is carried back inside and then cleanup happens. There is a lot more going on with the person facilitating this ceremony that you’d have to see in person. Offerings and blessings to the fire, Babaji’s picture, and the Divine Mother all happen repeatedly.
This part is hard. I feel like I learned so many lessons and so many subtle things that I’ve never felt before. Many of the things could be coincidence. These experiences could be me connecting the dots through the lens of the time and place. They felt different so I choose to believe they were something more. Something spiritual. For the first time I felt connected. I had many moments where things almost seemed to be realized after premonition. I would think about something or see something in my mind that became real. Silly things. Little things. It was those things that caused me to take notice of the bigger happenings in my head and in my heart.
One such moment happened when I suddenly thought about chocolate being in the Puja. Generally speaking the offering would be dried fruit and unsalted nuts. This happened twice a day and only twice did we receive chocolate. I don’t know why I thought about it just before it arrived. We had never gotten chocolate in the offering before. The idea of it just popped into my head and there it was moments later in my hand. It sounds so silly to write now but it was a shock to see it happen in the moment. I was still skeptical.
Another similar moment happened with an Indian family arrived with gifts for the Ashram. I took notice of a hat they had recently purchased in India near Haidakhan where Babaji actually lived and taught. Something stirred in me when I saw that hat. I wasn’t about to ask for it and I didn’t even pick it up but it stood out to me. I went about my business that evening and didn’t give the hat a second thought. The next day after the fire ceremony with the same Indian family the Grandfather comes up to me… and gives me the hat as a gift.No rhyme or reason behind it and who knows maybe it was coincidence but the butterflies in my stomach told me something else. Similar happenings with readings from the book of Babaji’s teachings also happened consistently.
I found myself smiling, a lot. Smiling for no real reason. Not at anyone in particular but because I felt love. I felt the warmth of humanity in a very simple way. I didn’t feel the burdens or pressures of daily living or obligation and it was in these simple smiles that I began to take notice of all of the supporting elements to what was bringing me this happiness. I realized that doing work selflessly was fulfilling. I didn’t need approval or to punch a time clock. It didn’t matter how quickly or slowly I did the work. I was not connected to my work in any way other than finishing the task at hand and it felt amazing to finish. This lesson made me feel very justified every time I had told someone it was damn important to follow their passion and not settle for mediocre jobs for the sake of having a job lately. More breadcrumbs.
Somehow I had been prepared in the last 6 months to have that moment of clarity. In living a humble and financially pained lifestyle I learned to appreciate generosity from others by being thoughtful towards them. That lesson materialized in everything I did at the Ashram. Taking notice of dishes needing to be cleaned from other people and getting up to clean them wasn’t an obligation it was an opportunity.
Had I not experienced the humility I have over the past 6 months I would have not enjoyed those moments in the same way. I learned that I had spent much of my life reading headlines without reading the entire article (figuratively). I acted out on partial information or assumptions to fit in, pass the test or get the job and it was mostly bullshit. I had been acting with a partial heart to do what I was obligated to do and it left me hollow over and over again. I’m not saying I’m a born again religious nut but the breadcrumbs keep coming. The experiences I am having solidify the path I’ve taken to where I am and for that I can not thank the people I’ve encountered in the last two years of my life enough.
Some clichés certainly presented themselves repeatedly in my experience. “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear” rang true while I was at the Ashram.
I was fortunate to have met Dharmananda while staying there. An 84-year-old New Zealander who lifted boxes and ran up stairs when others just trudged along. This man choked me up with more than one story about his travels, his love, his beliefs across a variety of religions, and about his haunting individual experiences with Babaji. I got chills when I shared my experiences with him. He was special in his energy, his ideals, and in something that I beyond what I can put words to but I could feel without doubt. He relayed philosophies to me that I have recently been sharing with others as if he were reading my mind. He told me that dying was a choice and he wasn’t ready to go. Damn.
“We are exactly where we are supposed to be.” This couldn’t be any more true in my experience. An 18 year old at the Ashram with her mother, wise beyond her years, sat with me and talked about the perils of uncertainty. The exchange left me surprised as I expected to be speaking to superficial or trivial things while I ended up getting an affirmation of being on the right path from her.
“Nothing worth doing is easy.” It is by pushing ourselves that we grow. Whether it is lifting weights that tear our muscles to let them grow. Whether we are in an unfamiliar place and we push through the uncertainty to have a new experience. Whether we admit we’re wrong to learn a new lesson. All of these things are difficult and they shape us. These things improve us and broaden our horizons. Going to an Ashram was uncomfortable and unexpected but it was the right thing to do for me. I learned so much. I felt so much. In a very short time.
While at the Ashram I felt as if there were a distinction between id and ego in my mind. That little voice in your head seemed to have a separation from the chatter of my daily life. No longer was the fast food for your brain in the form of social media clouding my every thought. At the time I wrote down “If we would listen to our hearts we know our own truth but we’re trained to fight it. Our minds are malleable but let society, family, weakness, doubt, etc etc cloud what we know to be right. After two days here things are starting to make sense.” It felt great. When I would normally grumble at getting out of bed I eagerly arose looking forward to the day. Even as I write this I am getting a sense of déjà vu.
I could go on with individual stories, relevant teachings of Babaji, and subtle details from the week I spent at the Ashram but this post is already far too long. I’d love to share more with people that are interested sometime, as it is far more fun to tell these stories than to write them. Always remember to look for the breadcrumbs, have an open heart, and take risks if you want to grow.
Bhole Baba ki, Jai!