This isn’t masochism

I’ve just booked a month-long trip to an ashram in India. This will be my fourth visit there, and the second time I’ve gone for an extended period (I spent four and a half months there in 2012). Talking to a colleague recently, I was reminded that for many people, going to an ashram seems like a pretty weird life choice.

“What are the washing facilities like?” she asked.

“There aren’t any washing machines. You just take your own detergent and use a bucket. I had to replace the socks I took last time because they got holes in them from all the scrubbing.”

“I meant the washing facilities for you. Are there any showers?”

“Oh, right. No, there aren’t any showers because there’s no hot water. Just buckets and a cold tap.”

She smiled the tight, polite smile of someone who’s privately appalled but wants to be supportive. “Well, it’s good that they’ve got buckets at least.”

A bucket in an ashram bathroom.

The shower room I used during the four-month course.

What’s not available in an ashram?

As I made a mental list of the privations I’d be accepting, I could see how my plans might appear masochistic, or even mad.

While in the ashram, I won’t have access to:

• A mattress

• Chairs

• Hot water

• A phone

• An internet connection

• Fruit or salad

• Power

• Shops

• Toilet roll

• World news

I also know that once I arrive, I’ll be permanently sweaty, I’ll be cleaning human shit without equipment, and each of my limbs will become a constellation of mosquito bites.

The obvious question to ask is: why? Why give up my comfortable life for something so taxing?

The simple answer is that I find ashram life to be magically transformative. It’s brilliant not in spite of its difficulties, but because of them: you evolve in response to the challenges.

Here are my top five reasons for going to an ashram:

1) You get to live simply

The biggest fear I had about going to the ashram in 2012 was having no technological defences against winter. None of the buildings are heated, and it gets cold enough to snow.

What surprised me was how little an issue this was. I didn’t enjoy my Christmas hairwash (I remember gasping and trembling as I tipped a jug of ice-cold water over my head), but I handled it.

The same was true of every ‘deprivation’ I experienced: it wasn’t nice, but it wasn’t that big a deal. I was reminded that we’re adaptable, resilient animals who can withstand uncomfortable conditions. This is both fortifying and freeing.

I also find that the choicelessness of simple living has a quieting effect on the mind. You don’t have to decide what to wear, what to buy, what to read, what to eat. This conserves a lot of mental energy.

2) You get to do something for a common good

People sometimes ask me if I found communal living claustrophobic. I did — many times — but mostly, I relished being part of a community: eating together, doing classes together, chanting together, working together. That’s the real spirit of ashram life: to come together for a common good. I didn’t fully appreciate the rewards of this type of lifestyle until I got home and found myself pining for an equivalent in London.

It is, of course, possible to experience community without living with people for months on end, but for me, nothing has matched the energy of an ashram community.

3) You get over yourself

One of the effects of living and working so closely with other people is that your ego takes a battering. Your education, your job and your social standing don’t count for anything; you’re just a humble worker rubbing up against other humble workers. I remember bristling early on during my first stay when someone told me that my stapling technique left a lot to be desired.

This is wonderfully equalising, but also quite confronting. If you’re used to being in charge, or accustomed to doing something you know you’re good at, it’s challenging to find yourself being bossed about or doing something you have no aptitude for or interest in.

Working with others in this way, which is known as karma yoga, is said to be the most powerfully transformative thing you do in an ashram — even more powerful than the formal practices you do on a mat in the sadhana hall. The aim is to get to a point where you treat tasks as actions that simply have to be done and not get attached to how they’re done or how they work out. If you can carry this attitude into your daily life in the real world, it then takes a lot to destabilise you.

4) You get to see yourself

The ashram I go to has hardly any mirrors, which is beautifully liberating. However, it provides countless opportunities for you to look into an inner mirror, to see your conditioned self (your ego) and your perfect self (your soul) — exactly as they are.

Swami Satyananda explains this nicely:

In the ashram, all the samskaras [psychological imprints] come to the surface. In normal life this does not happen because there are many ways to escape reality. There are so many objects of sensual pleasure and distractions that your fears, anxieties, insecurities and passions cannot be seen. However, for an ashramite, all the deep-rooted complexes that were being suppressed come to the surface. This gives you a chance to know exactly what you contain.

5) You get to evolve

The word ‘shram’ means to labour, to work hard. There’s no doubt that you sweat it out externally (sweeping, scrubbing, lifting, shifting), but you work even harder internally. You get to see all the inner barriers which stop you living harmoniously with yourself and others, and you start to break these down. You develop a deeper appreciation of your strengths and your shortcomings, and a new perspective on what a good life is.

What about people who can’t go to an ashram?

Not everyone can go to an ashram. Some have loved ones to take care of; others have inflexible employers; not everyone can afford the time off work. If this applies to you, there are straightforward, practical ways to incorporate elements of the ashram experience (living simply, joining a community, looking closely at yourself), and these will nourish you and improve your life. For those who can go, though, and who’d entertain the idea, don’t be put off by the hardships. They’re treasures in disguise.