For much of my childhood, I spent two weeks each summer at a Presbyterian retreat in New Mexico called Ghost Ranch. There, my mom taught classes with titles like “Learning to love the questions.” Red rocks and arid landscapes were fused in my mind with spiritual spaces. The Meenakshi Ashram taps into this sense memory. Warm ochre dust covers everything, matching the color of the tarps covering the main hall and dorms. Purple and orange flowers, intermingled with crimson leaved bushes, line the meandering paths. To the northwest is garden that grows food, aligning with the Yogic dietary tradition. Rock walls beneath shade trees offer space for conversation or reading. I stay in one of the dorms, sharing my space with thirty or forty other visitors. The whole compound is compact and beautiful.
5:30 AM: In the dark we walk to the main hall for satsang at six. Here, we spend around twenty-five minutes in meditation, followed by chanting. I try to empty my mind, focus on my breathing and some mantra, but keeping my eyes closed and mind turned inward is impossible when the sun is rising and bathing everything in golden light. I never found sitting still a helpful way to clear my mind. Some days we go for meditation walks instead. There I am able to just take in the world, quieting the constant mental recitation of tasks.
After the mediation and chants, the Swami, dressed in orange, reads a short passage from one of the gurus and then riffs on it. He laughs often, mostly at his own jokes, but it’s infectious, opening up his face to a bright smile. He is fond of extended metaphors, which tend to move around some point rather than moving towards it. Sometimes it’s on the subtle relationship between karma and the mind, but usually he just wants us to not skip satsang.
7:30 AM: We break for tea, followed by yoga asanas at eight. Here I have my real guru, the asana instructor. He has a large oval face, eyes bright, typically with a smile. Vowels are extended, sung at the same note every time. “Inh-aaaaaale…exh-aaaaaale” he intones, a hypnotic voice that reaches deep into the subconscious. “No jumping” he informs us when we’re overambitious in attempting a handstand. “we need the floor for the next class.”
The session opens with three “Om’s” followed by a short prayer. The first ten minutes of the class are dedicated to breathing exercises, beginning with three sets of Kapalabhati, a series of rapid exhalations “to clear toxins” interspersed with breath retention. This is followed by Anuloma Viloma, where we close alternate nostrils to balance our prana, or life force, between the right side, representing the sun, heat, and the masculine, and the left, for the moon, cool, and the feminine. Pranayama, loosely translated as breath control, is considered a critical aspect of maintaining spiritual balance and discipline. I struggle with the spiritual/body linkages, but on days where I just want to skip yoga, I know that after these exercises I always felt prepared.
We move into sun salutations to warm up our muscles and then contort our bodies in all sorts of ways for around 100 minutes. After a week, I was able to touch my toes for the first time in my life. Each session ends with relaxation. As we lay in Savasana, the instructor tells us to tense our legs, then hips, then lower back, up through the body until we “make a lemony face…squeeeeze, eyes open, mouth open, tongue open.” Then we visualize each body part as he tells us to “re-laaaaaaax.”
10:00 AM: Our first meal of the day. Food is served on metal trays as we sit on the floor and use our hands as utensils. It’s a satvic diet, vegetarian with occasional milk and minimalist spices, no garlic or onion. These foods are supposed to focus the spiritual aspects of the self, reducing our libidos and focusing our minds. After no regular exercise outside of lugging my pack around and a lot of unhealthy eating, there’s a euphoric effect just from four hours of yoga a day and food that isn’t based around butter and carbs.1
11:00 AM: Karma yoga. We reduce our ego by doing chores. That beautiful dust gets into everything, so I spend my time sweeping and mopping out the yoga hall. I don’t know if it affected my ego. Mostly it seemed like it cut down on labor costs.
2:00 PM: Lecture, or so it is called. In truth, it’s more a question and answer session, or given Swami’s tendency towards distraction, a question and meander. For someone hoping to understand more, this is frustrating. On the 24th, there is Maha Shivratri, a festival celebrating the Hindu god Shiva. Swami meandered through an unrelated myth until arriving at a story about scientific observation of the “energy body.” I’m frustrated, I feel there should be some clear reason why people stayed up the whole night chanting. Swami is not a great listener and the gift of gab, so he’ll tend to misinterpret questions and talk a mile. It doesn’t feel like a back and forth. When we ask for specifics about symbolism or narrative or just what we are singing at satsang, Swami defers, saying that understanding isn’t the point or that all of these things are a part of yoga and just must be done. And I’m unsure how to feel about that.
Some if it is a difference in approach. The core of Sivananda yoga practice is “an ounce of practice is worth tons of theory.” Spiritual refinement comes not from intellectual understanding but bodily discipline. It’s why yoga is not a form of exercise, but a spiritual practice, why we do it for four hours a day. My asana instructor moves me into positions where I can focus on my body, creating a space for mediation. In improving my body’s ability to comply with ritualized postures, I in turn improve my ability to reflect on myself. This task aligns with Swami’s description of the goals of Hinduism. In his telling, Western Judeo-Christian systems pursue of objective perfection, an external orientation, while Hinduism emphasizes subjective perfection of your own self and mind. Yoga, diet, chores, meditation, all of these are part of our refinement.
It comes off as lessons in mindfulness, focusing on the interweaving of our bodily and mental state, processes of individual development. But then the Swami makes a move that puts my personal refinement into a cosmic context, transforming this development into spiritual meaning. The Swami emphasized over and over again that there’s a reason for everything, a relationship between our thoughts and the universe. Our sense of ourselves is a sense of God. He talks about his nonviolent nature, and how the universe conspires to turn away conflicts, going to so far as to cause a man to have a heart attack so that the Swami would not have to fight him. Proper thinking leads to proper results
At the same time, when I try to put the model into words, describing the process as trying to recognize what is in your nature, the Swami pushes back: “You try to think too much.” Guilty as charged. My parents are a research physicist and a Presbyterian minister cum sociology professor. I grew up in a household where intellectual analysis was at the dinner table, and our spiritual tradition focused on the exegesis of a text. Swami’s lectures don’t give me those moments of clarity I find in a piece by Christian Wiman or Marilyn Robinson or a good sermon, and while I can be lost in the chanting, it lacks the moral force of the symbolism I am familiar with or the hymns I know.
4:00 PM: Second set of asanas. Perhaps the problem lies with what I define as spiritual. At the Ashram, I just feel good. Every time after I finish the asanas, I feel my mind and body slip away as I lay on my yoga mat. The embodying and physicalness, the space that invites release and catharsis, these are things every faith should offer. Perhaps it is a failure of my understanding that the Christianity of my childhood did not focus on that bodily experience, and that I assume spirituality must involve theological puzzles, questions to turn over in my mind.
6:00 PM: Dinner. Smaller than brunch, but just as delicious.
8:00 PM: The evening satsang session. Each satsang closes on the Arati, where we sing the praises of important spiritual figures: Shiva, the gurus who founded Sivananda. Thrown in at the end are Moses, Jesus, Mohammad. In one of our lectures the Swami says “all religions are the same.” And that’s where it clicks, why I need more knowledge, some sense of explicit meaning behind the mysterious symbolism. Because I don’t agree. Certainly, all religions try to meet the same sort of human needs, the same problems of what is meaningful in our lives. But they have drastically different approaches.
For example, I hear someone quote the opening of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But they add one more thing “and the word was Om.” That’s not how it works. Christians have puzzled over that verse, often arguing it is an assertion of Christ’s nature as the human incarnation of the divine. It introduces the mystery of the Gospels. What does it mean for God to become human, to live and die as we do?
The nature of Om is a separate mystery, tied no to the miracle of divinity in a man, but the essence that makes up all things. I can’t claim to know much about it. But I would like to! We are presented with “Om” as an open concept, one that can fit any box, but are at the same time told by the Swami there are right and wrong answers. When the Swami shies away from giving specifics, it doesn’t feel like it’s opening up a spirituality for everyone. It feels like I am being subtly shunted down a specific path. This isn’t a small gloss on the human relationship to the divine, it’s a change in the meaning of that orientation. If my research has taught me anything, the meanings we develop are at the heart of how we approach our lives, and we need the space to know and explore those meanings in an honest way.
To be clear, this religious encounter is very particular, and is far from the experience families have of the Hindu faith. The Sivananda organization is geared toward outside visitors. Classes are taught in English, and the organization has centers all over the world. So some of the mishmash is an indication they want to be accessible to all comers, to offer a “spiritual” experience anyone can get a purchase on.
I’m not interested in a generic spirituality, either for myself or for the Watson. I think there’s a modern tendency to think that a religion that tells us how we should be and what we should do is dangerous, a holdover from a time when kings were tied to God. Of course organized religion has been a part of horrific cruelty throughout history. Faith taken only as dogma, without any sort of doubt or criticism or awareness, is dangerous. But if religion doesn’t inform how we are in the world, doesn’t push us to act towards one another in some way, what does it do?
Anyway, none of this is really about my project, is it? The time at the ashram does feel like a kind of failure as far as my project is concerned. But I did have one critical conversation that opened up a new way of thinking about death. Not with the Swami or any of the spiritual leadership. Instead I talked with my karma yoga boss, a woman about my age whose name I failed to write down.
Like most people, she is taken aback by my odd hobby. But after thinking for a while, she talks about reincarnation. She had arrived to the ashram viewing life as the end, and that scared her. “I’m very emotional,” she says. When people leave her social circle, it takes a long time to get over the loss. Talking with the Swami, she realized “we are all on our own journey.”
This isn’t the Westernized “may we meet again in another life.” That view comes out of the Christian conception of heaven. My sense from the ashram is the move towards enlightenment means abandoning the desire to return to those one has lost. Oneness with brahman makes such considerations meaningless. Often we postulate “Eastern” philosophies as collective in opposition to the individualistic West, but the Hindu spiritual journey involves an interior personal focus, a detachment from the actions of others, while the Calvinist understanding emphasizes acts within a society. As the Swami often said, it’s the why, not the what, in yogic philosophy.
Critically, this woman does not take on the reincarnation belief as an easy comfort. From a choose-your-own spirituality approach, she should seek out a practice that allows for a reunion with her loved ones, something to anticipate. But that’s not how religion works. We may have a distaste for dogma, but to have faith is to leap beyond personal preference to trust in a recorded, divine wisdom. And because it insists on narrowness, it challenges how we are in the world, for good and for ill. To open the tent to everything is to belittle the power of theology to push ourselves.
I’m traveling to Varanasi next, a place where death and dying is in the water. Despite my qualifications and hesitancy about the Meenakshi Ashram, it did give me a partial introduction into Hinduism. As an outsider, I am always navigating between accessibility and authenticity. Perhaps a city so steeped in spiritual significance, a pilgrimage spot for all Hindus, can give me a different lens than a yoga vacation. Consider everything above preliminary.
1. A central aspect of my experience was my first encounter with full on traveler’s diarrhea, so the first two days of my time at the ashram were spent either in the bathroom or passing in and out of sleep. It may seem like exaggeration, but the bliss I felt eating some lightly spiced rice after two days without food felt divine. Likewise returning to the asanas brought the joy of a functional body. Deprivation brings out the smallest joys and transforms them. People describe fasting as a reset for the metabolism and the spirit. I imagine joining the sense of relief of a return to vitality combined with the satisfaction of self-control gives a depth to the experience that can’t be found in the randomness of illness. Also, I lost five pounds! ↩