Tantra and Yogic Living, Ashram and Retreat (Part 1)

(Written October 11th, 2011)

All around us, life continues to move. For most of us, there are obligations that pull our awareness. Tasks that need to be performed. And when we become tired, we have certain ways that we use to de-stress. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have created a series of “habits” which allow us to engage in life. Certain conditionings are there for almost all of us, and they keep us within particular realm of experience that we find “comfortable”

For instance, if we are a person who is not comfortable with confrontation, we will tend to go out of our way to avoid conflict, even if that means ignoring our own values or needs. We may have certain patterns of relaxing such as going to a particular restaurant, or drinking alcohol. We likely keep our social structure within particular limits as well, such as hanging our with particular friends, and doing particular activities.

I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this. They are, in fact, in most cases things that you simply enjoy. But it is also easy for us to allow familiarity and routine to become so ingrained that the possibility of deviations becomes uncomfortable, or even terrifying. We can become attached to our routines, needing them to feel safe and happy.

The Yogic teachings tell us that we should learn to become “detached”. We should not expect certain results or outcomes in life. They tell us that most of our pain and suffering come from expectations not being met, or attachments being lost unexpectedly.

The simple reality is that it is challenging to change our habits while living in the environment that has helped to create them. Just as they say that an alcoholic should stop hanging out with friends who drink as part of the recovery, for some changes, we often need to get out of our “social” world in order to allow new possibilities to arise.

This can involve consciously choosing a new habit or giving up an old one. It can also be starting a new yoga class, or taking a workshop that will offer you a new perspective on life. These are ways that we can help cultivate growth, healing and change while we are living our daily lives. But sometimes, either out of personal desire for growth or because we realize we can’t do it in our current environment, something more radical is needed.

For the alcoholic who can’t find sobriety in his or her daily living, they seek “rehab”. For someone on the Spiritual Path of Yoga, we head to a retreat, or to the Ashram.

The Ashram is a place which offers a culture based upon Yogic lifestyle. When “everybody’s doing it”, it is easier to fit in and allow “healthier” choices to be part of your experience. Many Ashrams offer the possibility of regular yoga practice, regular chanting and regular meditations. Most will be based upon a particular tradition and will offer those teachings and practices that are a part of that tradition.

For the conscious Yoga practitioner, the Ashram should not just be a place to “escape”, however. It is not a place to avoid worldly responsibility, although it has been used by some in that way. The deeper purpose of the Ashram is to challenge your conditioning and your habitual ways of living, to deepen your personal spiritual practice, to accelerate your spiritual growth, and to learn alternative ways of creating greater harmony of body, mind and spirit.

While there are some Ashrams in the modern age that are more like resorts, a traditional Ashram offers a simplified way of life. It offers you what you “need”, not what you want. It invites you to explore the question “what is it that I really need to live and to be happy?” For those who undertake this experience, many come to realize we need a lot less that we think we do. Food, shelter, clothing are the basics. A supportive community is also helpful.

While we have grown used to, and even conditioned to expect certain things in life, such as nice cars, the latest iPhone, hot and cold running showers, air conditioning and central heat, regular meals at nice restaurants, and two weeks of paid vacation every year, the reality is we do not “need” any of these things.

For our sense of individual self, or what yoga calls the Ego (Ahamkara), what happens when we are faced with conditions in life that we are not accustomed to? What happens when a person used to living alone in a two bedroom house is suddenly faced with sharing a single room and one bathroom with three strangers? What happens when our usual diet may be modified into a purely vegetarian diet, which is served at strict times, and our coffee and alcohol are taken away? What happens when we are asked to get up at 5am, and be ready to meditate with the group at 5:45am?

For most of us, the short answer is there will be some reaction. Even if we gracefully accept the changes, some part of us is witnessing and aware of what is different than our “norm”. And some people may react quite strongly against this. Without realizing it, the ego may revolt. But what this type of experience does for us, the gift of Yogic Ashram life, is it gives us a chance to see the places we are attached.

Yes, I prefer air conditioning, but when it is taken away, I can adapt. I like my private space, but there are some nice experiences that come with getting to know three other people and sharing space with them.

With each change, there is a choice to “surrender” and look honestly at our selves as to how we feel about it. Or, we can not look, and just complain or find a quick way out. Yoga is an invitation to increase awareness, and any place within our own mind that we are attached, conditioned or resistant needs to be examined.

It is not that it is “wrong” to have air conditioning, nice cars and iPods, but Yoga teaches us that these things should not be the source of our happiness. In the Ashram, many of our external attachments are stripped away, forcing us to see ourselves without our worldly distractions. When there is no Tivo to watch for hours at night and we have to engage our own thoughts and feelings or have an actual conversation with someone else, can we still enjoy life?

From another perspective, the Ashram experience can also heighten our awareness of the patterns that are so strong that we actually import them into the Ashram with us. If we pay attention, perhaps some different personality traits will be magnified. We may feel more strongly the need for approval, our natural inclination towards competition, or maybe feelings of inadequacy. We may see whether we are a leader or a follower. We may notice our selfish tendency to take the largest piece of fruit, to not want to share, or ways we justify not following simple rules and requests. Many other traits and behaviors may make themselves known if we are paying attention.

Within an Ashram, we also have a chance to meet other people, often from all over the world. We have a chance to see other perspectives on life, and to have our own judgements revealed and mirrored to us through other people’s actions and our reactions to them.

We are additionally given the opportunity to allow our deeper spiritual inclinations to be expressed and seen, out in the open, in a supportive environment. We have the opportunity to share our musings on life and to be among spiritually like minded community, which can strengthen our deeper spiritual values, and teach us more about how to live them fully.

The Ashram experience is also a chance to simply see and acknowledge the simplicity that life can be and still contain joy and meaning within it. So much of what our Western culture calls “normal standard of living” is really luxury. We can learn ways to enjoy life more simply, and we can also learn to be more grateful for what we have, and not take it for granted.

Many Yogic practices encourage these types of self reflection and awareness. For those that cannot find the time or resources to stay in an Ashram, then go to a retreat or a weekend workshop. If you can’t find the time or resources for that, then take classes, or make conscious efforts to observe your own habits of mind. Make conscious decisions to try new things, and see how you react. Make conscious efforts to do or try something that you know you are nervous about. Push past your limitations, dissolve your attachments and invite a world of infinite possibilities.

Like most things in life, the Ashram experience is what you make of it. If you import all your old habits, and refuse to be self aware, it may simply be a vacation. For some, an Ashram may be a training ground to learn skills of self awareness and self observation. For others, it may take on even deeper implications. For many, this experience, if they are open to it, can change their perspective on life. Even if the external life doesn’t change much, the inner experience of life can be radically altered.

Tantric Yoga doesn’t ask you to give up worldly things. It seeks a balance between both material and spiritual pursuits. Tantra teaches you can and should continue to enjoy that which you enjoy, but learn to be detached from it. Enjoy it, but know that it is not the source of your true happiness. That way, even when the object of enjoyment inevitably is lost (and it will be), your deeper sense of joy which arises from deep within your own Self will still remain, and nothing will truly be lost.

With enough practice and awareness, the world becomes our Ashram, because we carry the Ashram perspective within our own minds and hearts. Tantra teaches that we don’t need to escape from life to find spirituality. Instead we want to awaken our awareness of the spiritual within our daily life and the world around us.

What have been your experiences of Retreat, Ashram or integrating a more Tantric awareness into daily life?

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