While yoga workshops and retreats are great ways to enrich and deepen your practice, visiting an ashram is a more traditional option to immerse yourself in the practices and teachings of yoga. Similar to a monastery—a spiritual hermitage created to provide spiritual instruction under a specific teacher and/or lineage—ashrams are entirely focused on yoga practices and philosophy. While a visit to an ashram can be an adventurous and authentic yogic experience, it can also be weird and uncomfortable, especially to Westerners or the uninitiated. During my last stay at an ashram, I jotted down nine things that would be helpful for you to know before visiting an ashram for the first time.
Follow the Rules
Different ashrams enforce different rules based on the teachings of their tradition. Most centers will insist on a vegetarian diet and will not allow consumption of caffeine, drugs or alcohol. Some may even have rules on celibacy and the separation of sexes. Following the ashram’s schedule and attending certain classes is usually required or is strongly encouraged. Modest attire may be required, with the strictest rules in the temple spaces to have your shoulders and knees covered. Just like a yoga studio, enter the practice spaces and temples barefooted. The more traditional an ashram is, the more likely they will strongly enforce their rules and ask you to leave if you are disobeying them.
Know the Gurus
Ashrams are founded by gurus as spiritual centers for them to live in and/or to teach their students. While you are not required to accept this teacher as your guru when visiting, most ashram residents and visitors will be ardent followers. If the ashram has a living guru, expect an air of reverence and devout worship towards the guru, which may feel a bit odd and cultish to newbies. Many ashrams continue to exist after their gurus have left their bodies and will usually have a temple for the deceased guru in honorarium and as a place to worship and perform pujas or ceremonies. If a guru has multiple ashrams you may or may not want to schedule your visit while the guru will be there. I highly recommend you read up on the life, teachings, and temperament of the ashram’s guru before visiting.
Prepare to practice
The main attraction of visiting an ashram is to have ample opportunity to practice yoga in all of its forms, so be prepared to experience yoga both on and off the mat. Most ashrams offer a morning and afternoon yoga class as well as workshops and evening programs. Expect more meditation and pranayama integrated into the yoga classes and/or offered as separate classes. Traditional ashrams will also offer one or two satsangs (spiritual gatherings) per day that include chanting, lecture, and discussion.
Most ashrams offer seva (selfless service) programs of varying lengths. These allow guests to experience a deeper immersion in the community and to stay at the ashram for a longer period of time. By volunteering to work 30-40 hours per week, seva participants receive discounted rates or a free stay depending on the ashram and length of commitment. Some ashrams require all guests to perform some seva during visits, which can be a fun way to interact with the staff and long-term volunteers.
The food will likely be prepared sattvic—vegetarian, simple and healthy. Those with strong attachments to certain foods or with sensitive bellies might be unhappy with ashram food and thus should check out the ashram’s sample menus. Most ashrams serve meals at regular times buffet style. I recommend taking small servings and then going back for more of what you liked. Some may have a little store or cafe for snacks between meals, but it is best to not stuff yourself as this will be uncomfortable when practicing so much yoga.
Connect with community
Expect to meet very interesting people while visiting an ashram as they attract visitors from all around the world. If the ashram has a strong seva program, expect to see a lot of young adults. I recommend seeking out the “old timers” of the ashram as they will have great stories to tell as well as enormous wisdom to share. Don’t be shy—at every ashram I’ve visited I’ve found that people are very friendly and easy to strike up a conversation with.
Expect to rough it a bit during your stay—most ashrams have tiny rooms, small beds and shared bathrooms. Many ashrams will have an affordable dormitory housing option and some will offer even cheaper tent camping. Some ashrams will have a few expensive rooms with fancier accommodations and private bathrooms. While you won’t spend a lot of time in your room, you’ll probably end your days tired and will want to rest comfortably.
More self-serve than full serve
An ashram is not a hotel, spa or resort, it is much more simple and rustic in its accommodations and amenities, so don’t expect five-star customer service or to be coddled. It’s a good idea to see what linens and amenities are provided and to check the ashram’s online reviews to get a better sense of what to bring for any individual needs or concerns.
Most ashrams are located in remote locations (some can be a bit of a pilgrimage) and usually have expansive, beautiful and well-maintained grounds. Expect to find ample opportunity to find solitude and introspection, which may be a helpful respite to the often busy ashram atmosphere. While you will experience interesting places to walk around and explore, remember to be respectful as some places may be off-limits to visitors.
If you are looking for a deep immersion into the practices and teachings of yoga, I highly recommend visiting a traditional yoga ashram. The more research and preparation you do prior to your visit, the more you will feel comfortable during your stay. At the very least, try to show up to your chosen ashram with an open mind and a sense of adventure.