The ashrams and culture of each ashram are as diverse as India herself. Before this trip I had many preconceived ideas about ashrams. I thought one had to be a devout believer in a guru, that people living there long-term were crazy (even though I don’t like that word) or brainwashed, and that the space would be very serious and austere. So far, my journey has taken me to five ashrams over the past two months and as a result I have completely shattered my previous notions. As I mentioned before, it was not my intention to have a spiritual tour of India, I just let the events unfold naturally, like a sleuth on a trail to solve this mystery we call life (or at least make an attempt!).
Amma’s ashram, located on the southwestern coast of Kerala, was the second place I visited after the Sivananda ashram. It’s a MASSIVE compound with approximately 10-15 thousand residents plus hundreds of visitors arriving daily. Everything that you could possibly want or need is available… like a cappuccino and chocolate cake for instance, a pharmacy, clothes, and hundreds of book titles about Amma (you may not be lucky if you want to read something else though!). Many of the long-term residents work full time for the ashram or on Amma’s social and education projects, which include a university, aid relief, and organic farming… Of all of the ashrams I’ve seen, I have to say Amma’s projects and social impact is the most impressive.
The day I arrived at the ashram was Amma’s first day back after her long North American tour, so the place was buzzing. There weren’t enough rooms and mattresses to go around, but I was lucky and given a room in one of the looming residential towers to share with two women from Japan around my age. When I introduced myself to my new roomies they were so excited because they had brought a stuffed animal from home, which one of the girls proudly produced from her bed, that was also named ‘Jennifer’. I thought this is a good sign even though I don’t have a mattress to sleep on, all will be well. That night I slept on the floor albeit on an air mattress that was kindly lent to me from another woman in the ashram.
One of the reasons visitors flock to Amma’s is due to her famous hugs, which have reportedly changed many lives. I was fortunate to have a hug, also called ‘darshan’ on my very first night! I admit, it felt awkward running to the front of the temple with a crowd of other ‘first day’ visitors to greet Amma in her golden velvet chair. The volunteers ushered us into a line and when it was my turn, I approached her crawling on my knees while one of her assistants pushed my head into her bosom. I didn’t embrace her because there’s a strict ‘no arms’ rule. I wasn’t prepared for what was to happen. She held me tight, rocked me back and forth, and whispered in my ear “my darling daughter, my darling darling daughter.” In that moment I felt nearly intoxicated. I don’t know if it was the sweet smell of her jasmine soaked clothes (seriously, she smells lovely!), or to have a warm embrace after my arduous journey. My heart felt open and I was giddy… laughter erupted when I ran into people – what was happening to me?!
As I started meeting more people at the ashram everyone was asking about my hug – what did I feel? Did it change my life and did I experience a miracle? Life, I’m not sure yet. Miracle? Maybe. The afternoon after my hug I went on a mattress run. After much inquiry, I finally found one on the first floor of my building. Unfortunately, the elevator was broken so I had no choice but to walk up 11 flights of stairs. It was a hot day, around 40 degrees with humidity, and I was also carrying my yoga mat, water bottle, and what felt like half of my belongings. I started awkwardly trudging my way up the steep cement stairs with the plastic coated mattress and two bags on my arm. I must have been distracted, singing a new mantra or something, because amazingly I climbed all the way up without stopping once!! I felt like a machine with limitless amounts of energy. So, I would say yes, I experienced a miracle!
Amma’s ashram definitely changed my ideas about ashrams. Even though there were pictures of her everywhere, and some of the devotees were clearly obsessed with her, it had a peaceful feel amidst the chaos. Nothing however, could prepare me for what I would experience at Isha though, which was next on my journey, and really the only place that I planned.