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Islamic lessons from an ashram

May 25, 2014

Last weekend, I went to a Sivananda Yoga camp in Val Morin, Quebec. Sivananda has several yoga centres over the world, and a handful of ashrams: secluded environments where aspiring yogis or drop-in guests enact the yogic lifestyle on a full-time basis, whether it be for a few days, a week, or several years.

I don’t practice yoga, although I’ve dabbled in it throughout the years. I ended up going to this camp because a friend of mine had visited their ashram in the Bahamas and spoke very positively of it, telling me that by no means does one have to be a hard-core yogi to attend. I also liked what I read about Sivananda: the founding principles of this worldwide organization is that of peace and harmony and respect for everyone’s respective faiths. More than anything, I really loved the idea of yoga being something you uphold in all aspects of your life, no just for an hour prancing on a designer mat in the gym. So I signed up. Garden patch and meditation deck, both to be used in the summer.

Here is roughly what my routine looked like throughout my stay:

  • 5:30 am: Wake up
  • 6:00 am: Satsang – a period consisting of 30-minute silent meditation, devotional chanting, and a brief talk on yogic principles.
  • 8:00 am: Yoga class
  • 10:00 am: Brunch
  • 10:45 am: Karma Yoga (selfless service) – a brief period where guests help out with the upkeep of the ashram.
  • 1:00 pm: Weekend special program: sacred drumming workshop
  • 3:00 pm: Free time: I usually explored the area, said my prayers, or visited their sauna.
  • 4:00 pm: Yoga class
  • 6:00 pm: Dinner
  • 7:30 pm: Satsang
  • 10:00 pm: Lights off

I was surprised at the effect of the place on me. Two hours of yoga class whizzed by, whereas in my day-to-day life I have difficulty sparing half an hour for any sort of exercise. I experienced no longing for caffeine. It helped that everyone there was so friendly, that we were in the mountains where I devoured lungfuls of fresh air, and that the food was lacto-vegetarian, ayurvedic, and delicious. A recipe for healing…my own mini-Eat, Pray, Love, one could say!

There were plenty of moments of loneliness and confusion throughout my stay. At times, I was bewildered at myself for being there, and a part of me demanded justification. I had to do a great deal of self coaching and telling myself to just remain with the present.

One of the highlights of my stay was praying in nature, on top of a high-mounted deck usually used for yoga class.

One of the highlights of my stay was praying in nature, on top of a high-mounted deck usually used for yoga class.

Now, several days later, I’ve had a chance to reflect, absorb, internalize, and even enact some of the lessons I learned during my stay. Here are some of the lessons and key changes:

I can do fajr. I’ve had a lifelong battle to pray the pre-dawn prayer on time. I’ve always had difficulty either waking up, or (more often) going back to sleep afterwards. Given the awkwardness of fajr time–especially in the summer months–this meant that I neglected to wake up for it. I was dictated by my body’s need for sleep.

Seeing everyone up at dawn for satsang was inspiring and motivating for me in a novel way. It is not just my mind, but my body, my habit, that knows: It is normal to wake up and spend some time in spiritual activity. Not waking up for fajr is keeping me from being the best I can be. It can no longer be so.

I am now trying to get better at waking up for fajr, and even if I end up with less sleep, it doesn’t bother me the way it used to.

I absorb myself in my salaat. My salaat is my primary meditation. I’m a “doer,” someone who is happiest in the midst of activity and movement. So sitting meditation is not well-suited for me. It’s still worth practicing, but my priority will be being mindful of my salaat.

There were a series of instructions given to us gently prior to our meditation session: to deepen our breathing, to acknowledge any distracting thoughts and simply bring the mind back, to recite a mantra to ourselves internally if need be. These are all instructions I reflexively offer myself prior to starting one of my five daily prayers. I don’t just dive in with takbeer: I take a moment to ground myself and acknowledge that I am beginning a sacred act.

Housework is karma yoga. Karma yoga refers to volunteering in a selfless, spirited manner, without any dislike for the act. In the ashram setting, it was a way to make guests a part of the ashram. In my case, it was fairly small-scale work: helping set up for the workshop and sweeping the front entrance, neither of which took more than fifteen minutes. (I think they start you off easy to not be off-putting.) Doing those activities and seeing the hustle and bustle of the full-time volunteers cooking and cleaning filled me with love for this type of yoga. It is me, because, again, I am a doer. No wonder it is thought to obliterate one’s selfishness!

Witnessing karma yoga in the yoga camp showed me the kind of loving attitude required in one’s housework. Since I came back, such work has felt less like a drag and more of an opportunity to be mindful, to know that one’s actions mean something.

I will make an effort to recite the Quran out loud as often as possible. A kirtan was an impressive thing to observe, but for me personally it did not contain the positive energy and vibrations everyone referred to. However, I knew what they were talking about when they referred to positive energy and vibrations, for I feel the same when reciting or hearing the Quran read out loud.

Just like there is special virtue in reciting chants in Sanskrit, there is virtue in reciting the Quran in its revealed Arabic. In both traditions, there is an emphasis on the benefits and power of these frequent recitations, even if one does not understand the meaning of what they are saying.

Brunch was the best. They made their own bread, and it was heavenly.

Brunch was the best. They made their own bread, and it was heavenly.

When possible, food should be austere. The food at the ashram was vegetarian, deeply nourishing, and omitted the use of garlic, onions, and sugar. Thanks to being a vegetarian I was already in sync with one aspect of it. However, I realized that “normal” food tends to work too hard at stimulating the senses. Another maya, another trick to distract oneself in this dunya. Partaking in their food was a lesson in austerity

I am not my thoughts or my emotions. This is a lesson I learned from a talk delivered during my first Satsang session. The speaker gave us an explanation for the role of the ashram and the human spirit. “Your mind is like a vinyl record,” she said. “Every thought, feeling, and action you have creates a groove in that record. The more you repeat it, the deeper that groove gets.” Boring as the ashram’s routine may seem to some, she said, following it is the process of creating new grooves, filled with positive action and energy. Focusing on deepening those “good” grooves means letting go of old patterns of negative thinking and behaviour.

This description was empowering and illuminating for me. It fit right in with the readings on meditation I have been doing nowadays.  Hurts from my past, I realized, may be nothing more than a story I have kept telling myself, on repeat. Everything, good or bad, ends. It is to God we return. “A person who is enlightened,” said another karma yogi, “still feels emotions. However, they do not get attached to those emotions.”

The more I think about the ashram–both in theory and in my lived experience–the more I realize how much I learned about willpower, personal restraint, and inner peace. It has given me a blueprint for continuing life as a Muslim, no matter what happens ahead. Something’s kicked in, and my lifestyle, intention, and outlook are visibly improving, for the better.

Waiting for the spring planting. A couple of karma yogis were doing outdoor work all day.

I end this post with the prayer delivered at the closing of Sivananda yoga classes:

Auspiciousness be unto all; peace be unto all;

fullness be unto all; prosperity be unto all.
May all be happy!

May all be free from disabilities!
May all look to the good of others!

May none suffer from sorrow!

(Oh Lord) Lead us from the unreal to the Real
From darkness to Light

From death to Immortality.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2014 5:32 pm

    An excellent write-up. It reminds me of the Buddhist contemplation and meditation sessions I did before I became a Muslim. It is important to remember that just because something is different or even outside of our comfort zone does not make it bad, it can help broaden aspects of the life we already have.

    • May 25, 2014 5:53 pm

      I’m glad you see that, Alan. The satsang was definitely outside of my comfort zone, and I may write a bit more about that in the future. What ultimately saddens me is that while such traditions are so welcoming and inclusive, it’s not the same the other way around. There were many people who were surprised to find a Muslim there (although happily so).

  2. June 7, 2014 9:22 am

    Thank you for sharing such an insightful post. What a rewarding experience this must have been! The world is full of rewarding life lessons for us. It’s just up to us to be open minded enough to receive these lessons. I would love to hear more about your experience.

  3. June 23, 2016 8:26 am

    Thanks a lot for this write up. I was thinking of joining this ashram in the city where I live but was a bit apprehensive.. but reading this has changed my mind. 🙂

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