What is an Ashram?
Traditionally, an ashram is a monastery or a spiritual hermitage in India. Today, it still serves as a spiritual hideaway for those who wish to escape the frenzy of their daily lives. But it also commonly refers to a dormitory for yoga students or practitioners trying to further their practice.
Like most people, the first time I ever heard of an ashram was in Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert — a memoir of a woman’s search for happiness that took her to Italy, India and Indonesia. In India, she stayed in an ashram to do silent meditation.
When I first read the book (in 2008), it was years before I even dreamed of going backpacking, or trying anything out of my comfort zone. So, it really stupefied me that someone from a developed country would travel thousands of miles just to jail herself in a place where she had to wake up at 4 a.m. to scrub floors and clean toilets.
It was only when I started traveling on a super-tight budget that I began to see the intrigue of living without luxuries. I was surprised by how little I needed to get by. What I thought I couldn’t live without — TV, cosmetics, handbags, shoes, fancy clothes, and tons of different shampoos and lotions — turned out to be nothing but unnecessary clutter.
Purging my life of all the clutter felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders. My life was simpler, my mind clearer, and my wallet happier. Backpacking was my rehab.
How to Choose an Ashram
- Location – There are ashrams in almost every region in India. So, the first question you should ask yourself is which part of India you’d like to visit the most. The northern and southern parts can be very different from one another, but each one is special in their own ways. Take into account the weather when choosing your destination. For example, if you’re not used to being roasted alive, going to South India during summer is probably not a very good idea.
- Price – Prices may vary greatly depending on the location and the amenities offered. Some ashrams offer an all-inclusive package, which may include meals and classes. Some only charge you for accommodation, and let you pay separately for each meal and/or class that you choose to take.
- Classes – Choose an ashram based on what you’d like to work on. There are ashrams that only focus on meditations, some on yoga while the others on ayurvedic treatments — just to name a few. The quality of these classes also vary, so be sure to check reviews by former students to see which one is right for you.
- Schedule – Check what the schedule is like and how much commitment is required of you. How many days a week are the classes? Is it compulsory for you to attend every class? Is there any curfew? Are you required to do ‘karma yoga’ (cleaning and other chores around the ashram)?
Ved Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh
After some research, I decided to go to Rishikesh. Rishikesh is the birthplace of yoga and has since been known to be the yoga capital of India. As you might expect in such a place, there are many ashrams and yoga schools to choose from, each with different rates.
I chose an ashram called Ved Niketan because it was apparently the cheapest in the area. A single room with shared bathrooms only cost 150 rupees per night, and if you stayed for more than 3 nights, you’d get free yoga classes (otherwise, it was 100 rupees per class). They also had more expensive rooms for 250 – 500 rupees — some with private bathrooms. Please check the current rates on their website.
The ashram is located at the end of Ram Jhula, away from the tourist-filled streets, therefore is much quieter than the other ashrams. It features a large complex of buildings with a yoga and meditation hall in the center and is surrounded by gardens.
The place is said to be a favorite of old-timers and real hippies who couldn’t care less about luxury and are only after an authentic ashram experience. Well, that sounds good to me!
Getting to Rishikesh
Rishikesh is a small town in the northern state of Uttarakhand in India. It is about 230 km away from Delhi, and is well-connected by planes, trains, and buses. The nearest airport is Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport with multiple direct flights from Delhi.
There are many trains from Delhi to Haridwar. And from Haridwar, there are three slow trains daily to Rishikesh. Once you reach Rishikesh station, take a shared rickshaw to Lakshman Jhula, or Ram Jhula, where most of the hotels and ashrams are.
A bus ride between Delhi and Rishikesh takes about 5 – 7 hours, depending on traffic. The travel agencies around Delhi and Rishikesh can help you book luxury buses (with A/C) for about 250 – 700 rupees.
Alternatively, for a fraction of the price, you can take a local bus. Just turn up at the bus station in Delhi (no prior booking needed), but be prepared to fight for a seat. I was with three Italian travelers as we arrived late at night at the bus station to catch the last bus to Rishikesh.
When we got there, there were at least 30 other people at the bus door trying to get in. The conductor turned the locals away and let us in, probably because he could charge us more (it was still much cheaper than a luxury bus though). But there were four of us and only two available seats. We had to take turns sitting on the floor throughout the journey.
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What to Expect
You should have already had an online booking prior to your arrival. Once you arrive, head straight to the reception and make your payment upfront. Some online reviewers had complained about the front desk being rude, but I didn’t experience this. The guy manning the registration counter was welcoming enough. Perhaps because I was a solo woman? Or perhaps he was new. I was then showed to my room.
The room was spartan. There was one very shaky bed with a stone-hard mattress, a blanket, a thin pillow, two windows, a power socket, and stone shelves carved into the wall. The room also came with a lamp and an electric fan. But it could still get very hot during the day as the electricity was prone to disruption.
There were toilets and shower rooms at both ends of the building. Considering that the place was surrounded by trees and the Ganges river, I was surprised that I didn’t face any problem with mosquitoes during my stay.
Like any other ashram, Ved Niketan has its own set of rules. For example, strict silence is to be maintained at all times, but especially between 1 and 3 p.m., and after 9 p.m. at night. No meat, fish, eggs, liquors or drugs are allowed anywhere in the premise. And there is a curfew at 10 p.m., after which the gate will be closed and nobody will be allowed entrance.
The schedule at Ved Niketan is pretty lenient. There’s a meditation class at 6 a.m. – 7 a.m., a morning yoga class at 8.30 a.m. – 10 a.m. and an evening yoga class at 5 p.m. – 6.30 p.m.
Aside from that, it’s free and easy. Even the classes are not mandatory to attend. Which is a good thing, because if you find that the classes/teachers are not suitable for you for whatever reason, you can still attend classes elsewhere while still staying in the ashram.
The yoga classes at Ved Niketan focus on different aspects everyday. For example, Monday is yoga for strength, Tuesday for flexibility, and so on.
During my stay, the morning and afternoon yoga teachers had different styles of teaching, so students had to learn to adapt. To me, they were all right, although some of the other students didn’t think so and said you could find better ones at other ashrams.
Ved Niketan Ashram — or basically any ashram, for that matter — are not for fussies. Do not expect luxuries. There is no A/C or hot water. It’s perfect for those seeking to focus on their yoga/meditation as it is a quiet and peaceful place, offering only the sound of the Ganges. And no Wi-Fi.
The twice-daily yoga classes are quite intense if you’re not used to doing yoga everyday. The poses are simple enough for beginners but can really test your strength and endurance. I stayed for a total of 6 nights and throughout my stay, I skipped the morning meditation class because I was too lazy to get up in the morning. I heard it was good though.
Personally, I would prefer an ashram with stricter rules and schedules (like the Vipassana silent retreat I went to), so that there is no room for me to be lazy.