Deep Breathing: A Weekend Retreat at Tamil Nadu’s Isha Yoga Center

Turning the focus inward on a spiritually inclined weekend retreat.  
Dhyanalinga dome
The Dhyanalinga is a place for deep, peaceful meditation. This dome is made entirely of mud brick, without the use of metal or cement. Photo courtesy: Isha Yoga Center

Although I know a lot of people who have stayed at an ashram, I’d never been to one myself, mainly because I’m not a fan of organized religion. But when a friend convinced me that almost anyone can gain from a visit to a place like the Isha Yoga Center, I decided to survey it for myself. After all, a lot of travellers today are seeking spiritual experiences—a place of peace and rest that rejuvenates mind and body. And yoga and meditation retreats are at the top of this list.

After a short flight from Mumbai to Coimbatore, I took a 1.5-hour car ride from the airport to the foothills of the Velliangiri Hills, where the centre is located. The centre’s indoor and outdoor spaces were attractive and well designed; in particular the profusion of greenery and gorgeous flowering plants were soothing. I had imagined a more basic and austere environment, I wasn’t expecting to see carved rocks, aesthetic woodwork, and inspired design in the architecture.

elephant sculptures

Lush greenery and a variety of stone sculptures and carvings decorate the 150-acre campus. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman

On check-in I was handed a schedule of the week’s programme of activities which I could attend. Talking to other visitors I quickly realised that at this centre, relaxation and a peaceful mental state do not equal lazing. The path to improving one’s health and finding deeper meaning to life, they believe, is through rigorous yoga, meditation, and regulating one’s food habits. This wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

The Isha Center aims to be inclusive and universal and it was clear to me that it offers something deep and meaningful to the over 4,000 volunteers that live there. It has thousands of visitors coming in every day from a variety of cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. Many seeking spirituality and a healthier lifestyle come for short courses or just for a few days to acquire a yoga or meditation practice that can become part of daily life.

However, because the experience that the yoga centre offers is derived from yogic culture, Shiva is considered the Adiyogi or the first yogi. From the huge Nandi bull at the entrance, to the linga at the Dhyanalinga Yogic Shrine, and the rituals at the Linga Bhairavi shrine, the symbolism, associations, and various features at the ashram derive from what I understand as Hinduism. That said, during my three days there I didn’t hear a word about “god,” even Shiva was not spoken of as god, nor was there any talk of heaven or hell, superhuman controls, or victory over evil. Instead, what I did hear a lot of was how I could enhance the quality of my life, the perception of everything around me, and increase my consciousness of the present.

Hatha yoga class Isha Center

The centre runs a variety of hatha yoga programmes ranging from one-day Surya Kriya sessions to a 21-week teacher’s training programme. Photo courtesy: Isha Yoga Center

The Guru Any organization like this has a spiritual head. The guru of the Isha Center is Sadhguru, the founder, spiritual guide, and the force and voice of the organization. I attended an impromptu darshan with him on the lawns of the centre and found that he also cracks jokes, does not hesitate to criticize devotees, and tries to give simple, matter-of-fact answers to problems. At the gathering, I also encountered followers swooning, sobbing, and extending their adulation in various ways. I chose to ignore that which I found incredulous or puzzling. The fact is you don’t have to be his follower or devotee to gain from the yoga or meditation practices being taught.

What to Do

There are a variety of ways one can experience what the Isha Center has to offer. Here are some of them:

Retreat Programmes

Most people start their association with the centre with a four-day Inner Engineering retreat. I didn’t do it, but explored aspects that make up such a programme. Inner Engineering teaches among other things pranayam and Shambhavi Maha Mudra, which is a breathing and meditation practice to improve health and achieve internal balance. There are a variety of other programmes. For instance, I met someone who had attended the five-day Sunethra Eye programme which tackles eye problems. Daily routines involved eye exercises, eye packs, specific Ayurvedic massages, and yoga to benefit the eyes (Inner Enginnering/Sunethra Eye participants generally offer donations of ₹15,000-20,000).

Self Explore

Cleansing pools

There are two teerthakunds or cleansing pools at the ashram, the Chandrakund for women and the Suryakund for men. Photo courtesy: Isha Yoga Center

Those like me who are unsure of what exactly they want to experience at this centre can book a room and then examine the possibilities available. For many, the day starts with a dip in the teerthakunds, the ashram’s sacred water bodies. One afternoon I changed into a robe and walked down a steep flight of stairs 30 feet underground to the large subterranean pool called the Chandrakund. The water was freezing and I only managed to stay in it longer than a few minutes because I was distracted by the lovely painted mural on the wall. At 5 a.m. one morning I saw yogis heading to the teerthakunds, but I didn’t want a second dip given how cold I had found it the first time. Instead I went directly for my yoga session where I learned the Surya Kriya, and then made my way for a meditation session and later, aum chanting. In the evening I attended a Yoga Nidra session, which was restful and calming. With no pressure to attend any particular session, I attended what I wanted to. It was comforting for me, a first-timer, to know that if I liked something I could continue to do it and learn more, if I didn’t, I was at liberty to walk away from it at any time.

Surya Namaskar

Isha Center yoga

At the ashram, bringing stillness to the mind is the ultimate goal of all yoga practice. Photo courtesy: Isha Yoga Center

Every yoga session I’ve ever attended has had a different version of the Surya Namaskar and the Isha Center is no different. Their unique Surya Kriya is a 21-step routine that promises to make you very fit if you practice it 1-3 times a day. I learnt it while I was at Isha, but unfortunately only followed it for about a month. A brief illness interrupted my practice and then I wasn’t disciplined about restarting. It’s definitely something I would like to get back to.

Temples

The centre’s two temples or spiritual spaces, the Dhyanalinga Yogic Shrine and the Linga Bhairavi Shrine or Devi temple couldn’t be more different from each other. Dhyanalinga Yogic Shrine is a spherical pillar-less brick dome, which is empty save for a large black linga at the centre. At the entrance is a column on which I saw the symbols of various religions of the world. It symbolizes both that this is a space of no religious affiliation, and one that welcomes people from all of them. Groups are led into the unlit, empty space where no one speaks. You don’t go there to pray or perform any ritual. That’s perhaps what appealed most to me. On one occasion a lone sitarist played a soulful tune lifting the energy in that windowless space and allowing me to be very, very still. With eyes closed in meditation it allowed me to unwind; the stillness, and giving up of stresses of everyday life was one of the highlights of my time at the centre. The more popular temple is the Linga Bhairavi, which was bustling with visitors when I visited. I spent a few minutes and exited. For me in essence it was a religious space akin to other Hindu temples and I preferred the Dhyanalinga. But others find it deeply meditative and serene. The devi at this temple is also said to fulfil wishes of devotees.

Wellness

Ayur Rasayana massage Isha Center

The Ayur Rasayana wellness programme combines yoga, meditation, massages, facials, and other treatments. Photo courtesy: Isha Yoga Center

When I visited, a delightful curtain of red blooms hung over the entrance to the Isha Rejuvenation Center where Ayurvedic massages, therapies, and assorted treatments for pain and specific ailments are available. There are several 3, 5,  or 7-day rejuvenation programmes that visitors can enrol in. For deep analysis and treatment of specific health issues there are a variety of medicines dispensed in the form of Siddha and Ayurvedic treatments. I had a general consultation with Maa Vama, a qualified allopathic medical practitioner turned Siddha medicine advocate. She prescribed a series of changes in my diet to include at least 50 per cent raw vegetables/fruits, as well as a course of rasayam and chenduram (herb-mineral formulations) aimed at purifying and restoring internal balance. She suggested I consume a small ball each of neem and turmeric on an empty stomach with honey-laced water, as an antiseptic and cleanser every morning. Finally, she also recommended an abhyanga massage which I received that evening. It was a rather vigorous massage with two practitioners giving me a rhythmic rub-down with a large quantity of herbal oil. This massage is traditionally believed to be very useful in loosening up toxins in the body so they can be expelled.

Stay & Eat

Nalanda reception

Public spaces at the Nalanda accommo-dations include grassy courtyards, a comfortable reception area, and a large, airy central space. Photo: Isha Yoga Center

Guests have several options for accommodation within the ashram. The 70 rooms at the Nalanda Conference Center are the most comfortable with spotless en suite bathrooms and basic amenities (non air-conditioned rooms from ₹2,500; air-conditioned rooms from ₹3,500, less if you join an Isha programme). With a cascading white bougainvillea at the entrance, spacious public areas, an open, airy style, extensive use of dark wood, and beautiful plants and lawns, this is a well-designed, aesthetic space. At the Nadhi and Alayam rooms you get a basic lean, functional space with twin beds and attached bathrooms. There are also suites and other accommodation for larger families/groups on campus (non-AC from ₹850; AC from ₹1,300-5,000). All room rates include two meals at the Bhiksha Hall (to book accommodation email ishastay@ishafoundation.org).

Meals at the centre are a no-nonsense affair. I was introduced to a whole new way of eating. Quite simply, in this place you eat only twice a day: at 10 or 10.45 a.m. and 7 or 7.45 p.m. Most residents and visitors eat at the Bhiksha Hall. Seating is on long mats lined up on the floor and those performing the seva, or volunteering for the day come around serving salad, rice, dal, veggies, and a millet porridge. It’s south Indian fare that’s hearty and tasty. A not too spicy version is available and portions are unlimited; you can eat as much as you want. Once done, everyone washes their own stainless steel plate and glass in the very clean washing area and places them on the dish racks provided.

Only Inner Engineering programme participants eat at Nalanda. On day one, I overate at the morning meal afraid perhaps that I wouldn’t last till 7 p.m. As it turned out I was fine. On day two I ate normally and found I had a slight rumbling at 5 p.m. To stave off the munchies I ended up getting a fresh juice at the Pepper Vine Eatery (open 8.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.). This is a large gazebo area with various stalls catering to day visitors and to anyone else who needs a little sandwich, dosa, juice, or snack in between.

Why Go?

At the end of my long weekend at Isha, what I realised was not rocket science: I needed to find time for myself, practice yoga, meditate, and eat healthy on a regular basis. All the things I knew, but had long ignored. But that’s exactly why a short break at an ashram like this is sometimes needed—to drive home simple messages and to offer direction on how change can happen.

No place is for everyone and neither is Isha. It is good for those who want a spiritual retreat with or without religion. A point to note is that though it is not religiously affiliated it does have strong elements that are rooted in Hinduism. Simply put, visitors imbibe as much religion and ritual as they want. I found it easy to not engage with aspects I was not inclined toward.

I came back home with the strong conviction that I ought to change the way I am living. Most importantly, it was a wake-up call to find time for my body, mind, and overall wellbeing.

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Deep Breathing”.

The Guide

The Isha Yoga Center is situated a 30 km/90-min drive from Coimbatore airport. Taxis from the airport to the ashram cost ₹1,000 one-way (ishayoga.org and isha.sadhguru.org).

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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