This is the second in a six- part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga. Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.

Part II: It’s a Lab!

I think that we as human beings like to experiment and think that a lab is fun place. On a macro level, I have often thought that the Earth was a lab experiment for human beings, and as a microcosm always remember hoping in high school chemistry that I would be the one who blew up a small part of the lab by mixing the wrong chemicals! That fun seems to take on a different perspective when we find out that we are the experiment, and not the scientists.

Living in the ashram for 6 months in Pondicherry, India had that feel. I asked one of the other students at 5:15 one morning, when we were supposed to be practicing Mauna (silence) if he had ever seen the movie Groundhog Day and if he knew that we were secretly re-filming it. Our schedule was a rigorous form of Tapas (discipline) which we practiced daily except Thursday and Sunday.

The ashram is a true Gurukula environment, where the students live with the Guru and their family. The students were asked to live with each other for 6 months in close living quarters. We were forced to bond, to serve each other food, to work together in Karma Yoga (service to others without expectation of anything in return, and is one of the paths to enlightenment identified in the Bhagavad Gita) for the love and respect of the ashram and ourselves, to practice together and most importantly to hold the mirror of life up to each other and be kind, respectful and supportive in the process. There were 7 of us in total. If it is in one’s human nature to put on airs or to behave in a certain manner to try to impress others, that inauthenticity is eventually exposed in this environment. It is not possible to uphold such behavior for a length of time without reverting to who we truly are. That is one aspect of the many faceted mirror that is ashram life. We become exposed to who we are and we must either accept it or change. This is something that happens all the time in real life. We enter into relationships, put forth our best behaviors but eventually the real “us” comes to the surface. What usually happens is we end that relationship blaming the other person for what went wrong. And as criminal as that is, what is worse is that we don’t change and we don’t grow from the experience and move on to the next relationship and repeat the same mistake. The ashram environment breaks that pattern; it takes us out of our own personal groundhog day. It forces us to evolve with Swadiyaya (self-analysis) whether we want to or not, and it ensures that there are other people in place to assist in the process, whether they want to or not! The beauty of this experience and the gratitude that I have for living it is profound. I was able to see things in myself and either decide to accept them or change them that it would have taken me another 5 lifetimes to figure out. And if the ashram is a lab, then the name of the lab is Yama-Niyama. Part of the beauty of the learning process in the ashram as it can take a student with little to no awareness of Yama-Niyama and bring them both a level of awareness and knowledge through experience in just a couple of short months without the student even realizing they were practicing them. Yama and Niyama is taught in detail two months into the program after the cleansing phase and the student realizes that they have been practicing these principles since the day they set foot in the door. For students already aware of Yama-Niyama, it is apparent when signing up for the course, but even with that basic understanding, the depth of the practice at the ashram is astounding because of the lack of true understanding of Yama Niyama by most western students.

Yamas are the restraint of our animal natures and tendencies and is a way to consciously overcome the animal parts of our brain. They are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (reality), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (correct use of creative energy) and Aparigrahah (non-greed).

Niyamas are the evolution of our human selves and is the action of using the neo-cortex, or frontal lobes of our brain. This is the human part or more highly evolved part of the brain. They are Saucha (purity), Samtosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Swadiyaya (self-examination) and Isvara Pranidana (turning the will over to the greatest good within us).

In my teachings at Ripple Yoga, I like to use the example of Asteya, which when translated from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, means non-stealing. Sutra 2-37 states asteyapratisthayam – sarvaratna – upasthanam. When we are established in non-stealing, we get everything we need. What this means is that until we can be trusted with things, the universe will not allow us to have them by moral or ethical means. Note that this says needs, not wants. We must also understand that the Yamas and Niyamas move from gross to subtle. Most often we think that we are practicing Asteya simply because we don’t rob banks or shoplift, which is true, but it is at the grossest level. We should ask ourselves how much time we steal from others by being chronically late. Or we should ask ourselves how much respect we steal from others by ignoring or shunning them based on our own fears. These are more subtle levels of Asteya but just as potent in practical terms.

Ashram life taught us these lessons in a real life daily experience, and through not only learning the deeper meaning of these principals but living them in an intense manner for six months, I was able to have profound growth over the six month teacher training course. Our guru flatly states that the intensity of the six month course is the same as studying Yoga for 8 years outside of the ashram environment. I was hesitant to believe this when I first heard it expressed and am now a believer. In all its beauty, difficulty, challenge and reward, it has made me a better person and a better teacher. Yama and Niyama are not only the foundation of Yoga and something that is rarely taught in the West, it is the foundation of life. To be a true Yogi, we must practice Yoga in our life, not just on the mat, and Yama and Niyama are the keys to that kingdom. Through the doors of Yama and Niyama unlocked and practiced, is the kingdom of happiness and the end of groundhog day, because we learn the lessons we are supposed to learn with these beautiful tools.

The ashram was the lab and the safe haven for us to study self, and to study the conscious evolution of the beauty of our souls, to become awakened and to realize the loving and divine energies that exist within all of us. And while our initial perception may have been that we were part of a science experiment, we eventually became one with it in a union of beauty, growth and spiritual stimulation that moved us closer to unity with our highest self.

It’s a lab!

If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga where Sarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an uplifting true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.

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