Ashram Life Day 3: Motions

There’s something about being in an ashram that makes you pay attention to the details. I’ve been catching myself – how I constantly look at my phone, how I keep going through social media, how my hunger pangs erupt violently, my cravings for meat and the desire to escape through constant stimulation. All these stimulants have been deeply ingrained in me. It’s so important to just observe them though. I’ve been practicing celibacy for four days. I haven’t eaten meat in a day. These are all cycles. On the other hand, there’s beauty in the discipline here. Taking cold showers at night. Waking up at 3:00am to go to sadhana. Trying to keep up with intense yogic movements. Fighting the urge to sleep during mantra singing. It’s grueling. It isn’t that type of exercise wherein you’re basking in enlightenment. It’s quite the opposite. You’re instead sharpening yourself. You’re seeing how much space and capacity you have inside. Call it grit or tenacity. But a lot of self control and will are involved.

Today is technically the first day of Seva Sadhana. We had our first meeting at 8:30am. All the rules and schedules were explained. Each day is different but it’s a balance of serving, learning and devotion. Before we started the meeting, we tuned in and did an 11 minute meditation on finding strength and our inner teacher. Afterwards, each one shared their reflections of our idea of fearlessness. I think this was so apt for me since I had just decided to stay on in the US and explore the great unknown. This morning, our task was to sort out the donations from Summer Solstice. We had to segregate the blankets and yoga mats we wanted to keep for the program and the rest would be given to charity. We washed down the yoga mats with a hose and scrubbed them before hanging them on the porch to try. It was so much fun actually. It felt like we were in summer camp and we were all just playing. I think a big part of it was the team work – we created a system wherein one person would be in charge of the hose and the other two would scrub and hang the mats to dry.

Afterwards, I helped out Mico screw in covers on the sockets and light switches. It felt good working with my hands. Before 11am, we all jumped into two cars and made our way to the school right next to the ashram. Our next task was to help unload these huge trucks filled with food and move them to the storage areas. There were boxes of cereal and orange juice. Again it was a team effort. We created a human chain passing on the boxes while the last person would stack the boxes neatly inside. A piece of dirt entered my eye and I had to take off one contact lens and when I tried putting it back on, it fell on the floor. Thank God I didn’t get dizzy with just one contact lens.

I talked to Adam who was a firefighter back in Arizona. He shared how it wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be. He was expecting to be fighting fires with the team but mostly, he gets called to do paramedic work. He’s been practicing kundalini yoga and been a vegan for a couple of years now. He decided to stay here for two weeks to enrich his spiritual life. Been talking a lot to Rebecca as well. We seem to share the same obsession for coffee and food (meat specifically). I admire her strength for coming here in spite of having two young kids and going through a divorce. She seems like a person who has achieved a lot of success professionally but has struggled internally because of family and being misunderstood.

There was a white bearded man in a green turban who was just a bundle of energy. He kept cracking corny and funny jokes. He was originally from Michigan but had kept going back to Espanola for thirty years until he decided to just move. He drives a school bus but is deeply involved in ashram living. The lady in charge of the feeding program for the less fortunate kids was from the Netherlands. Yogi Bhajan had asked her to live in Espanola decades ago and she thought he meant Spain that’s why she moved. She was a sweet old woman. She treated everyone part of the Seva Sadhana program to a Mexican lunch. She asked all of us where we were from and what we did and why we were here. She had an authenticity to her. She talked passionately about the youth in Espanola and that they were the highest percentage of the poorest in the country. She stressed how the youth were the future of the planet and how they needed to be fed properly. She knew of many adults living in the area who were so angry because they were hungry as children. I was so in awe with her generosity. I could sense a tinge of sadness in her voice when she talked about her husband who had left her years ago. Now, she dedicates her life to helping feed kids. It’s so inspiring.

Our last workshop today was on tantric numerology. It was so fascinating how numbers run deeper than what they seem. I learned I need to master my body. Physical exercise is imperative to balance out my entire self. I am prone to negativity so the challenge is to over ride it through pranayama and exercise. Rituals are important. Also learned that this is a year wherein I need to be open to social experiences and enjoy them. Next year will be focused on hard work.

Words by Nicky Daez
All names have been changed for privacy purposes

Ashram Life Day 1: Integration

The clouds were hovering slowly over the vast mystical terrain of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The smell of rain was faint but you could sense that it wasn’t far away. I kept my eyes peering through the window, watching the landscape transform like a kaleidoscope. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I arrived at the ashram and saw the golden dome atop a traditional white Mexican-style structure.

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Chris who I had been coordinating with told me to wait there since he was at a meeting. I dragged my suitcase towards the tables with umbrellas and was greeted by a Sikh wearing a turban sporting a long dark beard and a tall slender woman wearing a turban as well. She asked me if I needed help and I found out that she was Cat who I had been emailing back and forth the past couple of months for the kundalini yoga teacher training course. I killed time watching people around me. I set myself down and laid on the grass as the sun gently kissed my face. I just kept observing the people from the immersion teacher training as they took their break, some of them walking barefoot on the grass while others just sat and conversed with each other. There was one woman who started to break down to a guy.

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Chris finally arrived and we took his car as we drove a few blocks around the ashram and went into a dirt road that led to a row of one floor houses. He showed me the house I was staying in and told me the code for the door. I entered and noticed that it was decent and spartan. I felt a pang of discomfort inside me – like I wanted to just run and leave. He brought me to the women’s quarters which was a far cry from our quarters since it was more furnished and cozy. He explained that all meals would be at the kitchen there. The sun was about to set so I walked around the compound. The sky was a medley of blue and orange and white. The lush green gardens gave a soothing smell. It was peaceful. I felt the wave of loneliness but I knew I had to be here.

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I had trouble sleeping the night before. I had strangely felt the pull to sleep during the afternoon – it almost felt like I took a sedative. I could feel the stress and anxiety of the real world tugging at my core, thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I felt torn between following a spiritual path and living a life of an entrepreneur. I wrote a letter to Sarie just pouring out my thoughts and feelings. It felt good. It felt cathartic. I set my alarm to 3:00am to wake up for sadhana at 3:40am. I kept waking up. 1:00am. 2:00am. 3:00am. I was deliberating in my head if I wanted to just sleep in or just go to sadhana. It felt like a mental tug of war. After maybe twenty minutes of mind fucking, I finally decided to go at 3:40am.

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I stepped out of the house and it was freezing. The cold air woke me up. I looked up at the sky and the stars were crystal clear. All the constellations were at clear sight. I entered the gudwara and picked an orange cloth to wrap around my head. I could see the room packed with people doing exercises. A part of me didn’t want to go in out of shame for being late. But I was already there so I just quietly walked in and sat in the middle. We did a yoga kriya for the liver and kidney which was so appropriate for the debauchery I did to my organs the week before. It was challenging but I could feel the energy invigorating me. We did a relaxing shavasana afterwards then did a mantra meditation. I could feel the sleep deprivation kicking in. I saw some people lay down on their backs so I just followed suit. It was amazing to just absorb all the vibrations and let my body rest. When the chanting ended, I made my way back to my room, set my alarm to 7:00am so I could have breakfast then just passed out.

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I entered the women’s quarters for breakfast and Sarah and Mary were preparing their breakfasts. Sarah asked if I wanted cereal. I grabbed the almond milk from the fridge and pulled a banana off to mix it in with. I learned from Sarah that she was on a spiritual path. She didn’t care much for money. She said that she would paint without knowing what she was doing then when it was done, it would be a sign for her to move on to the next place. The last painting she made was of New Mexico that’s why it she had ended up in the ashram. She was planning to do the teacher training but didn’t have enough money. Her friends donated enough for her to get to Espanola. She called Chris when she was on the road and he told her about the Seva Sadhana program. At that exact moment, she pulled over and opened her laptop and signed up. She had been living here for three months already. She loves the life – the slowness and mindfulness of everyone and especially how the community is strong and how she’s able to expand and learn. I love how trusting she is. She’s always been on a soul and creative path most of life. I love how she doesn’t compromise.

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I met my housemate, Roy. He’s from Osaka, Japan. He used to work as a computer salesman but he said it was really stressful. Now he works as a coordinator at the Kundalini Yoga Institute in Nara. I remember when I met him for the first time, I noticed we had the same beige Uniqlo hoodie. Even his face gave a striking resemblance of how I would look a few years from now. He was married for seven years but he told me his wife wanted to live a regular life but he wanted to live a spiritual life. He had been living here for three months so he could immerse and improve his English. He was planning to go to Peru and Chile after his stay her to accompany one of the Kundalini Yoga teachers going on a meditation tour. He’s definitely on a soul journey. He practices Reiki and did the vipassana meditation retreat in Japan a few years ago.

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He offered to drive me to the supermarket after we helped out at Yogi Bhajan’s estate. We basically just fixed the table settings, placed flowers, unpacked the buffet items, really easy work. Peacocks were aimlessly wandering around the garden. It was a beautiful place. For some reason, while driving to Wal-mart, seeing all the fast food chains made me crave for junk. When I entered Wal-mart, I could feel my blood pumping, I wanted sugar and salt. I wanted all the bad stuff. I remembered one of my good friends telling me that when this happens, you need to just perceive it as a wave and let it fall on you – experience it completely then watch the desire fade away.

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When I got back to the house, I devoured the leftover dahl and I heated up some toast and ate them together with butter. An elderly man named James who had been living at the ashram for almost a decade said he was going to grab some leftovers from the kitchen. I washed the dishes after I ate. He arrived with vegetarian pizza and mushroom and greens soup with rice noodles. The pizza was amazing but the soup was a bit bland. I put a dash of pepper on top of the soup and sprinkled child flakes on top of my pizza. He shared his life with us, he had always lived in ashrams. He lived in an ashram in Brooklyn before he moved to Espanola. He loved the sense of community and spiritual life it gave him. Sarah seemed to be liking life here and wanted to live her as long as she could. After I did the dishes for everyone, I went back to my room and took a long nap. I set my alarm for 5pm since we were headed to the last day of meditation leading up to Yogi Bhajan’s birthday. My head was throbbing and spinning as I laid down. When my alarm went off, I woke up feeling much better.

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We drove to the house where the meditation was being held. It was filled with carpets and paintings of Yogi Bhajan and the golden temple. Statues of buddhas and crystals filled the shelves. The kitchen smelled of spices and fragrant rice. We recited a Sikh prayer for a couple of minutes then sang Guru Ram Dass as a band played in the background in unison. I could feel the vibrations uplift the entire room. When we finished, we were served plates of hearty vegetarian food – steamed vegetables, salsa, fried tofu and steamed white rice. I met the other woman who had just arrived to join the Seva Sadhana program. Her name was Anna and she came from Alaska. She has 2 and 3 year old kids but is going through a rough divorce. She said that she was happy that they were in good terms with her husband. She was planning to stay here for 3 months and wanted to do teacher training as well. I also met a young Indian woman who caught my eye from across the room. She was from Brooklyn and was an attorney. She was also on a spiritual path. She wanted to use her intuition more in her life so she was studying ayurveda. She told me that the key is to find the connection between your current career and your newfound passion. She said that was what happened with her. We don’t need to just give up one. We can be different layers. I am so grateful for today though. Met so many interesting people. Got to practice meditation and yoga. Ate delicious and healthy food. God is in the details.

Words and Photos by Nicky Daez
*All names have been changed for privacy purposes.

Ashram Chronicles: Seva Sadhana in Espanola, New Mexico

Endings are never easy. But neither our beginnings. I got myself out of bed at three in the morning today and that pressing feeling weighed on me. I am leaving the ashram today. For the past two wonderful weeks, this place has been home to me – a place of refuge. Each day has been a gift – an intertwinement of self reflection, expansion and deep interactions.

In essence, my entire experience here can be summed up by the name of the program – seva sadhana. Seva means selfless service. While sadhana is a personal spiritual practice. I am not a morning person but I found myself waking up at 3am most mornings to go to the Gudwara for sadhana. What exactly happens in the gudwara? It starts off with morning chanting then a kundalini yoga class followed by singing and the Gudwara ritual. This all happens between 3:40 and 7:00am. I’ll admit it felt like an absolute challenge the first few days but eventually, it became the opposite – it felt energizing and cleansing. It was like I couldn’t get enough of it. The shifts were subtle but I would notice even if I had a few hours of sleep, I would be able to go through the day with so much clarity and passion.

And this is where the seva parts come in. We usually meet at 8:30am and sit in a circle. All our meetings begin with an eleven minute meditation to raise and align our vibrations. Ram Krishan, who leads the program reads an inspirational or thought provoking excerpt from a book. Afterwards, he asks all of us to reflect on a question like what is our vision for the world or what does creativity mean to us. Every one of us gets a chance to answer. He talks about the activities we have for the day then we’re off to start our seva.

Our seva changes from day to day. It ranges from working in the garden, putting compost on the soil, picking cucumbers to helping in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and mixing huge pots of soup and rice. Every Wednesdays it’s karma yoga which means we all have to clean our respective houses since all the men stay together and all the women stay in another house. This means doing a deep clean of every nook and cranny of the living quarters.

Every Sunday, we clean the Gudwara. We take out all the carpets and all the other decorations then we sweep the floor and pour buckets of water all over. We get on our knees and wipe the marble floor with our bare hands. We get towels and run them on the floor to absorb the water then squeeze out all the water back to the buckets.

You would think it’s simple menial work but this is where I believe the magic happens. Every stroke and movement is a meditation – a metaphor of your inner world. As I wiped away on my knees, the noise in my head came to a halt. I was cleaning my soul – melting my karma and washing away the labyrinth of stress and anxiety.

The thing about the modern world is that we’re programmed to think that we need to simply work on ourselves. It’s always geared towards the self. The irony is that the real healing and growth begins when you start looking outside yourself. I was in awe with the sensations I would feel when I would prepare food for the community and serve them during langar lunches. It was so humbling yet so empowering at the same time.

The kundalini yoga classes and workshops are just a feast for the mind, body and soul. Being in the presence of teachers who have been serving for decades was incredible. You could just feel the wisdom in the tone of their voice. The brevity of their words were piercing. Prosperity was a recurring topic during my stay at the ashram. They explain how prosperity comes when we stop chasing what we think we need and deserve. In fact, we attract prosperity when begin to serve others selflessly and allow ourselves to be open to the gifts of the universe. It was such an awakening to experience it firsthand. We all have that innate power and gift. All we need to do is tap into it.

 I’ll never forget the long dirt road I would walk at 3am to get to the Gudwara. The chilly breeze would meld with the cries of wolves and chirping crickets. The crackle of twigs, stones and sand would echo as my feet pressed into the ground. A faint white ocean of moonlight spilled over the horizon. As I walked silently under the glistening constellations, I felt a deep feeling of infinite love and peace. It was one of those rare moments of utter perfection and I only have humble gratitude for experiencing it.

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Words and Photographs by Nick Daez and Ken Haruki

India Chronicles: Delhi and Rishikesh

 

Basking under the sun | Rishikesh, India
Basking under the sun | Rishikesh, India
Youth portrait | Rishikesh, India
Youth portrait | Rishikesh, India
Caught off guard | Rishikesh, India
Caught off guard | Rishikesh, India
Lama | Rishikesh, India
Lama | Rishikesh, India
Happiness | Rishikesh, India
Happiness | Rishikesh, India
Bohemian vibes | Rishikesh, India
Bohemian vibes | Rishikesh, India
Mother Ganga | Rishikesh, India
Mother Ganga | Rishikesh, India
The great Himalayan mountains | Rishikesh, India
The great Himalayan mountains | Rishikesh, India
Meditate | Rishikesh, India
Meditate | Rishikesh, India
Dip and tan | Rishikesh, India
Dip and tan | Rishikesh, India
Pilgrimage | Rishikesh, India
Pilgrimage | Rishikesh, India
Lemon cream soda | Rishikesh, India
Lemon cream soda | Rishikesh, India
Wisdom in his eyes | Rishikesh, India
Wisdom in his eyes | Rishikesh, India
Holy man | Rishikesh, India
Holy man | Rishikesh, India
Market day | Rishikesh, India
Market day | Rishikesh, India
Third youth | Rishikesh, India
Third youth | Rishikesh, India
Second youth | Rishikesh, India
Second youth | Rishikesh, India
Youth | Rishikesh, India
Youth | Rishikesh, India
Kicking back in the garden. | Rishikesh, India
Kicking back in the garden. | Rishikesh, India
Hustle | Rishikesh, India
Hustle | Rishikesh, India
The center of attention. | Rishikesh, India
The center of attention. | Rishikesh, India
Indian-Chinese bartering | Rishikesh, India
Indian-Chinese bartering | Rishikesh, India
Afternoon stroll | Rishikesh, India
Afternoon stroll | Rishikesh, India
Vibrant solitude | Rishikesh, India
Vibrant solitude | Rishikesh, India
Youth and weariness. | Rishikesh, India
Youth and weariness. | Rishikesh, India
Back alley | Rishikesh, India
Back alley | Rishikesh, India
Wishing | Rishikesh, India
Wishing | Rishikesh, India
Make your move. | Rishikesh, India
Make your move. | Rishikesh, India
Stillness | Delhi, India
Stillness | Delhi, India
Morning commute. | Delhi, India
Morning commute. | Delhi, India
Working the fields. | Delhi, India
Working the fields. | Delhi, India
Shoppers and bystanders | Delhi, India
Shoppers and bystanders | Delhi, India
Vigilance | Delhi, India
Vigilance | Delhi, India
Cycling around the city. | Delhi, India
Cycling around the city. | Delhi, India
Reverie | Delhi, India
Reverie | Delhi, India
Prayer I Delhi, India
Prayer I Delhi, India
Family ties. | Delhi, India
Family ties. | Delhi, India
Sacred water. | Delhi, India
Sacred water. | Delhi, India
Men at work. | Delhi India
Men at work. | Delhi India
Introspection. I Delhi, India
Introspection I Delhi, India
Gold everywhere. | Delhi, India
Gold everywhere | Delhi, India
Outside the temple. | Delhi, India
Outside the temple | Delhi, India
God is in the details. | Delhi, India
God is in the details | Delhi, India

Photography by Nicky Daez