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It used to be that Westerners who wanted to study yoga at an ashram had to go to great lengths for such an experience. Historically it involved traveling to India, withstanding heat, bug bites and at least some discomfort. Anyone who has read Swami Radha’s account of her pilgrimage to India to study at her guru’s ashram in Rishikesh, India in the 1950s knows that the spiritual quest is not always easy.
In fact, while one’s internal spiritual pilgrimage may not have gotten any easier, studying at an ashram can be. In addition to places such as Swami Radha’s ashram in Canada, there are more ashrams today in the west than at any point in history. They differ among themselves and it is not a “one size fits all” proposition. Generally ashrams are for those yoga students who are looking to learn about yoga beyond the poses. Shanti Niketan Ashram is one such institution designed for sincere spiritual seekers and is located just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Shanti Niketan Ashram community includes volunteers who do karma yoga (selfless service), students who come for hatha and meditation classes, people who attend satsang and kirtan, as well as residents and short term visitors who stay at the ashram. Many are drawn to the ashram by the guru who founded it- Chandra Om. Others have attended ashram classes and have never met her. It all depends on what the sadhaka (spiritual aspirant) is seeking.
Chandra Om founded the ashram in order to further her commitment to share the teachings of classical yoga as given to her by her guru. In an era when many flock to yoga classes for health benefits, contortionist postures, or a toned body, Chandra Om is here to remind us that there are 8 limbs of yoga and asana (the poses) is just one of those. At the same time, she has no heartache over yoga being studied by the masses or by people who simply want to be fit. She says, “Yoga has a magical way of bringing you deeper in and so it’s always much better to view things in a positive light.”
Shanti Niketan Ashram is a “home for God” where gossip and divisions of any kind are not tolerated. While Chandra Om will tell you that it is not a “Pollyanna existence,” and ashram living has its own challenges, she describes the ashram as, “a place to preserve the (yoga) teachings and a place of refuge and a place of love.” It was “founded in honor of my guru (Sri Dharma Mittra) and in honor of all of the yoga masters that came before.”
While the ashram offers daily classes, trainings and workshops, it is also home to short-term visitors and longer term residents. It evolved out of the students’ desires to bring more depth to their own sadhana (spiritual practice). According to Chandra Om, “It became apparent over many years that there really needed to be a home for sadhakas that felt that they needed to go into retreat for a period of time. For some it might be permanently- maybe giving their lives wholly to God, leading a very monastic life. It is also for others that maybe didn’t want to go to such extremes but still wanted a retreat of some sort. And then some didn’t know what they wanted but a retreat might be a nice place to try to figure it out.”
In the United States most practitioners of hatha yoga are women, but around the world (and still in the U.S.) most people who establish and run ashrams are men. This makes Shanti Niketan Ashram unique in its own right. Add to this that it is an ashram run by a woman for women and it distinguishes itself further. While all are welcome at the ashram and men can attend classes, retreats and programs, in terms of overnight guests and residents, it is for women. Finally, while even the New York Times Travel section once described most ashram settings as “spartan” and compared them with European youth hostels, Shanti Niketan Ashram does not resemble that in the least. It is not luxurious, but it is beautiful, simple, and a far cry from austere. When asked how she would compare Shanti Niketan with other ashrams, Chandra Om says she wouldn’t! “I wouldn’t even know where to start. The only ashrams I’ve ever been to were in India and that was just visiting as a guest, not staying there or as a devotee of that ashram. I couldn’t even begin to tell you, it would just be conjecture.”
Each individual who visits an ashram has his or her own reason for making the trip. In terms of how Chandra Om hopes the ashram impacts visitors, she says that her prayer for anyone that comes, whether for a few years or a few hours, is that they take, “a deeper sense of unity with everything around them. A deeper sense of anger dissipating, ego dissipating. Just kindness, love and compassion, in a very literal sense. There is something truly magical that happens here at the ashram and people do feel it and they are transformed.”