I was guided to the Phool Chatti Ashram by two friends (Xenia from Germany and Paz from Holland) I met while staying at a hostel in Rishikesh. I had read about this ashram before I left for India (it was listed in a book as one of the Top 25 Ashrams to experience in India), but I had not made any specific plans to visit. I accepted the guidance from my new friends and flowed into the next chapter of my journey. The three of us signed up for the week-long yoga & meditation program.
Only a 5 KM drive from Laxman Jhoola (the tourist center of Rishikesh), the ashram felt far removed from external stimulation. This 120 year old spiritual complex is located along the Ganges river at the foothills of the Himalayas. The setting is pure, simple serenity. I knew right away that this place would be a very significant component of my trip, allowing much-needed silence, space, and stillness.
The Phool Chatti daily schedule:
5:30am- wake-up bell
Yogic Cleansing (neti pot)
12:30pm- Lunch & Tea
Lecture & Discussion
9pm- Lights Out
Silence was encouraged for the entirety of the day (including all meals), with an option to talk only during free time in the afternoons. I did some socializing during the free time, making connections with a few within the group of about 30 people (there for the week) from all over the world. I met peers from England, America, Poland (my roommate for the week), Israel, Canada, Holland, Estonia, Germany, Sweden, India, Ireland, Russia, and New Zealand. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the eclectic group of new friends, it was most nourishing for me to stay inward and honor the silence of the week. For the most part, I utilized the break to read and sit by the Ganges.
Besides the intermittent conversations of fellow guests, the only occasional sound disruptions were the excited shouts coming from tourists passing by on river rafts (floating down the Ganges towards Rishikesh). We all acknowledged and discussed the metaphor of the rafts; the loud, enthusiastic tourists speeding by the ashram throughout the day were symbolic of the persistent flow of thoughts that can disturb a state of inner stillness. The (eternal) lesson was/is to allow the sounds to just be, without getting lost in the stimulation of them. Through silence and meditation, we focused on the strong current of source/truth/higher consciousness that is always available, flowing as strong as the Ganges. The thoughts (yelling tourists) always appear, but with trust and mindfulness, we can allow them to float by and disappear with ease.
*Side note: I saw a raft full of tourists completely flip over in a more vigorous section of rapids! It was scary to watch, but looked like everyone was still having fun and would make it back in the raft safely. White water rafting down the Ganges was not on my bucket list for India...haha. It was definitely an interesting and unexpected sight.
There was no internet at the ashram, so I was completely disconnected from the outside world. This would be the first and only time in my three month journey that I would knowingly become unreachable (the ashram website gave fair warning about the lack of wifi). Up until this point, I had had reliable internet connection for contacting family and friends with updates at the drop of a dime (thanks to my Indian SIM card). At first, the thought of total disconnect brought up feelings of discomfort and anxiety. But, like always, this period of initial discomfort passed and brought forth great and unexpected benefits. Through the lack of communication, I was faced with examining attachments and fears I had been carrying around during my travels. Being unavailable (to the outside world), I was completely available to myself. This state of presence lead to a profound spiritual cleansing for me at the ashram; One evening, as we sat together chanting to Shiva, I felt the fiery burn of releasing my “old” self, as I stepped into a new reincarnation. I physically felt my spirit expanding and maturing as I sat in that ancient room of fellow spiritual seekers, chanting sacred names, cradled by the immense mountains of Northern India. It was a moment of clear acceleration on my venture of spiritual evolution.
~ Hari Om Tat Sat Jai Guru Datta (the mantra of Brahman, absolute) ~ This chant lead me on quite a journey.
One night, when we met for our evening meditation, we were told that the practice would be different than usual. The program director, Lalita Nand Ji spoke about how this specific mantra/chant had made a great impact on her spiritual life. She shared that it was with this mantra that she finally understood and experienced the capacity to sit for hours on end in completely still meditation. She taught us the chant and we were informed that she would play the harmonium for the first 30 minutes of chanting and then we would be free to continue until we were done... this would depend on the person. The instructions were to keep chanting until you stopped, whether that was 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or 6 hours. She said in the past, guests had chanted for hours and hours until the early morning. It was exciting and intimidating at the same time. We all made ourselves as comfortable as possible with pillows and blankets and then we began the endeavor. The first 30 minutes were filled with loud, powerful, harmonious, rhythmic, group chanting accompanied by the harmonium. After the harmonium stopped, we all knew it had been 30 minutes and we continued on. Slowly, I could hear the voices dwindling as one person at a time finished their chant and left the room. I felt a lot of pain in my hips and knees, but was determined to continue on. I had hoped that through the divine power of the chant, I would at some point, separate from my physical body and sit with complete ease and comfort. While chanting, I wondered why I had such a strong drive to continue; was it my ego, creating a test of my will-power/discipline? Did I want to be the “last one standing”? Or was it genuine spiritual curiosity? I think it was a combination. After an indeterminate amount of time, I could feel and hear that the chant had dropped down to just four voices. Interestingly, we were all clumped together in our seating arrangement! I could hear a German woman behind me, the Indian man in front of me, and a Canadian woman to my side. The other two woman stopped chanting one after the other, and then it was just a masculine voice and a feminine voice. The Indian man and me. My body was still in sharp pain and my voice was becoming fatigued. We lost the original rhythm, but kept going. After a short time, he stopped. It was just my voice. My shaking, exhausted, raspy, determined voice. I had no idea how long we had been chanting or if anyone else was still in the room at that point. I think I only continued on for about another minute before I came to an abrupt stop. I sat in stillness, stunned, still in my body. I felt a swirling energy within, moving from my base up through my crown. The cycling energy was combined with a feeling of total emptiness. I sat with this for awhile, then opened my eyes to see a big empty room full of lone pillows. Looking out the windows, It was completely dark and silent except for the gentle flowing roar of the Ganges. After sensation returned to my legs, I stood up to look at the clock, It had been 2 hrs and 45 minutes. As I made my way back to my room, my state was trance-like... I wasn't sure how I felt. My Polish roommate was still awake when I walked in. We chatted (in very simple English) about the evening/practice and ended the conversation with the shared thought of “now what?... I guess we just go to sleep”. I laid down, closed my eyes and had vivid, unsettling dreams. It felt like the chant opened up space for shedding and facing fears. I woke up at 5am with the chant loudly cycling through me. ~Hari Om Tat Sat Jai Guru Datta ~
After leaving the ashram, I had a solid two days of feeling totally uplifted in a way I had never experienced before; all layers of my being felt weightless and infinite! I was completely light, expansive, & free. It was such a gift; being so present in oneness. Nothing disturbed me. The usual constant bombardment of severe sensory overload was unnoticeable. The frequent ear-shattering honks of vehicles whizzing by and perpetual crowding of people everywhere felt extremely mellowed. It was a calm that I didn't think possible in such an environment. I will remember that shift in perception for the rest of this life.
That silence at the Phool Chatti ashram was invaluable.