I recently attended a four day meditation course at Mandala Yoga Ashram in Wales.
It was an illuminating experience.
The meditation practice itself is an ancient tantric practice called ‘Tattwa Shuddhi’ the practice focuses on visualisation. Visualisation is something I find difficult, I am an auditory person rather than a visual person I think. One of the reasons I picked to attend the course was to explore whether an extensive and focused practice with visualisation makes it easier. My answer to that is yes but only a little bit!
The ashram has a permanent and semi permanent spiritual community who live together in simple surroundings. Working together, eating and meditating and chanting together. As a visitor on a course you become part of the community. I have always wondered about community living, sharing space with like minded individuals. I wondered if being surrounded by people all the time would be suffocating but my experience was far from that. I was sharing a dorm with two ladies I hadn’t met before. The ashram has periods of silence every day so for me it definitely felt like there was enough space to be solitary and quiet if that’s what you wanted. I actually really enjoyed sharing a dorm, so much more than I thought I would.
Talking of silence, we were encouraged (but not forced) to undertake a 40 hour period of silence as part of the course. I thought I would find it really hard but I actually enjoyed it and along with turning my phone off for a full four days (which was harder for me than the silence) it was a liberating experience. It’s made me consider other courses/retreats with longer silence periods now, perhaps that’s my next step. Silence is encouraged as ‘everyday’ conversations can take energy. Taking and using that energy and directing them into the practices and inner reflection worked very well for me. I can be quite a ‘chatty’ person and it’s made me consider my conversations more mindfully since leaving the ashram as well.
Alongside the spiritual practices, we had an hour and half every day for ‘karma yoga’ aka work! I was lucky to be based in the kitchen, as a foodie that was a good fit for me. The organic vegetarian food was prepared by hand every day with much love and much of the food came from the ashram garden, it tasted so good.
A highlight of ashram life for me was the daily chanting . I can honestly say I have never “ommed” so much in my life! There’s even a chant (and silence) before meals, I loved that. The opportunity to eat mindfully was so good for me as I normally wolf my food down super fast! It’s also such a beautiful practice of gratitude, being grateful for everyone who made the food.
Feeling empowered by the meditation practices on the last night, I (bravely) borrowed the ashram’s harmonium and led a kirtan chant. It was such a wonderful experience, it’s what I have been leading up to for the last 18 months since I started learning to play the harmonium. It really felt that this is my dharma - music and spirituality.
Mandala yoga ashram is situated in a very rural location in the Brecon Beacons. In between sessions I walked in the beautiful surrounding countryside sometimes with others, sometimes on my own (when we were in silence) the quiet environment helped create balance and grounded practices after the meditation sessions were encouraged.
So, as for the meditation practice itself it kind of has to be experienced rather than explained but basically (and this is a very basic explanation) you start visualising the elements (earth, water, fire etc) as symbols in the body, then move through the ‘layers’ of the mind - thoughts, ego, awareness, collective consciousness to the infinite consciousness both manifest and unmanifest. It’s pretty deep stuff and the conversations about energy and quantum physics were fascinating.
We were asked to meditate on the what/who we were before we were born, who/what we will be when we die … profound and challenging questions. This brought up grief (again!) for me of losing my parents at such a young age. It wasn’t a yoga holiday that’s for sure!
Fundamentally, and this came up in our satsang (talk, and Q & A) with the Ashrams spiritual director Swami Nishchalananda it’s about being able to trust that is fundamental and being able to let go. Two things I struggle with!
I did have a wonderful experience in one of the daily yoga nidra practices where I actually felt I let go of everything, my family and friends, my possessions, even my identification with my ego, Stripping everything away when the gong played I felt I’d become the sound wave, it was all rather strange but it felt wonderful and it gave me hope that perhaps I can learn to trust and let go if I keep practicing! In a society where letting go and surrendering, releasing all material and ego ties is not common place it was like being unshackled. It was going against everything I learnt at school, in the workplace and what I had learnt from family and friends. Stripping it all away ….
So as I sit back and reflect a few weeks after leaving the ashram I feel so grateful to have found this authentic spiritual haven in the UK. It felt like home almost as soon as I arrived, I will return again next year. The fascinating journey inwards continues…