What is an Ashram?

What is an Ashram?

Ancient Sanctuaries for Inner Work and Transformation in a Modern World- By Mandala Yoga Ashram

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Ashrams have existed in India for thousands of years, functioning as centres of spiritual inspiration, teachings and dedicated practice.

They were often located in remote regions, amidst forests or mountains, but this was not always so. Most villages would have had an ashram of some kind, where the sacred teachings were passed on.

Ashrams still exist high in the Himalayas and in other secluded spots in India, set apart from the noise and busyness of the world to facilitate deep reflection and focus. And they can also still be found nestled within villages, as well as in towns and cities - there are over 300 ashrams in Delhi alone. Further, since the 1960’s a few authentic ashrams have been founded outside India, such as Mandala Yoga Ashram here in Wales.

Ashrams now range from one-person establishments with barely enough room for a handful of visitors to stay, to large institutions with hundreds or even thousands of residents.

Ashrams differ from monasteries in that for most people a visit to an ashram is a temporary retreat rather than a permanent withdrawal from the world. At the same time, a stay in an ashram is also significantly different from attending a workshop or course at a retreat centre.

An authentic ashram is a sacred place where the atmosphere is charged with transformative energy, built up over time through the presence of an enlightened teacher and/or a long period of continuous spiritual practice.

They are usually basic in material terms, providing a simple environment that is light on modern comforts and largely free from the usual distractions of modern life. But on the other hand they are rich in spirit.

People generally go to an ashram to find space to reflect on the deeper meaning or purpose of their life, to study a particular teaching or set of teachings, or for a period of intensive spiritual practice. Moreover, at most ashrams there is a strong spirit of selfless service and an ethos of working towards a goal that is greater than one’s own ego-fulfillment. Different ashrams emphasise different paths and teachings, but all share a broadly similar ethos of focused endeavour aimed at inner growth and transformation.

If we look at the etymology of the word ashram we find the Sanskrit root śram, which means ‘hard work’ or 'toil', with the prefix ā meaning ‘towards’. So, we can see that ashrams are places where we can ‘work towards’ a particular goal. Ashrams are indeed often places of deep inner work, and at times an intensive physical endeavour too, with the goal being the realisation and expression of deeper understanding, wisdom and joy.

This generally requires facing and resolving our deep-seated personal problems and negative tendencies so that we can become free from their destructive hold on us - an arduous task which can be very grueling ‘toil’ indeed!

The word ashram also has another Sanskrit root: ashraya – meaning ‘refuge’ or ‘retreat’. This meaning points towards the fact that undertaking inner work within an environment set-up for the purpose can be of enormous value. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, the material simplicity of ashram life and its freedom from distractions runs us quickly up against aspects of ourselves that we can otherwise easily avoid. This brings clear focus to the task at hand. Secondly, the issues or blocks we are faced with can then be worked on under the guidance of a wise and experienced teacher or teachers and within a supportive community of others on a similar path. Together, these two aspects of heightened awareness of internal realities and the support of teachings, teacher and community are a powerful combination that can truly help us to catalyse a transformation of our life.

In this way, the ashram tradition is as relevant today as it ever was.

By providing a focused space for us to look inwards to see how we function on a deeper level, and the multifaceted support to help us deal with what we find, they facilitate a process that is valuable both to the individual and to society. For the more deeply we can engage with this process the more spiritual nourishment and inner strength we uncover in ourselves, which not only brings deeper meaning and joy to our own lives but also gives birth to gifts we can share with the world.

Mandala Yoga Ashram

Mandala Yoga Ashram is a renowned centre of yogic studies located in Wales, UK, offering residential retreats and online courses.