Santosh Puri Ashram

»Mystic experience on the misty Ganges«

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You don't find Santosh Puri Ashram. The ashram finds you, and calls you home when you need it most. If reading this is the first time you have heard of it, you are in the minority. People who have stayed here typically describe a chance conversation that introduces them to the name Santosh Puri. A series of coincidences, a perfect storm of events and information, a spontaneous diversion from a planned itinerary that results in walking through the gate of this small family compound that lies between a national forest and the Mother Ganges.

  • What we love
  • The unique and hidden nature of the ashram
  • Mataji, the heart of the Puri family
  • The powerful feeling of positivity
  • Living yoga 24 hours a day
  • What to know
  • A deep transformational experience, not for those seeking a light yoga vacation
  • Plan for go for at least two weeks and a couple of months is better
  • Exact address is kept deliberately secret until you have booked
  • Payment is no longer by donation only
  • Why go
  • To drop self-consciousness and ego
  • Deepen yoga understanding and practice
  • For candid spiritual seekers

Near Haridwar, the Gates of Heaven, in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, is an ashram that is one part education, one part transformation and one part home. Santosh means contentment, and after an initial inner struggle to release some personal demons that is exactly what the ashram offers.

Haridwar is the 'ashram belt' of India and Santosh Puri is one of several ashrams that are clustered along this stretch of the Ganges. From within the cool green shade of the ashram grounds it is possible to hear chanting and singing from surrounding ashrams. It's also possible to hear nothing but the whispering of river-breezes in the trees – a rare and beautiful thing in a country packed with humanity and the normal noise pollution that goes with it. Santosh Puri's 'backyard' is a sprawling national forest, and the grounds themselves are a sweet blend of rambling woods, a dorm block so well-clipped as to seem almost like a quaint British retirement home, gardens that supply the bounty produced by the kitchen, and unassuming gathering spaces that nonetheless radiate an almost-harmonic power. Guest numbers are limited to 20 or so as this is a smaller family compound, adding to the feeling of intimacy.

Santosh Puri has a permanent community of about a dozen people. The core of this group is the Puri family, who continue the legacy of Baba Santosh Puri, the guru who established the ashram four decades ago. Puri's three grown children and their spouses share the practical and spiritual duties of keeping an ashram running smoothly - the office work, overseeing the kitchen and garden, and caring for the sacred cows who provide the ashram's milk and ghee. If these deeply intelligent and beautiful souls are the body and brain of the ashram, the heart is Mataji. She is the mother, sometimes literally and always figuratively, of everyone who comes to Santosh Puri. Some people in the world have a deep magnetism around them that is so powerful as to be almost palpable. Mataji is one of these, radiating honesty, compassion and love. Although her porcelain skin and pale dreadlocks indicate her German birthplace, she is Indian to the bone.

This is no holiday camp. The day begins pre-dawn with meditation and aarti, followed by cleansing Kriyas. If you've never chugged down two liters of salt water to trigger purging or massaged your anus with warm oils to encourage elimination then you can see why adjusting to ashram life may be a steep curve. Please note these activities are part of specific courses at certain times of year, overseen by well-educated and careful teachers! Herbal tea and an 8am asana class in the Hatha style is followed by breakfast and Karma Yoga before lunch. The afternoon is dedicated to classes on philosophy, Ayurveda, or more earthly pursuits like learning to cook chapati. Dinner is around 7pm and the evening aarti brings the day full circle. Yoga here is a 24 hour experience, not just a couple of daily asana sessions so be prepared to work hard for the good of the community. Also be prepared for bringing awareness to everything you do, from they way you get out of bed in the morning to how you interact (or not) with other visitors. This is not a place for change that is forced upon you. There are no personal trainers here. The tools for clarity, peace, and purity are laid out and the struggle of whether or not to take up these tools, how to use them, and how cynical to feel about the whole process is between you, your ego, and whatever deity you invoke. All of these activities are optional yet it is amazing how many former night-owls find themselves rising with the birds to experience a coffee-free dawn without the aid of an alarm clock.

All meals are vegetarian, and food is grown in the ashram garden. Pure milk is also included, taken directly from the loved and loving bovine members of the ashram community. If you've never tasted fresh unprocessed milk, this experience alone makes it worth spending time on the ashram. Ayurvedic food is a large part of the kitchen preparations. One of Mataji's daughter's is university-qualified in Ayurveda and has brought her knowledge home to share with ashram guests. Accommodation is in simple rooms in either a single or double configuration. Simple yes, but also clean and comfortable. There is no time limit on visits but it’s best to stay for at least three weeks, and three months is even better. As one former guest says “It takes a few days to arrive on all levels. If you arrive one week and have to begin thinking about leaving the next week, you have no time to simply be there.”

There is an air of sweet yearning around many of the people who stay at Santosh Puri. As if there is a struggle between the skeptical rationalism of an adult mind - one that scoffs at the New Age descriptions of ashram life - and the bone-deep desire of a lonely child to be drawn into loving arms and healed. Santosh Puri calls to the child. This is a place to remember how to be kind, to be respectful, to be welcomed. To be.

Update to this review:
Mataji left her body in March 2014. In deep appreciation for her life, work and radiant teachings we bow.

About Rishikesh

Rishikesh is to yoga what Las Vegas is to partying: At every turn, seemingly on every corner, another yogic experience is waiting. However, some are a better quality than others. To understand what makes a truly good yoga experience, one must understand yoga in India. Rather than a twice-weekly class, yoga here is a way of living. Yogic practices permeate every aspect of the day. A guru is for life, with no mixing of styles or ‘teacher hopping.’ Knowledge takes many patient years to accumulate. This is at odds with the concepts of the 'celebrity guru' and two-day yoga courses or retreats that so many travellers visit Rishikesh to experience, and it is easy to see why traditionalists speak of this approach as something like McYoga.

Nonetheless, a student must start somewhere. What better place to begin than in The City of the Divine, Rishikesh, the world capital of yoga. The world capital tag is no overstatement: Purity is enshrined in law, with alcohol and meat consumption being outlawed within city limits. This is one of Hinduism's most holy cities, where the Beatles famously studied under their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and pilgrims are a common sight, often beginning their Four Shrines journey in Rishikesh. There are several yoga festivals held here each year, and simply wandering the streets is a great way to spend the day, as long as food is carefully protected from thieving wild monkeys who loiter, gang-like, on the bridges.

Rishikesh is also the gateway to the Himalayas, with the cool green foothills providing a welcome respite from the sometimes-suffocating Indian summer heat. There is still part of the Maharajah's palace open for viewing – a sweeping view from a green throne high above the city.

Image credit: Santosh Puri Ashram and Kristina Junzell

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