Inner engineering

An unforgettable ashram retreat that almost never was

After a chaotic Boxing Day in Kochi, where seemingly everyone in the city had come out shopping, I made my way to the Isha Ashram near Coimbatore, one of the largest and iconic ashrams in India. As a follower of Sadhguru’s teachings and having been dazzled by Mahashivratri celebrations in years prior, the ashram was at the top of my short list of places to visit (an ashram is a spiritual place of retreat, typically for Hindus aspiring towards the goal of liberation).

Things didn’t get off to a good start. I missed my early morning train from Kochi to Coimbatore, so it meant spending a few hours people watching from the platform. After an uneventful 4 hour train ride, and subsequent 1 hour in a taxi brought me to the Isha centre at the foothills of the Velliangiri mountains.  My first impression reaching the Isha centre was being taken aback at the huge number of visitors there. It speaks volumes about how popular Sadhguru has become around the world. 

The first notable indication that I’d arrived was seeing the iconic, 112 foot statue of Adiyogi, said to be the first yogi who lived 15,000 years ago. Sadhguru himself spent months perfecting the expression on Adiyogi’s face to simultaneously invoke a sense of peace and determination.

I was impressed with how organised the Isha centre is: wristbands identify those staying in the ashram; clear signage everywhere; dining areas neatly organised and bull-cart taxis ferrying visitors around. And the whole place is spotless. It was only the main reception that proved to be a continued place of frustration with overly bureaucratic check-in processes resulting in me spending far more time than I’d like there.

Once I’d received my own wristband, I entered the more secluded part of the ashram which I found much more peaceful, with lawns and plenty of greenery. The smell of incense lingered in the air which was crisp and fresh. The December weather was sunny and just perfect.

The cottages at Isha are basic but comfortable and very reasonably priced. The accommodation here ranges from basic, fan-only rooms through to more modern AC rooms. All rooms include two meals a day at the dining hall. Unfortunately I managed to book just a single night’s accommodation at the ashram. Despite having hundreds of bedrooms, the ashram tends to be booked out for over a month in advance. 

As I finished my evening’s meditation overlooking the Dhyalinga, a meditative space, I noticed a crowd of people hurrying behind a vehicle leading to the Adiyogi statue. I managed to catch one of the crowd, a young man called Hitesh, who said that it was Sadhguru. We followed his Audi and briefly caught a glimpse of Sadhguru who waved at the crowd beside the Adiyogi statue. Hitesh mentioned on the walk back that he was here for the Inner engineering course the following day, which sounded like a great opportunity to extend my stay. 

Inner engineering course

I’d had my eye on participating on an Inner Engineering retreat at the Isha centre for a long time, even though I had no idea what it was about. I’d given up on joining it a month prior as everything had booked out, but was granted another slice of good fortune as I managed to negotiate joining the course that started later that day.

The 3-day course takes place in a secluded part of the ashram premises, with the most modern rooms in the ashram arranged in a court with the course taking place at a hall in the middle.  There’s no comparison to my Introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita: it felt like staying in a resort by comparison with comfortable, air-conditioned accommodation and delicious healthy meals with plenty of choice. 

Like at Tushita, I had to quickly adapt to 5AM wake-up calls to the sound of dhols (drums). Before entering the hall each morning we were offered neem and turmeric balls to eat and health drinks to settle our digestive systems. 

There course content was not announced at any point during the 3 days, probably to encourage staying in the moment. Many teachings were delivered through video, with Sadhguru advising of techniques how to nourish the body and mind. The core component of the course was a set of yoga practices which were slowly built up over the 3 days. The endless hours of sitting were uncomfortable and I had no choice but to sit on an embarrassing number of cushions!  

Fortunately there were plenty of opportunities to stay active in the afternoons. During one session, we were encouraged to each dance blindfolded and move all our limbs to the sound of classical music. On the second day, we made a trek outside the Isha centre into the forest, walking along a stream barefooted. This proved to be a painful exercise in mindfulness as we felt every pebble and stone beneath our feet, but relieving once we went for a swim in the river at the end. 

On the final morning, we split into teams and challenged each other to some games on the lawns. And in true Indian style, the music was turned on and we started dancing together. Sadhguru has always said music is one of the greatest relievers of stress, and I can vouch for that from personal experience. It was also a great way to break the ice between us all and get to know each other more. 

There were about 100 students on the course, predominantly young Indians working in engineering from Bangalore or Hyderabad, though with a mix of other nationalities and some senior folks as well. My roommate was a middle aged man called Venkat  who I initially found a bit grumpy. With his very strong accent and dark sense of humour, he eventually opened up and we both managed to share some deep personal challenges with one another. 

I managed to connect with many others on the course too, during meals and between sessions. I felt more aligned in my mental wavelength with the people here, compared to most other places I’ve visited on my travels. Perhaps the general curiosity and life hurdles that people shared brought everyone together. 

The long lunch breaks on the course gave us the chance to explore the ashram. Taking a dip into the Theerthakunds – an energised water body, is said to improve spiritual receptivity at the Dhyalinga. I can’t say one way or another how useful this was, but it was certainly refreshing to take a dip in the cold waters. I did have a hard time wearing my cloth garment though, which led to my rather awkward movements around the water. 

The Dhyalinga is a consecrated temple at the heart of the Isha centre, and functions as a powerful meditative environment. A circular dome with a shivling in the middle. I can’t say I had a transformational experience one way or the other, as I found there was too much noise echoing within the building. 

Welcoming 2023 

The final day of 2022 was my longest of the year. Once again, it was a 5AM start to start our full day of yoga practices. I wished my course mates and new friends farewell after a celebratory dinner, before gathering at dusk outside the Adiyogi with thousands of others as Sadhguru gave a satsang (spiritual discourse) with words of wisdom for the coming year.

Every other new year’s eve in my life had been a cause for celebration, with a party-like atmosphere. But not this year. I was lucky enough to join a smaller discourse at the hallway entrance of the Dhyalanga in one of the most tranquil settings I’ve ever experienced. Under starry skies, a group of devotees singing softly echoing inside the hall. 

As the clock struck midnight, there was nothing: no celebration: just the continuation of the prayers with the distant sound of fireworks echoing off the hills. It’s difficult to put into words how special this evening was. Without doubt, it was the most memorable new year’s eve of all 32 to date.

Extending my stay

With some difficulty, I managed to extend my stay at the Isha centre for another week into the new year. I couldn’t get enough of the complete tranquillity of the ashram, much unlike anywhere else I had been in India. 

Staying put in one place meant that I could recover from a cold I’d picked up on the course and practice my Shambhavi Mamudra yoga routine, which took me one hour to complete in my room.

Every afternoon, I sat underneath a pergola beside a lake, overlooking the goshala (a cow’s shelter) and green space with bulls and peacocks roaming around. Looking out over the hills, feeling the sun on my skin and watching the kingfishers fly past was serene: I was totally blissed out. Several others would practice vocal yoga routines beside me which I found interesting to observe. 

I happened to be joined at the pergola each afternoon by others who sat beside me and struck up conversation. Many of those I spoke with at Isha were at a similar point in life to me: a few years into their career, seeking more purpose and meaning in their lives. These deep connections I built here were the most profound experience at Isha, and I would end up meeting some of those several times later in my trip. 

Meals at the Biksha hall was unlike any other dining experience I’d had in my life. There are only two 4 minute periods for diners to enter the hall for food, about one hour apart. Over 1500 diners enter two halls from each side, sitting cross legged on the floor, 50 in a row – men on one row, and women on another. Servers come and serve a small portion of each dish on the metal plates before an invocation is said together and a quote from Sadhguru. Then, everyone eats. No talking, no phones. Eating daal and rice without a spoon and only my hands took a bit of practice!

he food at the Isha centre is sattvic, also known as yogic food, mostly vegan and tamil (Rasam and Raggi). The guidance from Sadghuru is that two meals a day is enough: food digestion depletes energy which consequently disturbs meditation.

On a couple of the days, I volunteered serving food to those in the hall – carefully placing a spoonful of food from a bucket into everyone’s plate, taking note from their non-verbal cues whether they wanted more or less. It’s possible to volunteer here and stay in the volunteering block – something I’m considering returning to do one day.

Back in the real India 

I was sad to leave the Isha centre after 2 weeks, but the end of my trip was fast approaching and it was time to continue exploring Tamil Nadu in Pondicherry. I look back at my time there months later, longing to return there indefinitely – such was the fulfilment I felt there. There was very little I can complain about.

If there is one thing, it’s my reflections of Sadhguru and the Isha centre. Sadhguru has developed somewhat of a cult and brash personality in recent years, sometimes lacking empathy. While the core of his underlying message is sound, part of me dislikes the extent of commercialisation of the Isha foundation, especially the Isha life business which makes me feel a bit uneasy. That said, the centre might be run like a business, but does that make it wrong? There are plenty  of worse businesses out there.

The Isha centre is undoubtably a place that means a lot to a lot of people. During these increasingly isolated times after the pandemic and more of us seeking some direction in life, the need for self-reflection and real-world connection between young people has never been more important, and the Isha centre is a setting that enables both of these to an unparalleled degree. 

Whether you’re curious about yoga; want a taste of what it’s like to live in a modern ashram; looking for a peaceful retreat from the chaos of India; or the chance to meet like-minded people – I’d recommend a visit. Just take the time to plan it well in advance. 

For me, the tranquil aurora of the centre, the connection with nature and the chance to reflect deeply, and the people I met made this experience one I’ll cherish for a long time to come. My total lack of planning has not worked out well at times during this trip, but keeping my schedule open and staying at Isha made up for it without question. Perseverance and flexibility paid off.

Sometimes I reflect that perhaps it was meant to be that way. 


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