For several years, I’ve had a standing invite to visit the International Art of Living Ashram. Yes, THE Art of Living Ashram founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But you know what they say – a time for everything. And that time arrived a couple of weeks ago when I received a loving nudge from my friend there.
Located in the calm, serene and picturesque outskirts of Bangalore, at the 21st Km Kanakpura Road, the 65-acre campus is like a bit of heaven on earth. A little over 30 years ago, the area was a barren stony land but one man with a vision only saw nature at her best and harmony in a flourishing community. Today it is a lush green paradise where a lot of good things are happening, initiated by a self-sufficient community of dedicated people, mostly volunteers who are making this vision come true. The positive energy of the place is tangible.
Founded in 1981 by the visionary and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar,The Art of Living is an educational and humanitarian movement engaged in stress-management and service initiatives. The focus is on peace, health and bringing Happiness & Making Life a Celebration. It has its presence in 152 countries today striving to create a stress-free and violence free world with its numerous initiatives.
With that intro, here are my 20 reasons to visit the Art of Living Ashram!
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I began my day with a simple yet nutritious breakfast of porridge, sprouts, indian flat bread (yeah, rotis) and lentils side dish at the Ashram’s kitchen. The best part? Everyone who eats there must wash their own plates and lay them out to dry. Leftover food is collected in a bin. Extra food is distributed nearby. Even the water used to wash the utensils is filtered and used to water plants. Volunteers cut vegetables in groups, laughing and obviously having a good time. The ashram feeds 18-20 thousand people daily. It was a pleasure to just look around the kitchen and the dining areas. I also ended my day here with dinner.
The Vishalakshi Shrine
There is a beautiful shrine set amid lawns where people enjoy peace and meditation. There is a daily “satsang” in the evenings around 6 pm from Monday through Saturday. The top floor of the shrine is a great vantage point with a gorgeous view – and I breathed in the peace.
The duck pond
Okay, I am calling it that. There is a large pond near the shrine that has ducks and swans and – pelicans! Gosh, they’re beautiful. I don’t know about you, but I can watch them all day long. On the way to this pond, I passed fields of okra – my husband would call them fields of gold. Yum.
This beautiful hospital in the middle of medicinal herb gardens offers treatment to people around the area and is a sort of prototype for others in the pipeline. What struck me most about the hospital was two things: it did not smell of disinfectant; instead, it smelled of herbs. I found myself sniffing to take in the aroma. Patients receive herbal treatment for all sorts of ailments and there’s also a dentistry section. Cost? Cheap. Just a Rs.20 card entitles patients to treatment across multiple visits, unlike the standard pay-for-every-visit model used by doctors. The view from the hospital was awesome with stone seats from the wide vantage point. I found a few patients relaxing there – I am sure they will heal faster for the soothing environment.
School and college
The Ashram runs schools and colleges, offering free education to over 40,000 students in the area. There is a college of ayurveda as well with post-graduate studies. It was a huge campus and I regretted visiting on a Sunday – if I had gone on a school day I would have had the pleasure of meeting the children. Sigh. Another time. Besides the free education, they also have a regular school attended by students from all over the country.
Where it all started
This is the area that gave birth to the ashram. A serene spot with a meditation shrine that is still open to those who want to spend some time in nature. The rustic building looked enchanting. It is now used for functions and has a large building nearby that becomes a dining hall. The ground floor is being turned into a gym.
Radha Kunj lake
This is an exotic part of the ashram near the lake, which is home to rare migratory birds and has a meditation spot where I saw a group singing. I also saw peacocks, turkeys, rabbits, deer and other fowl. Delightful! This turkey I was trying to photograph was practically climbing my feet – so friendly! I heard that all the animals at the ashram are very friendly – even the snakes are harmless. Somehow I believed that.
The ashram has its own cowshed with cows and bulls. These cows are the same breed as in Mathura (did I get that right?) I absolutely adored the friendly calves that sidled up for a loving massage! There’s something about a cow’s eyes… so much love in it. Music and slokas are played at the gaushala to keep the cows happy, helping them yield a good quantity of milk. I thought that was so sweet. I learned that one cow’s dung and pee is enough to fertilize an entire farm, eliminating the use of harmful pesticides. How amazing. The ashram is educating nearby farmers on this technique. There was also a white horse donated by a devotee.
One of the unique things about the ashram is the eco-friendly practice in almost all areas. Any water used goes back into the ground. All organic waste is composted for farming. There are various vegetables and fruits grown on the land – and it appears as if they’re out in the wild, just as they’re supposed to be. Some of the produce was so huge, probably with the freedom to grow as it wanted. All this is harvested and sold from the AOL shop to people who visit the ashram.
This charming area is a residential school for students who learn the scriptures – vedas. Some “Graduates” go on to become priests while others get into alternate occupations. Very pleasant campus.
Waste to wealth plant
This impressive enclosure has a massive machinery set up that just eats waste and gives back diesel fit to fuel a vehicle. What a great way to say goodbye to waste and welcome a clean and healthy environment. The machine is fine with a diet of all sorts of waste – plastic, organic, inorganic – you name it, it will eat it.
Ayurveda and panchakarma center
This deserves a post by itself, which I plan on doing. Let me just quickly say that it is a place for deep rejuvenation and relaxation where you can literally detox and come out a new person. I had a complimentary consultation with one of the senior doctors. Once again, the place was so fabulous and a feast to the eyes.
Talking of feasts, after the simple one I had for breakfast in the morning, I was looking forward to an “ayurvedic lunch” especially prepared for me. I am sorry I didn’t take a pic of it, but the conversation and the hospitality was so good, I forgot. At this “restaurant” they serve food that is cooked as per ayurvedic principles, designed to heal. They have a roster of all those who are there for treatment with their special preferences and serve food accordingly. I had the most delicious turmeric tea! I bought their herbal tea at their online store and it was superb.
My friend had also lined up a complimentary reflexology foot massage for me at the “panchakarma ayurvedic spa” since there wasn’t time for more. After a tour of the buildings here, I had a very relaxing 45 minutes when I was treated to a soothing foot massage. I may have possibly dozed off, what with the serene ambiance and the gentle strains of the flute, and a full tummy. Perfecto for a siesta.
The satsang started at 4.30 pm in the evening. I was amazed to see people of all age groups pouring in. Inside the spacious and well-ventilated hall, there were stacks of huge cushions to sit on and chairs for those who would rather sit on chairs. It was a fantastic experience that started off with a small group of performers followed by the hundreds of people present. Then there was a meditation session. The positive energy was superb with everyone thoroughly enjoying themselves. It seemed to get over all too soon at 6 pm and people began to file out towards the “prasad” counters for a snack and home with a full heart.
The Art of Living programs
So yes, you can do one in your area, but it isn’t like enrolling at the ashram. I’ve heard a lot about their programs and I could see why when I visited the ashram. For details, here’s the website. But briefly, they have the Happiness program that includes yoga and meditation and practical tools like the Sudarshan Kriya, a unique breathing technique developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar that heals and harmonizes the mind, body and spirit, relieves stress and helps one deal with negative emotions and build happy relationships. There are programs for children of various age groups, for parents, institutions and educators and corporate programs.
Back to nature
The AOL Ashram is a great getaway for the weekend. People visit from all over the world. Knowing that, I was a bit guilty that it was my first trip to the place, living in the same city. It is a delightful way to spend the day experiencing their hospitality and communing with nature, far from the city, yet close enough.
The ashram seeks to cultivate the habit of mindfulness and I could see this being practiced by the volunteers on campus. They’ve developed the area around them, adopting villages, educating the villagers about farming practices, perma culture and self-sufficiency.
Sense of community
I found it refreshing to get away from my routine and spend the day at the Ashram. I had the impression of a model world being created in the hope that it would be replicated to make a peaceful universe. What if we all cared for each other as a community and focused on service to mankind without expecting returns? What if we smiled at each other instead of brushing past lost in our thoughts? I came away feeling – in a word – happy.
India’s finest yoga and meditation center
Packaged as various retreats to suit the convenience of those who attend, the ashram offers a holistic experience that includes yoga and meditation with ayurveda and panchakarma centers as added bonuses. On International Yoga Day, my friend sent me pictures of hundreds of people practising yoga – and it was a treat to watch. A weekend at the ashram enjoying one of their 3-day programs could be the ideal break with or without your family. Why wait for a special occasion to celebrate your togetherness? I hear that children and adults alike simply love their digital detox and return home feeling quite rejuvenated.
I had a splendid day! Read more about the Art of Living Foundation
Do you have one in your city? Have you visited?