Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Glimpse into the History of Mandala Yoga Ashram

A Interview with Swami Nishchalananda

What inspired you to set up an ashram?
For the first 12 years of my life in India this was the last thing I had in my mind.  I had a wonderful life in India (although sometimes it was very hard, physically) and the last thing I wanted to do was to commit myself to starting an ashram.  But during the last 2 years of my time in India I started to get a strong feeling that I should start an ashram. This feeling actually surprised me and, at first, I even resisted it.  
Swamiji in Benares 1993
And strangely, at that time, I was being asked to start an ashram in different parts of India: in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and in Bihar.  I was offered land in some very beautiful places and I was tempted. But it didn't feel right - I had a strange feeling in my gut. I realise now why I was so reticent to commit myself to establishing an ashram in India: my destiny was to start an ashram in the West. 

Why did you choose Wales as the location for the ashram?
1990 in the original house at Mandala Yoga Ashram
1990 Sharing a meal 
When I arrived back in the UK in 1985, I told many of my yoga friends of my strong feeling to start an ashram.  It was something like giving birth to a baby I suppose.  Many suggestions were put forward, including living in France, where I had a growing number of contacts.  But then a close friend reminded me that I had some ancestral property here in Wales. So a few of us came down to check the place out.  At first I said: “No way!” because the place was so wild, isolated and the buildings so dilapidated. Anyway we did start and there was enormous enthusiasm to get the ashram going.  And in fact, those things which I initially thought were a disadvantage became an advantage.  It is wild and isolated - in the middle of nowhere - but this is actually an advantage because people come here only for yoga and we don’t disturb any neighbours.
1987 View of the ashram - the old cow shed 
which has now been transformed into the dining room
Moreover in India, by tradition, ashrams are generally created in places well away from society.  And those dilapidated buildings have now blossomed into a supportive venue for yoga. 

What did you learn from your own ashram life in India that you found useful at Mandala Yoga Ashram?
Everything.  Every experience that I had in India, inspired me in the development of Mandala Yoga Ashram. The fundamental aim is to help people go deeper in their understanding on all levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.  As in India the principles of karma yoga are important in Mandala Yoga Ashram, and so are the practices of chanting and meditation.  Whilst keeping to traditional yoga and ashram principles, I have in the course of time, tried to align the ashram with western life. And it seems to work very well.

What inspired the principal aims upon which the ashram is based?
When I first arrived at the Bihar School of Yoga in India in 1971 I was completely ignorant of yoga and spiritual life.  Within a few days of being in the ashram, the teachings, energy and atmosphere opened my eyes to the incredible potential which every person has within.  It is just a question of discovering the depths of one's own being and realising one's innate identity.  In an ashram, residents and visitors should be willing to work hard (both innerly and externally), share openly with like-minded seekers and have the courage to face one's mental and emotional demons. An ashram should be a refuge from our busy, externalised and stress-filled life so that we can start to discover the spiritual 'jewel' that exists within all of us. For me, these are the main aims of an ashram. The actual teachings can differ according to the personality of the teacher/director but these aims that I have just mentioned are fundamental if an ashram is to be an ashram and not a hotel or a holiday centre. These principles that are so necessary in developing and running an ashram have evolved over thousands of years in India.  I have tried to continue this tradition in Mandala Yoga Ashram.

What is the history of the land on which the ashram is placed?
After a few years of the ashram's existence, I discovered in the past that local people used to do prayer meetings in the house.  I’m not sure how often or any exact details but local people informed me that this was the case. There are rock formations on the ashram land which suggest they have been used for some spiritual or ritualistic purpose in the distant past.
The courtyard now
Also various people, who are sensitive to earth energies, have informed me that there is a ley line passing through the ashram.  Some people feel that the energy of this ley line is an important factor in the strong ashram energy.

What inspired you to branch out from the Bihar School of Yoga?
I acknowledge, with great love and fond memories, my time and connection with the Bihar School of Yoga.  Swami Satyananda was an enormous, even indispensable, influence in my spiritual life. 
Swami Satyananda
I can never ever forget this. I also have great affection for Swami Niranjanananda - we used to play football together in Ireland.  But I clearly realised in the mid-1990s that I wanted Mandala Yoga Ashram to become independent so that it could find its own way and respond directly to the people who come here and who have contact with the ashram.  Of course this did create problems and it is much easier to belong to a large organisation, but I feel it was the right decision.

How was the ashram set up in the first days and months?

One of the single rooms now
Accommodation now
During the first few months and years of the ashram it was pretty rustic.  We had no running water. There was only one toilet and courses were held in a small room. In fact, 18 participants on a Kriya Yoga course practised with me in a room that is now my bedroom!  So it was pretty wild and basic. It is said that the pioneering days of any organisation are the most invigorating and exciting.  But I am happy now that the ashram is well set up, has more facilities and is more comfortable.  In the early days I was assisted by so many people, particularly by Swami Sivadhara who some of you may know.  She inspired so many people with the generosity of her heart.

Has the ashram changed over the years?
Enormously and no doubt it will change more in the future.  For example, it’s quite difficult for many people to come here, especially from other countries, let alone other parts of the UK.  I am always touched when people come here from far away, from continental Europe and beyond.  So now we are starting to bring in online teachings so that we can communicate with yoga participants all over the world.

What maintains your inspiration to live this life and guide an ashram?
I am very lucky in that my way of life is also what I do.  Yoga, spiritual life and the wonderful people that I have shared with in India, the UK, Europe and all over the world have always been inspirations for me. 
Swami Nishchalananda 2013
I am always inspired when I see people coming to the ashram looking a bit flat, participate in a course, and leave with a sparkle in their eyes, a smile on their face, inspired to go deeper in their understanding and with enthusiasm to continue their life.  Now I am taking more and more of a back seat and this is good because it is allowing other ashram residents with lots of talent and capacity to continue the work of the ashram.

How is an ashram here different from an ashram in India
Many people tell me that the vibe is the same as that in Indian ashrams, but of course there are differences.  The main one being that in India an ashram is central to the culture, whereas here it is on the periphery. 

What do you see for the future of Mandala Yoga Ashram and ashrams in general?
There are not many ashrams in the western world, but I think in the future that they will become an integral part of western cultural and spiritual life. Though it is changing - as more and more people practise yoga so an ashram will become indispensable for serious yoga practitioners to go deeper. Mandala Yoga Ashram, I am sure, will continue to grow and inspire those who come here.

To finish, I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in the development of Mandala Yoga Ashram and its transformation into a spiritual home for so many. May you all be blessed with happiness and inner wisdom. 

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