The first thought that comes to mind when I think of the word ashram is something quite monastery-like: quiet, ascetic, contemplative and coupled with some “karma yoga” such as cleaning toilets or cutting vegetables for lunch.
I have visited ashrams two times before. The first time was the Osho ashram in Pune around 1999, when the only thing I knew about Osho was the Osho Zen Tarot. A few years later I visited the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, near Auroville where I had lived for a year.
The reason I wanted to spend my winter in Shri Kali Ashram doing yoga was twofold. On the one hand, I wanted to deepen the yoga studies I had started in Finland with the Shakta yoga school. On the other hand, I wanted to allow enough time and practice for the yoga system to do its work balancing my body and also allow time for healing.
Now that you know why I went, let’s have a look at how it is to stay in a contemporary ashram.
The party island
Shri Kali Ashram is located on the tropical island of Koh Phangan (or Ko Pha Ngan) in Thailand, next to the popular tourist island of Koh Samui. It’s fairly easy to get to the island, either from Surat Thani or from Koh Samui. Either way, you need to take a boat to Koh Phangan.
Koh Phangan is mostly known for its Full Moon Parties at Haad Rin, where thousands of people come to party every month. On the other side of island, around the village of Sri Thanu, there’s a smaller community of foreigners, or farangs as the locals call us, focused more on things like yoga, tantra and body culture. The Sri Thanu area is also known for the now infamous tantric yoga school Agama I wrote about earlier.
The ashram itself is located on a hill a few kilometers away from Sri Thanu. In the scheme of things around here, it’s a quiet and remote place, kind of at the end of the road. Still, if you come from a place like Finland where especially in the winter it’s VERY quiet, in Thailand there’s something happening all the time. When all the two-stroke power tools quiet down for the night, at times you hear a thumping bass from a distant party. Or dogs barking, or frogs or crickets or what have you. So it’s best to pack good earplugs in your suitcase if you are sensitive to noise.
And while I’m talking about the nuisances on the island: the mosquitoes. Luckily there are not too many of them, but at sunrise and sunset they swarm up and try to get to your skin. These mosquitoes are something to keep an eye on, because in Thailand they may carry a dengue virus. Just be aware of this and you’ll be fine.
The weather in this part of Thailand is pleasant for most of the year with the temperatures being around 30 degrees celsius. The wet season is usually from October to November, but sometimes the rain continues into December as well. As the ashram is located on a hill, there’s often a fresh, nice breeze blowing through the rooms and yoga shalas.
Shri Kali Ashram was previously located in Goa, India, but unfortunately the local government wanted to build a highway through the area where they were located. They had a plan to move to Cambodia (on their website, the location is still Cambodia), but they did not find a suitable place and thus decided to come to Koh Phangan instead.
When you enter the ashram, it does not really feel like one (at least not yet). The main house is a resort-like two-story building with about 25 rooms. There’s a swimming pool and a great view over the coconut palms to the ocean and exquisite sunsets. The building and its surroundings are not fully completed, but the place is still quite functional, clean and nice.
Ashram started here just a few months ago. Since their arrival, they have been building more rooms and bungalows for people to stay in. As I’m writing this, there are about 50 people from all around the world living in this complex. Bhagavan Shanmukha, the guru of the ashram, would like to welcome everybody, so most of the students share a room with someone.
The ashram offers different kinds of programs for people to join, but from what I know, the students participate in the same classes regardless of the program. There are yoga teacher trainings and longer tantra trainings, but at least now at the beginning of the season, the “curriculum” is the same for everybody.
The typical daily schedule looks like this:
8-9 Walking massage
9-12 Yoga practice
15-18 Yoga practice
This has been the basic schedule for every day with Wednesday being the weekly day off. The schedule runs from the first day of each month for three weeks, and then the rest of the month is time off.
The schedule may sound quite intensive, but as the yoga practiced here is gentle and you don’t have to worry about food or moving around too much, it’s just great – that is, if you really want to dive deeper into your practice.
The ayurvedic walking massage is a perfect way to start a day. In this massage, we prepare the body for the yoga practice, and help it to release blockages and let the prana flow better. In the massage, the body is gently pressed by the foot, heel or big toe, in a certain order.
The massage is done in pairs, as an exchange. It’s easy to learn, and the teachers are there to assist you if necessary. Somehow the massage does not feel as intimate as if done by hand, and it’s fun to do it with all the different people.
The yoga practices at Shri Kali consist of different series of asanas. For example, there’s a standing series Viyayama, a more dynamic Danda flow, the Forward bending for working with the diaphragms of the body, the Pranayama and Bandhas for working with prana and at the heart of everything, the Tridosha serie.
Tridosha is gently working with the entire body and it’s subtle aspects, and it brings balance and harmony to the whole system. It’s meditative and easy to do, and it helps you to develop your breathing and respiratory system.
It’s worth mentioning that all the asanas are done with the idea that it’s not important how it looks. It’s even recommended that you keep your eyes closed throughout the class. You are expressing your internal state with the asana, and it is what it is at this moment. There’s no need to push, compete or perform. Sometimes the teachers may correct some aspects of the asanas, but it’s not so important as in many other yoga schools. This makes the classes really meditative and accessible for every body.
What makes Shri Kali unique?
Shri Kali Ashram is one of the few places where authentic and traditional tantra yoga is taught these days. It’s also exceptional in that there’s a guru who is representing a living lineage. The role of a guru is considered important if not indispensable in the tantric tradition. Their task is to help you to get free from your conditioning, to help you to see things that you are not able to see.
Lectures are given either by the senior teachers or Bhagavan himself. The topics of the lectures have been variable, from anatomy to massage workshops and from tattvas to sanskrit lessons, not to forget what they call the chod practices, or peeling the onion. In these chod lectures, we have been looking at our ways of being and acting in the world, how our conditioning and scripts affect our ways of relating to others and seeing the world. These small group talks truly make staying in the ashram so much more than just the asana and pranayama practice. And of course, there’s the authentic tantric puja every now and then!
The teachers of the ashram sometimes remind us that they use a non-linear system of teaching, which may feel confusing at first. This means that there’s one central theme, and it will be looked at from different perspectives, but not in a specific, linear order. They assert, however, that in time, things will find their correct place in this big puzzle of tantric yoga.
Non-linearity also presents itself as flexibility when it comes to the arrival of new students. As mentioned earlier, the program starts the first day of each month, but new students can arrive whenever they like. That’s probably one of the reasons there’s no proper introduction to the place nor yoga practice. You just jump in and figure it out by yourself. Of course the teachers and other students show you around, but if you’re all new to this yoga system, it would be nice to get an introduction to the practices when you start.
It’s also good to keep in mind that the ashram is not a retreat center or a resort, but rather a place to study and practice. Things may not always work, or are lacking, and so it’s good to be patient and drop expectations. For example, there’s still no proper dining hall, so people eat their meals sitting on the stairs or on the floor.
One of the teachers explained, half jokingly, that the word ashram comes from the root shram, which could be translated as effort, and from a prefix a, which would make it mean effortless. Which sounds like a tantric approach to life: take everything as it arises and go with the flow. There’s no way to control what’s happening, so just let go and surrender.
In my experience, I would say I have been very happy with the practice. It sounds like a lot to do five to six hours of yoga every day, but it really does not feel that long once you’re in it. I can feel the changes in my body, it’s more supple and relaxed. Also the asanas that felt difficult in the beginning now flow with ease and my body feels stronger.
The most important thing is, however, that the quality of my nightly sleep has improved remarkably. The Tridosha series in particular has a calming and relaxing effect, so I have been enjoying those long Tridoshas and the blissful feeling it awakens in me. One of the best benefits of yoga is the stress relief.
The reason I really fell in love with this type of tantric yoga was the deep metaphysical science behind it. We did not get too much into this yet, and we’ve only had a few lectures by Bhagavan himself. Luckily I still have many weeks to go!
With love from the tropic!
Ps. Yogi in the header photo is me, if you wondered.