Ashram Life

by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)

The Early Years

I met Dr. Usharbudh Arya, later known as Swami Veda Bharati, in Minneapolis in 1970 after a year in Europe seeking and not finding. He had been initiated into a higher state by his master months earlier. In 1971 Swami Rama came back to Minneapolis and met with Dr. Arya’s students. He was a mountain of a man. For the first 5 years, there was satsang nearly every evening with Dr. Arya, who was himself a full time seeker, father, husband, university professor, and guide.

We were a close knit if diverse group, from Catholic priests to atheists. We came from every walk of life. The Arya family opened their hearts and their home to us. We were given a full immersion experience in classic yoga, an age old tradition of studying in the teacher’s home.

From that day to this it has been an incredibly profound experience. We learned so much from him and from one another. I had come from a sheltered suburban upbringing into a world of people of different languages, religions, ethnicities with careers that ranged from bus driver to distinguished professor, from rock ‘n roll wannabes to real munis.

The attic of the Arya family home was our first ashram, but we didn’t know it. Dr. Arya ingrained in us a feeling and a commitment that we were one big loving family. Some of the spiritual children and grandchildren of Swami Veda and Swami Rama sometimes come to Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG). Those early years in the yellow house not far from the Mississippi River are still alive.

And there are many new faces.

Some would have the good fortune to live at one of the ashrams founded by Swami Rama or Swami Veda. The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy was founded by Swami Rama and Sadhana Mandir was also.

Swami Veda founded The Meditation Center in Minneapolis, but there was only room for a few residents. Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG) was built in 2002. This was where many of Swami Veda’s students came to study with him, especially the last few years of his life when his body was too fragile for travel.

Swami Veda left the body in 2015. He named Swami Ritavan Bharati as his successor. Swami Ritavan carries with him the discipline, commitment and light of a strong teacher. He is firm in his resolve to maintain a traditional ashram with residents who are willing and able to follow the ashram schedules from 5 a.m. prayers to dedicated practices that include hatha yoga, an hour of meditation at a set time every morning and evening and karma yoga, i.e. your assigned work. I have felt his love and prayers, and my own practice has benefited from sitting with him, and I believe that though Swami Rama and Swami Veda are no longer in their physical form, a sacred presence abides.

The Himalayan Institute

From the first time I heard about the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, I wanted to live there. Many of us came wanting to change ourselves and the world. We dived into ashram life and sometimes, just as eagerly, clutched at old habits from which we were running.

4 Fountains

We learned to observe our impulses and habits. Swami Rama talked about 4 fountains ---food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation. Many of our moment to moment decisions were influenced by what he sometimes called these “primitive urges.” If you could control one of these urges, the others might also be brought under your control—not by forcing, but by doing particular practices on a regular basis. In this way, you could create a life more in tune with your long term objectives rather than be held hostage by habits that held you back.

I learned to simplify my diet. I eliminated sweets and wheat and ate less dairy for two years. My asthma disappeared; prayer and work became more important to me.

For most of my life, I had subconsciously lived in anticipation of the next treat. Food was a recreational activity instead of a form of nourishment. It was not as if I did not enjoy food any more. I did. But I no longer ate between meals or after an early dinner. And contentment came into play.

For dinner, it was sometimes a cup of soup or non-caffeinated, nonsweetened  chai. Sometimes I chose to use that precious time for meditation instead. I learned that with my particular body I did not need a lot of food. It’s not the same for everyone so take care. With my food impulses gradually coming under control, some of my other impulses had less of a hold on me. My sleep needs gradually diminished. I now had more time in my day. But sometimes I slipped back into old habits. Sometimes the slips lasted a day, sometimes years.


In Swami Rama’s US ashram, with food needs reduced and a lighter body, I took pleasure in simple routines that formed a sort of daily rhythm. These were:

  • a fixed daily meditation time
  • several short sittings throughout the day
  • sanctifying mundane chores with silent prayer
  • moderation in eating
  • hatha yoga once or twice a day
  • jogging, walking
  • alternate nostril breathing and other pranayama (breathing) practices

Swami Veda, Swami Rama, and the medical staff at the Institute gave individuals other practices as well. To conquer stupor, eat less and early---not after 7pm---and exercise more. For emotional balance, without judging, get to know your habits of mind, breath and body in a nonjudgmental fashion so that change can follow with less resistances. Breath awareness helps. For obstacles like negative thinking, application of the equal and opposite thought. If you were having difficulty with someone, you might want to leave an anonymous gift or secretly wish them well or ponder their finer traits when your mind went the wrong way and then not talk about it or you might have to deal more with your own pride and self righteousness.

My food compulsions lessened and the frequency of practice helped. Before meals and instead of tea time, I would often go to my room and do a short meditation or breathing practice.

At this point in my life, I cook for myself and do all my own laundry and cleaning. I seem to have gotten slower and it has become difficult to keep the ashram schedule. Time has always been an issue for me, but it has become increasingly challenging in the last few years.

Facing Difficulties

Name your biggest secret or your favorite habit. It was all up for grabs. What didn’t bubble up from the unconscious mind with the help of intensive practices that an ashram can provide ---easily found its way into broad daylight. Swami Rama was there, brimming with joy and mystery. He might proclaim your secret at breakfast or at tennis between volleys or afterwards when he sat down on the grass with us. There was always prasad after he played tennis— cookies and candies all around. The children would come for hugs. I kept away from the sweets.

Once in the dining room, Swami Rama stood behind a very discrete young woman and announced to everyone that she was in love with Dick. She was, but even Dick had not known. She turned several shades of red, but recovered enough to eventually marry Dick. Theirs is a wonderful family, one of the cornerstones of the community.


Swami Rama strongly encouraged jogging and walking up the steep hill at the Himalayan Institute. After tennis, there was always instruction, spoken or otherwise. Twice my jogging practice had fallen by the wayside, and Swami Rama told Sewa to go jogging with me every morning. He also would frequently come into the dining hall and tell us to partner with others for jogging. He said that way when one person doesn’t want to jog the friend will get them to keep at it. After a month or so of 5 a.m. jogs with Sewa, I was ready and committed to jog on my own again. After my initial resistance to it, jogging became an important teacher for me. It had a terrific way of bringing my mental resistances front and center, and before the run was over, their release. Sometimes when I didn’t want to jog, I would mentally say “this one is for Debbie (my niece who was sick)” or this one is for my mother or my father or someone I loved or someone I avoided. Strong aversions and attractions got closer to neutral.

Unfortunately arthritis came later in life, but I don’t think it was the jogging that did it. There had been a number of hard falls on my knees when I was younger. Also once I injured myself by running out the door without first warming up the limbs, which had been my habit. Last, I am sad to say, at a certain time in my life I meditated an hour in the full lotus pose each day. Swami Rama had warned us not to meditate in this pose, but I didn’t listen. I had worked long and hard to attain the pose and it felt comfortable. I ignored his advice.

We Received a lot of Help

Swami Rama would also on occasion perch at the double doors of the dining room and peer in mischievously. My 8-year-old son was going through a growth spurt and always took about 5 times more food than he could eat!

I pleaded with him just to take a small amount and go back for more if he wanted. But nothing could persuade him. Then one day, Swami Rama appeared at breakfast. He came straight to our table, pointed to my son’s plate and said “Eat that.” My son never did that again. He was so sick and so late for school that day. It took a long time for that tall, skinny fellow to eat that mountain of food.

Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama

Decades passed, and I had settled back into life in the world. The support network of regular meditation, yoga, exercise and wholesome foods was gone. I was in Boston working in a full time librarian job as well as part time at a public library and 2 university libraries. I had ½ day off a week. Then I moved to SRSG in Rishikesh.


The steady rhythms of ashram life give way to an unbroken flow. The ground you stand on has roots above and below.

Change your Mind

Swami Veda called it emotional purification. It took me a long time to get it. I still doubted that it was possible to change entrenched habits of thinking, feeling and speaking. It took years to move an inch. It has been well worth it.

Necessity, the Mother of invention

Wherever you go there you are. This saying has been attributed to Confucius. Dr. Whitacre, later Swami Nijananda, once said “You may like me. You may not like me. It is none of my business.”

In the world of Love All. Exclude None, I was inevitably confronted with challenges to my core. But then, the core shifted.

How did this happen? Swami Veda gave various practices to strengthen the resolve of loving. The heart is a muscle and not just in its physical sense.


There is a Forgiveness Day in the Jaina religion. Swami Veda was not Jaina. As a monk, he belonged to no one and everyone. The entire world was his family. Those of us who lived with him aspired to that ideal, even those of us who were not renunciates. Living in an ashram asks for a certain amount of renunciation. What you own, owns you.

Swami Veda sent us all a note that Forgiveness Day was coming. He asked us to keep the sanctity of that day and the days leading up to it in the depths of our hearts.


We were asked to keep gratitude diaries. This meant at least one entry a day every day for a very long time of something you were grateful for. This is a practice I still would like to sustain. From what others have said, it is a fine antidote to worry, fear, depression and other maladies in what passes for mind.

The Challenges

Like any social milieu, living together, we inevitably bumped up against each other on occasion, despite all furtive attempts at harmony and holiness. Even among Americans, there was the New York financier, the Dallas lawyer, the painter, the professor, and the back woods farmer. It was a tremendously rich social environment. There were opportunities for growth.

Each of us had our own challenges. By and large, I believe that most of us wanted to create a sanctum sanctorum within and without. This happened variably in leaps and bounds and in baby steps. You might also fall flat on your face in the mud, so to speak. And then you got up again.



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