I will begin this post with a disclaimer: I have taken several courses offered by AOL in the past. While many of my family members are committed followers, I have never committed myself fully to AOL… I am a typical Guru shopper ; ) although I am very close to finding my own. So, I am writing this post mainly from a visitor’s perspective, which I hope you will find useful.
The main Art of Living ashram (known as the International Center) is located in Udaypura in South Bengaluru, about 2 hours from the airport. If you come by taxi, you can be dropped off right inside the main gate. If you come in your car, there is a parking lot next to the main gate where you will have to get off (there is a fee of Rs. 20 to park your vehicle).
We arrived at the ashram around 8am on a Monday. Our goal was to attend the Monday Rudrapuja at the ashram and then head out around 12 noon.
Some of us in the group had visited the ashram several times before and so we were familiar with the layout. During our previous visits we had attended courses, so there was a known process to follow – check-in, get your badge, get your room allocation, etc. However, this time around, we were merely visitors and we did not know if there was any specific process to follow. Because it was 8am, we did not really find anyone near the main gate to guide us. In retrospect, the right thing to do should have been to go to the reception building and seek guidance. Unfortunately, in our case, we were so confident that we just strolled in checking out the different places.
Before we came to the ashram, we checked Guruji’s schedule. He was going to be in the ashram at the time…. which meant he would most likely be present at the puja. We did not have a goal to meet him personally – just be in his presence. The Rudrapuja happens at the Yagnashala (we called the day before to verify the time and place). Our target was to reach the Yagnashala by 9am.
Our first stop was Guru Paduka Vanam. This is where the satsangs normally take place. In the past, when I attended a course at the ashram, I attended satsangs here in the evening. It was an exhilarating experience being part of a satsang — lots of people, beautiful music, electrifying atmosphere. It generally takes place in the evening – so, if you are interested, would definitely recommend finding out the time and location for the day (sometimes the venue can change due to weather conditions).
Next, we headed to Cafe Vishala hoping to grab some breakfast. Unfortunately, it was too early and the cafe was closed. A person urged us to go to Annapurna Dining Hall to grab breakfast and so we did. At the gate leading to Annapurna Dining Hall, we were asked to show our cards…. this is where we realised that we should have found out about any visitor registration requirements. We were allowed to go in and we thoroughly enjoyed a healthy breakfast.
After breakfast, we headed towards the Yagnashala. There is a shuttle service available if you need it. By the time we reached the Yagnashala, the puja had already started. The men sit separately from the women. Luckily, there were enough chairs available for people who need them. A little bit into the puja, Guruji Sri Sri came in and performed the puja. There is a large screen that projects the puja happenings – which really helped the folks sitting in the back. The puja concluded with an amazing bhajan session. I was surprised at how well behaved the crowd was. All in all, a great experience.
Once the puja concluded, we headed towards Vishalakshi Mantap. We could not see the inside as there was a session going on. Afterwards, we checked out the shops in the service complex before heading to Vishali cafe to grab a quick bite.
Note 1: At the shops, you will be asked to “lock” your purses/bags where they will use a plastic tie to secure it. You can have it opened at the checkout counter. You will have to show your receipt when you exit if you purchase anything.
Note 2: At the Vishali cafe, ask for the most popular dish of the day and order it, otherwise, be prepared to wait for a long time to receive your order… stay away from the non-typical Indian dishes.
If you have more time, do consider visiting the Goshala (cowshed). It is a little bit of a walk but well worth it! While taking a course at the ashram, we had an opportunity to do seva at the Goshala (sweeping the floors and feeding the cows). Another option was to do seva in the kitchen cutting vegetables.
During our visit we found out that the ashram does conduct a guided tour – about 1 1/2 hours long where visitors can see the different parts of the ashram. So, once again, the moral of the story is to register yourself and find out all of the options available for your timeframe : )
The best way to enjoy the ashram vibe is to attend a course at the ashram. This will give you an opportunity to learn and experience the ashram in a unique way (studying, sleeping, eating, seva and satsang). There are somethings of course that might give you the feeling of a corporate setup – parking fees, asking for identification near the dining hall, locking your purse when you shop, but, I guess we should just go with the flow in those cases assuming those measures are in place to keep everyone secure.
Bottomline: If you are inclined or interested in taking an Art of Living course, do go that route… you will have an opportunity to experience ashram life first hand (staying, meditating, eating, doing seva, attending satsang, pujas, etc.). However, if your goal is to just visit the ashram, then find out their schedule and plan accordingly (for example, puja versus satsang versus just seeing the buildings on the 1 1/2 hour tour). While the ashram is lovely even when the Guruji is not there, seeing him may complete your visit…. but, definitely do not let that stop you!