She traveled alone, half way around the world, to an ashram in India to practice yoga and meditation, experience Indian culture, and find a path to inner peace.
When Mary Liciaga, a 46-year-old divorced mother of four grown kids first started telling people she was going to an ashram in India for two weeks — by herself — they all tried to talk her out of it.
“What? Are you crazy? That’s too dangerous,” were just a few of the reactions she got from her boyfriend, her family and friends.
Mary is a social worker who assists families in crisis. However, having lost her mother, with whom she’d had a troubled relationship, and her father two years after that, she was having a bit of a crisis of her own. The idea of yoga retreat was inviting, but she started to doubt her decision to travel half way around the world.
“I thought my friends might be right,” she said. “I felt so vulnerable. Maybe it wasn’t the best time for me to go.”
While on the fence about her decision she prayed for guidance. Soon after, she heard her inner voice say, “You won’t be alone. I’ll go with you.” That was it. She was going.
Her good friend Jill gave her some good advice: even if you’re afraid, act confident and calm, no matter what.
“That still didn’t stop me from being afraid,” Mary says, with a chuckle. “I almost called the whole thing off when I was in line at LAX.”
It took three planes, with long layovers, a total of 35 hours, before she finally arrived in Dehradun, in the northern part of India.
“I was exhausted when we landed,” she said. “There was supposed to be a driver waiting for me but I didn’t see him anywhere.”
As Mary walked through the airport looking for her driver, she realized that although she knew the name of the ashram, the name of the town it was in had completely slipped her mind. Getting anxious, she recalled her friend’s advice to maintain an air of confidence, but it didn’t work. Mary went over to a nearby wall and slid down to the ground. Beginning to panic, she opened her suitcase and started riffling through her belongings looking for the name of her destination. A security guard came over to help.
“Where do you want to go?” the guard asked, bending down to Mary as she sat on the floor.
“The Phool Chatti Ashram,” Mary replied, looking up.
“Yes, yes, that’s it. That’s where I want to go,” Mary said, recognizing the name.
“Go to the booth over there. They can help you get a taxi,” the guard said, pointing down the hall.
As Mary walked to the booth, she saw a man holding a card with her name written across the front.
“Apparently, I was so tired I walked right past him when I got off the plane,” Mary said. “I was so relieved until I got into the car and discovered there was a man sharing the ride. I’m in a foreign country, can’t speak the language and I’m with two strange men — alone. To top it off, the driver kept eyeballing me in his rear view mirror which didn’t help at all.”
Mary tried to divert her attention by staring out the window, fascinated by the mind-stirring mix of landscape in Dehradun. Cows, pigs and monkeys were roaming the streets. There was smoke everywhere from people burning trash. Streets were packed with cars, bicycles, ox-pulled carts and families of five riding on one tiny scooter. The whole place seemed to buzz.
After an hour, Mary finally arrived in the small town of Rishikesh, located at the foothills of the Himalayas. It gained international attention when the Beatles came here to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late sixties and while today, it claims to be the yoga capitol of the world, it’s also a resort town with a white-water rafting center, backpacking and rock climbing. Upstream of the famous river Ganges which runs beside the town, there’s a more peaceful vibe with hotels, restaurants and ashrams for the more spiritually inclined.
Mary’s destination was Phool Chatti Ashram, founded in the late 1880’s by Sri Devi Ji Maharaj. She chose it because it offered an opportunity to study the rich spiritual traditions of India while getting a taste of ashram life. She also liked how the ashram had preserved its unique character while updating its infrastructure with modern conveniences, such as hot water, electricity, telephones and Internet.
When Marry arrived, she was greeted by Lolita Ji, an Indian yoga teacher, with honey skin and a big friendly smile.
“Welcome, welcome,” Lolita Ji said, with a thick accent. “How was your trip?”
“Long,” Mary replied, “extremely long.”
“I’ll give you a quick tour and then show you to your room.”
Mary was shown a red-trimmed structure surrounded by mountain forests. The ashram sits directly on the banks of the sacred river of Ganges. The central courtyard is surrounded by gardens and exotic birds. There is a large room for yoga, a blend of hatha and ashtanga, held twice a day. A dining hall serves delicious vegetarian cuisine prepared with produce grown on the grounds. Her private room was simply furnished and offered a beautiful view of the river.
She began each day at the ashram with a half hour of silent meditation followed by chanting of Sanskrit mantras, to enter into a deeper state of consciousness. Then pranayama, the deep breathing exercises in preparation for yoga postures that optimize vitality, mental clarity and body awareness. After breakfast, there was free time to do things like take a stroll down to the sandy beaches of the Ganges, even take a rejuvenating dip. In the afternoon, there were lectures on the practical tools for spiritual growth and mental health, with more yoga after that. Guided mediation followed dinners.
One morning, Mary was at the pond in the courtyard, watching the koi, when she noticed a man across the courtyard dressed in orange robes, with a long gray hair and beard. Intrigued, she asked Lolita Ji who he was.
“Oh, that’s Swami Ji,” she said. “He’s lived here for fifty years.
When he got closer he looked directly in Mary’s eyes. She said there was something magnetic about him. He seemed to radiate an inner light.
Mary introduced herself and told him she was from Los Angeles. She briefly explained about the loss of her mother and father and how she had come to the ashram hoping to heal. He listened and when she was finished, smiled and told her that if there was anything she needed to feel free to come see him.
Near the end of her two-week stay, Mary was sitting on the balcony, taking in the beauty of the forested foothills of the Himalayas when Swami Ji walked up and sat down beside her.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, laughing nervously. “I was just thinking of you.”
“You were?” he asked, pulling on his long gray beard.
“Yes, I wanted to ask you something,” Mary said. “I brought a small urn with some of my mother’s ashes and I wondered if you’d bless them for me?”
He paused; his eyes squinted as he looked off in the distance.
“You should pour them into the Ganges River,” he finally said.
“But that’s all I have left of her.”
“It’s a sacred river and a good place to set her free.”
Taking Swami Ji’s direction, Mary found some large leaves, stitching them together with toothpicks and made a small bowl. Then she got some incense and gathered some flowers. Two hours later, as planned, she met Swami Ji down by the sandy banks of the Ganges.
“When I tried to open the urn it was stuck. Swami Ji had to help me,” Mary said about the awkward moment.
With the open urn, she walked to the edge of the clear blue-green river and waded in. The cold water caused a thousand goose bumps to erupt all over her flesh. Holding the leaf bowl in one hand, she poured in her mother’s ashes. Placing a few flowers on top, Mary set it in the water and let it float away.
A few moments later the small boat toppled over, spreading a ribbon of ashes into the water of the Ganges. Mary felt something inside her release as the ashes formed the shape of an angel and then disappeared into the blue-green current.
Copyright © 2015 Wendy Adamson/Singular Communications, LLC
- Learn from those who have gone before. Mary met several times with people who had traveled there.
- The trip requires a passport and a Visa. You can find the application for the Visa on the Internet. It can take several months to complete the process so start early.
- There is a monsoon season. Mary went in October (after the rainy season) when the weather was temperate and similar to Los Angeles.
- It’s a long flight with layovers. The first leg was 15 hours with a 4 hour layover in Dubai, then a 4 hour flight to Delhi with a 10 hour layover. The last leg was a 1 hour flight to Dehradun followed by a 1 hour taxi ride to the ashram. You can pay for a place to nap or take a shower at the airport and get a massage too. Mary did it all.
- Mary did her research and studied a list of 10 ashrams before selecting Phool Chatti Ashram. It was her choice because it was the oldest, and had the kind of meditation and yoga program she wanted. She also liked that it was located in the foothills of the Himalayas, next to the Ganges.
- Pack snacks and drink bottled water. Check with your doctor for necessary vaccinations and see why he/she recommends that you pack in case you get sick during your trip.