Isha Foundation Coimbatore
Between the two of us, Madhu has always shown a slightly higher interest in seeking a little spirituality and leading a more disciplined, healthy (both mental and physical) lifestyle. So when his brother attended a one week course conducted by the Isha Foundation and raved about its contents, philosophy and methodology, Madhu was immediately intrigued. In 2005, to our amazement, the Isha Foundation offered several courses in the Bay Area (northern California) as well. Madhu managed to attend one of them in June that year and enjoyed the experience! However, over time he couldn’t continue the yoga practice recommended by the foundation and eventually lost touch. Now, since Coimbatore, where the foundation’s headquarters is located, fell in our Tamil Nadu travel route, Madhu couldn’t let go of the opportunity of visiting it and revisiting the ideology he had learnt years ago!
The Isha Foundation Coimbatore was established in 1992 by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi and mystic who is a Karnataka-native. It is a non-profit organization, which is completely run by volunteers and monks who have undertaken the Sadhguru’s path as their own. Through the foundation the Sadhguru offers a series of courses that involve meditation, chanting and yoga that, if followed in the recommended manner, can lead to better mental and physical health, heightening self-awareness! His is not a religious path – instead he offers ‘spirituality for the intellectual’, which simply believes in a better way of life. His foundation is also involved in social causes and as part of that, heads the Project Green Hands initiative to plant 114 million saplings to increase Tamil Nadu’s tree cover. This practical, non-religious, yogic philosophy is what attracted Madhu and his brother to the Sadhguru’s teachings and it is what brought us to its center at Coimbatore.
The center is actually some 30-odd kms NE of Coimbatore city, at the foothills of the Velliangiri Mountains in a tiny village called Poondi. Spread over 150 acres of farm land, the center is nicely laid out with a special meditation hall called Dhyanalinga Yogic Temple, a new temple dedicated to Lingabhairavi, a Theerthakunda for a sacred dip, an assembly hall, dining hall, two schools, a Rejuvenation center for massages and other treatments, a retreat where the courses are held, a store, visitor accommodation, a cafeteria, ample parking space and accommodation for the resident students, monks, volunteers and of course, the Sadghuru. A kid, Renu, from the same Mumbai colony that I grew up in and who went to the same dance school as mine, is now a full-time volunteer at the center. She helped us tour the premises and understand its working in detail; it was really nice to get an insider look at things!
Accommodation within the center comprises of what they call the Isha Cottages. They are a lovely set of apartments at one end of the complex with both air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned rooms. We had called in advance to book a night’s stay, which we later extended to 2 more nights. The reception counter at the entrance of the quarters helped us to check-in, which was a self-serve process, meaning we carried our own bags to the apartment and let ourselves in. The double-room was spacious with two single beds, a sofa, shelves, armoire, vanity mirror and table, writing desk and chair, and a nice bathroom – everything one would need for a comfortable, extended stay. For Rs.1,000 per night, the non-a/c room included 2 meals at the center’s dining hall, which was an experience of its own!
While checking in, we were handed a sheet that listed the schedule at the center with activities we could attend. The schedule listed the opening and closing times of the temples, store and rejuvenation center, and meal times, while the activities involved attending pooja sessions at the temples and attending a course on Om chanting. We realized that if a visitor wishes to experience every aspect of the center, then they need to stay at least two nights. This is when we decided to extend our stay as well!
The most striking feature of the center is the fabulous Dhyanalinga Yogic Temple. It was built as a meditation hall where no specific faith or ritual is to be followed. The sanctum sanctorum is an ellipsoidal dome instead of the traditional, pyramidal tower. Renu explained that this was because it’s believed that the ellipsoidal form holds energy within better than any other form. Inside the dome is a 4m high, black, granite Lingam before which all the meditation is done. Interestingly, the Lingam is also a ellipsoidal form. It is a beautiful space to sit and meditate in. I was quite nervous about spending 15 minutes in the hall meditating as I had never practiced meditation ever in my life before. But the inside of the Dhyanalinga temple is so dark, serene and soothing that it was easy to sit cross-legged on the floor, keep the palms open over the knees and close my eyes in thought. Not sure if that was truly meditation but it was definitely a calming experience!
Twice a day a Nadha Aradhana ritual is performed in the temple. Monks gather with instruments, which accompany their chanting and singing. It’s a very simple pooja that’s beautifully performed.
Behind the Dhyanalinga is the brand new (consecrated in January 2010) Lingabhairavi Temple! It is in the shape of an equilateral triangle and enshrines the Divine Feminine in the unique form of a Linga. We were very impressed with the temple’s layout and design. It invoked the most ancient belief in the sacred Devi and yet was housed in a beautiful, modern structure. While the Dhyanalinga is geared towards attaining mental & spiritual health, the Lingabhairavi helps attain material and physical wellbeing. The twice-a-day poojas here are also very interesting to attend.
Between the two temples is the awesome Theerthakund. It is a subterranean tank with a solidified mercury lingam immersed in its center. It is believed that a dip in this pool before visiting the Dhyanalinga, increases the person’s spiritual receptivity during meditation. But I think visiting the Theerthakund is very important just to enjoy its fantastic aesthetics and above all, the fabulous mural that adorns its ceiling. Men and women have separate timings during which they can visit the Kund and a donation of Rs.10 is accepted in exchange of an entry pass. I went in spite of my cold and shivered my way through the dip, but loved the experience completely!
Meals are served just twice a day – one at 10am (and 10:45 as the second batch) and another at 7pm (and 7:45). Our first evening there, dinner was served outdoors in the lawns outside the center’s assembly hall called the Spandha Hall. It was like a fun gathering of people who sat with their plates on the grass and chatted thru the meal. At the end we washed our own plates and glasses before leaving. However, this outdoor meal happens just once a month. At other times, meals are served in a large dining hall called the Bhiksha Hall where men and women sit across from each other, cross-legged on the floor and the food is served to them by volunteers. The meals are usually a healthy concoction of rice, lentils, grains and vegetables with a healthy desert for dinner. Meals are consumed in absolute silence and are begun only after a collective chanting of a thanksgiving prayer.
At first we were a little surprised to hear from Renu that everybody at the ashram (except maybe visitors like us) eats just these 2 meals a day and that it is more than enough for them. However, after consuming a couple of these meals we realized that they were heavy enough to give energy for quite a few hours. The open-air cafeteria near the temples serves excellent breakfast items, sandwiches, salads and snacks for the cravings in-between.
The Isha Shoppe had a nice collection of locally made garments, candles, soaps, handbags, incense sticks and metal decor or pooja items. A counter outside its entrance also sold Rudraksh necklaces, guaranteed to be the real thing, which is usually hard to get elsewhere.
Renu took us to the Isha Rejuvenation Center, which was just a little beyond the visitor accommodations. Here apart from offering the usual Ayurvedic treatments, they also offer multiple-day treatment courses for weight loss, chronic ailments like back pain or headache, and general well-being. They also sell products for skin and hair care as well as medicated oils and balms as pain relievers. They allowed us to tour the facilities and we were pretty impressed with the treatment rooms; again, everything was aesthetically perfect! Apparently, the Sadhguru takes a personal interest in the design of each and every aspect of the center; amazing!
We later visited the Isha Retreat where the residential courses are conducted. This is like a 5-star facility with fabulous rooms for the participants and lovely common areas for dining and lounging. The place was so good that even I was tempted to sign up for their next residential program .
Renu was sweet enough to take us around to the living quarters of all the volunteers and monks. She introduced us to one of the senior monks there, Swami Patanga, who spent a lot of time with us and also took us to the quarters of the families that reside in the center. We were touched by the affection showered on us by Renu and Swamiji as well as the rest of the volunteers around – they made our visit at the center absolutely special!
Like I said at the beginning, I’m not at all into gaining spirituality or a higher self. But the work at Isha Foundation Coimbatore and its beliefs and teachings touched a chord somewhere within me and I feel, if nothing else, this visit helped me understand what it is that draws thousands of believers to the Sadhguru! I would recommend a visit to the Isha Center to all those who are even mildly curious about how it feels to live in an ashram-like setting and experience a little bit of spirituality.