2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Straying from the Path to Freedom for a Little Piece of Paradise

Straying from the Path to Freedom for a Little Piece of Paradise

Tea and sweets in an Indian ashram

Rishikesh, in the North of India is known as the world capital of yoga. It was along my travel route and seemed like the right place to try a bit of the ashram life. I leafed through my guidebook and chose a respectable and affordable institution located on a hill on the outskirts of Rishikesh, in the middle of a forest filled with frolicking monkeys and chirping birds.

As I was climbing toward it, I imagined all kinds of wonders: yogi who breathe fire, starve to death, sleep in caves, and chase nirvana 24/7. When I entered the gates, my jaw dropped: instead of a cave, I saw something similar to a mellow hotel with a curfew and no Internet.

There were little houses scattered among lawns and clumps of trees. Every student was allocated one such house: a tidy, cool, small space supplied with all the basics. Yoga and meditation were practiced two times a day. We were provided with breakfast (after a 5:30am wake-up call and yoga session), lunch, 5 o’clock tea, and a snack. We had access to a library stacked with English-language books on spirituality and some British classics. In our free time we could sprawl on a lawn and chat, read or nap.

At the time when I arrived, there were around 15 people living in the ashram, some of them already weeks into this scheduled life of meditation. They looked satisfied.

The food in the ashram was vegan, but surprisingly tasty. There was even tea with milk and spices. The only thing that lacked was Indian sweets, a favorite of mine. I couldn’t imagine my breakfast without tea accompanied by a piece of something sugary and delicious, like my favorite burfi. I spent the meditation hours dreaming about those little milky slabs with cashews and pistachios spiced with cardamom or coconut. A diligent yogi would call this sweet-less situation a perfect set up for conquering the desires of the body. But I wasn’t a diligent yogi and I called it hell.

I was suffering quietly for a few days and almost resigned to a life without burfi, when I met A., an Indian girl from Delhi and my new neighbor. She knocked on my door one day and asked if I wanted to listen to music. Music was prohibited in the ashram, but nobody paid attention as long as it was kept indoors and at a low volume. And so we listened to music and talked, among other things, about food.

“Why don’t we go to the downtown?” asked A. “If we have any important things to do, we are allowed to go out for a few hours, right after breakfast.” Burfi sounded important enough to me, but the gatekeeper didn’t need to know about it.

Going out of a quiet ashram was like jumping into a roaring sea. We made our way through a crowd of shouting rickshaw drivers, vendors peddling their merchandise, beggars asking for alms toward a pastry shop. After a long and thorough examination of its showcase, we got a bag of almond and mango burfi and a few pieces of pistachio ones. Using our time-out to the fullest, we went to check our e-mails and spent the rest of our free time in the Internet café, drinking tea, munching on the burfi and reading the news stream. A diligent yogi would call it straying from the path to freedom. But I called it a perfect breakfast and a little piece of paradise.

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