You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to find yourself – but it helps! Immersing yourself in natural surroundings brings a huge amount of physical and psychological benefits. But naturalness is much more than a superficial sense of wellbeing. It can bring us to another level of autonomy, where we are freed from all the usual external influences that shape our beliefs and behaviour. It’s about gaining insight into The Human Condition
That kind personal transformation is much easier to attain with hands-on experience, says Ajay Rastogi, Philosopher and Applied Ethics practitioner, and founder of The Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature.
I had the good fortune to meet Ajay at the recent Tasting India Symposium in New Delhi, an event that brought together some of India’s brightest minds within food and sustainability. Like many of his contemporaries there, Ajay had left a successful career to go back to his home region and drive change from within. For Ajay that meant working together with the rural villagers of his homeland at the foothills of the Himalayas, in Uttarakhand.
The foundation aims to research and develop new models for Resilience through cultural exchange, by connecting villagers with people from the cities and other countries in residential homestays and programs such as yoga and meditation retreats. The Contemplation of Nature is threefold; immersion in nature, mindful meditation, and a hands-on experience of the rural ‘resilient’ life.
Resilience moves far beyond current definitions of sustainability. On a 2-week homestay you get to take part in everything that rural village life offers. Don’t worry – there is no enforced programme here. You are free to just rest and explore if that’s what you need, but guests usually end up getting quite involved with village life; learning about everything from organic seed banking, to preparing grain harvests, to tending to the village cows, cooking the local Kumaoni cuisine, or celebrating one of the many festivals that happen throughout India.
The Vrikshalaya centre is the headquarters and heart of the Foundation. It also offers longer term residencies for artists and designers who are interested in exploring the principles of resilience as part of their work.
Vrikshalaya means ‘Home of the Trees’ in Sanskrit – so outdoor activities such as rock-climbing, water rafting, camping and hiking are all part of nature immersion. The area is stunning, and the centre has been listed as one of ten top yoga venues in the world by the Guardian newspaper.
The aim of the foundation is to get people to experience three basic principles of Resilience that sustains all life; Dignity of Physical Work, Interdependence and Interconnectivity.
The Dignity of Physical Work
There is a long tradition in India of travelling to the Himalayas and rural areas to practice yoga and meditation as spiritual practice, but not physical work.
Ajay explains: “In India, we have such an inequitable society. The caste system is still deeply engrained in society and especially in rural life.”
Specific tasks, such as tailoring, traditional music, cleaning and different crafts, are often associated with specific castes. It’s considered servant’s work. And work is very gendered. Traditionally, women prepare the food, work in the fields and take care of the house. A recent survey revealed that women spend more time in the fields farming than men and bullocks combined!
“We never even imagined the value of cultural exchange with western visitors. Younger westerners in particular would challenge outdated ways of thinking about caste and gender,” explained Ajay. “They wanted to know why the village girls were fetching water and taking care of the cows after school, instead of playing cricket with boys.”
Also, the homestay families are from different castes. This was purposefully provocative on Ajay’s part. The foundation hosts communal events for the visitors and their host families, challenging these deeply engrained practices. Traditionally, lower castes do not eat together with higher castes. They do not attend the same meetings. Lower castes are even given separate plates and cutlery if they go to the house of a higher caste.
For the visitors, the learning curve is clear. Artisanal types of work and growing our own food re-connects our minds and hands. Doing something mindful with our hands together with others is natural and enjoyable.
This especially affected some of the younger visitors from the States, Ajay explained. “Their tears welled up as they realised they hardly ever spend time with their family. Here in the villages, shared activities, whether it’s farming, preparing millet, or making textiles, are a way to spend quality time with friends, family and neighbours. It’s fun to create something of value together.”
The repetitive actions of simple tasks also have a positive effect on the mind and body. When your mind can reach a level of sustained calmness, your body starts to do miraculous things. It’s called the ‘deep relaxation response’ in psychology. The stress hormone cortisol isn’t frantically released as our bodies aren’t in a fight or flee mode, aggravated by extremes in emotion. Combine this innate calmness with physical movement and you have a recipe for better mental and physical health.
Interdependence, is about people, reciprocity and solidarity. We are all used to financial transactions; I buy something and I pay for it, I own it. But it’s far smarter and more beneficial for the individual to systemically build society around shared spaces and shared resources. In the village, not everyone has to take care of their cows every day. They can share the duties, and reduce the daily work from once a day to once every 30 days.
Traditionally, when someone dies in India they are cremated on an open funeral pyre. Everyone visits the house in mourning to pay their respects and donate some wood. The job of collecting wood for the funeral pyre is taken care of by the community. Community takes care of necessities. It used to be the same with cooking for a wedding. Surplus food is also distributed throughout the community to those in need. Interdependence exists as a fact, so working with it is just common sense.
The third and final principle of the foundation is Interconnectivity. This is about striving for a harmonious coexistence with nature, as we rely on our environment for all the resources that keep us alive. Ajay’s hope is that people will take the realisation of interconnectivity back with them and apply it to their own lives.
As a modern, connected culture, we need to cultivate an attitude of care and understand where the things that sustain us come from and go to. Our resources are not limitless. Food, water and energy doesn’t just appear, just as clothes and products do not just appear. Our culture of waste has inherent challenges. All our actions have an impact and an intrinsic cost that someone, somewhere must pay. If we keep that connection in mind, the impact on our everyday choices can be profound. The proof of concept is in the eyes of all the people involved; the host families and the visitors. When the guests leave, says Ajay: “Every farewell is always tearful, always connected.”
Words by Tanya Kim Grassley
#1 View from Majkhali village. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht
#2 The Yoga Hall at the Vrikshalaya Centre. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht
#3 Ajay welcomes everyone to the Vrikshalaya Centre. Photo by Ajay Rastogi
#4/5 Morning meditation and yoga. Photo by Tamsin Chubb
#6 Celebrating Diwali. Photo by Pete Zhivkov
#7 Transplanting rice to Hudikia Ball music. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht
#8 Celebrating Spring. Photo by Jogendra Bisht
#9 A homestay family’s house. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht
#10 Home-stay mothers preparing food. Photo by Ajay Rastogi
#11 Carrying compost to the fields. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht
#12 Ajay gardening. Photo by Ajay Rastogi