You see seven hills on the horizon long before you get close to Isha Yoga Centre near Coimbatore. These are the Velliangiri – the white hills of Tamil Nadu. For the person that built Isha, nestled at their base, the outline of those hills was a perfect match to an etching imprinted like a birthmark on his retina.
Isha’s founder, Sadhguru, journeyed much of his youth, rambling the roads of South India on his motorcycle, searching for the place that would match his very literal “vision.” He was surprised when he learned as a young man that other people’s vision did not come with such markings.
Whenever he could, he looked for their real world form and he knew he’d arrived one day in 1986 when he came around a bend near Coimbatore and gazed upon these hills for the first time. The imprint on his eyesight vanished and he understood that this was the place where he was meant to fulfill his life’s purpose.
Sadhguru’s enlightenment experience came in 1982 at the age of 25.
After his attainment he began teaching yoga and donating the profits to help others. Only when he hiked to the seventh peak of the Velliangiri mountains did he find the exact place where his own guru and master had left his body. His guru entrusted him with the task of creating an energetic meditation form with all the chakras functioning at their peak, a Dhyanalinga. He left behind the knowledge of how it could be achieved stored in the sacred mountains.
It took many years but the Dhyanalinga was completed in 1999.
People of any belief can receive energetic benefits and become meditative simply by being in its presence. In 2017, Sadhguru received one of India’s highest civilian (Padma vibhushan) honours for his contributions and service to his country and for promotion of spiritual well-being.
Beyond creating this powerful place for spiritual transformation, over seven million Isha volunteers have planted over thirty million trees in Tamil Nadu. The foundation also works to improve the lives of farmers and rural families with an Action for Rural Rejuvenation program and to provide high-quality education for underprivileged youth through its Isha Vidhya schools. Isha foundation has become a global movement with another consecrated ashram in the United States and active volunteers and centres in 15 other countries around the world.
I visited Isha in Coimbatore in 2015 to attend an Isha Insight business conference focused on developing a leadership style of inclusiveness, insight and compassion. I hadn’t expected the food to be good but it was outstanding and I was intrigued.
Pauli-Ann and I requested a visit to Isha for Faces, Places and Plates.
We wanted to take part in the daily life of the ashram and to learn more about their food program. We wondered what an enlightened human being eats and what would be on the menu at his ashram.
We arrived at Coimbatore airport midday and after an hour on the ring road skirting the city, our driver pulled off the arid windswept plains and slowed to pass through small villages interspersed with lush fields of vegetables and patches of banana and mango trees. We drove past the main gates and the driver cranked a hard right to wind through a grove of towering palm trees before pulling into the guest drop zone close to the welcome centre.
After signing in, we received a room key and name tags so that the attendants at the passageway between the public and private spaces of the ashram would know our access status. A golf cart took us to the tidy rows of two storey stucco cottage dorms. We opened the door to find a whistle clean room with a set of twin beds, a desk, clothing cupboard, luggage racks and a private bath with a shower. Bottled water, mugs, a tea kettle and apple cranberry tea bags added a welcoming touch.
The grounds at Isha are dotted with versions of these low rise structures in cool white or soft earthy colours. Tracts of farmland sprawl to the boundary of the jungle of trees that sweeps down from the hills. A shed housing a number of cows is located a short distance from the smooth glass surface of a meditation pond. A walk to the far end of the property leads to a boarding school and housing for the children and their teacher guardians.
Back at the main public entrance to the property there are two very prominent building complexes—the Dhyanalinga and the Theerthakunds. The latter are separate rejuvenating water pools for men and women. There’s also a gift shop and a café . Several large spaces for yoga and meditation also stand nearby.
More about the ashram
Though ashrams have been part of India’s culture for millennia, many Westerners don’t know what they are and how they work.
Sadhguru says an ashram is a place to support you when you are ready to walk the spiritual path. He quips that the only way out (of the recycling that is life) is to journey inward and, when the longing to know the divine is great enough, a person will find their guru – a person to act as a map and guide on that road less travelled.
We were keen to learn about what it takes to feed the ashram’s minimum of 3500 people daily, and ironically we found a lot of answers to our questions at the gift shop. Sadhguru had conveniently just published a book on the subject. It’s called A Taste of Well-Being: Sadhguru’s Insights for your Gastronomics.
Some of the things we learned are that alcohol, stimulants like coffee or tea, meat of any kind, garlic, green chilies and onions are not used in the ashram’s cooking because these are substances that negatively impact one’s prana, or vital life energy. If I hadn’t experienced the beauty of the food on my previous visit I might’ve wondered if we would find nothing but bland mush on our plates. What we experienced was neither bland nor mushy.
Our hosts, two Maas (the title Maa signifies a female monk who has voluntarily given up their worldly life; men that do the same are called Swami) led us into the seven o’clock evening sitting in the dining hall. Long grass mats were spread the length of the place and people quietly found a place behind banana leaves strategically spaced the length. We joined them. There was silence and an invocation blessing and then more silence except for the moving of feet and the clanging of metal utensils as volunteers served food from buckets.
The servers each had a vegetarian specialty to offer. There was a warm glass of a wheat “coffee” to drink and chutneys, rice, dal with cooked kuzhambu (a typical vegetable-based gravy of Tamil Nadu), sprouted grain salad and fresh vegetables followed by long wedges of fresh papaya and a sweet fudge-like treat to finish with. Seconds were offered. A raised hand signalled satiety.
Silence is maintained in the dining hall to honour the life forms eaten. They will sustain your human life and become part of your body. Food is eaten with hands as another way of recognizing and enjoying this interconnected oneness.
When full, people folded their compostable banana leaves and picked up their stainless steel glass to wash in the sinks at the end of the dining hall. We went to bed that night still full and satisfied but somehow feeling light and alive as well.
A day in the Akshaya
The next morning we elected to start our day with the kitchen staff. That means we were back in the dining hall at four-thirty a.m. for Guru Pooja.
Pots were already clattering in the Akshaya (the massive kitchen) across the lane but in the now dark dining hall we joined a few dozen seekers in the flickering lamp light surrounding a softly lit portrait of Sadhguru on a mantle. Though the photo was there, and the man is genuinely loved by his followers, the process of the pooja is not so much directed at him but at the possibility he and all the great masters of the yogic tradition represent as ones who lead on the path to the divine.
Not really knowing the protocol, we followed along as best we could and when the bell rang and people left to continue their yoga practices and go about their daily activity, we went back to our room to grab a bit more rest. We had an invitation to visit the mighty kitchen that fuels this place later that morning.
If you picture a warehouse the size of a North American “big box” store, you’ve got an idea of the size of kitchen it takes to feed Isha’s residents, volunteers and visitors. With a team of 105, the kitchen can feed up to 100,000 people per day during special festivals and events.
One of the Swamis in charge spent four years cooking in the United States running banquets in the posh hotels of New York City and San Francisco, and he explained that everything here is made from scratch from old Tamil recipes and remedies.
A line of 18 enormous soup kettles banks one wall. The kettle crew were making a South Indian favourite – Sambhar Sadham – a vegetable and lentil stew with rice. We watched as five to 10 gallon buckets of carefully chopped vegetables were added to the vats. We followed the Swami to the back of the facility to meet the vegetable prep team. We went to the bakery and watched as dozens of rounds of coconut bread were whipped from the ovens by a baker who was simultaneously cutting cinnamon buns from the longest rolls of dough we’ve ever seen.
We watched a young helper who was making a coconut and rice flour dough from scratch. He finished the preliminaries and then rolled a vat of it over to a huge contraption across the room. He fed the dough in the top and was suddenly collecting long strings of it in nests on flat metal trays below. These are known as Idiyapam, or string hoppers, in South India and, though we’d eaten them, we never appreciated what was involved in making them.
Another corner was filled with a team of four men making deep fried gulab juman (sweet dough balls in syrup). The men smiled, waved and seemed incredibly jovial. In fact everyone in the whole darn place – from the workers unloading a massive shipment of fresh pineapples at the loading dock to the guy grating coconut after coconut – seemed deeply content as they smiled and bowed Namaskaram to us with hands together.
Our host Swami told us that they feel honoured with their role of cooking for everyone here. They eat well themselves and stop each morning after the breakfast/brunch has been served to practice yoga as a group. The food, it appears is made with love as well as from scratch.
Back in our room we leafed excitedly through the cookbook to see if we could find the recipes of the food we enjoyed at dinner. They weren’t there but one of the Maas assured us that the Swami from the kitchen would be happy to share them with us. We thought about his workload and groaned a little inside to have added it. But we did ask and the recipes arrived by email shortly after. We’ve tested and revised them with the help of the team at Isha. We hope they increase your feelings of life and health as they are intended to. You’ll find the recipes for Sambhar Sadham, Green Gram Sprout Salad, Coconut Mango Crisp, Coconut Buns and Pukka Coffee in the posts that follow.
We wish to express our deep gratitude for the grace of Sadhguru and the loving care of all the volunteers who made our stay at Isha Foundation in Coimbatore so completely wonderful. This post was fact-checked by the Isha English language publications team and all photos, other than those taken by Pauli-Ann Carriere on our visit, were supplied by Isha and are used with permission.