Deep connection: virus takes India’s spiritual retreats online

Drolma leads a live online course for meditation in Dharamkot. As half of humanity sits in varying degrees of confinement, the retreat is one of a growing number of ashrams and monasteries in India, the global centre of all things spiritual, tapping into booming demand for some online soul food. — Tushita Meditation Centre/AFP

NEW DELHI: At a remote hillside retreat in northern India, Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Drolma usually holds intimate, face-to-face classes – but since the coronavirus pandemic forced them online, her lessons have been packed with people seeking inner peace under lockdown.

Drolma had expected around 100 students to join her free video course, the usual size of drop-in sessions at the meditation centre that is closed because of the pandemic.

So she was surprised when more than 1,000 people from 57 countries signed up, a fifth of whom had no experience with Buddhism.

The Chicago-born teacher told AFP she tries to set up her laptop in the prayer hall at Tushita Meditation Centre to be as similar as possible to a real-life lesson.

"I think that makes it as real as when I have actual people there," she said from the retreat in Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama.

India, the world's second-most populous nation with 1.3 billion people, is under a nationwide lockdown until at least May 3 to combat the spread of the Covid-19.

Some 6,000 kilometres (4,000 miles) away in Norfolk in eastern England – also under lockdown – one student is sitting on the floor with her eyes closed.

Roache takes part in an online Buddhism course from a living room in Norfolk, England. — AFPRoache takes part in an online Buddhism course from a living room in Norfolk, England. — AFP

"It really helps me to sort of get out of my own head a little bit," said Emma Roache, who calls herself a transformational coach.

"Just to find that peace and breathe and know that I'm not alone," said Roache, who had to cancel a trip to India in March after the pandemic hit.

Calm in anxious times

Religious rituals are being performed behind closed doors worldwide, with mosques, churches and other spiritual sites closed and the Pope even live-streaming his Easter blessing.

Along the sacred River Ganges, as a light breeze blows and birds fly past in the background, instructors from Parmarth Niketan ashram lead yogis around the world in sun salutations and other postures.

The centre in Rishikesh, a city in the Himalayan foothills renowned as the world centre of yoga, is also closed and is holding live sessions online.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, who lives at the ashram, is hopeful its spiritual practices will help people feel "grounded".

"We realised that we need to give as much as we can to our global community to keep them healthy physically, stress-free, anxiety-free," Saraswati, a Californian who settled in Rishikesh 25 years ago, told AFP from the ashram.

Bollywood actor and producer Akshay Dogra takes part in an online Buddhism course from a living room in Mumbai. — Tushita Meditation Centre/AFPBollywood actor and producer Akshay Dogra takes part in an online Buddhism course from a living room in Mumbai. — Tushita Meditation Centre/AFP

Despite the severe economic threat of India's lockdown, both Parmarth Niketan and Tushita are confident they can weather the financial storm, while providing spiritual guidance to their followers old and new.

For Indian actor Akkshay Dogra, who has attended a retreat at Tushita, taking part in the classes from his home in Mumbai has compelled him to immediately apply the teachings.

"Whatever I am learning, I am living it right now... these skills are given to you and then you go out and deal with the world," he said.

"I really hope they are able to do this course online for as long as they can... It's a great service to humanity." – AFP

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