A visit to a meditation centre leaves Nina Karnikowski feeling bent out of shape.
The man in the maroon robe is talking to himself. Not that anyone's taking much notice. Maybe they're all too busy watching the girl in the maroon robe whirling around underneath that tree, face tilted to the sky, laughing hysterically. Or maybe, after a few days spent in the Osho International Meditation Resort, this kind of behaviour just becomes normal for the 200,000 "beloveds" that visit each year.
Having just arrived, it doesn't seem normal to me. Nor does the HIV test I'm required to undertake, the two robes (maroon for day, white for night) I must buy from the boutique to help add to the retreat's "collective meditative energy", the list of rules (no coughing or sneezing in the auditorium, no cream scarves to be worn with white robes), or the prices: at $50 for a room, $25 a day for resort entry and $20 a day for food, it's 10 times more expensive than a regular Indian ashram. Then again Osho, perhaps better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and as famous for advocating sex as a means of attaining enlightenment as he was for his collection of 93 Rolls-Royces and scores of gem-studded Rolexes, wasn't a normal guy.
Once I'm allowed full access to the retreat, however, I realise it's almost worth the rigmarole for a glimpse of the gorgeous grounds alone. Spread across a massive 16 hectares, it's how you might imagine a New Age version of heaven to be - all stone Buddha statues, bamboo groves, pristine white marble walkways, water features and an enormous black pyramid structure housing the main auditorium. The piece de resistance is the lagoon-shaped swimming pool, shaded by lush green trees and surrounded by maroon cozzie-clad retreaters (cozzies are also regulation and must be purchased on arrival. Ker-ching!)
The on-site Osho Guesthouse is equally spotless, calm and elegant. Our room isn't what you'd call luxurious - it's quite small and there are no fancy teles or stereos - but for an ashram it's ridiculously posh. There are even Egyptian cotton sheets on the bed. But Osho didn't believe in slumming it. Why, he argued, should his paradise on earth be shabby and grotty when it could be clean and beautiful? On one level I agree but on another I start to think all this lavishness might make the experience slightly ... inauthentic. I decide not to judge until I've actually done what I came here to do.
There are 10 styles of "active meditations" on offer, each involving various physical activities from running, to dancing, to whirling. Osho believed that moving released tensions, which block the natural flow of energies in our bodies, allows us to become more peaceful and relaxed. Having spent years struggling with traditional seated meditation, it sounds like a great idea. Until the shaking starts.
I've picked Kundalini Meditation to start, and for the first 15 minutes of the one-hour session I, along with about 100 other visitors, am directed to shake my entire body to xylophone music as though I'm having a fit. It's uncomfortable and embarrassing, and only slightly less awkward than the 15 minutes of free dancing that follows. The upside is that by the time we get to the actual sitting down and meditating part, it seems like a treat and is definitely less painful than usual.
The No Dimensions Meditation is up next, which involves spinning around in a circle for half an hour, followed by gentle tai chi-like movements and straight meditation. Despite being hideously dizzy for most of the first bit, I leave the session feeling decidedly more relaxed and centred.
I cannot say the same for the effects of the evening meeting. The ashram goes into lockdown each night for this 2½-hour session, which starts with 20 minutes of free dancing, this time interspersed with shouts of "OSHO!" This is followed by 10 minutes of seated meditation, then a few minutes of something called "gibberish and let go", where we're directed to shout out everything we've ever wanted to say in a language we've never spoken. A gong sounds and the room is filled with nonsensical gobbledegook that sounds like radio static. For a few moments I'm so spun out by the whole experience I just stare at everyone else, before finally managing to blurt out a few Asian-sounding phrases. Just as I'm getting the hang of it, another gong sounds and we have to "fall down like a bag of rice".
It's only then that we get to meet Osho himself, the man who is variously described as a fraud, a trickster, a genius, a guru and a god. Well not the physical man of course - he died in 1990 - but a video of him talking directly to the camera starts to play on the auditorium's high-tech movie screen. He's just as strange as I'd imagined he would be, with a long, grey, pointy beard, batwing-sleeved robe with wing-tipped shoulders, thick beanie and remarkable pair of triangular eyebrows. In between spouting wisdom from a variety of religions, he talks, in his strangely elongated, hypnotic way, about how he was poisoned by US government agents when in custody for alleged immigration violations in 1985.
At that point I switch off. And I'm not sure, for the remaining 24 hours of my stay, that I ever really switch back on. I do spend an inordinate amount of time by the pool, and in the three very good vegetarian restaurants. And on my second night there, while playing hooky from the evening meeting at a restaurant down the road, I do find something close to enlightenment at the bottom of my third G&T. Which, I decide, is just my kind of normal.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Mumbai daily via Singapore from about $1250 return. See singaporeair.com. From Mumbai, it is a three-hour car ride to Pune (the swiftest and most direct way to get there), which costs about $35.
The Osho Meditation Resort offers rooms in their guesthouse from about $50 a night, single occupancy.