Auroville is a city located in the province of Tamil Nadu in southeast India. This utopic, experimental and sustainable city was founded in the sixities by Mira Alfassa, a French woman who wanted to reach human unity by building a city based on community with no currency, no religion and no politics. This very special and unique place in the world was recognised and supported by UNESCO as well as the Indian Government and NGO’s in India and abroad. Although the initial objective was to reach a population of 50,000 Aurovillians, around 3,000 people now live in Auroville, half being Indians, the rest of them coming from all over the world with a strong French community.
While I heard of Auroville before, I had never met anyone from there until I joined a yoga retreat hosted by Haein, an inspiring young woman who lived in Auroville for a few years and is now organising yoga and healing retreats all over the world. At the age of 33, her life experience and wisdom are so impressive that I was curious to know more about how the city has shaped her refreshing and unconventional outlook on life. Let’s discover this very special corner of India through the eyes of a former Aurovillian!
1. First steps in Auroville
Haein was raised in South Korea and already 17 when she moved to Auroville. “My parents wanted me and my brother to be exposed to a new culture and lifestyle. Auroville was English-speaking with free schools for young adults, it seemed to be the right place”, Haein explained. With a very basic level of English and a lot of anxiety, Haien discovered a town with a lifestyle which was very different from what she knew at her quiet village in the countryside of South Korea. “Auroville turned out to be a wonderful place with a fantastic social scene where I was exposed to many cultures and people of all ages”, she said.
2. Studying in Auroville
At her art school, Haein discovered an alternative and informal teaching style with a project-based approach. “There were as many teachers as students, it was a very small group, there were no exams and the students were given a lot of autonomy with the option of deciding what they wanted to do in the morning with the support of the teachers”. Haein ended up not going to school anymore as there was not enough guidance and too much freedom. After 6 months, Haein and her family had to go back to South Korea as their visa expired. When she decided to go back to Auroville a few months later, she did not really go back to school. “I socialised, went to parties and travelled around India”.
3. Settling down in Auroville
After returning to Korea a second time, Haein decided to go through the interviews to join the community and applied for a special visa to live in Auroville more permanently. Aged 21, she settled down in Auroville with the intention of making the most of her experience for her own personal development. In total she spent 3 years learning about all kinds of therapies and well-being practices. “Auroville is an amazing place for wellness, massages, yoga and any practice related to healing arts. It is a hub where the best experts from all around the world meet to share their know-how”. Aurovillians can attend these workshops free of charge so this gave Haein the opportunity to learn from the best. “It has been the best university you can hope for”.
4. Working and living in Auroville
In parallel, Haein was working in a bakery as newcomers in Auroville have to get involved in the community and work. It is a way to test the newcomers’ motivation to contribute to the community and not only take advantage of what Auroville can offer but also check their ability to live in harmony with the people. “I was working from 3 am to 8 am in a bakery so I could then attend as many workshops and courses as possible during the rest of the day”, Haein explained. Most people living in Auroville must have savings or an external income such as a property they rent out in their home country. Some others work in their home countries in summer and live on their savings for the rest of the year in Auroville. “It is very rare to make money in Auroville, especially when you are a newcomer, I was one of the few who was making a small amount of money by working at the Bakery”.
5. Advantages of Auroville and limitations.
According to Haein, one of the main advantages of life in Auroville is the cheap lifestyle and the sense of abundance that this creates. Moreover, it is an ideal place to focus on personal growth and development. “If you are busy making money, you cannot spend time on personal development and creating spiritual wealth, it is a luxury to give daily attention to self-growth rather than being busy surviving”. Haein also highlights how the environment in Auroville is supportive of anything you may want to learn and gives you the space to shape yourself. “If you are interested in a specific topic, you can find a way to do it and learn it there, the learning possibilities are endless as you can find support and experts in any topic”.
This freedom to learn anything also comes at the price of increased responsibility. “At a young age, I felt a lot of responsibility on my shoulders as I had to learn alone and no one was showing me where to go, it was all up to me, it was empowering but also very challenging”.
Living in a community also means there are boundaries. They will generally make people feel safe while they are inside the community but these boundaries also bring limitations. “When you get comfortable living there and limit yourself to that environment, you can become stagnant and stop evolving but that happens anywhere in the world in any kind of community, not just in Auroville”.
6. Lessons for the Western world
Unlike big cities which make you feel that you are in control and anything is possible, Auroville is a place where you experience the loss of control and a strong sense of impermanence. “Due to the hot weather, there are times of the year where you cannot do anything, it gets mouldy, clothes are eaten up by bugs, food left on a counter will be eaten by ants. It is a reminder that you cannot always control life”. The experimental spirit in Auroville is another aspect we can learn from. “Here you should not be afraid to make mistakes, it is fine to fail, there is no failure, the only failure is the failure to learn”. Another very interesting lesson is the strong sense of ownership of the community. “In Auroville, we belong to the community and the community belongs to us. We feel responsible for the people and the community as we have chosen to live there”. Haein strongly believes that we could apply this principle and choose to belong to a community regardless of where we live in the world. Last but not least, there is a lot of guidance in the western education system but Haien believes that what we truly need to grow is a combination of this support and freedom.
7. Life after Auroville
Looking back, Haein told me that living in Auroville was the best life school. However, after a few years, she felt the need to explore and experience some challenges as well as resistance to her ideas and work. “In Auroville any idea you may have is accepted and considered to be a good one, I felt the need to confront my ideas to the outside world to assess myself as it was too small there”. That is when she started teaching yoga and providing healing therapies outside Auroville. The money issue was also taken into consideration. After meeting her then Belgian boyfriend in Auroville, Haein left for Brussels and started developing her yoga and spiritual retreats all over the world. While she recently got married and moved to the UK, she keeps the idea of going back to Auroville in the corner of her mind. “Auroville is a symbol of nourishment and a motherly figure to me, if something goes wrong in the west, I know I can always go back to this nourishing land”.