Last Wednesday, I checked into the Sivananda Ashram outside Thiruvananthapuram (previously and still known as Trivandrum), the capital of Kerala province in the South of India. In spite of a slight bout of Delhi belly (presumably contracted in Kolkata), I was all psyched up for a week of intensive yoga and meditation.
I checked out four days later.
Before we go into my reasons for leaving earlier than planned, it might be helpful to first provide some background on the Ashram, its daily schedule and practices. The Sivavanda Ashram has its origins in the teachings of Swami Sivananda (1887-1963), the guru of Swami Vishnudevananda(1927-1993), who basically built the Sivananda “brand” into what it is today, with several schools and Ashrams all over the world. The Sivananda Ashram offers various programs – the program I signed up for is known as the “Yoga Vacation“. The yoga practised by Sivananda is based on five principles: Proper Exercise (Asanas/Yoga postures), Proper Breathing (Pranayama), Proper Relaxation (Savasana), Proper Diet (Vegetarian) and Proper Thinking and Meditation (Vedanta and Dhyana).
The variety of Asana’s or Yoga postures practiced at the Ashram is said to be known as Sivananda yoga, but it basically boils down to sun salutations, head- and shoulder stands, fish poses, crow poses, bows, spinal twists and triangles. Although it never gets particularly complicated, the pace during Asana sessions picks up, giving you a very good workout.
The daily schedule at the Ashram is rigorous and there are lots of rules. To list a few of the them: Photography is pretty restricted, you have to stay for a minimum of three days (or lose your money if you leave earlier than three days), you’re not allowed to wear tight fitting or revealing clothing that expose the knees or shoulders (you’ll have to buy appropriate clothing at the Ashram boutique if you don’t have any), no mobile phones, no tobacco, no drugs, no alcohol, no meat, garlic or onions, no talking during meals and in the spirit of Indian culture and tradition, you should eat with your right hand (no cutlery). Upon my arrival I was reminded that the teachers reserve the right to ask you to leave if you do not abide by the rules or stick with the mandatory program (unless the ashram director permits otherwise), and they keep an attendance registry to keep you on your toes (or rather keep your legs crossed).
A typical day at the Ashram looks like this:
5.20am – Wake-up bell
6.00am – Satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk/sermon)
7.30am – Tea time
8.00am – Asana Class
10.00am – Vegetarian brunch
11.00am – Karma yoga (daily chores in the Ashram. I was divided into a team that had to clean the men’s dorm)
12.30am – Coaching class (optional – could be anything from additional Asana, Pranayama to meditation coaching)
1.30pm – Tea time
2.00pm – Lecture
3.30pm – Asana class
6.00pm – Vegetarian meal
8.00pm – Satsang
10.30pm – Lights out
The schedule is subject to change on a daily basis, like the replacement of Saturday night Satsang with a talent show (mandatory attendance). All I will say about the talent show is that it brought a school/summer camp feel to the Ashram, the last thing I wanted or needed to experience during my stay there, in spite of the fact that quite a few of the other visitors (younger and older than me) enjoyed it and participated in it.
Another personal annoyance was the overwhelming amount of chanting, which took up a substantial amount of time with almost every scheduled event on the program. The available translations of the Hindi and Sanskrit chants are minimal. I did not always know who or what we were chanting at or for, unless the teachers leading the chanting explained the meaning, which was not done very often while I was there. Some of the names in the chants stand out though – names like Jesus Christ, Swami Sivananda, Swami Vishnudevananda and Hindu gods like Shiva, Durga and Ganesha. You get to learn a bit more about the chants at the lectures though.
The instruction, “sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed” was something I heard pretty often during my stay at the ashram. Except for teatime, Karma yoga and 75% of the duration of Asana classes, you are expected to sit on the floor in a cross-legged position at all times. I probably come over as a bit of a nagger by now, but it adds up when you sit like that for over five hours a day. Go on. Try it out. You’re likely to struggle as well if you’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of chairs and pillows.
I attended an optional meditation coaching session to work on this, where the teacher shrugged off my physical discomfort, emphasising that one of the key requirements of meditation is to disconnect the intellect from the senses; to concentrate on your breathing and keeping a straight posture and focus on your personal mantra. As the teachers at Sivananda say, they can only provide you with some guidelines and advise you to buy Swami Vishnudevananda’s book on meditation and mantras at the Ashram boutique. Apparently just like you cannot teach someone to sleep, meditation is something that cannot be taught either.
In spite of my gripes, I did benefit from my few meditation sessions at the Ashram. Meditating according to the Sivananda guidelines was a reminder of how we, as human beings, tend to instinctively seek comfort instead of facing and overcoming physical or emotional obstacles or challenges. To a certain extent, my constant desire to find comfort during meditation denied me the opportunity to dwell into a deeper, meditative state. It’s a complicated principle, boiling down to concentrating on not concentrating on discomfort and maintaining a positive attitude – a principle that I believe applies to everything we do in life, and it takes daily, long-term practice to achieve a level where you are able to do this successfully.
In addition (and maybe in contradiction) to this lesson, my discomfort with the chanting reinforced my own beliefs. I realised that unlike some of my fellow Ashramites, I definitely did not need to seek an encounter with a higher power or truth through a guru or Hindu god. Placing myself in an environment and belief system that is totally different from my own helped me rediscover how important my own faith (limited as it may be) is to me.
I grew weaker and weaker thanks to the physically demanding program and the Dehli belly that just would not go away. It probably got aggravated by the meals served at the ashram, usually consisting of spicy, overcooked vegetables in a broth served on a bed of rice and a handful of salad (served for brunch and dinner).
Some might think I was looking for an excuse to leave, but as time went by I became increasingly certain of the fact that I can continue to grow spiritually on my own terms. I do not need to get up at 5.20am, eat vegetarian food, sit with my legs crossed for most of the time and squeeze in a couple of chants to gurus and a selection of gods every time something needs to be done or is going to happen. I already learned some important lessons in terms of meditation and yoga and was provided with tools that I could apply in my daily life, and that was what I set out to achieve during my stay at the Ashram.
I therefore decided it was time to leave, checked out and spent the remainder of my time in the coastal town of Kovalam and in Trivandrum. Reflecting on the whole Ashram experience (and finally recovering from the Delhi belly), I still do not regret leaving the Ashram earlier than planned. I might have denied myself the opportunity to become more resilient in some ways, but the development of something like that cannot be rushed.
Would I visit Sivananda again or still have chosen them if I knew what I know now?
There is a wide variety of Ashrams to choose from, especially in areas in the north of India like Rishikesh. My advice to anyone considering visiting an Ashram in a foreign country like India would be to familiarise yourself as much as you can with its teachings and practices in order to check whether it’s the right personal or spiritual fit.
A quick google search with keywords like “ashram” and “india” and “yoga” and a quick read through the Ashram’s website (more or less what I did in my relatively rushed and impulsive selection process) will not do the trick. You’ll never be 100% certain unless you try it out yourself, but gathering as much information as possible and asking for pointers from people with first hand experience of Ashram life won’t hurt.
Next stop: Goa.
UPDATE: This blog inscription was posted from Anjuna in Goa – I could not upload it in Trivandrum due to complications with electricity and the internet connection over there. More impressions on Goa to follow in the next blog inscription.