I was looking for an easy-going ashram experience to get my journey in India started and the Sivananda ashram’s Yoga Ayurveda Cultural Program (YACP) turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Many tell me that during regular times the atmosphere at this ashram is subdued, spiritual, and more “ashram” like. However, at the moment it feels more like an international summer camp (there truly are people from all around the world here but a whole lot just arrived from Germany). This YACP is offered from December 23 to January 2 each year and it’s filled with all kinds of cultural activities. We still do all of the yoga and meditation classes but our afternoon lectures have been replaced by cultural discussions and workshops. And in the evening after our satsang, we have been treated to several concerts and performances that have really been interesting. When I decided to come to this ashram I knew that there was a cultural program being offered but I definitely didn’t expect all the extra goodies I’ve been given here. Fun is probably not the word I would have used to describe an ashram experience but it actually has been fun. Everyday we’ve done something new and different that I feel that I’ve been quite busy! I may need a day off from the non-stop ashram schedule next week.
My first full day at the ashram, instead of a regular 6AM satsang (group meditation, chanting, etc) we had a Ganapati Homa, an auspicious Hindu ritual/ a fire ceremony for Ganesha. It was beautiful to observe and the design on the floor of Ganesha was almost cute! The night before, we were told that a sacrifice would be made for Ganesha so we all wondered what it would be. It wouldn’t be an animal or would it? Thankfully it was puffed rice. We all chuckled when we found out it was puffed rice but apparently, Ganesha quite fond of it. At the end of the ceremony we all got to do our own little sacrifice/offering. We received a handful of puffed rice from the priest and each of us took turns throwing it into the fire and send our prayers. I wished for peace and love for everyone in my life, in case you were wondering.
That afternoon we had a workshop on Kathakali, the traditional temple dance/play of Kerala. We had a Kathakali group from Margi School in Trivandrum travel to the ashram to give us an explanation of the spiritual and religious aspects of the performance and also to describe how they use their hands and facial expressions. The way that these performers can convey a feeling by squinting, twitching, and moving their eyebrows was simply astonishing. It was as if they had extra muscles in their cheeks the way they could tense and relax them so quickly. We learned that it takes about 4 hours to put their make up on so after our afternoon yoga class, I went to observe the make up being applied. It was such a long process that almost half of them were on the floor fast asleep while their makeup artists worked. We were treated to a fantastic Kathakali performance that evening, complete with a guy dressed as a half lion, half human, and with fire all around us.
The next day was Christmas Eve and in the evening, we had a veena concert. Veena is a classical Indian string instrument that you can sometimes see in the images of Saraswati. I had no idea what to expect or to hear, or what kind of sound this instrument would make. The artist arrived with his son and his friend, whom he introduced as electrical engineers. Laugh, laugh, laugh. They played the tabla and another veena as backup support for the main musician. And when they started playing it was as if we were at a rock concert! The veena is held like a guitar and plucked with your fingers. We were so surprised by the ferocity and tempo of the music, it didn’t matter if we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We had a wonderful time. My photos came out very poorly but there is a decent shot of the veena. As it was Christmas Eve, we were allowed to stay up late but I was still so tired from my traveling from Paris to India the day before I turned in early. Jane told me next day that Father Christmas made an appearance around midnight and gave everyone presents (Jane’s was a tin cup). And they had some Christmas cake. I don’t know how they baked a cake since there are no ovens here and that’ll remain a mystery to me. Yoga is not a religion and as such, this ashram although steeped in Hinduism and with paintings and references to mythical deities all around, you can find a little nativity scene in the main hall (Shiva Hall) and Christmas lights are twinkling everywhere in the ashram. It is all inclusive you might say. You can be Christian, or believe in Mohammed or Allah, or be Jewish and be a yoga practitioner and follow the teachings of Swami Sivananda. But I have to say it is a bit odd to see the Merry Christmas sign right next to a painting of Lord Krishna…
On Christmas day for our 10AM vegetarian meal we had a typical Keralan feast to celebrate the holiday. We had a special group of chefs come and prepare an amazing array of vegetarian foods that we served on banana leaves. For my karma yoga I’ve been serving the meals at breakfast time so while we are not permitted to take photos, I secretly took a few after everyone finished their meals. While on the topic of meals, all of our meals (two meals a day) are served on the floor in the dining hall. We don’t use any utensils, just your right hand, and all meals are vegetarian without any eggs, onions, or garlic (following the ashram and ayurvedic guidelines). Our first meal of the day at 10AM is usually a lot more, both in variety of items offered and in volume, than our evening meal at 6PM. For breakfast we get a small salad (when I say small, I mean about a spoonful), a small portion of pickles (okra, green beans, or beets, etc), a small vegetable dish (today it was sweet potatoes), rice, and a vegetable stew (with lentils, beans, or chickpeas). Sometime we get a small scoop of sweet rice as dessert. Our evening meal consists of a starch like rice, semolina, or chapattis and a vegetarian stew of some kind, maybe a small salad of beets and carrots or some cucumber slices. I should mention, though, that you can eat as much as you want. We walk around with our buckets and bowls, and offer more food to anyone and everyone who wants more to eat. We chant a little prayer in Sanskrit and we eat in silence. When finished we get up, go to the sink and wash our tin cup and plate. We are usually done serving and eating our meals ourselves within 30 minutes or so.
Our meals here at the ashram are certainly not social events. But the food is amazingly delicious and I have yet to have a bad meal here. At first I was eating a ton of food but a bit afraid of the raw vegetables. I had read all kinds of warnings about not eating anything raw in India as the vegetables are washed with the tap water. I would also avoid plates that were still wet as I wanted to avoid the water here. But after a few days I relaxed a bit and started to eat everything. And I’ve had no problems yet to report. We have filtered water for us to drink as much as we want and we all carry our own water bottles everywhere. I still use the filtered water to brush my teeth but I’ve seen many others just use the water from the sink to do the same. I’m not there yet and I’m not sure if I want to risk it. My roommate Jane has been in India for three weeks and she said she didn’t get sick at all so that gives me lots of hope that I can escape the inevitable!
Speaking of food at the ashram, there is something called the “Health Hut” at the back of the ashram where you can get some other things to eat and chat with other guests. I’m actually sitting at the Health Hut right now typing this up with a cup of milk tea. There is obviously no caffeine or alcohol on the premises here, so when I say milk tea it’s really an Indian spiced tea with some milk. For 8 rupees (~ $0.20) it’s the hot nectar of goodness I look forward to each day. Sometimes, like today, I go crazy and drink two cups! They also serve banana milkshakes, fruit juices, fruit salads, and you can get a bowl of muesli with bananas and milk. They are only open during non yoga/ meditation/ lecture hours and on most days, you can find a lot of the guests hanging out at the hut. The Health Hut is made of dirt floors, tables, and benches, woven banana leaves for roof and bamboo shades for walls. Kind of perfect for where we are since this ashram is in the woods anyway. They play Indian music in the background and I think it might be classical or devotional in nature, which is just my guess. The Health Hut provides a nice break from all the discipline and silence of the ashram. Although it has dirt floors and it’s technically not indoors, we are required to take our shoes off.
The rest of my Christmas at the Sivananda ashram was as atypical as it can be. Right after our big Christmas meal, we went outside the ashram to a small temple by the lake. There was a special puja (ritual worship) by the local residents to celebrate the Swami Vishnudevananda’s birth star, and we were invited to participate or watch. All the women at the ashram were invited to participate in the entire ceremony but I only joined them towards the end. I arrived just in time to watch the priest give all of the offerings in a fire ceremony (and all the ladies made loud noises and bells rang out) and we were all given bright yellow marigolds to throw into the fire as well. The priest then came around to bless the rice the women had been cooking with holy water and flowers, and a portion from each pot of rice were gathered to be given out as Prasad at the end.
Christmas night we had our satsang as usual but there was a talent show, which I felt I could miss. So right after our meditation and chanting session, I ducked out to come back to my room. The next day, I was to set off on a full day hiking excursion and I really needed to sleep… More on the jungle trip tomorrow.