There are definitely things I liked and liked less about my short ashram experience at Sivananda. While walking around in Varkala, I ran into two British women whom I had become acquainted at the Sivananda ashram. They were kind enough to invite me to tea with them and also to dine together. Over steaming cups of honey, lemon, ginger (a popular drink, and it should be, as it is soothing and delicious) we looked back at our experience at the ashram and compared notes. Like me, they’d not been to Sivananda before and found the asana practice lacking any feeling and heart. The asana sequence didn’t make a lot of sense to us. To start, pranayama (kapalabati- shining skull and anuloma viloma – I learned it as nadi sodhana but either way, alternate nostril breathing), then rounds of Sivananda style sun salutations. After that you’re on the floor for leg raises, then as a third series of postures, you practice sirsasana, sarvangasana, and matsyasana, followed by forward bends, twists, etc. ending with trikonasana and using savasana to transition between one series to another. It all felt very disjointed and without any connection from one series of postures to the next. There were almost no alignment directions, except for certain phrases that were repeated by every teacher- “push your hips forward and squeeze your buttocks” when doing urdhva hastasana to start the suriya namaskar series- ouch! I stopped doing that after a few days. There were no dristi directions except for during bujangasana or salabasana- “look up to the ceiling.” Only queues for breathing throughout the entire asana practice called for “deep abdominal breathing through the nose,” no mention of ujjayi breaths. All of the Sivananda postures are pre-determined and set so each and every class follows the exact same sequence and as you progress, you are given slight variations or advance poses to try- bakasana is taught as part of the regular sequence and after about 10 classes, the teacher will mention side crow for example. But we never once practiced adho mukha svanasana or urdhva mukha svanasana. Instead of downward facing dog with your feet hip’s distance apart, you are to put your feet together and it’s called the “inverted V.” But the most puzzling thing for me was doing trikonasana as the final posture, after having been on the floor for a series of seated postures. It just felt like a last minute addition…???
Since I’ve never practiced the Sivananda method, for a week I attended the beginner’s classes to see if there were additional explanations given. Except for the slower pace and basic postures for the beginners (no advanced variations), there were no real differences between the beginner’s class versus the intermediate class. All of the directions and even the way the teachers called out for each posture were almost identical. Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam offers these “yoga vacations” every 1st and the 16th of the month. During this 2 week “yoga vacation” you are expected to attend almost 30 asana classes (twice a day, each class usually lasting about a bit less than 2 hours), which I think is fantastic for one’s practice. I definitely got back into practicing regularly after traveling in Europe and being so irregular with my practice. I think you can get a basic idea of what asana practice is about by following the program but I found the classes extremely dry and almost militaristic in style (it was, after all, put together by a military man- Swami Sivananda is known as the “flying swami” because he used to be a pilot). I felt that it lacked a sense of joy. I don’t mean that your asana practice has to be silly or frivolous, but I found the Sivananda classes to be so serious that I thought if we didn’t chant before and after the asana sequences, it could have easily been taught at a gym for as an exercise class.
As for the chanting, it was performed and carried the opposite effect of the asana classes. It had so much devotion and fervor that at times I felt as if I was at a Southern Baptist church. I have to admit that I had some reservations and difficulties with the Sivananda way of chanting. I’m much more used to the quiet and slow paced chants, so the first time I went to Shiva hall for satsang I was very much surprised. The chants were singsong-y and we were given tambourines and drums to accompany the chanting. Most of the chants would start off slowly but inevitably build up to a rocking pace, and then brought back down again to finish. And for me, a non-Hindu, chants to praise and worship the mystical Indian deities didn’t make a lot of sense and I couldn’t really relate to them.
“I always take refuge in Guha of six faces, who is of deep red color like kumkuma… May the goddess Saraswati, who wears a garland white like the hunda… I salute the three-eyed Divine Mother Narayani, who brings auspiciousness and who fulfills all the desires of the devotee.”
The director of the ashram made clear to us that yoga is not a religion. But the main hall for the ashram is adorned with paintings of various deities (Krishna, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Shiva, etc) and most of the chants include some mention of them or of Swami Sivananda or Swami Vishnu-Devananda. And there were various Hindu ritual worship that we were expected to attend as well. Out of respect for the Swamis and the Sivananda tradition and to better learn and understand, I participated in all the chanting and even attended all of the pujas (rituals). I wanted to experience and take in as much as possible, and I viewed the rituals as a cultural learning opportunity. I even found a mantra that I could relate to and I will always remember. It’s called Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra which calls for peace, fullness, prosperity, freedom from disabilities, to look for the good of others, not suffer from sorrow, and for all to be happy. I think towards the end of my stay, I may have even swayed side to side as I chanted… Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
Now for some accommodations and other practical matters around the ashram. Well, the accommodations are barebones to say the least and yes, you don’t get any hot/warm water. Everyone takes cold showers and with an exception of the rooms at Kailash, your bathroom is shared and is detached from your room or your sleeping area. (there are no single rooms). I was fortunate to have a double room with my lovely roommate Jane from London. And after she left on the 29th, no one moved in so I effectively had a single room. Of course you don’t wear your shoes indoors and you get two vegetarian meals a day. I’ve already talked about the food at the ashram but I can genuinely say that I enjoyed my meals. I think it took my body a few days to get used to the timing and the food, but once I did, I felt great. I wish that I could stick to the 10AM and 6PM vegetarian meal schedule! The ashram also was great at helping us with various necessities- we had a travel agent come by on Wednesdays so that you could change money or book travel. You could have someone take care of your laundry and we had internet access for a few hours each day- it cost about $0.25 per 15 minutes, with just three computers and you normally had to wait a bit, but you could bring your laptop and plug right in. Some people even went out of the ashram to swim or go on a quick shopping trip (you need to get permission to do so). And just down the street, there was a taxi and auto rickshaw stand so you could arrange for your transportation for your onward travel. It was as “easy” an ashram experience as one can get.
Looking back, my 13 days at the Sivananda ashram went by very quickly. I think once you familiarize yourself with your surroundings and the daily schedule becomes a routine, it’s easy to forget the days passing by. The ashram organized another excursion, this time to the southernmost tip of India on my last full day. Knowing that an opportunity to travel to Kanyakumari will not come again I went on the trip with 27 others from the ashram. While I enjoyed the trip immensely, I wish that I could have spent a few more days at the ashram before leaving. I felt as if I needed to have my last day be a typical ashram day but it was not to be. As I mentioned in my previous posts, the Yoga Ayurveda Cultural Program (YACP) I did was heavy on the Indian cultural programs and light on the philosophy and study of yoga. This was not a serious and austere ashram experience. But it gave me a glimpse of what is practiced at an ashram, provided a great overview of wonderful Indian/Keralan cultural activities, and I got to meet some amazing people from all over the world. It was well worth my time and certainly an amazing value for my money. I am extremely thankful for the teachers and the volunteers at the ashram, and very happy that I got to participate. In the outside world for two days now, I miss the routine and the discipline of the ashram life. I even miss getting up at 5AM each morning. I look forward to another ashram stay in Rishikesh in April and I’m thinking of returning to India in the future to visit the Sivananda ashram again. Anyone up for cold showers and two vegetarian meals a day?
Sivananda ashram in Kerala, India:
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram
Neyyar Dam P.O.
Thiruvananthapuram Dist (Trivandrum)
Kerala 695 572
Telephone: +91.471.227.3093 / +91.471.227.2703
Mobile (General enquiries / Yoga Vacation): +91.94.9563.0951
Mobile (International Courses): +91 94.4658.0764