Ashram Life: Sivananda Ashram, Kerala, India

Auuummmm. Auuummmm. Auuummmm. It’s 5:30am and it’s still dark. Two hundred and fifty people are silently filing into the open-air hall for morning Satsang. Following suit, I sit down cross legged on the floor. I close my eyes, settle down and try to meditate to the slow hum of the universal mantra “om”.

I take a deep inhale. At the same time, a strong smokey incense is wafted into my face. I cough and sputter, clearly disturbing those around me. Cringing, I am thankful that it’s dark.

I try again. Another inhale. I start to focus on the sounds around. The Sivananda Ashram is in a tropical forest, by a huge crocodile infested dam, and next to a lion reserve. I can hear hundreds of birds chirping and I can hear the lions. The lions definitely sound like they are mating, but it’s the same noise every morning. Surely they can’t be at it EVERY morning?! I thought they were supposed to be lazy…. Ah! I catch my train of thought and try to return my mind to my breath once again.

Another deep breath in. With the movement I realise how much pain my hips are in. I start to fidget from one awkward position to another, trying to revive whichever foot has just gone numb.

At the end of the meditation I open my eyes to find that the sun has risen and the hall is filled with light. It’s time to start chanting.

The chants are in Sanskrit, so I have no idea what I am chanting (except for “om shanti, shanti, shanti” – I’d seen that on a T-shirt in Sweaty Betty). I start gently, guessing at the pronunciation and the tune. Everyone else is singing with gusto, swaying their seated bodies and clapping away. There are drums, tambourines and shakers in full swing. I can’t help but smile and by Day Two I’ve picked up enough to lose my inhibitions and sing “Hare Krishna” at the top of my lungs, loving every moment.

The Satsang lasts for two hours and happens first thing in the morning and last thing at night. In between, there is a strict daily schedule involving two meals, five hours of yoga, karma yoga (mine was cleaning the dormitory toilets) and lectures on various aspects of yoga.

The exacting schedule from 5:30am – 10:30pm is based on Sivananda’s five points of yoga:
– Proper breathing (daily breathing exercises – instructions make frequent use of the word “pumping”)
– Proper exercise (five hours a day of Sivananda yoga asana = rock hard abs)
– Proper diet (in short, don’t eat much and no meat, fish, eggs, caffeine, alcohol, onions, garlic, mushrooms, radishes or hot spices)
– Proper relaxation (we did get to lie on the floor occasionally in the yoga asana classes)
– Positive thinking and meditation (twice daily meditation in Satsang).

The schedule involved sitting cross legged for seven hours a day. When I complained of the pain, the teacher looked at me and gently told me that if I was young enough and fit enough, I should sit through the pain. I wanted to protest that although my face may look 17, my hips were in fact 28 years old and very much used to sitting in a chair… Sensing that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I said nothing and tried not to pull a face. Thankfully, my hips did gradually start to soften and I can now sit cross legged for seven hours with some discomfort, as opposed to sheer agony.

Occasionally, additional activities were added to the schedule, such as a silent walk around the dam or a video on compelling environmental and health reasons why we should all be vegan.

As part of “proper breathing”, we were also taught two methods of cleansing our nasal passages: jala neti and sutra neti. Jala neti involves pouring warm salted water in one nostril and out the other, using a small plastic watering can. Sutra neti involves putting a thread up your nose and pulling it out of your mouth (using two fingers at the back of your throat to grab it). I watched in open-mouthed horror as several people retched trying to pull the string out of their mouths. I decided to give sutra neti a miss and instead concentrated on sticking the small watering can up my nose. It was a bit gross, but I didn’t gag, and it actually felt quite good afterwards.

One evening a traditional band from Tamil Nadu came to play music for us. The vigorous music was irresistible for the obedient ashram students and after a couple of songs the crowd erupted into ecstatic dance. I mean anything went. Truly. No worries if you weren’t in time, or the dancing was from a totally different genre to the music – everyone was up and going for it. I opted for a sort of stamp from side to side (with an added hip wiggle) as it seemed to go with the music. As the music got faster and faster I found myself sprinting on the spot which, given the heat, wasn’t ideal. So I switched to jumping instead, waving my hands in the air.

Any kind of sexual activity is prohibited in the ashram, including sexual thoughts (although not sure how they enforce that one). In the midst of the dancing, I saw an over enthusiastic Japanese girl try to give one of the staff a hug. Realising just in time, he quickly backed away, with his hands in prayer, mouthing: “please, no”.

The moment made me realise why I loved the ashram so much. With the exception of that Japanese girl (and perhaps a few others), most people weren’t dancing with an agenda or to impress anyone, they were simply dancing for themselves. The ashram is an environment of non-judgement – there was no one sniggering in the corner and I didn’t hear a single person say anything unkind about another while I was there. It is a gentle and peaceful place where you are encouraged to practice non-violence (in every sense) to others, to yourself (eg don’t beat yourself up for not being this or not achieving that) and even to inanimate objects (eg don’t kick a book or slam a door).

My overwhelming memory of the ashram is the moment I arrived, when morning Satsang had just ended. From outside the open air hall, I saw 250 very happy looking people all stand up and start their day. It struck me that I have never seen so many happy looking people in one place.

I too felt very happy there. It was as though I left all my anxieties and insecurities at the gate. I felt completely relaxed. As the ashram describes it, “after only a few days of yoga life, one senses a quiet exhilaration, a physical and mental wellbeing”. That is exactly how I felt.

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