Right after Puja, I headed down to God’s own country for a little glimpse of communal living and the yogi life. I spent 3 weeks at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala with the intention of focusing on my yoga practice. I had no idea what the ashram would be like going in to the experience and I tried my best not to have expectations. Luckily, I ended up having a really good time and the inevitable loosely constructed expectations that I had were exceeded.
A lot of people ask me if it was a profound, life-changing experience. Not yet. It was more of a way for me to regroup, concentrate and ground myself after another birthday. Im still thinking my way through a few of the more intriguing thoughts on spirituality, faith, religion and relationships that revealed themselves during those three weeks. In retrospect, it feels as if these ideas and questions came more from thought provoking conversations with my new friends and acquaintances than from the lectures and teachings of Swami Sivananda.
So what did I do in this ashram, you ask?
Yoga, yoga, yoga. karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, jnana yoga. Every morning I would wake up around 5:20 am with help from the wake-up bell. After brushing my teeth and getting dressed, I would do my karma yoga (selfless service) which required me to prepare the stage for morning and evening satsang and lectures. Satsang started at 6am. The whole ashram would descend upon the Siva Hall to meditate for 30 minutes, sing/chant for another 30 and then listen to a reading from one of Swami Sivananda or Vishnudevananda’s books. Sometimes we would do a silent walk to the nearby lake and do our meditation and chanting there. These were my favorite because the lake was so peaceful and serene. The meditation was rough in the beginning. They would always say, ” sit in your most comfortable cross legged position,” but after 15 minutes, no cross legged position was a comfortable position. After meditating, we would chant/sing kirtan in sanskrit. This was actually a lot of fun. There was always an assortment of small drums, tambourines and cymbals scattered around to pick up and play. I loved to get a good slap going on the tambourine. After satsang we had tea time and then a two hour hatha yoga asana class. We practiced asana (the yoga poses) twice a day. I preferred the morning class because I was usually stronger and more focused then. We went through a series of 12 postures* in addition to some variations. After asana class we had brunch. We were served two meals a day, brunch at 10 am and dinner at 6pm. The food was very good. It was all vegetarian and mostly sattvic meaning no garlic, onion, pepper, salt or sugar, though a little pepper, refined sugar and some salt still snuck their way into our meals and teas. After lunch there was usually a little bit of free time which I would use to do my laundry, journal, read and take a nap. Then we would have another tea time and snack followed by a lecture on the 5 points of yoga* or something related, like Hinduism. After lecture we had another asana class where I usually got eaten alive by mosquitos, particularly when it rained, which it did a lot. Then we would have dinner followed by a little more free time and evening satsang.
The ashram was intense in the sense that you had to attend all of the satsang, lectures, and asana classes. If you stay longer than two weeks, you no longer have to attend the lectures. So I in my third week I had much more free-time to read, nap and journal.
I found myself incredibly inspired by everyone at the ashram, their travel and their life stories. The people were by far the best part. It was a good mix, there were people from all over the world, people of all ages, and occupations. There was no pressure to be the most ashram-like or the perfect yogi and you never needed an excuse to start a conversation with anyone. I assumed that this trip would be a totally personal experience but I consider it to be a shared experience between myself and everyone who was with me at the ashram.
*(headstand, shoulder stand, plough, fish, sitting forward bend, cobra, half locust, full locust, bow, half spinal twist, crow/peacock, standing forward bend, triangle and corpse pose)
*(proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper thinking and meditation)
Here are some photos from around the ashram and on Friday, the free day. On Fridays the ashram would organize a trip to a few places of interest for anyone that wanted to go.