The very word "ashram"conjured up a group of associations in my mind that I had zero desire to align myself with. I imagined an isolated location, lots of prayers, and people handing over their sanity - along with their bank balances - to gurus of questionable authority. I imagined people hallucinating on LSD and declaring that they had "found themselves". People who went to ashrams, I unfairly imagined, were blind followers. And though my eyesight may be poor, I have never considered myself to be a blind follower.
So how on earth did I just end up spending two weeks at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram at Neyyar Dam in Kerala?
Well, the seed was planted by a lovely English traveler called Rosie who I met in Beirut, Lebanon in April. When she heard I was planning to visit Kerala later in the year, she insisted that I visit the ashram at Neyyar Dam. I was so resistant to the notion, that I didn't even fully listen to her as she raved about delicious vegetarian food, cheap accommodation and great yoga lessons. I even recall trying to politely rebuff her good intentions by saying, "it sounds great, but an ashram's not really my style".
Rosie could tell I was not buying and the conversation moved on. When she left the dorm a few days later however, she left a note with the details of the ashram under my pillow. The note said something to the effect of, "just look it up on the internet before you dismiss it". A big thank you to Rosie, because without her persistence I certainly wouldn't have just spent two weeks improving my health and quietening my mind.
For those of you who are interested here is the link to the ashram:
I decided that, as I wanted to get healthier, the yoga vacation program would be a good place to start. The ashram had a minimum stay requirement of three days and I kept repeating that as my mantra in the weeks leading up to my arrival. My thinking was, even if it is horrible I only have to stay three days - so how bad could it be?
I knew that my body was not ready for twice daily yoga classes, so while in Sydney I started attending yoga classes a few times a weeks to prepare. I started telling family and friends about this yoga retreat so that they would hold me accountable if I backed out at the last moment. I needed that push because everything about staying at the ashram terrified me.
Ashram life was not just "out of my comfort zone". Ashram life was at least a twenty hour flight away from comfort zone! I was definitely most afraid of the physical pain that would result from 4 hours of yoga a day, but really everything from the twice daily meditation sessions to the fact that they only served two meals a day freaked me out.
Anyway, on the 31st of October I finally sucked up my courage and took a taxi from Trivandrum to the ashram. The superb setting of the ashram, amid 12 acres of tropical forest with cool green coconut tree groves, a nearby lake and colourful flower-filled views, did much to alleviate my anxiety. Within a few hours I was swept up in the daily schedule of ashram life which I have detailed below:
5:20am - Wake up bell
6:00am - Morning Satsang (30 min silent meditation, 40 min chanting, 10min talk on a spiritual theme and 10 minutes of prayers).
7:30am - Tea
8:00am - Asana (yoga) class for 2 hours
10:00am - Brunch (this was also my karma yoga duty - like a daily chore - while at the ashram. So I left yoga at 9:50 to set up mats/trays/ cups in the dining hall. I then went around serving food. Following that, I ate for 10 min and then I had to clean up, sweep the hall, mop the hall, empty bins etc. The whole process went until 11:15)
11:15am - Free time
1:30pm - Tea & snack
2:00pm - Lecture on one of the five points of yoga for 1 and a half hours (Proper exercise, proper breathing, proper diet, proper relaxation & positive thinking/meditation)
3:30pm - Asana (yoga) class for 2 hours
6:00pm - Dinner
6:30pm - Free time
8:00pm - Evening Satsang (30 min silent meditation, 40 min chanting, 10min talk on a spiritual theme and 10 minutes of prayers).
9:30pm - Free time
10:30pm - Lights out
Predictably, by day two I was in sheer agony.
Every muscle, tendon, atom of my body hurt. Though the yoga classes were the main culprit, it was actually all the sitting cross legged that I found the most unbearable. By the time you add satsangs, lectures, meals to the portions of the yoga lessons that we spent cross legged - I was averaging about 5 and a half hours of cross legged action each day.
My course started on a Tuesday and I was just willing myself to get to Friday, because Fridays at the ashram are "free days". This means on Fridays you only have to attend morning and evening satsangs. Most people use this opportunity to leave the ashram on lovely day trips to the nearby beaches of Kovalam or Varkala. I was planning on using my "free day" to lie flat on my back sleeping or sitting on a chair reading. But, the universe had other plans and I spent most of my "free day" in the bathroom with a lovely case of traveler's diarrhea.
Still, I soldiered on and when I awoke on day five to only moderate pain - I knew things were on the up. By day 6, I was almost pain free and able to start appreciating the benefits that ashram life was delivering to me.
There was noticeable improvement in my strength and flexibility during yoga practice, my mind was calmer and I was actually looking forward to meditation sessions. The biggest change, however, was that I had got to know a number of my fellow yoga vacationers and I began to feel a real sense of community. Just like soldiers who are forever bonded by their experiences on the battlefield, I think that the yoga vacationers who stayed beyond the pain of the first week also forged life-long bonds. No one else will ever fully understand the joy of finally mastering the plough posture nor our new found appreciation for chairs, hot water or coconut balls.
Another part of ashram life I found surprisingly enjoyable was the chanting. Though I often didn't understand what we were chanting about, I definitely appreciated the positive vibrations of the Sanskrit words as well as the amazing sense of community you feel when a hundred people are chanting together in unison. I enjoyed the chanting so much that by the second week I was frequently picking up a tambourine. I even wrote a humorous chant about ashram life for the Saturday night talent show. The words to that chant will form the next post.
That's it for now.
Om tat sat. Om, shanti, shanti, shanti....