Following on from my previous post Ashram Life: Arrival & Settling In, the Daily Schedule at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, India, was at the heart of ashram life and before arriving I was well aware that this was to be followed in its entirety. I had made a note in my journal from another blog before leaving:
“in an Indian ashram, you don’t question things; you simply follow”
and so I knew that the expectation would be to participate in all activities. I had also read somewhat daunting Tripadvisor reviews where previous ashram guests had talked about the staff being akin to “yoga police”, hammering at the doors rounding people up for Satsang and it being run like a “military operation” but I’m pleased to report back that this wasn’t my experience at all. The staff were serious but friendly (if that makes sense) and on only one occasion did I have someone knock on my door 10 minutes before Satsang saying “Om Namah Shivaya”, a gentle reminder that Satsang was starting soon but I certainly didn’t feel harassed or forced into anything. At the end of the day they make it very clear at the start of your stay that “guests are expected to attend the entire programme” and of course the idea behind this is that we get the most out of our time there, immerse ourselves in their physical and spiritual programme and ultimately we are the ones who benefit and reap the rewards.
The ashram’s website describes it as “an abode of peace and shelter from the pressures of worldly life. It provides a safe space for personal development and the pursuit of spiritual ideals” and this is exactly what it is. The minimum stay is 3 days and after that people are free to leave if they find it too stringent so ultimately we choose to abide by the rules of what is, at the end of the day, a spiritual place and not a holiday retreat centre.
I can’t say I found the programme easy, quite the contrary, I felt challenged on every possible level, physically, emotionally and mentally BUT the experience will stay with me forever and I learned so much and gained so much from my stay there.
5.20am Wake-Up Bell
The first hurdle for me were the early mornings – I have NEVER been an early morning person so I knew I would struggle in this department and as fate would have it my room was directly behind the very loud morning wake up bell (on the top floor in the picture below) so there was no chance of me oversleeping, although having said that I did need a second alarm on occasion as I soon managed to master the art of falling straight back to sleep again despite the rude awakening!
At some point in the middle of my stay the early mornings did get better (briefly) but then towards the end I just felt so exhausted that I’m not sure I would have lasted much longer. It was not so much the actual waking up/getting up but the expectation to then sit in Satsang for an hour and a half when half asleep and then do two hours of yoga straight afterwards. It did begin to take its toll!
6.00am Satsang (Group Meditation, Chanting and Talk)
In the ashram setting Satsang consisted of approximately half an hour of silent meditation, followed by forty minutes of devotional chanting and then a twenty minute talk which in the mornings was usually about the programme for the day ahead as this differed slightly depending on whether you were there on a “yoga vacation” – as I was – or whether you were on an Ayurveda Wellness or Teacher Training course. Obviously there might be more or less meditation/chanting from one day to the next but this was the basic framework. Some days we went straight into silent meditation, other days the Swami/Guru leading the Satsang might give pointers about how to meditate but either way it was long. Thirty minutes is a surprisingly long time to sit in silence. To attempt to control ones “monkey mind” and general mind chatter for this length of time is challenging but equally sitting cross-legged with back and neck straight can become painful at times. Definitely easier said than done. In fact the hours of cross-legged sitting became one of the most challenging aspects of my whole stay, and not just for me, it was a common complaint among other ashram guests as Satsang was held twice a day and we had to sit cross-legged for a lot of the asana classes too. Still, it was never meant to be easy and the theme of pushing oneself to ones limits was one that ran across the entire schedule.
Twice a week Satsang was held at nearby Neyyar Dam whereby the meditation would take the form of a half an hour silent walk up to the Dam and then we would sit by the lake watching the sun rise for the chanting and then return back to the ashram in time for morning tea at 7.30am. This also provided a wonderful opportunity to take some photos and see a little of the surrounding area as ashram guests were not permitted to leave the ashram otherwise without express permission and an “exit pass”.
The chanting was an aspect that I fully embraced and was looking forward to. I have had several experiences of chanting (kirtan) over the years but it has never felt like ‘enough’ so I certainly had plenty of opportunity to sing my heart out in India. At first it was daunting as everyone seemed to know all the words and I felt a little lost, then mid-stay it felt like too much as we would chant twice a day for 40 minutes each time and then chant at the start and end of both asana classes so when you add it up almost 2 hours a day was spent chanting the names of various Hindu Gods and Gurus.
I had read in some reviews and blog posts that people did find this aspect a bit too much and I did feel like that briefly but then as the days went on I grew to embrace this opportunity to sing and clap and feel the music and rhythm of the drums and harmonium. Certainly a unique experience that you would never experience otherwise and on one occasion I even felt overcome with emotion totally out of the blue so it does move you and to be honest I have been humming the chants ever since I’ve been home! If you are interested in what we were chanting, the link below is that of the Daily Chant which we sang at each Satsang every morning and evening.
8.00am Asana Class (Beginners and Intermediate)
After a short break for “tea at the tree” – from what I gather was a herbal tea – it was time for the first class of the day. “Asana” refers to the physical postures of yoga and the classes were divided into beginners and intermediate students. Despite opting for the latter there were still a wide range of abilities within the class and it certainly extended up to advanced students in terms of the options and variations that were offered and at times it was really quite challenging. The classes were 2 hours long – beginning with an opening chant then continuing with about half an hour of pranayama – looking at Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma. I do intend to look in more depth at the classes in another post but will give a brief overview here. Kapalabhati was performed 3 times I think, approximately 50 breaths followed by a retention which I felt okay with and then Anuloma Viloma was performed for what seemed like AGES with a challenging ratio including retention – starting at 4:16:8 (inhale 4; retain the breath for 16; exhale 8) moving onto 5:20:10 and the retentions did feel challenging indeed but it is fairly advanced to include retentions of this length – particularly when you are not used to them – although commonplace within the Sivananda practice.
After pranayama we moved onto about 15-18 rounds of Surya Namaskara followed by single and double leg raises which took us to an hour and then progressed to the 12 Asanas of the Sivananda sequence. Don’t be fooled however by the seemingly basic asanas (other than headstand of course – again I will look at these asanas in another post) as they included some seriously advanced variations and transitions and my body really was pushed to the limit but I found it so refreshing and exciting to be pushed in this way.
10.00am Vegetarian Meal
This quickly became the highlight of the morning! The food was AMAZING!!! I absolutely LOVED the food and if I could continue to be cooked for like that twice a day here in England I would happily eat curry morning and evening everyday! The food was ayurvedic so no onions, garlic or strong spices, just food that would create harmony in your body, so nothing too extreme. On account of this I didn’t hear of anyone having any problems with their stomachs adjusting to the food as it was so simple. I found it incredibly tasty and as I am vegan it was a joy to be cooked for and try new foods and recipes. I know some people struggled with the food being vegetarian and I guess maybe the guys would happily have eaten more (although they did come around offering “top-ups” most of the time) but it was good for me and it actually felt nice to feel hungry. Usually at home we don’t generally allow ourselves to feel hungry so it felt nice and you looked forward soooooo much to the meals and appreciated every mouthful. I even ate things I wouldn’t normally eat as you were just so hungry you ate everything on your plate! I should add that as is the tradition in that part of India (Kerala) we ate with our right hands. No cutlery was provided (although you could bring your own or buy from the ashram boutique) so you were expected to eat with your right hand only (the left is supposed to be used for wiping your bottom – sorry, no nice way of putting it – so you must not use the left hand). This proved a challenge at first but I actually really enjoyed feeling almost animalistic 🙂 and touching the food, feeling the connection with it. We had to chant (again) before every meal and eat in silence so even mealtime was a ritual in itself.
Everyone was expected to wash up their cup and plate after each meal and meals were served by “Karma Yogis” which I will explain shortly. All in all mealtime was an entirely pleasant part of the experience!
11.00am Karma Yoga
All ashram guests were expected to perform Karma Yoga duties. This is basically a way of getting everyone to “pitch in” and help around the ashram and is a vital part of ashram life. Also known as “selfless service”, the idea behind it is engaging in an activity that you don’t particularly enjoy, or wouldn’t choose to do normally, and doing it without complaining and without expectation of reward (i.e. payment). This mostly took place between 11.00am and 12.00pm and included activities such as cleaning the toilets, picking up litter, cleaning floors or working in the boutique or helping out in the Health Hut. I was assigned to helping in the Health Hut in the evenings from 6.30pm to 7.30pm where my duties included washing up, making chai and sodas and generally helping out so I was lucky to have this hour free in the mornings which on most occasions I made the most of to take a nap!!
12.30pm Optional Coaching Class
Again as this was optional I used this time to relax, to write, to attempt to use the Wifi and just generally have time to myself. This session was basically for people to speak to the yoga instructors if they were having problems or needed help or advice with particular postures and on a few days each week there was a meditation coaching class which I did attend once but again it was just for if you needed help or wanted to ask questions and not a compulsory part of the day. Lots of people used the time to do their laundry, relax and sit out in the sun and read. I tended to hide from the sun as it was incredibly hot and humid and as I was lucky enough to have private space this break was put to good use.
On most of the days I was there (although not all) there was a lecture on an aspect of Yoga. The topics that were covered during my stay included meditation, asanas, the paths of yoga, the Sivananda system, etc. and all were incredibly clearly presented and really very interesting. Even though I had heard much of it before in previous yoga studies it was great to hear again and was explained in a different way, in a way that really made sense and came from the heart. I enjoyed this part of my ashram stay very much.
3.30pm Asana Class (Beginners and Intermediate) OR 4.00pm Gentle Yoga
This asana class took the same form as the 8.00am class although you would have a different teacher. On several occasions the intermediate class was lucky enough to have yoga by the lakeside which was so beautiful – although slightly bug infested – and ultimately made a nice change of scene although it made headstand an interesting experience as the floor was quite hard and bumpy so you had to try to find a section that wouldn’t be too rough under your head.
Some days, however, I have to admit to opting for the Gentle Yoga Class which was such a welcome relief when your body ached from top to toe and when you just needed to recharge! This was a beautiful class taught by a much older teacher called Siva Das and which was much more restorative in nature. It was very interesting from the viewpoint of being a teacher as he was very traditional and “old school” so I picked up a lot of interesting pointers from him and in this respect it was invaluable.
This was set on a rooftop and was very sunny as quite exposed but as the yoga was gentle it didn’t matter so much. A LOT of time was spent in Savasana in this class and this was such a boon to me when I felt I just couldn’t do anymore.
6.00pm Vegetarian Meal
Exactly the same format as the 10.00am brunch and just as delicious!
Between 6.30pm and 7.30pm was MY karma yoga time so I would rush from Dinner to the Health Hut to help out there. The Health Hut was only open a few hours each day serving fruit salads, smoothies, teas and sodas. I didn’t actually eat there at all on account of working there but it was well frequented by hungry yogis. On account of all the fruit there it was totally mosquito infested so this was the time of the day when I would get somewhat eaten alive. As it was a very busy environment sometimes stress levels ran high (not mine I should add!) and it took some time – initially – to get used to being told what to do – but I learned to embrace the experience as a challenge and in the true spirit of karma yoga 😉
8.00pm Satsang (Group Meditation, Chanting and Talk)
Just enough time after Karma Yoga duties to nip back to my room to prepare for evening Satsang, which again was a similar structure to the morning Satsang. On several occasions there was a visiting Swami or Guru who would give more of a talk on an aspect of yogic life which was often very insightful and then on Saturday evenings there was a talent show – offering talent mostly volunteered from the ashram guests. This was a fun part of the stay – definitely more talent on the second Saturday of my stay – overflowing with talent in fact, from singers to dancers (including an amazing Bollywood style mini-movie performance) to poets and musicians. Some were fantastic, others went on WAY too long BUT it was enjoyed and performed in the spirit in which it was intended. I did have to sneak out early though on the second Saturday as I had to be up early for my taxi to leave the next day but I managed until 10.00pm before bailing.
10.30pm Lights Out
Never a problem for me to have lights out by 10.30pm due both to adoring my sleep, needing my sleep and having my own room but I think this rule was more for those in the dormitories where they might have been more inclined to chat into the wee small hours!
All in all a rigorous and thoroughly exhausting schedule (although I never thought it would be otherwise) BUT now that I can look back from the comfort of my own home, with my children in easy reach, I know that I loved every single minute of it and will appreciate having had this experience forever. Had the days been any shorter it would have been impossible to fit as much in as we did and every aspect of the schedule was important for one or other aspect of one’s spiritual development so it had to be set up in this way.
It is good to push oneself to one’s limits sometimes, to test one’s mettle and this is exactly what ashram life did for me. I learned that I have resources within me that run far deeper than I could have believed existed and that I could be pushed to my limits and move even further beyond them. I learned a lot about yoga and about myself and will forever be grateful for having had this amazing opportunity to devote myself completely to my personal and spiritual development and immerse myself totally in all things yoga.