Aside from the obvious benefits of spiritual development, personal growth and meeting amazingly positive and interesting people, visiting an ashram is a “must do” for trips to India. Below I’ve summarized seven of the ashram experience highlights that I’ve grouped together. The Sivananda ashram in Neyar Dam was somewhere between yoga boot camp, and yogi summer camp for adults. Some were calling it “fat camp” on account of the basically guaranteed weight loss that would occur. Word had it that many people were dropping between 10 and 20lbs in their yoga vacation week at Sivananda. This posting is by no means exhaustive of my full ashram experience, nor does it touch upon all the wonderful people I met there over my month there. A mere blink in the world of ashram living.
Saturday Night Talent Shows
The great hall lined with yogis this Saturday to observe traditional Indian dancing at the Saturday night talent show. A song about Krishna plays in the background as the dancer acts out her story in front of the great golden Shiva statue. Saturday night talent shows are what one friend described as “what the wholesome folk do on weekends.”
Another claimed it was like Ashram American Idol. Performances ranged from dancing, singing, guitar playing, breakdancing, or extreme yoga positions.
6am Sunday morning silent walk, and meditation at Neyar Dam
Every Sunday morning at 6am, the morning began with a silent walk for 30 minutes through the sleeping rural town of Neyar Dam. We walked by banana trees, neighborhood houses, streams, chickens, and ended with our morning chants watching the sunrise over the mountain range in the distance. Locals walking would stop to observe our group of singing yogis curiously.
Vegetarian South Indian Meals
When one discovers that only two meals a day are provided at the ashram, it sounds a little scary, especially when you see the 4 hours of non-optional yoga per day. Food was also available at the health hut (a most cool way to chat with other yogis), and if all else fails you could snack on almonds, cashews, or sesame molasses snacks from the boutique shop staffed by karma yogis.
Dinners for special events at the ashram were served on banana leaves in the dining hall. What happens when you put together 200 yogis with delicious vegetarian food, and ask them to maintain complete silence during eating? Well they try to be silent at first… then take a look, you’ll get the picture. Might as well be a highschool cafeteria in there. Eating is all done with hands, and no utensils are used. If you didn’t fancy the food at the great hall, you could order some snacks at the health hut.
The modesty of ashram accommodation is a good lesson in non-attachment. You’ll be back to all your creature comforts of the western world in no time. The view from my front door across the unending jungle was a pretty peaceful sight to wake up to and come home to every day.
Friday Day Trips
On a day trip away from the Ashram, some friends and I walk past shops in Varkala along a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea. Yogis perform headstands on the beach at Varkala. The mastering of a headstand is seen as the pinnacle of successful fear conquering, and mastering of the Sivananda technique.
Our bus as it pulled into Varkala beach parking lot blared blasting dance music as people danced crazily in the halls. It was straight up an episode of “yogi’s gone wild”. It was sort of embarrassing but comical at the same time.
Every morning and evening Satsang brought everyone together in meditation, and to listen to the leader give a spiritual talk. Every week or two there would be some organized special puja ceremony to a god or goddess.
One’s yoga development should consistently improve for the time you spend at an ashram. Just don’t expect them to pamper you like in the west, and ask who has injuries. It’s tough love when you do Indian yoga!
There’s really no way to fully describe a trip to an ashram in India. The irritations, challenges, and rewards make for a traveller’s dream of curious stories and cultural experiences. Probably my most memorable spiritual lesson was one of instant karma, and the recognizing connectedness of current actions with future actions.
Living in very close quarters with so many people makes you learn very quickly what is important and what is not. Waking up at 6am to meditate with 200 strangers, hearing an occasional lion’s roar from the lion safari park across the lake is really quite unforgettable. I hope to soon go back and visit the ashram again at some point. I will surely feel like my return will be coming home to an extended family on the other end of the world.