Be strong. Be serene. Be brave. Be patient. Be resolved. Be heroic. Enter the Silence within you. Behold what you really are within you.
– Swami Sivananda
In case readers were wondering why I haven’t written for a while, it’s because I was away for a month, pursuing the Yoga Teachers Training Course (TTC) at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, India. Enrolling in a TTC wasn’t an obvious decision for me but rather, one I toyed with for some time. The major motivation was to be able to share with others, the benefits of the profound science of yoga.
After much deliberation and research, I finally chose the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, India, to do the training for reasons I will explain in another post. Despite my initial doubts and worries, the experience proved to be totally worth it. In this series of posts, I’ll try to shed some light on the course, the ashram, the teachings and the Sivananda lineage.
[For those not interested in doing the month long TTC, it is also possible to visit the ashram on a Yoga Vacation programme that can span a few days only]
Part 1: Ashram life
Although the TTC course is open to all, including those who are new to yoga, it is definitely an advantage if one is already on the yogic path to some extent or is at least fairly disciplined in their everyday life and conscious of their diet, etc. I say this because the schedule and lifestyle can otherwise seem rather harsh and gruelling!
The wake-up bell goes off at 5.20 a.m. everyday and everyone in the ashram is expected to be seated for the morning Satsang at 6 a.m. The rest of the TTC day looked as follows:
6 – 7.30 a.m. Satsang
8 – 10.00 a.m. Hatha yoga
10.00 a.m. Brunch
11 – 12.00 Karma yoga
12 – 1.30 p.m. Philosophy class
1.30 p.m. Herbal tea & fruit
2.30 – 3.30 p.m. Bhagavad Gita class (or sometimes Chanting class)
4 – 6:00 p.m. Hatha yoga
6.00 p.m. Dinner
8 – 9.30 pm Satsang
(Friday is a day off when day trips are often organised by the ashram)
The morning and evening Satsangs begin with a short meditation followed by kirtan (devotional singing with music), namely the famous ‘Jaya Ganesha’ chant of the Sivananda ashram in which homage is paid to the various forms of Ishvara: Shiva, Krishna, Saraswati….and the gurus, Dattatreya, Shankaracharya, Adi Guru, Sivananda, Vishnudevananda… The Satsangs end with the Triyambakam mantra, other Vedic mantras for peace and finally, Aarti. One or two other short bhajans would also be sung before the final prayers and Aarti. I have to say, the Satsangs were probably my favourite part of the entire schedule. Kirtan is such a simple, enjoyable and powerful way to begin and end your day with positive vibes.
The Sivananda ashram in Kerala (called the Dhanwantari ashram, after Lord Dhanwantari, the father of Ayurveda and a form of Lord Vishnu) is located at Neyyar dam, about an hour’s drive from the city of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). It is the main Sivananda ashram in India and a renowned centre for Ayurveda. Nestled in a quiet spot surrounded by forests, the ashram premises are simply beautiful. In true Kerala style, the gardens are effortlessly bursting with bouquets of fruits and spices – coconut, banana, jackfruit, liquorice and neem trees embraced by pepper vines and curry leaf plants. The forested hills surrounding the ashram are naturally-sprouted Ayurveda gardens filled with herbs of high medicinal value. It’s no wonder Kerala is referred to as ‘God’s own country’.
Sitting in class listening to the teachings of the Upanishads, one feels like one has gone back 2,000 years in time and is sitting in an ancient gurukul in the forest.
This is the land of Agastya muni – one of the Seven Sages (sapt rishis) believed to be the direct disciples of Lord Shiva who spread the yogic teachings among the masses in ancient times. Agasthyakoodam, the mountain peak where Agastya muni is said to have lived and where he is believed to still meditate, is about 32 kilometres from Neyyar dam and visible from the ashram itself.
Nature walks and treks around the ashram, whether to the Neyyar dam lake or to the top of nearby hills are a sheer joy, allowing one to be completely immersed in pristine nature. One feels refreshed from the inside-out, drinking in the beauty of Nature and allowing oneself to be awed by the stunning biodiversity of the area. This is not a place where you can be finicky about ants becoming a part of your footwear, for instance. I was in fact quite fascinated by the many diverse insects that plonked themselves on my book whenever I sat outdoors to read – amazing little creatures sometimes in neon yellow or electric blue that I had never seen before in my life.
It rained often during my time there (November 2017), finishing off with a cyclone (cyclone Ockhi) during our final days! Meditating in an open hall with a hundred people and with torrential rain, thunder and lightning outside is quite an experience in itself.
When it comes to food, I have very simple tastes. Growing up, I was always the odd one out in the family because of my intolerance of spice and too much masalas – extraordinarily strange behaviour for a North Indian! For this reason I was also rather comfortable with the bland food in Europe during my many years there – I was never one of those Indians requesting more spice in the food or worse, carrying their own chillies in their pockets (yes, it happens – a lot)!
So when I learnt that we would have to survive on a light sattvik yogic diet for a month, I was not at all worried about my coping abilities. However, despite the tasty Kerala food, I have to say that there were times I craved for more familiar fare like toast with butter or a glass of milk which fortunately was also available at the ashram at certain times of the day.
On a couple of occasions, we were treated to a traditional Kerala vegetarian feast for lunch – a Sadya – which was both interesting and delicious. Served on a banana leaf, the meal consists of rice, sambar and many types of savouries and chutneys. It is an exciting adventure for the palate to try to guess what the next mouthful will taste like – sour, sweet or spicy? The traditional Indian way of life was designed to keep one conscious at all moments and the Sadya fulfils that role very well!
There are only 2 meals a day and that too with a gap of 8 hours between them. While this seems impossible to abide by in the beginning it is amazing how the energy generated through yoga practice keeps one going quite effortlessly through the day. The body feels lighter with just 2 light meals a day and also full of energy. One good indication of the effects of the lifestyle was that there were never any heads nodding off in philosophy class!
This is a fairly unique feature of the Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training Course and one that gets talked about quite a lot in discussions about the ashram. All residents of the ashram are assigned ‘karma yoga’ duties i.e. to render some selfless service at the ashram to support the independent community.
I waited with some excitement as each of us were assigned our specific duties. More than the duty I would be assigned, I was interested to see my response or reaction. Would I recoil at being assigned the duty of toilet-cleaning, for instance? I looked upon the occasion as an opportunity to see where my latent tendencies, likes/aversions may be hiding. I had told myself I would be OK with anything; but would I really? It was an opportunity to know if there were buttons still present inside that could be pressed…!
I was assigned the duty of helping to serve food in the dining hall and helping to clean up the hall afterwards. I was happy with this given that in India, the most common/traditional karma yoga is indeed feeding people. What I realised later though was how physically taxing this task actually is – holding a bent back for long stretches of time as you carry heavy buckets of food around to serve people seated on the floor and later, sweeping and swapping the floors. I wasn’t quite sure if I was physically strong enough to do this duty in addition to the 4 hours of Hatha yoga we had everyday but somehow, I have no idea how, I managed a whole month of this and with much joy.
The TTC is a four-week intensive residential course, based on the ancient gurukula system of India where teacher and student live together.
Ashram living means getting used to simple living in shared spaces. The little hardships one has to face help to break the dependencies of the mind and the attachments of the senses – whether it is bathing with cold water, washing one’s own clothes or following strict waking up and sleeping times. Breaking one’s limitations is what yoga is all about and the hardest limitations to break are the psychological ones we create for ourselves.
In upcoming posts in this series, I will talk about the teachings and Sivananda lineage as well as the highlights of the course based on my experience. For now, here’s a short video from our climb up one morning to Kalipara Lokambika hill – just in time for sunrise. The Kalipara Lokambika Temple is an ancient temple located around 2000 ft above sea level. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Lokambika, a form of Mother Goddess. Kalipara temple follows centuries’ old rituals according to gotra traditions.
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