Saturday, 21 January 2012

Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam, Kerala, Southern India

Some of you may remember that while I was in India last Autumn/Winter (2010) I wanted to give ashram life a bash...see what all the new-age fuss is about.  I wanted to go to a fairly strict place that really focuses on yoga and improving your technique, whatever level you are at.  After a bit of research it became clear that in order to find this I’d have to put up with a certain amount of meditation, a lack of garlic and onions in my food (these induce impure thoughts you know!) and a smattering of other minor inconveniences!  I also didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for this which narrowed my choices somewhat. Ashrams geared towards westerners wanting the yoga aspect without the rest of it tend to cost a penny or two!  So after a bit more research, and granted probably not an extensive amount, I decided to try Sivananda Ashram in a small town called Neyyar Dam, Kerala, Southern India.

I had all but forgotten my experience until two things happened this week.  The first was that I got an email newsletter from the ashram and the second was an article, by Susan Greenwood, in the Guardian entitled ‘10 of the world’s best yoga retreats 2010’ published on Thursday the 12th January.  The Sivananda Ashram was listed at number three.  Here’s what it said:

“Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala
If it's full immersion yoga you're after, this ashram in the foothills of Kerala's Western Ghats will provide that and then some. On its two-week yoga holidays, participation in all aspects of life of the ashram is mandatory, including an alcohol-free vegetarian diet, silent mediation, lectures on yoga and participation in karma yoga which involves an hour a day of helping with tasks around the facility. The idea is that giving yourself up to the timetable in this manner is extremely relaxing and can lead to a deep spiritual awareness within your yoga practice.

What it doesn’t mention is that when you arrive, you are given a list of rules which you must abide by.  You must hand over your money, your MP3 player if you have one, your phone and your camera.  It’s not enough just to suggest you don’t use them, they must be confiscated.  It’s for your own good!  You are asked for your ‘spiritual name’ and if/when you don’t have one you are met with a very disapproving stare.  After signing the form, you’re asked for payment for the first three days upfront.  There’s no leaving before these three days are up and for the duration of the ‘yoga vacation’ there’s no leaving the walls of the ashram at all without an ‘exit pass’ that has to be approved by the ashram director.  One of the reasons I chose this ashram in the first place was because of its stunning location, up high on a hill and right next to a lake but the lake is outside the walls and therefore out of bounds to guests.

My first impressions set off alarm bells but I’m a pretty cynical person by nature so I shut them out and told myself to give the place a chance.  After all I’d only myself to blame for being there in the first place!

As time went by though I just noticed more and more things that didn’t add up.  There were (mandatory) talks on the importance of selfless service (Karma Yoga).  The karma yoga you were assigned to varied.  Some people had to clean the dorms, others had to empty the bins.  The lucky ones had to be up before meditation to set it up and I had the privilege of serving food to everyone. The purpose of this karma yoga is to destroy your ego so that you could start to be at one with the world and to teach you that no one person is above anyone else.  All sound enough teaching, except that the staff would stand over you giving you orders while you were doing your job in a very egotistical way!  The first day there, when most people (not all though, because some people seem to love it so much they stay for months) were fresh off the plane, and delighted to have some sort of peaceful reprieve from the madness of Indian daily life, we had a group karma yoga.  The task was to clean the dining hall.  Eating meals was done on the floor, to further humble yourself, so i guess having it clean was necessary!  However, the manner in which it was done, was not. I am convinced that this task is repeated at the start of every two week long yoga vacation when they get a new batch of suckers in!  The staff poured no less than 200 buckets of water onto the floor and then barked at us to mop it up! Work faster, work harder, crush that spirit!!

As well as crushing your ego you are encouraged to renounce the material world.  Again, nothing wrong with that in itself except that they have a ‘boutique’ on the grounds.  Instead of cash (you handed it all over in blind trust when you checked in!) you are issued with a card that you can charge things to.  The boutique sells prayer books, chanting CD’s, yoga mats, appropriate clothing (even with the lack of garlic and onion in the food, they’re taking no chances!), posters, postcards, snacks, soap, toilet paper...the list goes on!  Not only do these items fall under the ‘material things’ heading, they are also being sold at up to five times the cost you could buy them for outside the ashram walls.  A not-for-profit organisation? Really?  And while I’m on about money, it costs 500Rupees a day to stay at the ashram.  Not much you may think, it is after all only just over £6 sterling, €7 or $9.  However, the staff are all meant to be volunteers and a bed like that can be found for 50rupees outside the ashram walls.  Throw in a few meals similar to the one’s provided and they are still making about a 350Rs profit per person per day.  So where does all the money go?   

The basic ashram schedule starts with a gong at 5:20am and runs until 10pm.  Attendance at each part of the schedule is mandatory and ‘bunkin’ off’ or opting out is not tolerated.  It is even stated in the rules: “In the event that you need to be absent from any event or to leave the ashram premises, permission should be obtained from the Ashram Director.”  The 6am Satsang (silent meditation followed by chanting) was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had.  On the first morning, I got up, full of optimism and ready to get stuck into whatever this yoga vacation would bring.  However, never having meditated before and that not having been highlighted as a problem, I was expecting some level of guidance, especially on the first day.  There was none.  Everyone filed up onto the roof top at 5:55 and sat down in the lotus position, backs straight, eyes closed.  I just looked around wondering how they all knew what to do!  The ashram director arrived, sat down in front of us all, took up the same position and stayed like that for an hour.  No moving, no blinking, no nothing!  The floor was made from concrete and my legs were completely dead after twenty minutes.  The thing I couldn’t get over was all the other newbies like me, sitting there, possibly in pain, lapping it all up, not even a bewildered look amongst them!  When the director opened his eyes, he and a few other staff members started to chant.  We were all given word sheets and again everyone joined in.  It wasn’t that I had a problem with chanting per say, it was just that I had no idea what it was I was being asked to chant.  There had been no explanation here either.  No translation of the words, no reason given as to why we were doing it.  But again, nobody seemed to mind this.  As the days went on, people got so involved in the chanting that some were in trance like states.  They rocked back and forth with their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads, repeating the mantras over and over.  I didn’t join in once (my cynicism coming back out!) but I had to sit through it twice a day everyday, attendance was mandatory after all, and I seemed to be the only one who that bothered.  

When the initial three mandatory days were up, I left.  However, even this was made difficult.  In order to leave I had to obtain an exit pass or the security guard at the gate wouldn’t let me out.  This was not as easy to obtain as you’d imagine.  The office only had very specific opening hours and most of these hours were during satsang or asana(yoga practice), and with the schedule being compulsory, getting to the office made me feel like a child trying to out-smart my teachers.  I did get an exit pass though, and that should have been the end to my troubles, but it wasn’t.  Since being there, a combination of the early starts, the lack of substance in the food and the painful chanting, I’d had a permenant headache.  I struggled with my backpack and found the short walk back down to the village an almost unobtainable goal.  After only three days, doing anything that required any sort of effort or thought at all was virtually impossible.
They obviously have a pretty serious brain working in their marketing department.  Even the name of the two week course (Yoga Vacation) that’s run every month, is well thought out, and very much so with westerners in mind.  The strictness of the routine and the severity of the teachings is played down, again with westerners in mind, wanting to give the impression of a typical easy going ‘holiday’ with the added physical and mental benefits of yoga, as well as a little bit of meditation thrown in for good measure!  They highlight the beauty of the ashram surroundings, failing to mention that its ‘out of bounds’ for the duration of your stay.  Both the price and the fact that the ashram is run exclusively in English, excludes native Indian people from participating, again reinforcing their strong desires to get (vunerable) westerners through the gates.

The scariest thing about it all was the other people who were staying there.  Nobody seemed in the least bit inquisitive as to the reasoning behind what it was that we were being asked to do.  Nobody objected to the rigid timetable.  Nobody voiced any of their own opinions.  The all seemed completely happy to let the ashram take control and teach them a ‘new, better way of living’.  There was no rule breaking, everyone chanted along and followed the rules like a bunch of lemmings.  We weren’t even allowed talk during meal times.  Given that the vast majority of us had just arrived, from various corners of the earth and all sorts of walks of life, it seemed like a natural time to speak to each other but it was banned and nobody questioned it.  The lack of independent thinking and the speed at which people just gave in and conformed was frightening.  The majority of the people there seemed to be ‘searching’ for something.  They were unhappy with certain aspects of their lives and wanted to make changes.  They seemed unsure of themselves and vunerable and it appeared that they had all flocked to Sivananda likes moths to a candle in order to find that ‘something’.  When I left, after only three days of being there, the mantras were repeatedly going round and round in my head.  I found myself waking in time for morning satsang, and inadvertently eating meals at ashram meal-times.  It just goes to show how easy it is to form habits and how easily people can be manipulated and stripped of independent thought without them even realising it.  It was a scary place to spend a few days but it was a fascinating experience in hind sight.