Continuing my series on Fitness & Wellbeing, Travel & Adventure and Spirituality, we take a look at Yoga as a means of Fitness, Wellbeing & Spirituality in this article. Yoga sutras a compilation of asanas with mindfulness is credit to Yogi Patanjali. they are a set of physical asanas along with meditation which help in the union of body with consciousness resulting in both physical and spiritual well-being. We will not dwell deep into the origins of Yoga since many books and literature is available on internet.
In this article and series of articles i will discuss my experience at various Yoga centres across India during my spiritual sabbatical apart from my experience in Vipassana meditation.
We begin our journey by discussing the very famous Sivananda Ashram which is spread across the world with headquarters in Canada (not surprised since Canada is emerging as a spiritual hub in the world). Founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, Swami Vishnudevananda, was a world authority on Hatha (yoga symbolising physical postures) and Raja Yoga. Swamiji was also known as the “Flying Swami” for the different peace missions he accomplished around the world.Swami Vishnudevananda was a disciple of Swami Sivananda, who was one of the greatest Yoga masters of the 20th century, Swami Sivananda, is the inspiration behind the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres. The teachings of Master Sivananda ( photo on right) are summarized in these six words: Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize. ( Source: Sivavanada.org)
One of my German friends whom i had met in India and suggested Vipassana meditation, recommended me to explore Sivananda Ashram in Kerala situated near Neyyar dam, a very picturesque place surrounded by wilderness. I am very thankful that i acted on his suggestion and went to experience my first serious exposure to Yoga. The place is on outskirts of city and can be reached by a bus or tuk tuk an impoverished word as my international friends call Indian auto rickshaw. Since I had reached Trivandrum very early I had no option but to catch a tuk tuk and reached the ashram around 5 am. As I climbed up the steps of yoga centre a Cathedral for yogis, I was a bit apprehensive which was all gone when a young attractive lady with weary sleepy eyes gave me directions to my dorm. (Not sure why I suddenly started feeling much better in spite of being dead tired from my journey and leave that to your imagination). The place has different accommodations including single and double rooms which are more expensive than dorms which are very clean and reasonably priced. Accommodation includes pure fantastic vegetarian food served twice a day. I had never lived in a dorm before but all my apprehensions were again relieved as I made some life long friends and had immense fun. I slept for some time and by 8 am went to the office to pay my deposit, appraised about the timings including lunch and dinner and my duty of karma yoga. What what is karma yoga? I will realise later on that Sivananda ashram is based on Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana yoga and you can read about it on Sivananda.org. I had to volunteer for one hour of service in selfless devotion towards the ashram and immediately loved the idea. Although initially I was assigned to clean up an area of ashram, later on I opted for serving food i.e is lunch and dinner. I became a big hit with everyone since I served with compassion and diligence and made sure that everyone got food at the earliest. My core competency in helping people has always been in serving food and always preferred to serve food as a social service even when I served in Vipassana courses as a volunteer and in Langer in Gurdwaras.
The staff of the ashram was so impressed that they welcomed me to come anytime and requested I always serve in the dining hall. I had come to attend Yoga Vocational course which is about 15 days and realised that there is also a 45 day Teachers Training Course for more serious people. The Teachers Training Course is very popular among foreigners, highly regarded as a certificate of perfection in yoga and people come from around the world to attend the course. I was pleasantly surprised when i realised that about 75% of all participants were foreigners and very happy when i observed some of them were fantastically beautiful women. Wow what a great place felt like paradise on earth since I was expecting yogis with long beards and felt like utopian society of spiritualists. More about it later.
We all had 6 hours of session of yoga in the hall with lunch break in between. In the morning there is an hour of chanting of mantras and it was really funny to hear foreigners chanting in Hindi. Initially i found it hilarious but then I got used to it and appreciated their seriousness. I realised that many foreigners come to India looking for spiritual well-being and Sivananda is a very popular destination for them to visit.
There are two main yoga halls in Sivananda ashram, the upper one is very big and is used mainly for Teachers Training Course( Photo on the left) while the one below is used for beginners especially Yoga vocation courses. The lower hall photos of spiritual saints incl. Lord Buddha, Jesus, Guru Nanak , Indian deities etc. Everyone is taught 12 postures and the ultimate posture is head stand which is taught at the end of two days if i am not wrong. I soon realised that I was the worst among the whole lot and every class was a personal embarrassment. I realised that on an average women were by far more flexible than men and I think we need some research on this. Someone said there is a scientific reason for this and I am not sure I remember now. It was mandatory to start the yoga session with solar salutations also known as Surya Namaskar which is very popular in India and around the world. This I found to be the easiest in terms of asanas although some of them are still difficult to replicate in precise manner. We did many known poses including cobra asanas for back, chest raises, As we progressed over the days I realised that some of the postures were not worth trying since I might have to take many births to perfect them haha.
We had a small hut where we could order nutritious snacks and had two tea breaks one in the morning and one in the evening.The mix of people in Sivananda were from around the world with majority of them from Europe. Most of the folks at Sivananda had come to certify for the yoga certificate and was an eclectic mix of people from various professional background. I met many folks from Britain and Germany including many groups of men and women. In the Left photo Adam, Carolina, Catherine and Sylvia, Naser on right. I met Jolie from Britain who is a fitness and wellbeing consultant and does weight training and yoga to stay fit and advice cutting edge fitness solutions to her clients( side pic). One of the most jovial guy i met was Adam who has been travelling in search of spirituality around the world and frequently visits India. He is on a spiritual sabbatical and relaxed symbolising a cool Brit dude. The first time I met Adam, I thought I had met Rip Van Winkle who had just got up from his sleep. He is a real fun guy and motivated me to become vegetarian. He is good friends and stay in touch through Facebook. I remember i bought the orange yoga pyjama which i am wearing in the photo..one of my favourites. (Photo below on right hand side: cool dude with quintessential dude). Catherine, a very young and beautiful girl from Germany who was already a yoga master and is yet to turn 20, while Carolina and Sylvia who were out to explore spirituality in India. Interesting personalities like Gurpreet Preet Singh from India who is a tough sardar battling cancer, the mischievous Abhinand R, the good guys Nasser and his friend from Iran, versatile Vasudev, Shreejit, Sakthi Vel, Teo, Sandra and many more. In my life I have never met so many people from all walks of life and from all the continents. Met many Indians who had come to attend the yoga for certification and were predominantly from southern part of India. Some of them were keen to become yoga instructors abroad. The Dude meditating on Varkala beach ( below)
During my time in Sivananda we had a break and travelled around Trivandrum. Once we all went to Varkala beach, a fabulous beach with its own community and Kollam, a beautiful backwater close to Trivandrum. The view from the boat was truly breathtaking and no wonder Kerala is known as God’s own country. Inset:Group photo on a boat while travelling in backwater. It was a wonderful journey and it was great to get perspective of everyone. It was a memorable day for many and we reached back to ashram late by making a quick visit to kovalam beach.
Every saturday there is a Talent competition in Sivananda ashram where people come and perform various acts for everyone. I co hosted the event along with a senior member and brought in humor and laughter among all. I introduced by announcing ladies and gentleman this is Nish direct from Sivananda got talent. Clapping & laughter. I was thinking of saying brothers and sisters but then i realised that i was attracted to some of them present in the audience. No need to improvise here and let’s stick to the tried and tested ladies and gentleman.
( Nataraj, centre manager of Neyyar ashram down below). I was at my usual best with one liners and we all saw some stunning performances by some participants including a very difficult yoga asana done effortlessly by a young guy from Kerala. We also had a classical show of Xylophone and Tabla which kept the audience spell bounded. Although not everyone could relate to the music ( The Dude could since he is considered by many as a patron of Chinese culture and art), everyone applauded since the music was wonderful and haunting. I kept on trying to do headstand but till the end I could not succeed. But it’s ALRIGHT ALRIGHT ALRIGHT
It was one of my best trips ever and I plan to go there soon. It is very heartening to know that yoga is so popular abroad and very sad Indians do not practise it so much although it is changing thanks to efforts by Mr. Modi for resurrecting the art in India.
Sivananda ashram was a fantastic experience with top-notch teachers who are on the top of their talents, very pristine surroundings, great mix of people from around the world with a mix of spirituality and good fun.
Last but not the least there is a ayurveda centre also in the ashram which is very popular around the world. The head and body massage is very famous. I will highly recommended people to go to Sivananda ashram and I think there are about five in India. It is a great place to start learning Yoga with nature all around you as you practise meditation or asanas. It is definitely a very good place for all foreigners to visit while touring India either for spiritual well-being or look for holistic adventure. I will continue to go to Sivananda ashrams all my life but Neyyar dam will always have a special place. Someone in Neyyar dam suggested I try Bikram Yoga to increase my flexibility and so I also tried Bikram and Iyengar Yoga. More will be coming up on them as well…