Seeking Spirituality at the Shivananda Yoga Ashram in Kerala, India

yoga ashram india

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself” – Buddha

“Ommmmmmmmmmmmm.” I can say this word a thousand times over but it doesn’t become more real. I’m sat cross-legged on the cold floor with my yoga mat perched under my bum for support. I try to keep my back straight but at 6am in the morning it just won’t do what its told. In front of me the golden-eyed statue of the Hindu god Nataraja glares at me from the temple alter. Next to him are the equally intimidating effigies of Sivananda, and Vishnu Devananda, the once enlightened, now deceased gurus of this ashram. Small candles and incense burn steadily around them and I watch as the smoke wafts outside, lingering in the fronds of coconut trees before evanescing away on the morning breeze.

And then I realise my mind has drifted once again. I’m supposed to be meditating and freeing my mind of thoughts in order to attach myself to the eternal consciousness. I close my eyes and try again. “Ommmmmmmm”

yoga ashram india

I’m in India, a place that has long been renowned for its spirituality; and with more religions in the subcontinent than there are states, it is perhaps no surprise that people come here to “find themselves.” But I’m not not exactly sure what I’m trying to find here and I suppose that is the problem.

When I first arrived in India I came with the same preconceptions as most travelers – that I wanted to find the illusive spirituality that sent so many hippies here when an increase materialism began to dominate the West. But whilst this increase sent confused Westerners on spiritual journeys to India, India’s own materialist boom allowed it to monetize on it by exporting spiritual culture and marketing it towards Western tastes. Hence the reason why yoga is now so well-known internationally.

But the yoga that reached the Western world is simply one ‘limb’ of an ’8 limb’ practice. Indians call this one limb ‘asana’ and the remaining 7 limbs include a disciplined set of rules on how to live your life in order to achieve enlightenment. These rules include instructions for diet, meditation, devotion, breathing…the list goes on. For me, it was asana that drew me towards India’s spirituality, but I was also interested in learning the other 7 limbs of yoga. Indian ashrams give visitors the chance to do this, offering up a kind of crash course in spirituality for those seeking a deeper side to yoga.

On the hunt for a spiritual story, I found myself at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, one of the Southern states of India. The ashram surrounds a giant lake, and is fringed by coconut plantations and jungle, encapsulating all the beauty of Kerala in its little grounds. On arrival, I was handed a mosquito net, a bedsheet, and a schedule and was led to a 40 person dormitory. My schedule was split into four main parts: satsang, karma yoga, meals, and asana class. The woman at reception assured me sternly that all parts were absolutely mandatory. I was a little weary about the enforced schedule. This all seemed a little strict for my taste, but ,as I was to find out, ashram rules are to be followed, never questioned. Feeling like Liz from Eat, Pray, Love, I shuffled off to my first activity -karma yoga – wondering exactly why I had come here in the first place. Was I really trying to “find myself?” Would I?

yoga ashram india

scenic surroundings at the ashram

 

Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is considered an essential step to enlightenment . It is a selfless service that is supposed to “free your ego” by doing something for no reward. Everyone in the ashram is asked to do karma yoga, and not only does it count as one of the 8 limbs of yoga, but it is also meant to make you feel more a part of ashram life, as you take part in day to day tasks involved in the running of the ashram.

I would consider my main fault as being a tendency towards materialism, so I was really hoping that my time in the ashram would help me to escape from this. Imagine my dismay, then, when I was told my task: working in the ashram boutique shop! As it turned out though, this was not such a bad task when compared to cleaning the dormitory toilets. With the CD player pumping out Indian beats, and streams of people passing through to buy mystical accessories and trinkets, I found my work in the boutique rather enjoyable. I wasn’t quite sure it was helping me to enlightenment, although perhaps I was lightening the pockets of visitors in order to line the pockets of the Sivananada ashram.

yoga ashram india

 

Asana Class

At Sivananda, asana classes (which are what we know as ‘yoga’ in the West) run twice daily, for 2 hours each. Whilst 4 hours of asana a day is quite a lot for beginners, it also meant that we experienced very fast progression. Our yoga instructors were a mix of Westerners and Indians, and were all well-trained and friendly. Over the course of two weeks they slowly introduced us to the 12 basic asana poses, making each class a little more difficult than the last.

The only downside of asana at Sivananda was the sheer amount of people in each class – roughly 30 – which meant you got very little one-on-one time with the instructors. To counter this, an additional coaching class was run during lunchtime to help people with specific poses they were struggling with.

Asana class was my favourite part of the day. Although it left me feeling tired and achy at first, I started to notice a change in my body towards the end. I was stonger, fitter, and more flexible. It was amazing to see myself change.

yoga ashram india

Ashram Food

In India, Ayurvedic (natural) medicine influences cuisine, and the ingredients of each dish often include several Ayurvedic herbs and spices that are said to be good for overall constitution. In the ashram, Ayurveda governs the meals completely, with certain foods being eliminated  from the food due to their dubious properties. Meat, fish, and eggs are all banned items, as these do not form a proper yogic diet – which is always vegetarian. Since celibacy is practiced at the ashram, anything that is considered to be an aphrodisiac is also off the menu. This includes spices, onions, ginger, and garlic.

In my opinion, this limited diet left very little to be desired. Slushy, favlourless curries with overcooked vegetables and rice were served two times a day – at 10am and 6pm. These meals were to be eaten in silence, making for a rather bland eating experience. What surprised me the most, however, was how we were pushed to eat more than we could, often having second and third helpings dropped on our plate before we had time to refuse.

I was really disappointed by the food at Sivananda, and felt that it lacked the finesse of my eating experience in a Buddhist temple in Korea, where we were taught to conserve water and food, and ate vegetarian food of extremely high quality with excellent nutrition.

yoga ashram india

Satsang

Satsang was the one part of my stay in the Sivananda ashram that nearly drove me over the edge on insanity. It included half an hour of meditation, followed by chanting, singing, devotional readings, and finally prassad, which is an edible blessing. For me, satsang became so boring that the prassad no longer seemed like a decent pay-off. This happy-clappy ceremony went on for a nightmarish three hours a day, from 6am to 7.30am in the mornings, and 8pm to 9.30pm at night. I knew that there would be a religious element to studying yoga in India, but I did not expect it to feel so much like a cult. For some people, satsang was the highlight of their day, allowing them to show devotion and share happiness through chants. For me, new to the culture of Indian devotional prayer, it was almost unbearable.

The word ‘God’ was thrown around a lot in Satsang, and although we offered devotion to all gods (mainly Hindu), it was this use of ‘god’ that left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The fact is that I just don’t believe in God, and I had wrongly assumed that in the ashram no one would either. They taught us in Sivanada that God is the universe, and is therefore everything. This, I can believe. But if that is so then why offer blessings? why offer devotion? Why sing like you are in a school choir? This all seemed unnecessary. I often found myself daydreaming about all the things I could do if I weren’t in Satsang – lie and sunbathe on the grass, gossip with my new ashram friends, draw, write, practice asana poses….anything! All this sitting around chanting meaningless phrases to the universe seemed a total waste of time.

There were one or two times, however, when Satsang was OK. Twice a week we would take a walk down to the lake in the morning. Sitting on the banks of the lake, we would roll out our yoga mats and meditate – or try to meditate – and watch as the sun rose in the sky. I would sit and enjoy the peaceful beauty of the nature that surrounded us, but then, just as I was getting settled, the chanting and singing would begin and spoil it for me.

yoga ashram india

So…..did I “find myself?”

I made amazing friendships at the Sivananda ashram, and discovered a passion for asana that I’d never explored before, and in that sense it was a fantastic experience. However, I truly believe that the road to spirituality does not lie locked inside an ashram, and I did not travel thousands of miles to India to be are spoon-fed spirituality in the easy-to-swallow form of ‘god.’ Sivananda felt a bit like a yoga factory to me. It was a great place to get a taster of Indian spirituality, but it just wasn’t for me.

Did I find myself at the ashram? No, I didn’t. Why? Because I already know who I am. I respect ashram culture for offering a route to happiness for people who require a structured system of worship. I also loved how the ashram’s form of worship celebrated all religions, and encouraged people to strengthen their mind, body, and soul. However, I don’t need to sing songs and live on a scheduled routine every day to show my devotion to the universe. I offer my thanks to the universe every time I touch down in a new country, every time I am humbled by another human being, every time I stand on the shores of a tropical island and thank the world for allowing me to travel there.

As it turns out, I don’t need blessings or enlightenment. I am already blessed.

Would you ever stay at an ashram? Did my experience meet your expectations of ashram life?

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24 Responses to Seeking Spirituality at the Shivananda Yoga Ashram in Kerala, India

  1. George says:

    Wow great story. It seems like though like with a lot of stuff in India that even spirituality is now a money making business. It sounds like it was good though just the experience that sort of thing though. I’d be interested to see what it was like but don’t know if I could stomach 2 weeks eep!

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Hey George :)

      Yeah two weeks did end up feeling like a lifetime, but it was nice to take some time out from otherwise chaotic India to indulge in a bit of self-absorption in the pretty surroundings of my ashram!

      And you are right, India now markets so much of its spirituality to tourists that it can be very hard to tell what is real and what is simply a business. Frankly any ashrams that have tourists in them are probably in it for the money more than anything else! I reckon the best ashrams don’t advertise.

  2. Stephanie says:

    This is an amazing blog post. It’s refreshing to see an honest account of life in an Ashram and the details of everyday life there!
    Do you know if theres anything similar to this in Sri Lanka? I’m heading there in Feb and it seems like it would be an amazing experience.

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

      Sri Lanka doesn’t exactly have ashrams, but there are temple stays on offer where you can go and live with Buddhist monks for a bit. I’ve never done this myself, but I’ve been told by other tourists that it is an amazing experience. I think you need to head to Kandy to do this and maybe ask in travel agents there…

      Alternatively there are lots of yoga classes on the beach and in small hotels in Sri Lanka. This offers you the chance to try out yoga but with more opportunities to relax, travel, and do your own thing.

      Sri Lanka is a fantastic place to travel, and if you are into spirituality, then Buddhism (and some Hinduism in the North) are the routes to follow. Kandy and Katharagama are particularly spiritual places, with tons of temples and religious events happening there. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

      Let me know how it all goes. Sri Lanka is my favourite country and I love hearing about it :)

  3. Angela says:

    I would like to stay at an ashram for a couple of months, maybe combining volunteering with the spiritual experience. I’m not going to look for myself, like you, I know who I am, but I’m hoping to be given more inspiration on how to master my mind. Hopefully 2013 will be the year ;)

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Hey Angela,

      Thanks for your comment. If you are looking for a way to master your mind, you can’t go wrong with an ashram. Even though ashram life resonated rather badly with me, it did certainly give me time out from the real world to think about who I am, and master my mind in my own personal way. I also think it would be a great way to experience India through a mix of volunteering and ashram life.

      I would advise you to have a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve before you get here (ie are you planning to master you mind through meditation, yoga, studying, chanting, or all four?) If you do this it will really help you to find the right ashram for you. All the ashrams are different in India, some putting more emphasis on certain activities than other, some offering different types of asana (hatha yoga/ashtanga yoga…etc etc). So do plenty of research before you come, and remember that if you are unhappy for any reason, you can always switch to another ashram and try out something different.

      Good luck and let me know how it all goes :)

  4. Naomi says:

    This really gave me food for thought. I’d love to stay at a yoga ashram someday, but especially what you wrote about satsang resonated with me – I imagine that half of me could get into it, and the other half would be just as skeptical as you were ;)

    Still, it sounds like a truly unique experience, at least!

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Thanks Naomi,

      It certainly was a unique experience and a great way to get an insight into Indian spirituality. I also learnt a lot about Hinduism, which was really interesting as it is so integral to India. As you say though, I was only half able to get into it, and I think I left at the right time – any more than 2 weeks there and I would have gone insane!

  5. Trish says:

    Wow I’m really glad I read this post. I practice yoga in the states and am looking for it as I travel the world. I have visiting an ashram on my list. I still want to do it but I think this helps me have realistic expectations for the reality of what to expect. I don’t believe in god and I do believe in flavorful substantial curries! :) Looking forward to following your blog.

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Thanks Trish,

      It’s great to hear from you. Definitely keep visiting an ashram on your list as it is such a unique experience, but yeah…be prepared for all the other stuff! If you practice yoga a lot in your home country though, perhaps you could do a teacher training course here. I heard that they are really amazing.

  6. Great post, Natalie.

    It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the ashram experience, especially when it’s marketed towards foreigners. I’ve considered the idea of staying at an ashram–since I also am drawn to the asana part of yoga– but like you, I’ve realized that the experience is much more strict and demanding than the free, hippy-ish feeling we get from yoga in the west. I think I’ll stick to yoga classes for now (even though I stopped going to classes at my studio a year ago. Need to get back into it!!) Anyway, I loved reading about your experience, and maybe I’ll consider staying at an ashram when I’m older and have more problems. Ha!

    BTW, you look hott in your photos. ^^

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Thanks Sarah! ^^

      Yeah I’m with you on the whole hippy-chilled yoga we have in the West! I will definitely be joining a regular yoga class when I get back to England. Have been trying to do it daily since I left the ashram, but I don’t always manage it!

      Miss you xxx

  7. I love yoga and try to do it at least once a week. I thought of doing a retreat like that and I might actually do it soon. As I love food, I’m not sure if I would be happy there though :)

  8. RHDLDN says:

    I’ve just began a solo trip round India landing in Delhi yesterday – I’m so glad to have found your blog

  9. wOW. Thank you so much for sharing this post. Very interesting article I enjoy reading and I see you yoga exercise and I think I can do it but the yogic diet no way.Great post

  10. jessica says:

    Sounds like an interesting and eye opening experience if nothing else and I always think such things are well worth trying for personal development. PS your yoga moves are looking good!

  11. Ben says:

    Really nice writing, Natalie.
    It’s an effortless style you have which is really honest too.
    Maybe the lesson here is that if your ashram has a gift shop, then perhaps enlightenment might along a different route!
    enjoy xmas and NYE at home
    cheers
    Ben

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  13. Lucy says:

    Hey there,

    I am in the south of India at the moment travelling with a friend, I came across your blog looking for a an ashram for us to practice yoga and meditation.
    Would you be able to pass on the information where you stayed?
    Pretty cool blog by the way :)

    Cheers
    Lucy (NZ)

    • girlandtheworld says:

      Hey Lucy,

      Good to hear from you. It was the Shivananda Ashram in Kerala. If you google that it is the first website to come up :)

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