Note: Last Thursday, I published the first part of a post detailing my experiences at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, on the south-western tip of India. This post continues with the story of what I learned as a student – and not a very high-achieving one! – while at the ashram. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read the first post (or to look at the great photos!), please click here.
Like many of my peers in the academic labour force I do the job I do because I was naturally good at school and enjoyed it; I got a lot of As and didn’t really have to try that hard. Worse still, I had little sympathy for the dullards who didn’t get it. Though of course I try extremely hard not to be such a jerk now that I am a teacher, the fact is that I do not properly understand, in my bones or in my brain, what it feels like not to be an ace achiever, and research on young students suggests that this lack of empathy probably impacts my teaching regularly, though not in ways I often notice. I suspect it impacts most of us.
At the ashram, participating in yoga (at which I am good but not great) and meditation (at which I am dreadful) each day – that is, being the student who can’t read the script, can’t sit still for long, doesn’t know the pose, and cannot stand on her head with ease – was really discomfiting for me. Fully outside my comfort zone, and then some. I had to learn to make peace with being just OK, rather than A+. That took more than a couple of days. In the process, however, I received a gift: I began to view life at the ashram from the perspective of an average student, which for these ten days I absolutely was. And through those eyes I learned some valuable things.
First, I realised how truly important a welcoming space is to any classroom setup, and especially for those who think they probably suck at whatever it is you are about to do together. Content-appropriate teaching space is something I’ve long fought for as a drama teacher who often gets assigned lecture rooms with fixed seating (ugh!), but the true value of a space not just appropriate but genuinely warm and welcoming appeared to me in my first yoga class at the ashram. We formed two long rows down the centre of the Satsang hall, the breeze glancing over us through the open arches on either side. Our teachers began class at the head of the room but quickly moved to walk the length of the hall, back and forth, passing amongst us quietly to offer corrections and assistance. The sounds of the jungle accompanied our poses, as did the gentle, meditative sing-song with which Sivananda teachers are trained to deliver their asana instructions. My sense of intimidation dissipated quickly; whatever happened in my poses, however I struggled or failed, I felt happy, at ease, and brightened in my surroundings.
Second, I learned that if you are going to maintain a tight ship (and wow, is an ashram ever a tight ship!), you need to build in time for proper rest, and you need to offer it consistently. Although the worship practice at the Sivananda ashram advocates transcendence and eschews worldly things, we were reminded always that offering genuine, loving care to our bodies was an essential part of that work. I was given plenty of time to care for my (aching) human body at Neyyar Dam, and nowhere more so than during asana classes themselves, when I frankly needed it most. If you are familiar with yoga you know that each class ends with a closing rest, but at the ashram that rest was magnified tenfold, and disbursed evenly throughout our time together. After each series of postures in each yoga class we spent time resting in Savasana, lying on our backs in stillness amid the jungle sounds outside the hall, and we ended each class with at least five to seven minutes of blissful, complete rest, and typically more. I soon realised the classes were programmed for two hours simply because a full quarter of that time was set aside deliberately for resting.
The value of this approach to planning lessons was a remarkable revelation for me, as I suspect it would be for most Type A teachers. Ask yourself: do I strive to cram as much content as possible into a lesson? Do I go overtime to squeeze out one more brilliant point? Am I ashamed if class accidentally ends early? That’s still me, even 10 years on, and even though each year I program fewer texts and less content. The fact is I had not until now fully recognised that rest is not antithetical to, but rather an essential part of, hard work – especially if you cannot stand on your head with the greatest of ease. Yes, I knew the value of rest days as a cyclist, and yes, I believed in breaks as a teacher. But I don’t need a lot of rest to ride well on my bike and I don’t need a lot of breaks to absorb tricky, abstract ideas, because these two things are among my strong suits. I am not gifted at yoga, though. I truly needed the multiple, regular rests at Neyyar Dam – simply in order to make progress.
Third (and very much related): I learned how important it is to end class on time. I really learned this, in my very stomach. The student who is not your devoted follower and cannot get enough of your instruction really just wants to eat her lunch now. She stopped listening to you ten minutes ago. Give yourself a rest, and show her some grace too.
Finally, I learned to feel real compassion, genuine empathy, for those who live their lives according to someone else’s timetable and rules. It’s been a while since I went to college; I’d forgotten what it feels like! The daily schedule I detailed last week is not optional: everyone who comes to the Sivananda ashram is expected to take part in the whole program, every day, unless they are unwell or are undertaking one of the on-site clinic’s Ayurvedic detox programs. Wake now; be in class now, and now, and now; eat now (in silence!); now turn out your lights. While initially I felt enormous freedom in being given no choice but to partake in ashram life, released for once from the burden of figuring out my next move amidst the apparently endless array of distractions with which we live now, I also felt keenly the pressure exerted by someone else’s idea of What Is Best For Me.
I don’t often meditate; my mind wonders and I frankly don’t care. (The unadorned world is a marvellous place to take in – especially in gorgeous Kerala! – and I would rather not shut it out for long periods at a time.) I hate sitting cross-legged with no back support. The ashram’s dress code stipulates that knees and shoulders must be covered at all times and that all clothing must be loose (no Lululemon here, bless!) – which is, to be honest, not at all my preferred wardrobe for sweaty exercise. I showed respect for the rules as much as possible, but I truly appreciated when they bent a little to make space for those of us resisting in our hearts, or just plain uncomfortable. Nobody (well, ok, one person once) complained when I regularly chose to pull my knees to my chest during evening Satsang, and to glance out into the sky. Nataraj made a point of reminding us that yoga is an individual practice, one in which we decide what we need and follow only that which serves us best. I was reprimanded once, privately, for wearing a (quite modest!) dress that inadvertently revealed my knees while I was cross-legged, but nobody called anyone out or nagged excessively. Within the rules we knew how to be, and on the whole generous and kind we were.
Though as a student I was not on board with all of the life choices made by those in permanent residence at Neyyar Dam, I nevertheless felt appreciated on my own terms throughout my stay. Of course, back in my room, I laughed with my wonderful roommate Gabriella at the silliness of some of it (did I mention we were more or less living in dorms?), but I also came to realise, with compassion once again, that the job of herding cats on yoga vacations is probably rather hard, and that the ashram rules exist to support everyone’s continued sanity and good humour.
Teachers and students working in harmony, sharing community, growing their own selves wider and taller: that will be my main memory of this place in the damp south Indian hills. That remembrance is built of the ashram’s commitment to an honest, delightful welcome, proper room to rest and breathe throughout the day, every day, and by the chance this trip afforded me to feel in my own body the true challenges that come with learning the brand-new and often-difficult from scratch. I hope I can bring these small gifts with me into my own teaching spaces come fall.
Om, shanti, jai!