On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part Two)

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.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam  Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

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.

Gabriella hauls our bin, Sivananda ashram

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.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

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.

Nataraj at lecture, Sivananda ashram

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!

On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part One)

Note: this post was horrifically long, so I’ve divided it into two. The concluding post will follow next Thursday.

In the high summer, full-time academics often get asked what it is we are up to. Or, more accurately, we get knowing, slightly envious looks from people who ask us when we will be going back to work. Although I always gently correct in these situations, letting acquaintances know that we are in our research-intensive term and then explaining a bit about my current writing project, the truth is that most of us are enormously privileged to have large swaths of unscheduled time in July and August (and sometimes May and June, depending on where you work). Of course, such freedom bears with it responsibility: I need to mind my deadlines, and plan work days accordingly. But I’m also fortunate to be free in summer to experiment, try new things, and make fresh discoveries. That is something I happily trade for a slightly less impressive salary than I might make in one of the more timetable-intensive professions.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge advocate of taking breaks and holidays; without dedicated recharging time I become weary and lacklustre, no good to my students or my colleagues. But holidays are also, for me, often a chance to learn and grow – whether as a scholar, a teacher, or just a human being in the world – and so they were for me this year.

I’ve just returned from three weeks in India, my first time in South Asia. I travelled to Hyderabad for the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research (the next post up on the blog will feature a report from my friend and colleague Elaine Aston, on a stunning piece of feminist theatre we witnessed there), and then on to Neyyar Dam in Kerala, to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari ashram.
Sivananda ashram Sivananda ashram

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

I spent ten days at the ashram, engaged in a rigorous daily program of meditation, chanting, volunteer work, and yoga. This post, and the upcoming part 2, tell the story of what I took, as a teacher, from that time.

The first thing to know about me is that I am probably the last person you might imagine at an ashram, let alone one in a jungle. I only began practicing yoga about five years ago; before that I notoriously resisted it. To this day I find myself cringing as often as not when (typically white, Anglo) yoga teachers close our practice with “Namaste”. (Note to those teachers: while in Neyyar Dam we read from chant books written in Sanskrit every day, and never once did we say Namaste.) I am also hopelessly afraid of spiders, snakes, do badly with mosquitoes, and would rather not shower in full view of a nervous-looking gecko. Plus, I am a fiend about cleanliness. Add all this up and you don’t exactly get Indian ashram, in the middle of monsoon season to boot.

What took me to the Sivananda centre, then? Well, I’m pretty thrifty: I could not imagine someone else (Western, my university) paying my way to India and not tacking a proper holiday onto my work duties. And I’ve had a really, really hard year, with family illness, lots of emotional turmoil, and moving continents all in the mix. (For more context, should you wish it, click here.) Finally, there was the slightly nervy allure of doing something completely outside of my normal: this year, of all years, I felt a pull to step beyond myself, even if only for a short time, to see what would happen if I cut myself off from my world and lived briefly in the shoes of another version of me. Could I let myself relax, in order to perhaps expand myself a bit, as we do in yogic breathing or when practicing poses? I’m always insisting my students challenge themselves to take a leap beyond their comfort zones; it’s only fair that I do the same once in a while.

Sivananda ashram

At Neyyar Dam, the day begins at 5:20am, or 5:15 if you are, like me, unlucky enough to get a room beside the first morning bell (there are two; the ashram is spread across a hillside in the unspeakably glorious Western Ghats). The next thing you hear is the sound of recorded devotional music ringing over the hills from the temple in the town below, and then you’re off, sprayed all over with insect repellant, yoga mat or meditation cushion in hand, hurrying toward the main hall for morning Satsang – half an hour of silent meditation, followed by daily chants, readings, and announcements. Tea is at 7:30, often accompanied by a very small snack of food blessed during the ceremony at the end of Satsang. Milky, warm, and sweet, the tea, offered beneath a tree in the communal courtyard below the hall, provides a small boost of protein and comfort before a challenging two hours of asana practice (yoga poses in the hatha style, in a set order according to Sivananda tradition). By 10am you are ravenous, so it’s lucky that brunch is ready: you head for the dining hall, leave your shoes at the entrance, wash your hands, and then take a place at one of the long prayer mats set facing one another at the far end of the room. Hare Krishna is sung, a mealtime prayer of thanks spoken, and the ashram’s founding teachers praised before everyone tucks in, side by side, eating with their hands in silence. The food is delicious, vegetarian, and bountiful: staff and volunteers return again and again offering seconds, thirds, and more. Finished, you return to the long, communal sink and wash up your plate and cup. Many hands, light work

tea kettles, Sivananda ashramKeralan Feast for Swami Shiva's death day, Sivananda ashramSivananda ashram

After the meal it’s time to help with chores; everyone, including staff, is assigned a modest duty that might take 15-30 minutes each day to complete. (Mine was emptying garbage bins; at first I grumped, until I realised it was among the quickest “karma yoga” jobs to finish. Suffice to say I have a new appreciation for the labour of garbage collectors!) From noon until 2pm ashram visitors can take optional meditation and asana coaching classes, and then it’s time for a lecture on some aspect of yoga practice or Hindu spirituality. Herbal refreshment and a small snack appears under the tea tree at 1:30pm, and at 3:30 a further two hour asana class is held. A lighter meal is served at 6pm, and at 8pm evening Satsang takes place, closing the day with another round of meditation and chanting, always accompanied by music played on a keyboard, with tambourines and other noise-makers. It is raucous, joyful, soulful. And then, thankfully, bed.

Like many taking part in the ashram’s “yoga vacation” program (it runs every two weeks throughout the year), I found this schedule thoroughly exhausting at the start, and I was briefly freaked out by both the amount and the fervour of the devotional practices that form the heart of Satsang. I’m not a morning person by any means, and for the first few days the morning bell tore me out of dreams, leaving my eyelids droopy and my chanting mostly yawns. Eating only twice in the day, and right after exercise, took getting used to as well; at first I seemed to starve profoundly in the mornings, and I wolfed far too much brunch as a consequence. And then there was the yoga itself. Even the beginner classes at the Sivananda centre progress quickly, and when I arrived the previous group’s beginner sessions had already moved on to poses I consider relatively advanced, from headstand to crow. As I’ve been doing yoga for some time now I challenged myself in the intermediate classes and set a goal for my stay: to manage a headstand, completely unaided. (I’m proud to say I achieved this, for three whole seconds on my penultimate day.) Nevertheless, every day was gruelling, with four hours of yoga followed by much cross-legged sitting for meals and Satsang. My body ached.

There were fringe benefits to all this, though. Soon I was sleeping soundly at night, waking before the bell, and then giving myself permission to nap after brunch. I began to find the regular chanting enchanting; what was at first intimidating and confusing grew familiar as I realised I had learned the words to a couple of our daily chants and could join in with tambourines and clapping as the pace sped up and our voices lifted higher. I confess I remained a professional skeptic during the lectures, frustrated in particular with what seemed to me a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-materialist approach to the idea of the human mind, but more and more I grew to appreciate the balance and inquisitiveness with which Nataraj, the ashram’s longtime director, handled questions from the group. I spoke up more. And then, on my final Saturday, I volunteered to curate our group talent show. (Ok, so that part is, perhaps, a touch predictable. Drama queen, me.)

The greatest benefit I derived from my time in Neyyar Dam I could not have imagined before arriving, though: I discovered, unexpectedly, what it is like to be a student again. And not just any student, but one who comes from outside the school’s norm, is unsure of everything, doesn’t speak the language, and isn’t especially good at lessons. In the second part of this post, I’ll share in detail the valuable lessons I learned when I found myself watching life at the ashram through the eyes of one of my own typical students: an average achiever.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

Om, shanti!