Over two weeks ago I left the Sivananda Neyyar Dam Ashram to explore Varkala. I had planned to stay for their full 2-week “Yoga Vacation,” but ended up cutting my stay a couple days short. It’s been really nice to have a bit of time to reflect on my experience before writing this post. At times it was quite intense and tiring, but overall I really enjoyed my Ashram experience there. By reflecting on my own experience hopefully I can provide a bit of insight to anyone else interested in going to a Sivananda Ashram.
Daily Schedule: Get ready to chant your heart out!
Each day at the Ashram begins and ends with Satsang: basically one and a half hours filled with meditation, singing the daily chants, and a short reading from the gurus. Throughout my time at the Ashram I struggled to enjoy the Satsang. I knew there would be a lot of chanting in Asrham life, but I didn’t know how I would react to it. Sometimes it seemed never ending, other times I found it joyful and even a bit fun.
The best Satsang is Wednesday and Sunday morning when you go for a silent walk to watch the sunrise over the dam. After a short meditation, most of which I was always watching as the horizon grew brighter, the chanting begins again. The chanting at the lake is a bit more relaxed and organic… and exciting as you wait for the sun to appear from behind the hills.
After Satsang it’s time for a bit of masala chai. This was a crucial part of the day when I was going through coffee withdrawal on the first few days of my stay. Soon after tea the first (yes, there’s two) yoga class of the day begins.
There are two levels of yoga classes: beginner and intermediate. I stuck with the beginner class after trying one intermediate class. If you’re new to yoga or interested in getting the correct form for each posture in the Sivananda series the beginner class is perfect. The instructors model proper postures and explain the benefits of the posture too. Over the two week Yoga Vacation the class progresses. Although it seemed really slow at the start, the beginners class gains momentum quickly. By contrast, in the intermediate class, there is very little instruction provided so you need to have a good idea of what you’re doing beforehand.
The second yoga class of the day takes place in the late afternoon. I really enjoyed the immersion into Sivanada Yoga. One of the reasons I chose to stay at a Sivanada Ashram is because of the focus on practicing the physical postures, or asanas. The series draws a lot from traditional Hatha yoga, with Sun salutations to begin followed by the postures with short periods of rest in between. I also gained a new appreciation for pranayama, or breath. After practicing the the two breathing exercises at the beginning of class I felt more awake and connected to my body. I think the focus on pranayama is sometimes lacking in Western yoga classes, so I hope I can integrate this into my own yoga teaching.
To supplement what you learn in the yoga classes and provide some context for Ashram life, there is a daily lecture in the afternoon. I found this was actually really enriching and helpful to understand some of the ashram customs, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. Topics included the different yogic pathways to reach self-realization and the 5 Points of Yoga (ex. proper diet, proper exercise, proper relaxation).
Two Meals a Day to Keep the Doctor Away
After the first yoga class you wait patiently, no matter how hungry you are, for brunch. The food at the ashram is based mostly around the yogic diet, which is a bit complicated, but mostly vegan apart from milk products. Usually some sort of vegetarian curry is served along with rice, broth, and sometimes raita. Sometimes there were also fried papadums – amazing! The final meal of the day, dinner, is usually a bit lighter and served after the second yoga class. I loved how normal eating with my hands became at the end of my time at the ashram, but you can also bring your own spoon if you wish.
Not to be forgotten, there is also a tea and snack time in the afternoon. Usually they serve a herbal tea with fresh fruit. A few times I was late to afternoon tea and completely missed out on the fruit; which is a crushing moment when you only have two meals a day.
Practicing Karma Yoga
Time at the Ashram passes quickly because you’re almost always doing something. In addition to all of the daily activities, each person staying at the Ashram is assigned Karma Yoga: a duty requiring selfless service with no expectation of personal gain. The duties are assigned somewhat randomly and can include cleaning the dormitories, serving food at mealtimes, and emptying garbage bins. I was super lucky (although we were told not become attached to our duty, or form an opinion of it) to have my karma yoga in the Ashram boutique. For an hour every evening I helped to make sure people weren’t stealing (it happens apparently), fold clothes, stock items, help customers find what they needed, and clean-up after closing. It was a bit stressful during busy times, but mostly quite relaxing.
Fridays are considered a “day off” at the Ashram. I loved these days and found that they provided a necessary break from the Ashram routine. Although it’s technically a “day off” and you can leave the Ashram anytime, most daily activities still take place except for the lecture.
On my first Friday, myself and nine other ladies left the Ashram after brunch to search for lions and elephants… there are a few wildlife parks in Neyyar Dam. After walking to the dam we booked a boat to drive us around to their four wildlife for about 750 Rupees each. It was super fun to have our own private boat – the lake above the dam is gorgeous. The boat driver took us to see the elephants, crocodiles, deer, and lions.
However it was a bit sad and disappointing to see all the animals in quite small enclosures. It definitely wasn’t a park or safari as they try to lead you to believe. But I really appreciated going on an adventure out of the Ashram and visiting with the other ladies. To top the day off we went for a swim in the lake, relaxing in the warm water. There’s a sign warning of crocodiles in the lake… luckily the last incident was 10 years ago and we didn’t see any lurking around.
On the second day off I went on the Ahsram tour to Kanyakumari with about 30 other lovely yogis. We visited many palaces and temples, but the highlight for me was going to the southernmost point in India and seeing where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea meet (roughly). I also loved the sunset swim – so refreshing after a day of sightseeing and using questionable Indian toilets.
A Good Way to Ease into Indian Life
Despite struggling sometimes with the chanting and the repetitiveness of the Ashram day, I really enjoyed my time at the Sivananda Neyyar Dam Ashram. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to travel on my own in India, but I quickly gained confidence – even just from taking the bus from Trivandrum to Neyyar Dam was enough to show me that I would definitely be okay traveling in India. I met many nice friends at the Ashram too, who helped to inspire me to visit some different places and not stick completely to my original plan. If you’re traveling in Kerala I would recommend checking out this place!