December 2008 I spent Christmas at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, India and it was awesome. Awesome in the sense that awe was inspired.
For context, I was in the middle of some kind of an emotional collapse at the time and the experience was far from easy. I’d only just started practicing yoga and meditation. I was about a year into my spiritual journey. My body ached like hell and my heart was in free fall. It was seriously… tough!
On our first evening there everyone in the dormitory was in bed and asleep by 9pm. My friend and I were like… what? We soon discovered why. Wake up bell is at 5.30am. Meditation starts at 6am. Hours and hours of yoga asana practice follow. Then karma yoga, then more asana practice, then satsang and more satsang and then satsang. At some point you eat and wash. All of this in the 40 degrees heat. By 9pm it’s literally lights out. The tank is empty.
Karma Yoga, by the way, is yoga as act of service. In the ashram it mostly translates as domestic work – cleaning, cooking, washing up. The most coveted of karma yoga tasks is cleaning the shrine. Everybody wants that job. Only the select few get it. As a newbie I was bottom rung of the ladder. Cleaning the showers was where I was at. (There must have been someone lower than me because at least I didn’t have to clean the loo.)
The dormitory slept about 30 people. All girls with a separate dormitory for the boys. Between each bed there was a gap of about 18, maybe 24 inches. The only place to put your stuff was to leave it in your rucksack and shove the rucksack under your bed. Each person had a tiny, weeny bedside table.
The girl in the next bed to me shaved off all her hair on our third day as a symbol of her devotion to God. It maybe sounds a bit woowoo but it’s actually not. It’s actually awesome.
One day after brunch Swami told us we were going on a very special walk that afternoon. It will be strenuous, he said, but entirely manageable if you remember your yogic breathing. You should need nothing more than your yogic breath. Three counts in, six counts out.
I didn’t know Swami well enough to know that this meant ‘you are about to embark on the craziest mother-fucker of a walk you have ever been on’.
At some points I was literally on hands and knees scrambling up a 1:1 gradient path of loose rock and dust. One guy was wearing flip flops that snapped under the pressure and he had to complete the rest of the walk barefoot. Some people got so overwhelmed they decided to stop and wait to meet the walk on its way back down. Only the walk came down via a different route so I’m not sure what happened to them.
Clearly, health and safety weren’t huge on Swami’s agenda. And whilst it maybe isn’t very woke to say it, the liberation of that was thrilling.
By the time we reached the top of the mountain night had fallen and some kind of fire ceremony was underway. Stick thin sages and sadhus, their hair in extraordinary, floor length dreadlocks, wearing loin cloth and not much else, squatted beside the flames or prostrated themselves over and over again. The sky was so clear it felt like you could see every star in the galaxy. Our bodies were purified from so much yoga and meditation and the sensation was one of being transported to a place half-way between heaven and earth. A place far less material and more etherial.
After a couple of weeks we reluctantly and ecstatically left the ashram and headed to Kovalam where we found a very basic but utterly gorgeous little hostel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay. We swam in the clear blue sea, sunbathed, ate delicious fresh fish and drank ice cold beer. And not so long after that we went back to London.
Last week I went to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centre in Putney. I’ve been meaning to go for literally fifteen years but I kept telling myself Putney was too far to go for a regular weekly class. Which might be true if you live in Edinburgh. But from Ladbroke Grove?
Now I’ve finally overcome this strange procrastination or whatever it was that caused the hiatus, I can definitely say: Putney is not too far to go for a weekly yoga class.
I’ve been to a lot of yoga classes in a lot of places. I’ve even taught yoga classes in a few of them. In London alone I’ve been to spa ones and town hall ones and (horror of horrors!) gym ones, empty office between business tenant ones and upmarket yoga centre ones filled with yummy Mummies in Lululemon and Buddha statues, like they’re not sure if they’re a yoga centre of a Buddhist centre or just a business premise that’s happy to piggy back on whatever spiritual iconography will help it increase its profit margin. Om!
It’s all good. There’s something for everyone out there. And each of us will probably require a different thing at different times in our lives. There’s so much snobbery in the yoga world, but actually there’s absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with any of it.
But for me this traditional style of yoga hits a spot others just can’t reach. I don’t even know exactly what it is. An energy, a vibe, a profound authenticity. I just love it.
Om namah shivaya.