I am already at the end of my stay at the Sivananda Ashram! Wow. Time here started out so slowly, every minute packed with new experiences. But as I got into the flow of ashram life, time picked up and has flown by. I stayed 19 days total. My stay was longer than most... I saw SO many people come and go (most staying about 3-6 days). This is the high season, so there have been about 400 guests (including teacher training course students) on the property during my stay. It was not always as tranquil as I thought it would be... the energy is actually pretty high. But the daily structure and focus keeps the environment feeling balanced and intentional.
Reflecting on my time here, I would like to share some highlights ~
I attended an hour-long lecture every afternoon as part of the "yoga vacation" daily schedule. The lectures started out with the basics of yoga (and the Sivananda approach) and slowly built to the more complex philosophies. We had a lecture on Hinduism and Ayurveda mixed in as well. Some of the information I already knew and some I didn't. I definitely feel that I learned a lot!
We started with: What is yoga? (The following info is paraphrased from my lecture notes)
Yoga is unity- yoga breaks down the identification with body and mind so that we can see ourselves as ONE. The answer is ONENESS. Brahman is the absolute, pure existence. We are on a journey to find Brahman within ourselves, which is our soul~ Atman. Our real essence is SAT (existence) CHID (knowledge/awareness) ANANDA (bliss/joy/love). We are trying to become this essence through the practices of yoga. This path of self- realization is very very difficult. We have to change the mind in order to evolve. Changing the mind takes an enormous amount of willpower.
We are ruled by conditioned likes and dislikes. Desire keeps us trapped in a limited existence. We are always searching for something outside of ourselves, hoping to find happiness. Our reality is controlled by our thoughts. The mind is what causes suffering and unhappiness. How can we overcome this?
Jnana yoga (the yoga of intellect & reason) is based on Vedanta. Vedanta is the philosophy of the Vedas (Veda means "to know"). This path offers the most fundamental roots of yoga and the tools to transcend the human condition. The ultimate truth of Vedanta is the oneness of life. The greatest question in this realm of knowledge is "who am I?" We are not our mind (made up of thoughts) and we are not our physical bodies. The director of this Ashram (his name is Nataraj) gave the lecture on Vedanta. He presented the following analogy: a computer system has two parts, hardware and software. The hardware is physical/material (similar to the human brain) and the software is the programming (similar to the mind). The user is the third element in this scenario. The user is independent of the computer, but the computer is not independent of the user. The user is our consciousness, the soul. It is always the subject, the seer. This transcendental approach gives tools to liberation- viveka ( discrimination of real versus unreal) and vairagya (dispassion, recognition of the impermanence of life).
I am still digesting this information, so it helps to write it out and share! I remember learning some of this at Kripalu, but I am absorbing more of it now. The teachings at the Sivananda Ashram dive deeply into the workings of the mind, it is the main topic of most discussions. I have really enjoyed learning more about the psychology of yoga. However, at times I felt a bit mystified. I felt overwhelmed by the vast and somewhat indescribable nature of this life perspective. It can feel intimidating to consider truly releasing attachments/identification/ ego. Without my conditioning, my habits, my patterns, my personality... would I just sit in a cave forever meditating? Would I float away with the lightness of my spirit? What would my life look like if I completely surrendered to the universe? I can't help but notice a feeling of emptiness/ isolation when I think about such a life. But I'm not there. A deeply committed yogic life could (and I have heard WOULD) actually be filled with more love and satisfaction than I can even imagine. It would be the eternal connection to the divine, within oneself and everyone/everything else. It's hard to comprehend exactly how it would look or feel, but it sure sounds nice to be totally free of worry, guilt, anxiety... all the self-limitation. Anyways, I am so thankful for this opportunity to have these thoughts. I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to have the freedom to explore what it means to be alive. This has been a wonderful environment for me to do some soul-searching, to recognize/define my own beliefs about life. To allow and encourage myself to question these teachings in a healthy way.
I see the ultimate freedom in the teachings of yoga. I believe that through consistent practice, I can release patterns that cause suffering in my life. By releasing the heaviness of emotional reactions, I can move closer and closer to the only state that really matters, the only state that is real ~ LOVE. I still have a long way to go, but I am on the journey.
In the lectures, we also learned about Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga ( 8 limbs), tools for meditation, The power
of thoughts (samskaras), the gunas (energies- tamasic, rajasic, and sattvic), healthy diet, relaxation and stress, the shat Kriyas ( classical Hatha yoga cleansing techniques... like Neti pot & tongue scraping). We even had a demonstration of a technique in which a thin rubber tube is inserted through the nose and then comes out of the mouth! It's called sutra neti. Our finals lectures were on the laws of karma (cause and effect).
More on the foundations of yoga: There are 4 paths ~
Karma yoga- practice of karma (action), "doing" - represented by a hand
Bhakti yoga- devotion, open- hearted emotion, chanting, prayer- represented by the heart
Raja yoga- scientific, rational, practice of meditation- represented by the mind (hatha yoga is a raja yoga practice)
Jnana yoga- intellect, reason, logic, philosophy, represented by a book
All of these paths of yoga are incorporated into our lives at the ashram. Swami Sivananda could see that minds struggled to focus, so he encouraged students to do a little bit of each type of yoga. This allows space for all temperaments.
Swami Vishnudevananda was the disciple of Swami Sivananda and he came up with the following tenets (followed at the ashram) to live a sattvic (harmonious) life.
Proper exercise (asana)
Proper breathing (pranayama)
Proper relaxation (savansana)
Proper diet (vegetarian)
Meditation and positive thinking
Every asana class follows a set sequence of postures (with variations). The sequence is intended to ignite each chakra, starting with the crown chakra in headstand. Classes are 2 hrs. long with the first 30 minutes being pranayama (kapalabhati, breath retentions (my favorite! I worked my way up to holding for 75 seconds) and Anuloma Viloma). Savasana is a very important element of this style of yoga and is practiced throughout the sequence (probably about 10 times).
I had never experienced Sivananda yoga before. At first it felt a bit robotic; very structured with a strict physical focus. But as I adjusted to it, I started noticing the physical strength I was gaining and I felt the balancing effects on my nervous system. I have noticed the most significant gains in my core strength and my spinal flexibility. I even tried the scorpion pose for the first time! I also feel that I have higher endurance in the breathing practices. I love the use of savasana throughout the class, I think it really allows crucial time for integration and stillness. I took an audio recording of one of the classes and I plan to continue practicing it and incorporating elements into my own style and teaching :)
Food at the Ashram!! I was excited before EVERY meal! The experience of eating here is like nothing I have ever experienced before. We chant before every meal ~ Hari Rama Hari Rama Rama Rama Hari Hari Hari Krishna Hari Krishna Krishna Krishna Hari Hari ~ there is such a strong air of reverence before every meal. We sing together and honor the gurus (swami Sivananda and swami Vishnu Devananda) before we take our first bite. I love sitting on the the floor, eating with one hand, and observing silence. The guests who practice their karma yoga in the dining hall come around throughout the meal with big buckets of food and we are free to ask for as much as we want! The other day we had rice with gapes and pomegranate mixed in! It was amazing. Tonight we had dosas, mixed vegetable soup, and purple cabbage. The food is super healthy and satisfying. Herbal ayurvedic water is also served at every meal.
Another special experience: I was on the roof of the dining hall watching the sunset the other night. I could hear the distant sounds of chanting and Indian music. The air was warm and loaded with the combination of smells from exotic spices and incense. As the sky turned beautiful shades of pink and orange, I felt the embrace of the land. It was the first time that I could fully feel Mother India~ sacred, dynamic, vibrant, rich, intense, transformative. 🌅
I am so appreciative of my time here at the Ashram. I have gained enormous insight into myself as well as the ancient teachings of yoga. I feel nourished and steady for my journey ahead!
Next is a month- long Ayurvedic training! February 1st-28th ~
Thanks for your love and support! 💕❤️🙏