Yes, this is my last day away from the UK. In the early hours of tomorrow morning I’ll fly from Trivandrum to Mumbai and then home to London.
For the past two weeks I’ve been at the Sivananda ashram at Neyyar Dam, Kerala, and today I’ve come to seaside Kovalam for some present buying.
I’ve only just realised that it’s Christmas. In shops I’ve spotted my first tinsel of 2012 and Indians celebrate by hanging star-shaped paper lanterns outside their houses.
The only hint of Christmas at the ashram was on Friday evening when some ‘carol singers’ turned up. I use the term loosely as it comprised ten children and adults standing around banging drums and singing something incomprehensible. A Santa dressed in a creepy mask, pointy red hat, red robe and white surgical gloves danced manically hitting his ankles. It was like Morris Dancing gone even more wrong.
From the nearby temple you could hear 84 year-old Swami Gayatriananda (a small Indian lady and regular at the London Sivananda Centre) and others chanting the 1000 names of the Divine Mother. It was very surreal. So no Noddy Holder shrieking “It’s Chrisssmaaaaaasss” for me yet this December.
Home sweet home
It was lovely to be back at the Sivananda ashram. I was last there in 2009 and that visit prompted me to do my teacher training at their small ashram in Uttarkashi in the Himalayas the following year.
The ashram is pretty basic. There were about 60 of us in the women’s dorm but at least we had bed frames (a step up from Amma’s). They have recently added air-conditioned rooms which I feel is going against the spirit of staying there.
The first bell of the day rings at 5:20am getting you up for morning meditation and chanting. During the two daily meals (10am and 6pm) you sit on the floor in silence eating food with your hand from a metal plate. The schedule is intense and everyone gets rather excited about the chai (with sugar!!) served prior to the morning asana class. Lights out is at 10:30pm. To stay in the dorm, you pay £6 a day for everything. It’s a yoga all-inclusive and serves as a good introduction for those who want to know more about yoga as a way of living.
About ten days ago I bumped into Lila (who taught me how to teach at Uttarkashi). She suggested I asked if they needed any help teaching and before I knew it, I was dressed in white and yellow assisting the afternoon intermediate class. I ensured that people flexed their feet, followed the eight steps into headstand and relaxed deeply in savasana.
Over the next few days they got me teaching parts of the classes so the main teacher and I worked as a tag team. In some classes there were 50 or so people and the main Shiva Hall was rather intimidating with its high ceiling and busts of masters Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda looking down on you. When they were short-staffed I taught the full two-hour class. It was a great feeling to be back where it started for me, but this time playing a more active role.
The silent walks to the lake were magical and I led a couple of chants during satsang. We had a musical group entertaining us one evening and, on our day off, some of us visited Kanyakumari – the southern-most point of India and a pilgrimage site for Hindus.
People at the ashram were from all over the world and who’d have thought that I’d be practicing my Italian sitting in chai shops or discussing the sights of Highgate in North London. I even met a lovely man but that’s all I’m saying about that for now.
Have you been to the ashram? What are your memories? I’m off to pack my bag for the final time…