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Asia » India » Kerala » Neyyar Dam
December 11th 2011
Published: December 15th 2011
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Read about the highs and back bending moments for our month long stay at Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam Kerala….



We’ve just completed our four week stay at a traditional yoga ashram while Dave undertook an intensive Teacher Training Course or ‘TTC to deepen his practise. He graduated with flying colours after one tough month with his fellow TTC graduates.



We enjoyed although some ups and downs in mood just due to the intensity of this place at times. We’d definitely recommend as a beautiful location and great way to immerse yourself in the full way of yogic life so you can then take what you need (e.g. create and/or deepen your own meditation practise or polish up your asana practise etc)



Here are some outtakes of our experience here:



Rise and shine its morning time babe! – We have a very loud bell sounding each morning at 5.20am to stir the masses in readiness for 6.00am satsang (session of up to ½ hour silent meditation, followed by lots of chanting and then a lecture or presentation). We were fine as my little alarm sounded at 5.15am for one of us to rise to switch on our hot water kettle for our daily instant coffee hit. Without this little contraband I don’t know would have happened to Dave – he would have been a zombie. Maybe in Dave's next lifetime he will be able to survive without coffee?



By the way, the reason we’re here at Sivananda was thanks to one of the wonderful yoga teachers, Melanie, from my studio, Body Mind Life in Surry Hills Sydney. Mel completed her teacher training here and recommended the Ashram plus her excellent tip was for us to book a twin room with AC for our stay.



LOCATION + ACCOMMODATION



The Ashram itself is set in a quiet rural setting surrounded by mountains and lush jungle. The gardens at the Ashram are gorgeous.



The ashram is located 32 km from Trivandrum (capital city of Kerala) in a beautiful green area, the Neyyar Dam Sanctuary with a beautiful lake created by the Dam.

We flew from Mumbai/Bombay to Trivandrum so it is easy to come here via flight or trains.



Some days instead of the satsang in the main meditation hall we would do a silent walk to the lake and then sit there for meditation or for climb up a nearby mountain and of course we did some chanting at these locations before walking back.



We did have Internet + WiFi available during very limited hours and sometimes with varying success due to storms and/or power outages. So suggest anyone coming here to bring their laptop if you have WiFi. At a pinch I walked down to village and hopped on the taxi booking office’s PC for 30 rupees/hr when we didn’t have internet working at Ashram for 3 days running.



Our twin share Air Conditioned room we booked 10 months ago was fantastic – we had our own bathroom/shower with HOT water, desk and two chairs, cane chairs on our little balcony, a ceiling fan, little bar fridge, hot water kettle, and lots of shelves for our clothes & luggage and the all-important Air Conditioner (very new model too). As a yoga vacationer** I’m paying the sum of 1,500 rupees per day for an AC twin room with meals and yoga so approx. $USD 30/day. If you opt for dormitory bed or bring you own tent, you pay 500 rupees or $USD 10/day so very inexpensive for either option.

NOW – we did have to downgrade for our last three (3) nights and opt for non-AC twin share room (it did have a fan, private ensuite/bathroom, no fridge, no hot water, thin straw mattresses) when the Ashram Director informed all the AC room guests that there were some VIP Swamis visiting and they needed the best rooms. Not too bad all things considered as we got to practise non-attachment and the practise of austerity or Tapas to give up the luxury of AC etc. It was all okay as we knew that in few days we would be enjoying luxury digs for next stops after the Ashram.



The term ‘yoga vacation’** is an oxymoron as it is NO vacation my darlings but rather an intensive program of activities, all mandatory to keep you busy although there are ways to make yourself scarce or invisible if you need to with a little of imagination. Just beware that it could be so dark when you sneak out of satsang you can't find your thongs/flip flops so may have to creep home barefoot.

The resident swami told the TTC students and Yoga Vacation guests that 1st few days will feel like ‘a concentration camp, then it will feel like a yoga camp’, a comforting thought.



Having said that there are people who are staying for 8+ weeks and very happily and also TTC graduates who come back to ‘assist’ with classes and supervising karma yoga duties for up to 6 month placements.



Here is the daily program.



5.20AM Wake Up bell

6:00 AM Satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)

7:30 AM Tea time

8:00 AM Asana Class (Beginners & Intermediate)

10:00 AM Breakfast (Vegetarian)

11:00 AM Karma Yoga

12:30 PM Coaching Class (Optional)

1:30 PM Tea Time – cup of chai and fresh fruit salad/whole fruit like bananas, apples quarters, mandarines, pineapple slices

2:00 PM Lecture – covers all aspects of the yogic principles as prescribed by Sivananda

3:30 PM Asana Class (Beginners & Intermediate)

6:00 PM Dinner (Vegetarian)

8:00 PM Satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)

10:30 PM Lights out





YOGA / ASANA CLASSES



Our knees took a few days to adjust to sitting on hard concrete floors on your yoga mat or straw mats for long periods of time. We had to sit for the twice-daily meals, twice daily chanting sessions sometimes with Hindu ceremonies or pujas (approx. 3 hours / day) and lectures (approx. 3 hours/day).

The toughest position initially was sitting in a cross-legged position for silent meditation for 30 minutes or more. We had to pop a couple of ibuprofens/Advils and rub in Tiger Balm to manage the knee pain but all good after first week. Also you have to put lots of mozzie spray on to avoid the nasty little devils. They were unrelenting at dawn and dusk.



Dave has been able to get into the classical Lotus (Padmasana) sitting position now. What a star!!. Although he has developed a butt callous from sitting on his backside so much. We will spare everyone and we won’t share a photo of that.



We have twice daily yoga asana classes with pranayama breathing exercises of approx of 30 mins (Total class is 2 hours) noting that in Dave’s teacher training asana class they often did some very advanced asanas plus also would focus on the asana poses from a teaching perspective.



I’ve been Dave’s ‘beginner student’ to help him trial his teaching style but he is tough, he would kick me (only in jest) when I was on doing a posture purposely incorrectly to prompt him to provide me with verbal alignment corrections. I suggested that not all students would like that his brand of ‘tough love’ teaching of putting the boots to them.





FOOD



The food was pretty good based on traditional Keralan ayurvedic vegetarian dishes. There were two meals a day, brunch (10.30am) and dinner (6.00pm); the dinners were generally pretty average to poor in rating so brunch was the best meal of the day.



If you needed snacks you had a choice of fresh fruit salads, fruit smoothies, cookies and toasted sandwiches at the Health Hut café or you could buy from the Ashram’s boutique/shop raisins, dates, cashews, almonds, cookies or these yummy sesame seed balls made with cane jaggery (unprocessed sugar cane) and spices or the same balls but made with peanuts (sort of like peanut brittle). Note there was NO coffee in the Ashram, just black or milk tea or lemon-ginger-honey tea.



In the dining hall the food was served on metal trays with separate little sections for the salad dish, chutney / sauce, vegetables dish and largest section for your rice, curry vegetable, raw vegetables (Carrot, Beetroot, cabbage, cucumber slices) accompanied with a dosa (wheat or lentil pancakes), pappadums and/or chapattis with the runny vegetable soup number called ‘samba’. The yummiest little treat (1 tablespoon only) was sweet rice with mashed banana and cashews that was served sometimes.



We were told by yoga teacher in Goa that there were no utensils at the Ashram so best if we were to take some spoons as in India you eat your meals with your hands but specifically only the right hand***.



*** In India, you must use your RIGHT hand for serving food and eating food if not using utensils OR receiving any Prasad (blessed offerings) as the LEFT hand is used for hygiene so considered unclean.



Also the dining experience here involved NO tables and chairs, you sit cross-legged on the floor mats in long rows. All meals were conducted in silence so you can save your energy for digestion. If the murmurs got too loud, a staff member would grab the microphone and say ‘Om, please eat silence, Om!!!



Thankfully they did have a plenty of spoons in the dining hall so we opted for those although Robbo just went for it on Day 2 and discovered that it is very liberating and fun to eat your food with your right hand fingers, albeit bit messy but hey when in Rome.





KARMA YOGA



Everyone has to perform a karma yoga duty to help run the ashram. This selfless service is a key element for us to give up our Ego’s and help others without any regard for recognition or reward. Tasks included emptying the garbage bins, washing the dining hall floor, cleaning toilets in the dorms, serving morning tea or afternoon tea, setting up the hall for meditation, working in the shop or café.



Robbo’s Karma Yoga duty was to serve at one of the meal shifts. This task entailed racing around madly to set up the Dining Hall with the rows of sitting mats, food trays and cups then serve up the various dishes BEFORE and often WHEN the 275+ yogis and yoginis came in; then you would walk up & down the rows offering additional serves of the dishes on offer. Everyone had to wash up your own tray, spoon and cup before leaving.

After serving everyone, the servers could sit down for their meal. It was very physical job especially as some of the pots were pretty heavy and you have to bend down to the floor level to reach the guest trays and try not to spill anything but the pluses were that you got to hang with the local Indian volunteers and meet other guests.



If you were serving you also had to chant ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare Hare’ as the guests filed into the hall and have mealtime Hindi prayer at the beginning of the meal service. Thankfully Robbo was not passed the microphone to lead those chants or prayers.



Dave has become the King of Retail Customer Service, as his month-long Karma Yoga task was to work in the Ashram’s Boutique from 10.45 – 11.45am. Picture Dave behind the counter-serving guests with their purchases of toiletries, snacks, books and clothing and also helping the manager do the ‘books’.





I have to say that the shop was well stocked from day-to-day needs perspective – they had toilet paper, all toiletries incl. mozzie repellent, hydration electrolytes, snacks, clothing lines, detergents and pegs for your laundry, inexpensive yoga clothing**; stamps, stationery, yoga mats, meditation cushions, mala beads, loads of yoga books for very little money compared to back home. There was even a laundry service that operated to do your various clothing for very little cost per garment (e.g. 10 rupees for a T-shirt). Although some people were convinced that their clothes came back more soiled than when they were put in as the girls hand washed them in the lake.



** NOTE there is strict dress code here - we all (both males & females) had to wear loose ankle length pants and t-shirts with round necks and sleeves, nothing transparent or revealing, no leg showing, no cleavage showing, no midriffs etc.



The TTC students all wear a uniform of yellow shirt and white pants. The colour yellow is to represent knowledge and white for purity. It is actually good that we wear this dress code so there are less distractions around e.g. who has the best body, latest yoga gear, tattoos etc.

To meet the dress code you could deck yourself in a pair of cotton white drawstring yoga pants similar to Karate style pants were only 200 rupees / $4 and T-shirts 300 rupees / $6.





DAY OFF



Friday was a day off, well we were not completely off the hook but we had NO lectures and optional asana classes. You still had to join the morning and evening satsang singsongs. How to fill in your free day?



Well you could go out for day trips tours to visit temples, Lion Safari Park or Jungle visit, go shopping in Trivandrum (30km away) or neighbouring villages, go down to the dam for quick dip (warning there are crocodiles but we spoke to people who had gone in for a quick dip but you have to be fully covered just like in Rishikesh as a sign of cultural respect);

We are hoping to do a tour of the Kerala backwaters (referred to as the ‘Venice of India’) where you go by riverboat and see how people live along the tranquil jungle river stretches of this region. It will be dependent on the weather if we do as a daytrip with the Ashram OR check out after we leave the Ashram. We’ve experienced some stretches of pretty solid rain as some minor cyclone fronts come across the coastline and this region during our stay.



Down the road from the Ashram in neighbouring village of Kallikadu (3km and 100 rupees return rickshaw ride) were more options to pick up fresh fruit, some packaged food supermarket items, pharmacy requirements, home wares like towels and an ATM.

Dave got a haircut for the huge sum of 40 rupees or $AUD 0.80 cents instead of his normal $50 haircut in Sydney.



You can also visit the Neyyar Dam sanctuary and do the "Lion Safari" for 500 rupees per person. There was a very funny occurrence every day, from the ashram you can hear every single day the lions roaring and heaving, which are on the other side of the lake. The sound was so repetitive and apparently at the same time that we all thought it was just some speakers with the recordings of the lions roaring or having a ‘good time’ if you know what I mean!



OTHER ACTIVITIES



On Saturday evening the Ashram gives the opportunity to the students to organize themselves a "Talent Show". This was wonderful as some students showcased their talents either individual acts or in groups. For some it was an act of courage to help them overcome their shyness or fear particularly if they were going to be teaching yoga classes. The ashram also organizes some events, like talks given by experts in a certain field or performances.



During the TTC we had a Kathakali performance (dance and music of an ancient story performed with actors using delicate hand gestures and two gentlemen singing the story in Hindi and accompanying drummers – see photos), and a Kalarippayattu performance (ancient Indian martial arts).



We also watched some films on the founders of the Ashram, Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda and also an interesting film about research completed by Dr Masaru Emoto. He is the author of the book "The Hidden Messages in Water". He has demonstrated that water has a vibrational energy as seen in the patterns of the water droplets when it is frozen. The water patterns were seen to change when exposed to positive and negative words/thoughts as well as exposure to classical music. These concepts were aligned to some of the Ashram’s teaching that vibrational energy is in our thoughts. So if we have that are either positive or negative in nature can affect our inner peace, contentment and also our bodies on physical level.



One practical application of this relates to what you eat (a sattvic diet based on vegetarian meal is what they recommend) and the way you eat and/or how you prepare food, all of which should be done as lovingly and peacefully as you can. When we stayed at the gorgeous Satsanga Retreat in Goa, their ayruvedic chef, Mani had her staff all work in her kitchen in complete silence as she wanted all their attention on preparing the food not on gossiping etc.



We had two interesting lectures, one on Vedic mathematics, which included rules for multiplying huge numbers really simply, quickly and without calculators (check out on internet search on ‘nikhilam’) and the another lecture on Vedic architecture principles based on energy grids and positioning of activities in the house (e.g. your meditation and yoga practice space should be facing North-East direction).



Teaching Training Course (TTC)



The students in the Teaching Training Course (TTC) are from all parts of the world (Colombia, Russia, Qatar, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Australia, Holland, South Africa, Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Israel, UK, Scotland, Ireland, US, Canada, Quebec, Sweden, Norway, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Burma, Singapore, Greece, Malaysia etc) and also various areas from all over India. There are still approx.125 students in Dave’s course with probably up to 20 or so who exited in the 1st week.



Some of the TTC students were themselves absolutely beginners to yoga so there would have been a huge steep learning curve and others were seasoned yogis who were there to gain a deeper understanding for themselves or had backgrounds in dancing, Pilates, osteopaths, occupational therapists, doctors, physios so viewed yoga as complimentary to their clients/patients. This course* definitely has more emphasis on all the facets of yoga, the philosophy including the Bhagavad Gita, meditation, Karma yoga, devotional aspects with use of mantras, chanting, prayers etc etc, rather than the typical focus only on asana/posture, some restorative elements and some breathing we see in our yoga classes back home.



* The lectures given by the swami covered subjects like What is Brahman, Brahma and the Three Gunas; The four paths of Yoga; The eight limbs of Raja Yoga; The

Three Bodies and the Pancha Koshas (Five Sheaths), Pranayamas, Meditation and more.







MEDITATION + KIRTAN or CHANTING



Meditation - we did receive some basics on how to meditate and the key ingredients to develop a daily practise. Unfortunately the practical application was lacking as they spent so much time talking about how important it was but never stopped talking to allow us to ‘just do it’. There were two sessions a day for meditation, during themorning and evening satsang, however the longest meditation that we did wasprobably 30 minutes in the morning then at night it was usually for about 10 minutes and in several occasions it lasted 5 minutes only because at the beginning of each meditation there would be somebody guiding you into the meditation with instructions but they kept on going on and on and on….. it was extremely annoying, we just wanted to meditate. One night during one of these sessions, in my effort to be less reactive and patient went straight down the toilet as I (Robbo) was so frustrated inside by the continual instructions that I wanted to scream out “Enough already, please just let us meditate!!!!!”



Then if you were lucky enough to get your meditation on, your peaceful bliss and silence would be rudely broken with three quick ‘Om’s and then straight into the daily

Chanting or ‘Kirtan’ at full volume coupled with the clanging and banging of tambourines, drums, chimes and bells. Robbo had to wear earplugs for every session just to dull the noise level a little or take the edge off.



So that is snapshot of life in the Ashram as we experienced it.

We’re now off to Varkala (50km north of Trivandrum), a beach centre with a most guest houses and hotels set up on the cliffs overlooking the beaches.



We have booked a ‘luxury’ ocean view suite to hopefully get a decent bed and pillows to rest our weary bodies for few days while we plan our next stop.


Additional photos below
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