Ever since watching Julia Roberts in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love, I have harboured a secret desire to experience an Ashram. I haven’t yet made it to India and didn’t know if I’d be able to commit to a month of simple communal living so put the idea out of my head.
Imagine my surprise when whilst based here, in Dalat, Vietnam I start googling things to do in Dalat and I stumble upon the website for this Yogic Centre. I read on with interest and find that, not only is the Ashram located in the city where I am currently staying, it turns out you don’t have to commit to a month, or even a week (although you can if you want to). I took this as serendipity and with the impetus of the promise I made to myself to live more outside of my comfort zone, I packed my bag and set off for a weekend retreat at Sivanda Ashram, excited, nervous and with no idea of what to expect.
In my Western ignorance, I thought Yoga was simply a set of exercises; after all it’s offered at the local gym! But I was about to learn that movement of the body was only a small part of this all inclusive philosophy and that Yoga is an entire systematic approach to life.
Upon arrival I am warmly welcomed by English speaking staff, given some sweet mung bean soup and then taken to a workshop. The workshop was led by a Swami. I was a complete novice to yoga and had no idea what a Swami was, but quickly learnt that they are a Yogi who has been initiated into a religious monastic order, kind of like, the Hindu equivalent of a Priest or Minister. What he explained however, is that Yoga is not a religion but a spiritual practise and a lifestyle. According to the Classical Yoga tradition which Sivanda espouses, there are 5 important principles that must be strictly adhered to if one is to spiritually advance.
They are as follows:
- Proper Exercise – Asana.
- Proper Breathing – Pranayama.
- Proper Relaxation – Savasana.
- Proper Diet – Vegetarian.
- Positive Thinking and Meditation.
Furthermore, in this tradition, there are four paths of Yoga that allow one’s consciousness to evolve. They are:
- Karma Yoga – Path of selfless service
- Bhakti Yoga – Path of devotion
- Raja Yoga – Path of mind control
- Jnana Yoga – Path of knowledge
The Swami used a lot of psychology and modern scientific research when explaining the fifth pillar of positive thinking and meditation, which I appreciated. He also explained the fourth pillar of the adherence to a vegetarian diet is because they believe all life (animals included) are sacred. He indulged my inquisitive nature when I asked such questions as “why don’t they allow the eating of eggs, mushrooms, onions or garlic?” (Eggs can become life, mushrooms grow from darkness and apparently both onion and garlic are stimulants) who knew? He explained the need for the mind to be harnessed and directed so therefore all stimulants (goodbye coffee) and depressants (farewell wine) are out.
They also believe that one should eat only twice a day (interestingly Buddhist monks do this too). This is based on Ayurvedic Principles to give the body time to digest the food and to allows for the mind to be in a state that is more conducive to meditation and contemplation. They also believe in periodic fasting to give the digestive tract a break and to purify both body and mind.
To summarize their belief system in a short blog post would not do it justice, but basically what I observed from their teachings in the short time I was there, was that we are all one and that there is one supreme intelligence or consciousness that we are all a part of. Our true nature is love and we should grow to reconnect with the divinity within, our true essence (Atman) or (soul) and not just be loving, but to be love. It is unconditional, all encompassing, all inclusive, non judgemental, tolerant, patient, positive, kind, calm and peaceful with a deep affection for life and all living things.
I personally can get on board with most things these Yogis believe and actually share most of their views, but hellooooooo, no garlic and no onion? No chilli (stimulant) and ……….no coffee either? Like ever? Eggs and mushroom I could either take or leave, but if I knew I could never eat them again, I’d probably go home and make myself a mushroom omelette (or is that just me?)
I tried to like their cooking. I really did. I went in with an open mind and honestly gave it my best shot, but truth be told, it was not for me. There were a couple of dishes which I enjoyed during the weekend but for the most part I found it bland and tasteless and very light on the protein. I don’t know if a weekend was long enough to transition, accept and learn to enjoy eating this way, but I tell you, of the entire weekend, this was my greatest struggle. Now, confession, I am a bit of a foodie and I can be a little bit fussy about the type and quality of food I eat, so if you’re not, then maybe for you it won’t be as much of a challenge as it was for me. That, along with their strong sense of devotion to this way of life and discipline to a time schedule was something I personally found very confronting and at times made me feel like running for the hills. I am very proud to say however, that I observed my thoughts, did not judge them and challenged myself to sit in my discomfort and stay. I did it! I made it to the end 🙂
Again, I am reminded that it is only in discomfort that we grow.
Interestingly, breathing is also an essential element in the practice of yoga and was personally, probably my biggest take away and something I have incorporated into my daily schedule. One must breathe only through the nose and exhale twice as long (at least) as the inhale. When breathing in, it is essential to push the abdomen out and when breathing out, you draw the abdomen in. This seemed extremely counterintuitive to me and I really had to concentrate to get it right as I intrinsically had been doing it the opposite way. Oops. Secondly, breathing has 2 parts, (and if you’re really advanced 3 parts). Firstly you breathe into the abdomen whilst pushing it out, then follow with the rise of the chest. On the exhale, expel the breath the opposite way around, so first the chest and then the belly. I never did find out what the third part of the breathing is, but anyway this 2 part bit is challenging enough for me for now, whilst also trying to remember which way my belly is supposed to go whilst breathing in or out 🙂
In my head I was screaming, “Who the bloody hell cares how you breathe? What difference does it make?”, but after trying it, I am now converted. I felt so calm and relaxed afterwards and use it now to fall asleep at night.
The second breathing technique I learnt was alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and brings peace and clarity. To my surprise, it actually works and is again something I have incorporated into my morning routine.
The grounds of the retreat are truly beautiful and set high up on a hill overlooking a lake. Accommodation is in shared housing with single, twin and quadruple rooms. Rooms are simple and furnished spartanly but are pleasant and comfortable enough.
There are bathrooms in the housing and then a separate reception and teaching building and a central dining hall in which all meals are taken.
So, …………………….Did I enjoy it? …………….A flat ‘No’
Do I think it was beneficial? 100 times yes. Yes, Yes and yes again.
Would I do it again, or for longer? I don’t know. It’s only Monday, as I write this and I am still processing everything that went on over the past few days.
My thoughts as I write this are that somewhat mixed and my views of communal living may be tainted by my boarding school days. I believe though, that the philosophy of yoga is extremely empowering, positive, inclusive and admirable.
It teaches us to look inward to discover who we truly are and to live in peace and harmony with others and our environment. It is the true union of body, mind and spirit and the transcendence of ego. Basically, it is teaching us how to be a better human being and regardless of who we are or where we come from, I’m sure that’s something we can all resonate with.