‘Om’ My God!

Fitness & Workouts, India, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Spiritual Travel — By on December 24, 2006 at 3:25 am

“You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave!” echoed through my head as the gangly, Indian security guard stood between me, Amanda and the exit gate. Now, of course, that’s not really what he said to us, but I could feel an eerie, Hotel California-twisted haze settle over us as we realized this man was actually not going to let us out of the ashram. Our brief stay at Southern India’s famous Sivananda Academy was beginning to feel more like a prison sentence than the relaxing yoga vacation we’d expected. “You can’t stop us from leaving,” Amanda sputtered in disbelief. “We’re just going to walk out!” “No, no, you must need a pass to go,” the guard replied in broken English. “Yes, but everyone is in meditation right now, so no one is at the desk to give us one,” Amanda rebutted. Oh Jesus, it’s only 6am and I already need a cocktail, I thought. Unfortunately, alcohol was one of the many things strictly forbidden at the ashram. Smoking, bringing in outside food, reading books of an ‘impure’ nature (content unrelated to yoga or Hinduism), wearing sleeveless shirts or tight clothing and basically anything fun, were major no-nos listed in the rules we’d been forced to sign upon arrival. Under normal circumstances, no self-respecting Lost Girl would willingly subject herself to such torture, but we really had no idea how insane Sivananda would be until we got here.

Before we began planning our India leg of the trip, I had no clue what an ashram was. For you readers who are as much in the dark as I was, let me enlighten you. Actually, I’ll let Wikipedia enlighten you since that’s where I found this basic definition: “An ashram in ancient India was a Hindu hermitage where sages lived in peace and tranquility amidst nature. Spiritual and physical exercises, such as various forms of yoga, were regularly performed. Today, the term ashram is used to refer to an intentional community formed primarily for spiritual upliftment of its members, often headed by a religious leader or mystic.”

Amanda and I actually first learned about ashrams from Holly, whose one main goal for the trip was to get her yoga teaching certificate while we were in India. She wasn’t the only visitor to the subcontinent to have this idea. We quickly discovered that many people, especially those in the backpacker circuit, come to India specifically for the teacher training courses or have blocked off a couple weeks on their itineraries to experience ashram life. Lured by the uber cheap price tag ($11 per day covers lodging, food and all classes), the huge community of fellow travelers (almost 200 people stay at Sivananda each day) and the incredible fat burning factor (4 hours of yoga a day x approx 300 calories/hour = smaller love handles) Amanda and I happily committed to a week long yoga vacation. That way, we’d at least get to spend some time with Holly while she was there for her 1 month program. Plus, it’d be good to get in some exercise and healthy eating before we headed to the famous beaches in Goa to pursue more hedonistic pleasures. But after only a day at Sivananda, Amanda and I began to wonder if we could hack this holy lifestyle for an entire week.

Not only were we expected to subsist off of only two tasteless, vegetarian meals a day (a form of cruel and unusual punishment in our eyes), we were required to attend all activities and classes on the daily schedule – – one that started at 5am and didn’t end until 10pm. In case you’re wondering what hell is like, I’ll tell you. It’s 2 hours of meditation and chanting in the morning, followed by a ‘hearty’ snack of 4-5 grapes or peanuts, 4 hours of yoga classes, 1 hour of karma yoga (aka scrubbing toilets or sweeping the dorms), 2 hours of lecture hall, sitting cross legged on cement floors to eat rice and vegetables with your hands, topped off with a second round of meditation and chanting from 8pm-10pm and a mandatory light’s out at 10:30pm. ‘Om’ My God! What have we gotten ourselves into here? No amount of enlightenment is worth this suffering!

Amanda and I decided the only way we could survive was to do things on our own terms. Fortunately the yoga vacationers slipped under the radar when it came to attendance checks, so we decided to simply disregard the wakeup bell, skip most of the meditation, chanting and lectures and actually use a spoon and fork at mealtimes (we did still do our karma yoga/chores every day, though). Now I’m sure some of the hard-core ashram-ites out there will regard us as spiritually challenged students who didn’t open ourselves up to the whole experience, but just because we like to sleep in, hit happy hour once a week (OK, a few times a week) and pig out on chocolate bars when we have the craving, doesn’t mean we couldn’t achieve zen. In fact, during our time at Sivananda, we accomplished exactly what we’d set out to do – – improve our yoga skills. We may have skimped a bit on the fluffy stuff, but when it came to the physical, we pushed ourselves from day one, opting to jump right into the advanced class rather than beginners. After only a few sessions, we saw a visible improvement in our strength, flexibility and ability to hold difficult asanas (poses). I was even able to balance in a headstand for a full two minutes, a feat I hadn’t even achieved in childhood. Holy, Hare Krishna! I’m awesome!

In the end, Amanda and I made a ton of fun new friends, shed a few pounds, gained a newfound appreciation for vegetarian cuisine (well, almost) and overall had a positive yoga school experience. Of course, after 7 days of forced detox, we were more than ready to re-tox ourselves in Goa. The only down side to our departure was that we had to leave poor Holly there to finish out three more weeks of the program. Arming her with words of encouragement, a huge stash of contraband fashion mags and enough Kit Kats to fill a 7-11, Amanda and I hugged Holly goodbye and headed out of Sivananda’s gates back into the real world (stay tuned for the seriously juicy details from Holly once she’s fully recovered).

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what happened with us and the security guard…

After arguing for several minutes in vain with him about the fact that we just wanted to take a walk outside and that he couldn’t stop us from leaving, Amanda and I finally backed down and returned to our dorm room. After all, even a couple of Sivananda slackers like us don’t want to get kicked out of yoga school. Cause that would be some seriously bad karma!

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  • Dellie says:

    Really sweet, well-written, and funny article,Jenn. I so much enfoyed hearing your take on the ashram life. I have a friend here that goes to India and meditates and really gets into all of it. TWICE a year for WEEKS at a time. She even owns a HEALING CENTER here in our town. I personally have always felt like a pragmatist,not a spiritual type of person–with one exception–when I die,I will be reunited with all my departed loved ones and all my departed pets…. Congratulations on your two-minute headstand. You’re right–that IS awesome! You are making your readers smile as we experience the world through your bright and shiny eyes. Thank you for the updates. (-:

  • Anonymous says:

    Reading this was fun. I didn’t know yoga could be an intense experience. Sounds interesting but I’m not eager to try it. Escaping from “prison” seems fun, though.

    By the way, thanks for renting my blog. I hope you enjoy your stay. =)


  • Anonymous says:

    Hey Girls! You are renting at my blog as well! I will be following your progress for sure!

    Merry Christmas for now!