My Yoga Teacher Training Course: Life Inside an Ashram

India — By on December 5, 2007 at 12:46 am

by Holly C. Corbett

Stars such as Madonna and Christy Turlington have long credited their celestial bodies to yoga. And now the ageless practice shares the spotlight with Scientology and Kabala when it comes to seeking heaven in Hollywood. But what’s behind the obsession with designer sticky mats, sinewy instructors and yoga studios so pricey monthly membership can run as much as a car payment? To find out, I went straight to the motherland for a 30-day intensive yoga teacher-training program at a yoga school in southern India.

In a country where a Westerner can live like a maharajah on less than $20 a day, the $1550-plus price tag to attend yoga school seemed exorbitant. But I wanted to take part in gurukula, an ancient system where students live and learn amongst their teachers. By opting for total immersion-living like a yogi 24-hours a day rather than escaping to a cushy hotel room after class-I’d get an authentic view of what yoga is all about.

Of course, I had a few self-serving motives for taking the extreme route: I could earn extra cash as a certified instructor; kick cravings thanks to the ashram’s total ban on alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine; and, best of all, score my own lithe yoga body from eating nothing but veggie cuisine all month long.

But while ashram life certainly offered practical perks, my main motivation for attending ran much deeper. In the past, I’ve used men, booze and food as a prescription for inner angst. Experienced enough now to know that these things don’t deliver any lasting satisfaction, I hoped studying yoga would illuminate something (anything!) that would bring a more permanent kind of contentment. Though I expected to learn a bit about religion, I never thought I’d spend so much time praying for deliverance. Here is an inside look at what it’s really like to live inside an ashram in India.

Week One: A Crash Course in Self Discipline
After taking a 16-hour train ride from Bangalore and two-hour rickshaw drive to Neyyar Dam, I finally arrive. Dusk falls as I walk through the gates and into reception, where I spot a Jude Law look-alike who’s also checking in. He gives me a smile. “Maybe ashram life won’t be so tough,” I think.

A volunteer takes me to my new home for the next month: A twin bed in a military-style dorm the size of a basketball court. Barely giving me time to drop my bags on the rock-hard mattress, she leads me to the open-air dining hall for dinner.

Despite a sign demanding that diners “Eat in silence,” roughly two hundred people are belting out the same two words, “Hare” and “Krishna,” at the top of their lungs. Then, as if someone had unplugged an enormous sound system, they all chant “Ohm” and fall silent. Sitting on the floor, the only sound is tin clanking on tin as metal plates are heaped with rice. Is this all we get? Panic rises but is quickly squashed when a bearded man carrying a big silver pail ladles thin stew over the rice and tosses me two flatbread chapattis. There isn’t a utensil in sight, so diners concoct balls of rice and stew with their fingers before shoveling it in, the watery broth running down their arms. I follow suit and attempt a makeshift burrito by scooping the rice-stew mixture onto a chapatti and rolling it up.

At 5:20 the next morning, clanging bells jar me awake. Is this some kind of cruel and unusual punishment? The sun isn’t even up yet! From the looks of the shower line (Fifty women, two showers-you do the math), cleanliness may have to be the one virtue I forgo this month.

It’s still dark when we start satsung (a roughly two-hour mediation/chanting/spiritual lecture rolled into one), where the head swami (spiritual teacher) leads the group of 200 or so international students through a guided meditation. “Close your eyes… Inhaaale deeply, exhaaale completely…Watch your thoughts as if you were an outside observer. Let them pass by as your mind begins to quiet…Now try repeating a mantra. If you don’t have a mantra, use the universal mantra, ohm.” A deep stillness washes through the prayer hall.

The meditative silenced is pierced by the roar of a monstrous foghorn. I glance at the woman sitting next to me and ask, “What the heck is that?”

“Lions. They’re having sex. There’s a lion safari across the lake,” she whispers back in a Spanish accent without even cracking her eyes. Celibacy is a rule at the ashram, but at least the animals are having a good time.

Trying to “quiet my mind,” as the swami has instructed, ranks right up there with rising before dawn on my list of fun things to do. In fact, I feel physically ill. I’m starting to sweat, my right foot is asleep from sitting on it and my back hurts from trying to keep it straight with no chair for support. Since there’s nothing to distract me, my restless mind goes into overdrive.

If yogis aren’t supposed to eat for pleasure, why is the swami so fat?…Does he sport underwear beneath his orange skirt? I hope it never comes untied so I don’t have to find out… Is thinking of absolutely nothing the same as being asleep? Nah, because even during sleep I dream…Do lions have better sex than humans? It sure sounds like it…

A half hour later the swami interrupts my rant by chanting in Sanskrit. I’m momentarily grateful for the relief from my unruly thoughts until I realize we’re expected to chime in. My knees ache from sitting cross-legged and attempting to sing ten-syllable words in a language I can hardly pronounce-let alone understand-gets old fast. Self-conscious, I pretend to participate by silently moving my lips. Geez, I feel like Ashlee Simpson without the dance moves.

Then comes the spiritual talk. According to Swami, the biggest obstacle on students’ spiritual path is a preconceived notion of what yoga should be. “Yoga more than just physical postures-it’s about attaining unity of body, mind and spirit through self discipline,” he says. To master this, we must practice “The Five Points” of yoga: Proper exercise (postures), proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet (vegetarian) and positive thinking and meditation.

After satsung we’re given a “snack”-a small cup of tea and five grapes-before a two-hour yoga class. My stomach rumbles in protest as we practice downward dogs. I fall asleep during final relaxation, dreaming of eggs and bacon.
We finally have breakfast five hours after the rising bell: A yogi with kitchen duty scoops out thin lentil stew over a huge pile of brown rice. This time I came prepared, wielding my own plastic utensils. The yogis across from me stare with a mixture of jealousy and disdain. Our dessert is a tiny spoonful of some sweet sticky rice substance, which is more of a tease than a treat. I leave feeling barely full, and the only other meal for the day is still eight long hours away.

I’m not even halfway done with day one and already I don’t know if I can stomach the foreign chanting and starving-for-enlightenment tactics. I sneak away to use the phone in reception, calling my boyfriend back in New York to vent.

“I’m tired and hungry and I can’t even go for a walk without written permission. I feel like I’m in a cult.” He lets me whine briefly before interrupting.

“Well, it probably won’t hurt to at least listen to the messages you’re being taught,” he advises. “Try to reserve judgment until the end. When it’s over, you can take whatever works for you and leave behind anything you don’t buy.”

Before I reach the three-minute call limit and the receptionist forces me to hang up, I vow to adjust my attitude. How hard can it be to adapt for one measly month?

Week Two: Killing Me Softly
I am miserable. Exhaustion makes my eyelids feel like they’re lined with sandpaper. The early mornings, nonstop schedule and two-meals-a-day thing is killing me.

“I don’t even have time to poop,” says my new friend Chloe, a lithe dancer from Brooklyn. “Do the swamis think it’ll turn into divine energy and be magically eliminated from our bodies? Unbelievable!”

“Seriously. I can’t find a spare minute to wash my uniform.” I respond. “The smell is definitely making it hard to meditate.” If we show up to a lecture without the required white pants and yellow shirt (white symbolizing purity and yellow learning), we’re sent back to our rooms to change. (Chloe is the one in the middle and my other pal, Marlena, is in yellow).

I’m kicking myself for not doing enough homework before signing up for the course: This achingly slow, posture-heavy hatha yoga barely resembles the heart-pounding vinyasa flow that inspired me to become a yoga teacher in the first place. My only pleasurable distraction had been watching the Jude Law yogi practice his postures, but he’s disappeared. Rumor has it he climbed over the wall in the middle of the night, bypassing the guards at the gate to escape. He’s supposedly living the good life on the beaches of Kovalam and practicing yoga with an ashtanga teacher at his leisure (lucky bastard!).

Grumbles from discontented students prove many of us felt better off before embarking upon our sadhana, or spiritual path. Our teacher-training manual explains that all this dissention is typical. There’s a whole section about how starting a path of self-discipline is tough because it requires giving up the things that feel good right now (Sleep! Chocolate! Sex!) in the quest for a far more elusive and intangible goal-self-enlightenment. Our gurus tell us that lasting happiness isn’t about instant gratification, but holding on to inner-peace when things don’t go our way. The swamis try to get the point across by comparing the mind to a lake: thoughts are like ripples that keep us from seeing the bottom. Worry, sadness, discomfort, happiness and cravings trigger waves in our minds. When the mind is still, like a calm lake, we can see past the shallowness of our shifting emotions to something deeper, making us more grounded.

Like a problem child on Nanny 911, my mind and body are rebelling against all of this enforced discipline. I’m willing to contemplate this, but just as I started to open up to some of the teachings, the swami’s latest lecture turns me off yet again. “You may not believe in reincarnation, but it doesn’t matter: You’re going to continue the cycle of rebirth whether you believe it or not.” It’s hard to rationally debate our personal views on heaven when our teachers’ comeback is that our untrained minds aren’t equipped to understand God.

The next twenty days of chanting, meditating and sleep deprivation stretch before me like an eternity. I didn’t think living in an ashram would be a spiritual happy hour, but I never imagined it would feel so much like prison. I’ve lost all my basic rights I’d always taken for granted: you need a pass from reception to go on a walk, are intimidated into following a grueling schedule by attendance-takers stationed outside of classrooms, and forced to do karma yoga (selfless service) involving anything from cleaning toilets to dumping trash bins.

To add to the Hellish atmosphere, a super-virus is going around that makes your eyes swell and turns them a devilish red. It’s painful just to look at, so the infected hide behind sunglasses while everyone else avoids them like the plague. It’s so contagious that roughly one out of every three or four people has caught it.

Our gurus say it’s common for students to get sick because all this healthy living is purifying our bodies. Still, I’m not taking any chances. I head to the onsite ayurvedic clinic to stock up on rose water eye drops said to ward off infection. Thank God I’m not sick: no matter how bad things get, it could always be worse.

Week Three: Blame it on Karma
I’ve caught the virus. I wake up with my head spinning and look in the mirror to see my glassy, blood-red eyes staring back. By the time I drag myself out of bed, the third bell is ringing to signal the start of the 8:00 a.m. yoga class. Still feeling feverish, I pull on my uniform, grab my yoga mat and go check in with Mary, a fellow student saddled with the undesirable task of taking attendance (and ratting on us if we’re late or absent). “Sixty-three,” I call out weakly. Like prison or boot camp, those in charge keep track of us by a pre-assigned number.

I head into the hall and practically collapse into the standard cross-legged position. As the class begins and the breathing exercises start, my core and limbs feel like they’re vibrating and skin is on fire. It scares me so much that tears threaten to spill over. Trying to hold them back, I almost hyperventilate. I manage to run out of the hall before the dam finally breaks. Tears form rivers on my cheeks, snot flows freely and I’m hiccupping hysterically. “Maybe I have meningitis,” I think, completely irrational and beyond the point of caring.

I drag myself back to the dorms to lie down, not even getting up for breakfast. Chloe brings me food and I later try to sit through some lectures. I can barely tune in as the swami explains that people get diseases such as AIDS and cancer because they have impure minds or are paying off bad karma from a past life.

“What about this eye virus that’s going around? What’s the cause of all the people at the ashram getting sick?” one student challenges.

Swami responds by asking everyone who has not yet gotten the virus to raise their hand. When over half of the students do so, he shrugs as if his point has been proven. “People get sick because of karma or else everyone would have become ill.”

Riiight. Maybe it’s easier for the ashram to blame it on karma than to disinfect the yoga mats or provide more effective meds than rosewater eye drops. Whether it’s the illness or the lecture that sickens me more, I become dizzy so I return to bed to hibernate under my mosquito net, praying for the yoga gods to have mercy on me.

That night, I awake shivering and drenched in sweat. Inside the dorms are silent. Outside the wild dogs are howling like it’s a full moon party. My bed feels like a Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the state fair and every time I close my eyes I fear I’ll fall out of it.

I think I’m hallucinating because I see all sorts of color bursts penetrating the velvety blackness. I consider waking up Chloe, or running to find one of the swamis for help. I’m choking with the fear that I’ve caught some kind of deadly illness and I’m going to die here alone in an ashram in India, thousands of miles away from home and everyone that I love. Managing to drag myself out from under my mosquito net, I splash cold water on my face and fumble around for my uniform so I can slip out of my sweat-soaked pajamas. I crawl back into bed and must have lost consciousness because the next thing I remember is waking to sunlight streaming through the empty dorm.

It seems the gods want to prove that any bad situation can still get worse. I look down at the foot of my bed to spy a black tarantula whose body alone is the size of my hand. My breath catches in my throat and I jump up, adrenaline pumping through my veins. Despite the fact that I can barely see, I take off down the hall at a full sprint, glancing behind me just in time to spot the tarantula hop from the wall to the floor as though it has eight little pogo sticks on each of its legs like something out of a Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Sorry I have no picture to document this, but I was too freaked out at the time to stop for a photo opp). I manage to outrun the monster, fling myself inside a bathroom stall, and collapse on the floor, shaking violently. “I’m in a safe place. I’m in a safe place,” I repeat to myself.

I can handle being a little hungry. I can handle being a little tired. I can handle cleaning toilets and boring chanting and sitting on the floor for hours at a time. I cannot handle catching a virus that spreads faster than the plague and being chased out of bed by a jumping tarantula. I know embarking on a spiritual path takes tremendous sacrifice and dedication, but I’m just not that highly evolved. It’s time for me to hit the road.

The website clearly states “NO refunds”-no doubt because everyone in their right mind would try to get one. Since I can’t get my money back, I‘m going to appeal to complete my yoga certification at a later date at the sister ashram in New York, thinking it can’t possibly be as hardcore as India.

After consulting the swamis, they won’t let me leave to finish the course in New York as “it would be an inconvenience to myself and the staff and I’m not so ill that I can’t get out of bed” (i.e. not quite dead yet). Instead, they have a staff member escort me in a rickshaw to the nearest hospital.

The eye specialist immediately diagnoses me with the same fever-causing virus that’s been catching like a brushfire across southern India. Apparently, the vast majority of folks paying off bad karma are all based in the same specific region. What a coincidence!

Upon returning to the ashram, I find a rickshaw driver and ask him to take me to Kovalam, a nearby beach town, so I can check into a quiet hotel to nurse myself well. I head inside to gather my bags and run into Chloe, who is coming back from the yogic cleansing demonstrations that involve exercises such as swallowing eight glasses of water and puking it up or stringing thread through your nose. Um, too bad I missed all the fun.

“You’re leaving?” Chloe asks, crestfallen after observing my loaded backpack.

“Chloe, I can’t take it anymore. I’m sick and I need to get well.”

“I know, but you’ve already done three weeks. You’ve got less than one to go,” she reasons. “If you’re going to be sick, you’re going to be sick anywhere. You might as well stay here and at least have your teaching certificate to show for it.”

For the love of god-I just want to bail. I’ve got a death-grip on my bag, but suddenly can’t seem to move my feet. Did I go through this hell for nothing? After all the turmoil I’ve experienced, I’ll gain nothing by leaving now. Besides, I’ll be damned if I’ll let yoga school get the best of me-I’m not one to walk because the going gets tough (or even torturous, apparently). I nod in resignation, put my backpack down and go to tell the rickshaw driver not to wait. I’m staying at yoga school.

Week Four: Independence Day
If I’m going to stay at the ashram, I’m not going to do it half-assed. There must be some kind of puzzle piece I’m missing or else yoga wouldn’t have survived and thrived for thousands of years (what kind of people would practice it anyway?). I’m going to discover the secret even if it kills me, dammit! Once I make the pivotal decision to stay and learn despite the crazy pitfalls, the yoga gods finally start smiling upon me. I’d put my name on the waiting list for a slightly more expensive double room and one has finally opened up. Some of my dorm mates kindly help me carry my bags down to my new pad. With it’s own bath and a private patio overlooking the forest, it’s just the breathing room I need in order to recuperate.

I awake the following morning still not quite myself, but doing much better. My eyes have improved from devil-red to extremely bloodshot. On one of our rare days off, my friends make a beeline for the beers and beaches of Kovalam, but I stay behind to rest. It proves to be a smart move because I’m rejuvenated enough to get up for satsung the following day. I’m still not up for doing headstands, but I make it to all of my classes. With my body healing and an end in sight, my world is coming back into focus.

Still, I’m frustrated because I haven’t had any major spiritual epiphanies. After enduring almost a month of self-denial, I feel no closer to God than I did before landing at the ashram. I thought the lessons were of the “no pain, no gain” variety, but I wasn’t seeing any gains for all my pains. Rather than write off the gurus as masochistic psychos, I went straight to the head-honcho after lecture to ask him my most burning questions.

“You’re telling us that we have to learn to control our bodies and minds in order to know God. But our instincts and senses are essentially programmed to lead us away from the divine-indulging ourselves in food and sex and sleep feels good. Why would God hardwire us this way?” I ask.

His eyes soften and he smiles gently. “That’s an existential question, really,” he says. Aren’t they all? I suddenly feel sorry for him-he’s got a tough job drilling self-disciple into all these critics.

“We’re not talking about living a life without flavor. What we’re saying is that attachments and desires diminish pleasure, because you can’t fully enjoy something that you fear losing. You must be able to appreciate the pleasure it brings without mourning it when it’s gone. By recognizing the difference between the temporary and the permanent, you’ll feel more at peace and get closer to understanding the universal consciousness, or whatever you want to call God.”

Um, I guess that makes sense. You can’t completely enjoy life’s little pleasures if you’re a slave to them. I think about one of my many vices, dessert. I’ve stopped craving it after every meal now that it’s no longer an option. Will I enjoy it when I have the chance? You bet. But maybe dessert will taste that much sweeter because I’ve broken my sugar addiction.

My face-to-face encounter with the swami helps the missing puzzle pieces start to fit. I suspect the lessons learned in yoga school will continue to hit me long after I’ve left the ashram, since it’s easier to absorb information once removed from a painful situation. This realization makes the next few days not seem quite so endless. Each of us teaches our fellow students two yoga classes. We don’t even grumble when our wakeup call chimes at the ungodly hour of 5:20 a.m. (there’s something to be said for adapting to a routine). We’re even given the choice (hooray for options!) between a walking meditation or a study night to cram for our final exam: a three-hour, short-answer test on everything from the benefits of different postures to the philosophy of yoga to the history of the Sivananda school.

The morning before the big test, I plod into the dark prayer hall and sit cross-legged on the floor. Incense fills the air and the place is silent (even the lions have given it a rest). Trying to still my mind, I focus on breathing in and out. Worries about whether I studied enough for the exam and daydreams about the turkey stuffing I’ll eat back home on Christmas bump up against each other. But, for the first time ever, I manage to let them go. I’ve finally gotten used to sitting cross-legged and I’m no longer distracted by pain in my legs.

The world outside my mind keeps turning, but, for the briefest of moments, I feel still. My overactive brain stops for a few seconds and I’m hit with a light, peaceful sensation. It’s the kind of connection I’ve sought outside myself by falling in love, or finishing a bottle of wine, or getting lost in a book. Being able to focus inside somehow makes me feel steadier, opening the channels to something more permanent.

This constant is the divinity within that I was seeking. The problem is that my mind is usually going too fast for me to be able to see it. And-much like falling asleep-meditation can’t be taught. It’s something I had to experience for myself with lots of practice. Had I not felt forced to sit on the ground in silence day after day for an entire month, my discomfort would have been a big red stop sign on my spiritual path. Finally, some payback after all the hard work.

Would I have signed up to get my yoga-teaching certificate in India had I known how tough it would be? Maybe not. But I’ve learned a couple important lessons on my journey: Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find yourself. And you may have to do a few headstands in hell in order to catch a little glimpse of heaven.

This, my friends, is me on the beaches of Kovalam having much-deserved celebratory brewskies with my fellow yogis. And yes, it did taste all the sweeter.

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  • Aparrna Sharma says:

    Gosh! What a harrowing experience!! And to think you paid that unbelievable amount for that?
    I’m sorry for your experience friend, but i’m afraid you got stuck at one of the ‘wrong’ places.
    First, an ashram that charges you $1550, is clearly one of those commercialized, useless centers. I simply won’t trust a ‘swami’ working in such a place. In all probability they are half baked know-it-all gurus who do a good job to keep a business running.

    But then there are so many good schools of yoga around here. And so many cheaper places/ retreats/ courses.

    Anyway!! I’m glad I read this. Will think a hundred times before enrolling for one myself. I guess i’m happier travelling by myself to Rishikesh and Dharamshala and just exploring shorter, here n there courses!!

    Love and light

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