But four years later, following our discovery of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice in 2009 (see post: Our Journey to Samahita), we found ourselves being drawn back to the Sivananda Centre in Putney. Unknowingly, a seed had been planted four years previously and had been taking its time to germinate, choosing its moment carefully, when it deemed us to be ready. It was then we discovered more about these two Indian men, who had stared down benignly at us from their framed photos those four years ago. Swami Sivananda was born in 1887, where he first served the poor as a medical doctor in India and Malaysia. He then returned to India to dedicate himself to a spiritual life and teaching, writing over 300 books, and living his life in service of humanity by the principles of ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realise.’ Amongst others, one of his key disciples was Swami Vishnudevananda, who, at the request of his Guru (spiritual teacher), left India in 1957 to spread the healing benefits of yoga in the West. Following a vision that Swami Vishnu had of the world being engulfed in flames, he realised that peace could only be achieved once man-made boundaries created by the mind had been transcended. This inspired him to create the Sivananda Vedanta Organisation, with countless Ashrams and Centres and its’ Headquarters in Canada. Swami Vishnu’s Yoga Teacher Training course, the first of its kind in the West, was designed as a key tool for training future citizens of the world in yogic disciplines, and to promote inner vision and inner peace. One of Swami Vishnu’s mottos was: ‘Inner Peace is World Peace.’
Having started to feel more comfortable with the devotional and spiritual aspects of the teachings at the Sivananda Centre, we found ourselves signing up to various courses on meditation, positive thinking, chanting, philosophy, and in an amusing twist of fate (proving the old adage ‘never say never’) we were also regularly attending and enjoying the satsangs, to the extent that we bought Sivananda chanting CDs and sang along to them at home! We found that the holistic approach of the Sivananda system provided a wonderful complement to our more physical Ashtanga Vinyasa asana (postures) practice. This inspired us to then stay at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, India in 2012 which gave us a more of a taste for Ashram living and further convinced us that, at some point in the future, we would love to enrol on the Sivananda TTC (Teacher Training Course) – another seed that had been planted all those years back! Sometimes life moves quicker than we expect, and less than two years later in January 2014, we found ourselves hopping on a boat in the Bahamas, ready to commence our month-long TTC on ‘Paradise Island’, no less.
Why, you may now be asking are we doing another teacher training course? We have already done one. However, that just showed us how much more we still have to learn! Maybe it’s an addiction. Not a bad one, although a relatively expensive one that requires you either not to be in a full-time job or to have a generous holiday allowance and a flexible (pun intended) employer. And why now a different style (at least in terms of asana – the postures) of teacher training to the one we did at Samahita Retreat? Many teachers talk of focusing your energy on the spiritual path in one direction, and use the analogy of digging one deep hole in search of water, rather than many shallow ones. This makes sense. If you scatter your energy all over the place it will just remain dispersed and may cause confusion. Our Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice has given us much in terms of self-discipline, developing our concentration and opening the door to the wonders yoga has to offer us in terms of trying to understand our existence and our life’s purpose. Yet we found that we were nonetheless still drawn to the teachings of Swami Sivananda and to an immersion in a more spiritual environment which our month-long stay in the Ashram seemed to promise, with a focus on asana, but also on the different paths of yoga, including devotional chanting (Bhakti yoga), meditation (Raja yoga), selfless service/action (Karma Yoga) and the study of philosophical yogic texts (Jnana Yoga). All of these paths are aimed at the realisation of our true nature, they just use different approaches: as Swami Sivananda said, the paths are many but the truth is one.
Early on in our course, we learned that a spiritual aspirant will likely face a number of different obstacles along his or her spiritual path. The first is that of preconceived notions about the yogic path itself, the practice, the teachings, and the teacher. Certainly most people on our course had preconceived notions of some kind, whether about the amount of time we would actually be able to spend on the beach (in reality, very little!) to the type of people and environment expected of an Ashram. Far from being filled with blissed-out yogis floating on rainbow coloured clouds, the Ashram is very much a microcosm of the real world. A whole melting pot of human experiences and emotions can be found on Paradise Island. But here it is in some ways more intense than the outside world as you have signed up to live with all these other TTC students, Ashram staff, Karma yogis and Yoga vacationers, in close quarters for a month. Furthermore, living in an Ashram environment is somehow like living under a magnifying glass, where you come face to face with your own and other people’s behaviour, thoughts, actions and reactions. Swami Vishnu taught that each person has a human and a divine side, even the most senior Swamis in an Ashram. Therefore the best thing you can do is let go of any judgements and instead simply mind your business and focus on your own spiritual practice. That is perhaps the greatest challenge of being in this environment, but perhaps also the greatest gift; giving you an opportunity to come face to face with yourself and an opportunity to do something about it in the event you don’t like what you see!
Another piece of advice shared by various teachers at the beginning of the course was to ‘surrender’. So, in addition to letting go of our usual Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice, we were not only being advised to let go of any preconceived notions about anything related to our spiritual path but to just completely surrender, at least for the month we were there. This approach and discipline was for our own benefit we were told. Is this akin to brainwashing, many of us wondered?! In fact, it was a wonderful piece of advice and can be applied in any context. Next time you find yourself in a frustrating situation, feeling anger, disappointment, disapproval or simply wishing you could run away, instead of resisting and fighting your own internal battle, try to save your energy and surrender. Surrendering to the path of least resistance was therefore the approach we intentionally adopted during our time on Paradise Island; surrendering to the schedule, the discipline, the Ashram rules, the teachings, and to our own minds.
So what did we do all day? The days seemed to blur into one another, the same schedule being born, repeated and passing each day after the next, almost mockingly replicating the wheel of ‘samsara’, the cycle of birth and rebirth, from which it is difficult to escape and that many spiritual paths are geared at liberating us from. Wake up bell was at 5:30am. This wouldn’t have been so bad if bedtime was a little earlier, but alas it was generally closer to 11pm. Each day started with a satsang at 6am of silent meditation (occasionally this was a silent walk along the beach, weather permitting, to which our knees and hips breathed a deep sigh of gratitude) followed by daily chants and a lecture, the theme for most of this month being the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with the asana practice of the same name). The 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga were set out by the sage Patanjali Maharishi around 2,000 years ago as a practical pathway of Raja Yoga (the yoga of meditation/mind control), to realise our true nature. It is worth noting that the third of these 8 limbs is asana, the postures for which yoga is so renowned in the West, so in reality only a small component of the practice of yoga. The first of the 8 limbs are the ‘yamas’ and refer to 5 personal restraints or how we treat others, the primary one being ‘ahimsa’, meaning non-violence/harming in thought, word and deed. The second limb, the ‘niyamas’ refer to 5 personal observances or how we treat ourselves, such as ‘saucha,’ meaning cleanliness or purity of mind and body. Fairly heavy start for 7am but fascinating nonetheless.
This took us to just before 8am where we hurried to our asana class. There was quite a lot of hurrying between classes, not only because they were back to back, but also because you wanted to try and avoid being late for roll call and called up the next day like a naughty schoolchild as to the reasons for your tardiness! For anyone familiar with an Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice, the Sivananda asana practice would seem topsy turvy, literally. After the sun salutations, you are straight into inversions, starting with headstand! Within the set sequence, there is the freedom to add in variations, including poses which come much later in the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequence – we certainly enjoyed playing with these new postures as sticking strictly to the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequence means we may not reach them in this lifetime! There is a big emphasis on relaxing into long holds in the postures, rather than flowing from one to the next with the muscles and ‘bandhas’ actively engaged throughout, and you even get to take ‘savasana’, the corpse pose used for the final relaxation, in between postures. It is certainly less of a physically demanding practice than Ashtanga Vinyasa, but the result leaves you feeling restored, rested and renewed, perhaps even more so.
Anyone hungry? At this point the only food we had received since rising at 5:30am was some ‘prasad’ at the end of the satsang, a somewhat thin slice of orange, although technically it had been blessed by the divine and therefore what it lacked in nutrition it made up for in ‘prana’, the vital life force that permeates everything in the universe. Maybe this was why we hadn’t felt hungry. So the 10am brunch went down a treat, as did the evening meal at 6pm. It was similar to what we usually eat anyway – salads, stewed lentils and other pulses, quinoa, grilled and steamed veggies - so we tucked in, usually whilst enjoying a precious moment to sit overlooking the expansive horizon of the beautiful turquoise Bahamian sea. Seeing the open sea was a wonderful way to mentally recharge and a pertinent reminder of the turbulent, yet impermanent nature of the mind; some days the waves were crashing and raging, other days the water was beautifully calm. Each mood and thought passes, as does each wave. This was a precious moment indeed as for most people it was very short-lived…
By 10:45am, Karma yoga duties had commenced. Karma Yoga is the path to realising your true nature through selfless service, whereby all actions are offered to the divine, letting go of any attachment to the potential gain to be had. Swami Sivananda talks about the importance of practicing Karma yoga as a means to purifying the heart and removing egoism, hatred and jealousy. In fact, the essence of his teachings is: ‘be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate’. In an Ashram setting everyone is given a specific duty to contribute towards the smooth running of the community. It is your task to perform this duty as selflessly and with as much devotion as possible, whether this be cleaning toilets, chopping vegetables or removing garbage. Some might call this free labour, but it was also another opportunity to observe the mind, see how you react to the duty you have been assigned and how you react to the people you need to work with to complete your duty. Tougher than it sounds on some days! Noticing how those thoughts and reactions changed over the course of the month was equally interesting as well; again, reflecting the nature of the ever-changing and impermanent mind. Outside the Ashram setting there are countless opportunities in everyday life, however big or small, to be of service of others. It was a strong reminder that the practice of yoga is not simply something bendy we do with our physical bodies on our yoga mats.
Then came lecture time from the senior Swamis in the Ashram. Having taken vows of renunciation and dressed in orange robes, they looked quite serious from the outset, but, like all our teachers on the course, had skilfully managed to harness the ability to combine a firm, no nonsense approach with loving, humorous warmth. At the 12 o’clock lecture we practiced our chanting and studied excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, ‘The Song of the Lord,’ a classic Indian spiritual scripture. Taking place on a battlefield, reflecting the battlefield of the mind, Arjuna, the most skilful warrior in the land is seeking counsel from none other than Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the divine. Lessons around fulfilling your duty, serving others, renouncing the fruits of your actions and devotion to the divine were some of the key messages. In other words, a lot of food for thought! It is said that every time you dip into this timeless scripture, you will gain new insights and wisdom. Bedtime reading to last a lifetime.
All of our teachers managed to beautifully weave stories about Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu into our classes, really bringing to life their vision of service to humanity and peace. A favourite story tells of when Swami Vishnu first met his Master: ‘I saw him coming up the stairs in my direction. I was young and arrogant and didn’t want to have to bow my head to him or to anyone, God-realised soul or whoever (even though it is tradition to bow your head to a holy man). So I stepped out of the way of his path. Master saw me, headed in my direction and asked who I was and where I was coming from. Then he bowed down and touched my feet! My whole body began to shake violently. With all my heart, with all my life and love, I learned to bow without any type of reservation. He touched my heart not with miracles or shows of holiness, but with his perfect ego-less nature. That was my first lesson, and if I could attain one millionth of the state of egolessness of the Master, it is through his grace.’
The main lecture at 14:00 consisted of 3 weeks of philosophy and 1 week of anatomy and physiology. The philosophy lectures in particular were fascinating, delving into questions such as Who am I? What is real? Does time exist? What is the true nature of the Self? More food for thought. Anyone getting hungry again?! The Swamis explained that the answers to some of our questions are simply unknowable. If they were known, we would not be here on this path! Yet in spite of this state of unknowing and suffering, as referred to by many of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, our existence in a human body is viewed by the yogis as a great gift, as it allows for the evolution of the soul towards the divine. Many people on the course struggled with these existential questions and the spiritual philosophy, coming from a secular background where the word ‘God’ is almost regarded as taboo, let alone talk of reincarnation, past lives and the astral world where celestial beings live. However, regardless of your religious or spiritual inclination, there was a very practical message to these lectures. Again and again, we were advised by all the teachers to become the observer, the witness of the mind. Usually, we unconsciously let our ego and our senses ‘drive the chariot and let its’ horses run wild’, attaching and identifying with desires that give temporary pleasure (chocolate cake was a regular analogy here!), and running away from aversions that give temporary pain. Instead, we were advised to try to observe our own ‘life movie’ without attaching and reacting to the events that manifest, thereby retaining a sense of balance and equanimity. Easier said than done, but if this is the ticket to everlasting bliss, it’s worth a try.
Following our ‘how to teach’ asana class at 16:00, dinner at 18:00, and Karma Yoga duties for some at 18:45, at 20:00 we were back in the Satsang hall, a place which became so familiar over the course of the month…sometimes too familiar. By the end of a long day, tiredness had started to sink in. Sitting on the floor is more tiring than it sounds and can be a significant distraction, especially when trying to sit still for another 30 minutes of meditation! It became crystal clear during our time in the Ashram that whilst practicing ‘asanas’ to help purify the body and mind is not a pre-requisite, it is certainly a helpful precursor to a sitting meditation practice: if your body is aching, your mind will have yet another distraction to deal with. And the point of meditation, the path of Raja Yoga, is to still the mind to such an extent that you transcend it, revealing the pure light of your true nature within, that has always been there.
We started each meditation session with the same reassuring instructions: ‘Sit up straight with the eyes closed, like a huge mountain.’ We loved the image of a huge mountain. Then we were guided to choose a focal point either at the heart centre, or between the eyebrows, and to silently repeat the mantra ‘OM, ’ the all-pervading divine sound of the universal consciousness or our own personal ‘mantra,’ which in a rather technical definition refers to ‘mystical, divine energy encased in a sound structure’. In fact one of the most special moments on the course for many of us was the (optional!) ‘mantra’ initiation. Your personal mantra is said to further ignite the flame of the divine in your heart and can be repeated during your meditation practice or at any time during the day as you see fit. A flame was certainly ignited in our hearts, as well as an overwhelming sense of gratitude and connection to the teachers of this lineage, Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu. The focal point and mantra repetition are essentially tools to help bring focus and calm to the ever mobile ‘monkey mind.’ In reality, when most people talk about a meditation practice, what they are doing is simply trying to concentrate, which is hard enough. Just try closing your eyes for 1 minute and observe how many different, scattered thoughts run through your head! However, rewards can be reaped as the gradual and regular practice of concentration will lead to a state of meditation, and eventually a state of pure bliss.
Meditation practice was followed by the daily chants. The daily chants are in fact repeated twice daily and form part of the path of Bhakti Yoga, a means of controlling the mind through pure love and devotion to the divine. The chants invoke different qualities and energies of the divine, in all their shapes, forms and traditions. With repetitive melodies and words, and the steady tinkle of a drum and tambourine, allowing yourself to let go and practice singing from the heart is a beautiful experience. You will recall when we first attended a satsang, we had some doubts about chanting our hearts out to unknown Indian deities. For many people on our course, this was another challenging area which required an attitude of surrender. However, this was not a demand to surrender one’s own faith or beliefs in exchange for those which include an elephant-headed boy deity, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, in its pantheon. Yoga was developed in an Indian context; therefore what we know today as Hinduism is the cultural context for yoga. Yet a core belief of the yogis is that whilst there are many paths to the divine, the truth is one: a simple message that really resonated with us. And, far from taking you away from your own faith or whatever belief you may have in something bigger than you, people have found that the different practices of yoga can actually strengthen their connection with their own faith. Surrender or not, we were glad we had come prepared for this, especially as it was twice a day for a month!
The evening lecture programme had a whole host of thought provoking external speakers and outstanding musicians. Yet this was often the toughest part for our fatigued minds and bodies. Our necks got some good practice at trying to stay upright as our physical body just wanted to shut down, our eyes rolling and heads swaying. Hopefully the speakers didn’t notice! We looked forward to retreating to our ‘tent hut’ each night which soon became our cosy home, where we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle around us…as well as a huge generator for the ‘Atlantis’ resort further down the island, and their occasional music and fireworks. Needless to say Atlantis was pretty much the antithesis of the Ashram, but they did have a Starbucks (a popular spot for coffee-starved yogis). Before we know it, the morning bell is sounding at 5:30am…time to get back on that wheel!
By the end, the most visible change was Ewan sporting a bushy beard - there just wasn’t the time to shave. A month later and it is still there. Joking aside, although this post has been lengthier than intended, it is impossible to fully capture the scope and depth of what we learned and experienced that month. Who knows what further seeds have been planted and when they will germinate. Immense gratitude goes to our teachers on the course for being such wonderful instruments for channelling the wise teachings of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishudevananda. And, it goes without saying, our deepest gratitude goes to the Swamis themselves:
Om Bolo Sat Guru Swami Sivananda Maharaja Ki, Jai!
Om Bolo Sat Guru Swami Vishnudevananda Maharaja Ki, Jai!
For more information, please see: http://www.sivananda.org/