Trying to find a good Yoga training course is a rather hard row to hoe. I was lucky enough through a friend’s recommendation, to find myself in Mysore for the better half of 2016, studying and practicing with an exceptional yet humble teacher. Coming from his vast experience and unbridled passion for the subject Hatha classes were deeply insightful. This was the first time I truly understood Yoga and learnt to use the five elements, the vayus and the breath in my practice. We were taught Yoga Philosophy by a wonderful Sanskrit Professor whose specialty was Panini’s Grammar and he always had such engaging anecdotes and stories from mythology to explain every sutra. His classes were full of productive discussions and his knowledge on the subject and language profound. The course was not residential, yet it was hard and we followed a strict discipline. The classes would be dot on time and latecomers refused entry, we had strict instructions on diet and lifestyle but were only held accountable by our own sense of discipline. It was personal, unique and a very individual journey even in a group environment (no more than 25 students per class!). I loved it as it gave me an unpretentious, authentic introduction to Yoga that I will always consider priceless. So it was here in this city that I sowed the seeds in my heart for a journey to discover yoga.
After gaining a strong foundation in Mysore, I was now looking to add to my learning, through detailed and in-depth study of philosophy, preferably directly through a lineage that still survived. Again through references and having read some of their wonderful books, I settled for the Kerala chapter of the globally recognized Sivananda establishment at Neyyar Dam. I was fascinated by the ashram experience and to learn yoga in the traditional gurukul style of teaching. I was looking for a deeper understanding of pranayama, philosophy, study of Gita and was most excited about chanting. My brief exposure to Kirtan in Mysore was transformational. From cringing and day dreaming through the first few sessions to ending up with enrolling for harmonium classes – I was clearly on board for this, all comments about ‘too much chanting at Sivananda’ simply read to me as one man’s trash another man’s treasure.
So I arrived full of excitement about this unique experience but within 5 days I was on a flight back. Despite the extensive reading up and research I found the place completely mismatched to my expectations. This is why:
1. Disinterested teaching in an overcrowded classroom
The place was overflowing with ~250 TTC students and half as many Yoga vacationers- not surprisingly, the classes were devoid of the gravitas, personal attention, technique and knowledge that I was expecting. Hatha classes were impersonal, slow and at least for me the frequent shavasanas were distracting. Volunteers with questionable experience were teaching the classes before the TTC (Teacher Training Course) sessions began. It was not a very good first impression of an Ashram. Though eventually we did get new Hatha Teachers for the Teacher Trainees.
The philosophy and technique classes were unoriginal and conformed to the dogmatic rote style of learning with teachers uninspiringly reciting verbatim from the book. The classes were so monotonous it verily seemed the teachers were blandly doing their Karma Yoga duty of the day. Q & A with 250 people was an experience in itself – you’re lucky if your question is heard by the teacher as it was rather chaotic, I had to shout mine out three times. The answer would be rushed, repetitive and generic. The experience was disorienting, time consuming and did not feel enriching.
2. Undermining Sanskrit
The volunteer teachers, to my surprise, didn’t even say the Sanskrit names of aasanas. Each name is not merely a word but has a story, background, myth or powerful energy behind it and that’s why translations are never fair. Take Makarasana – Makara is a mythological sea creature, the vehicle of Goddess Ganga. It is not just a crocodile, yet run a Google search for makarasana and that’s all you’ll find. I’ve always felt such simplification kills the culture, promotes a shallow approach to learning, undermines the importance of Sanskrit and very simply reduces Yoga. I can’t envision the Ashram’s respected founder teaching anyone the ‘Candle’ – it’s ‘Sarvangasana’ – a word formed with ‘Sarva’ and ‘Anga’ and works on our entire body and shouldn’t be restricted to the shoulder. I know there’s a whole debate on whether to use Sanskrit names of Aasanas in regular classes or not, and yes not every student needs to know all the names, but every teacher must. English terms are only to aid understanding and can be repeated additionally, but I had hoped for greater adherence to the original teachings at an ashram of such strong lineage in my home country. It was disappointing to see Sivananda trained teaching volunteers who could not even say the actual names of Aasanas while taking a class in their own establishment.
Secondly, the chanting classes were taken by a foreign teacher who couldn’t get the Sanskrit alphabet right. Mantras need phonetics and pronunciation to unlock their true potential and Sanskrit is about the vibration each sound creates, which is why the alphabet rests on the petals of our chakras, which resonate to specific sounds. While it’s the Ashram’s prerogative to have foreigners as the majority of teachers, this was one class where I felt a native teacher would’ve probably done a better job. This was more and more turning out to be a program specifically catered and simplified for foreign nationals be it the selection of teachers, curriculum or even the chanting which was interspersed with adaptations of ‘Jaya Jaya Aarti Jesus Guruve…Moses Guruve’. While I suppose it was meant to be all-inclusive, but there were too many biases which made the program’s intent seem skewed, all at the cost of compromising on the quality and authenticity of teaching.
3. Lack of discipline and time management
There was constant chatter in certain classes, no discipline in practice, classes were often starting or finishing late, meal service was hardly ever on time and insufficient, with dishes getting over midway through service. For a packed overly busy curriculum this showed disregard for students as well as the schedule. All students were asked to come up to the mike and introduce themselves and then the translations would follow. I reckon it was all with good intentions, but when it went on for hours and spilled over to many sessions extending till late in the night, it became simply tiresome and unproductive. Even phones were everywhere – I was excited about the digital detox as indicated on their website and their strict rules, even warning my family I will probably be accessible only once a week on Fridays. But the only rule that was actually enforced seemed to be on clothes, including not wearing leggings even if you were wearing a kurta or long top. Instead we had baggy uniforms to take comfort and get lost in.
4. Overbearing deification of gurus
Noticeably the only time we joined our hands in Namaste, was to do a ‘jai jai’ in the name of the Ashram gurus and it was done so often that it became pompous. There was almost a latent cultish feeling and it felt more religious and dogmatic rather than spiritual and open. Or perhaps this is just what happens when the original teachers are no more, leaving all to the mercy of desperate rituals created to urgently sustain and grow the following. This is usually done by the ‘successors’ – a group I consider historically responsible for all the misunderstanding that exists in the world today in the name of spirituality. They take the teachings of saints and mystics, which without any differentiation of boundaries talk pretty much the same language of unity. These are then interpreted in obsessive and pointless expressions of devotion to create a new religion. Or to be more accurate – to create a following.
5. True World Order was completely missing
The place lacked the peace, equanimity and the very essence of an ashram, only times it resembled one was if you’d look at the stereotypical poor living conditions or the measly food.
The place was clearly overbooked with a temporary dorm created with a tin roof and no windows. During Aasana class the huge hall would literally be bursting at the seams and you could not get through the sequence without bumping into your neighbors. While the student to teacher ratio was terrible even the space available per student for yoga practice was ill planned. The practice of Aasanas somehow did not seem to be a priority item for the organizers. There was greater focus on preaching and theorizing. Classes had a dozen simultaneous translations going on; a possibly wonderful touch if it only weren’t so badly executed and distracting [I was later informed that the translations were eventually moved to a different class]. Dorms were likewise divided by nationalities – Japanese in one area, Iranians in another, Europeans in a third and so forth. I couldn’t understand these divisions – shouldn’t True World Order mean shedding these very boundaries and communities and living as one without differentiation in race, color or geography? Isn’t it true that only by living without these pre conceived notions will we learn what it truly means to be selfless and one with all humanity? These boundaries simply demonstrated that the teachings of the Gurus existed only in letter not in spirit. And so to me this place came to mean nothing more than a shallow vessel of someone else’s history completely lacking in agency. No soul, no vibe.
6. A convenient new definition of Karma Yoga
As I grappled with the decision to stay or not and as the chanting was beginning to take jarring notes and the inadequate, far from nutritious food was making my body revolt, I encountered a brand new definition of Karma Yoga. The Ashram required all students to help with daily tasks – what they called Karma Yoga – and the racial divisions continued. Taking attendance, helping at the Health Hut, assisting at the bookshop or at reception was reserved for the westerners, serving tea was for the Iranians, and the majority of Indians were put up to cleaning toilets, sweeping dorms and serving food. Hoping it was pure random selection I approached the director during meeting hours and enquired on the process followed for allocation of duties. I was categorically informed that this was by design and done for maximum efficiency and a lot of ‘thought’ goes into this. The irony.
Him: Iranians have language issues so they were given Tea duty so they could all be together.
Me: Was there a draw of lots to decide which duty Iranians will do?
Him: No. But it helps to put same language speaking people together with a supervisor who can guide them.
Me: But the group I am a part of has a Japanese supervisor who can’t speak in English or Hindi. We are being shown our duty mostly through pantomime!
Him: Yes that shouldn’t have happened. I will get back on this.
Me: Why are only Indians cleaning the dorms?
Him: That’s because there are a majority of Indians staying there.
Me: No. We are the only remaining Indians in that dorm all others are foreign nationals.
Him: (Makes no comment)
He was a rather brusque westerner, who went on to say that “As Indians are good at serving this food, so they maybe were preferred for mess duty”. He also denied any racial bias since a smattering of Indians were doing other jobs too. To me none of his explanations were satisfying and the biases in Karma Yoga allocation were too glaring. So having politely yet firmly shared all my above disconnects, I made my decision to leave.
As I finished my last meal and went to wash my plate, some volunteers tried to take it from me since their Karma Yoga duty was apparently enhanced to include washing everyone’s dishes. “What about my Karma in letting you do that?” I silently screamed and refusing to carry this load of guilt back with me, washed my plate and left the Karma Yogis to their fate.
After this experience I found myself struggling to understand the very definition of Karma Yoga. The Director at Sivananda told me it was all about ‘accepting whatever job was given and doing it with humility and gratitude’. Given by whom? Gratitude for what? In believing that definition I would be nothing short of an idiot. There is no connection to how The Gita defines Karma Yoga. Here it was about surrendering one’s discretion to a group of volunteers and self entitled seniors who sat in a room, assigned duties and through their inherent attitudes, replicated the very biases and mindsets of the outside world, even forgetting that this sense of entitlement that comes with such an act is nothing short of sin. If people surrender like this to an institution or blindly follow rules, aren’t they relinquishing their sense of judgment, damaging their intellect and turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior? Where is the wisdom in all this- if this doesn’t make the definition of a cult then what does.
This was not Karma Yoga even if it was done correctly, let’s just call it what it is – ‘Seva’ or service, which Ashrams of humble origin have been taking for eons to make ends meet and which disciples freely and willingly do– not because they are ‘required’ to in order to be more evolved. Using the term Karma Yoga sounds hypocritical and more of a way to justify a very selfish act of having work done for you. Refusing to take onus that you are the one benefitting from it but instead making the doer believe that he or she is so blessed in serving you. In my research to understand this theory better I met an author who has written extensively on the Upanishads and the Gita who said to me of Karma Yoga, “…this beautiful concept has been misused to sustain the caste system and suppress revolt by the helpless…”. It definitely puts things in perspective, because what I witnessed is exactly how it would’ve been done.
In hindsight I felt this course was structured for complete beginners but then again it was lacking in attention and supervision, which would be very critical for those who have never practiced an aasana before. The books by Swami Vishnudevananda are exceptional and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn the teachings of this family. Meditation and Mantras, Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga – both are highly informative and written beautifully. The course may even hold merit for those who are looking for a very cursory and quick introduction to yoga. But one should be prepared for the ancillary overdose of irrelevant factors and walk in with your discretion intact. A very dear friend is a teacher from the Sivananda lineage, who I also greatly admire, on hearing of my experience she felt that the timing was wrong and I would have had a better experience in a less crowded location and season. Though I am unsure – I believe that when anything is scaled up, it loses its charm. More over the natural side effect of business expansion is the need to increase occupancy and profits, almost always resulting in a compromise on quality and depth.
I left heavy with disappointment and a growing realization that what I was looking for will not be that easy to find. But then tomorrow’s another day.
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