Annie Tan, a freelance writer, spent two weeks at the yoga ashram, Sivananda in Trivandrum, India, as a mid-career break. We find out from her what’s the experience like.
If you ever have the chance to speak with Annie in person, words like “calm”, “smiley”, and “Zen”, will come to mind. When we heard she’s actually spent 2 weeks on her own staying at a yoga ashram, our curiosity was naturally piqued. So, was the experience anything like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love?
Why did you decide to spend time at an ashram?
I was taking a mid-career break, and was looking for space and inspiration to re-think my life decisions. I knew a regular vacation wasn’t going to cut it because I’ve backpacked on my own for 4 months and have been to 20 countries. Since I was so out-of-shape, I decided to go on a yoga vacation. Exercise has this unique ability to give my muddled thoughts a sharper sense of clarity.
Funnily, I hadn’t even read or watched Eat, Pray, Love when I chose to visit an ashram. I was just looking to get out of my comfort zone, and this option somehow ‘frightened’ me the most.
Plus, it was ridiculously cheap – I think I paid something like $14 for full board with a twin-share room, and yoga lessons.
What was a typical day at the ashram like?
I knew from the get-go it was going to be a shocker.
For one, the schedule was very structured and regimented, which was not something I am used to.
The wake-up bell went off at 5:20am. By 6am, we had to be at Satsang (morning meditation). After that, we would proceed to meditate quietly for 20 minutes with five or six mosquitoes buzzing around us. This was repeated again at night before lights out.
There were four hours of compulsory yoga daily, and another hour of optional coaching. Then, there were lectures about karma, being a vegetarian, energy, etc. I even remember one lecturer telling us why we should abstain from sex, even between couples, because it ‘drains our vital energy’. That particular lecture was definitely not a hit, for obvious reasons.
We had to do Karma yoga and contribute to the ashram daily. It was luck of the draw – so I ended up on the dinner crew – which means, I had to serve dinner to some 200 people before I could eat. That was backbreaking work because they were all seated on the floor, and I had to carry heavy pots and kettles, and do a few hundred backbends to fill and refill their cups and plates. Some ended up with toilet duty, and had to clean after hundreds of people.
All activities were compulsory. We were told we were not simply there to practise yoga, but to experience the yogic lifestyle.
Accommodation was very basic. My twin-share room was considered a ‘luxury option’. (Most people stayed in dorms that accommodated something like 30 people).
We bathed with a pail of cold water, and washed our own clothes with the same pail. Once, we even ran out of fuel and had to collect firewood by forming a human chain in the midday sun.
They didn’t serve meat or junk food – another major adjustment for me since chocolate and chips make up 30% of my daily diet. I did sneak out one day for chocolate – and walked 30 minutes in the scorching sun to get the best melted chocolate bar of my life. Tough as it was, I did have the best body I’ve ever had (or ever will have)!
Were there any surprises during your stay?
One morning, at 5:30am, my ‘neighbour’ was showering and the lights went off. When they came on again, she saw 50 huge flying ants in the bathroom. My ‘neighbour’ was from Denmark. Long story short, she decided not to wash off her shampoo that day.
You visited the ashram on your own? Were you concerned at any point for your safety? What advice would you have for solo women travellers visiting such a quiet isolated place?
Yes, I went alone.
I think my husband was more concerned than I was, as that was when the media was running lots of reports on rape in India. But I’d been to India when I was backpacking, so I knew how to watch out for myself.
However, if you’re really worried about safety, you can get the ashram to send a taxi to pick you up. Once you’re in the ashram, you should be safe.
Otherwise, I generally believe in a simple rule of numbers when travelling alone.
I believe there are bad people anywhere in the world who might want to do you harm, but most people are generally good, decent folks. So if you’re afraid, keep to places with a healthy crowd, and chances are, if you run into trouble, someone will help.
Before and after your stay at the ashram … did you notice any change in your beliefs/mindsets/views etc? If so, can you tell us 3 and elaborate more?
(a) I was infinitely more thankful for the things around me. For example, I’d had so many perfumes in the past, I didn’t even know where I put most of them. But after being covered in my own sweat for 2 weeks straight, I can now smell a garden in a bottle of perfume.
(b) While it’s made me more grateful for what I have, the experience also helped me pare my life down to the most important things. I realised how much excess I had in my life and how unimportant they were. I still enjoy the little luxuries in life, but I am now clearer about what is truly essential to me. I truly believe less is more.
(c) Sadly, two weeks of yoga vacation later, I still suck at yoga, and I don’t exercise as regularly as I should. But I’ve learnt to breathe deeply and still my mind whenever I get too stress or flustered. I try to put things in perspective.
What was the SINGLE BIGGEST thing you learnt about yourself from this experience?
That I am beyond fortunate, for too many reasons.
Would you do it again? Why?
It was one of the best things I could have done for myself at that point. But I probably won’t do it again. Can’t say what I’ll do until I get my mid-life crisis. Haha!
22 Aug 2016