Monday, January 22, 2007

Searching for the Perfect Yoga School

Up the Malabar Coast in Search of the Perfect Yoga School

Chandra sat cross legged on the roof of the Kovalam Jeevan Aryvedic Beach Resort and led his three students through breathing excercises called pranayama, then moved the group into standing positions. As the sun broke above the coconut palmed hill to the east, the students practiced namastar, or sun salutes. The rhythmic breathing, with eyes closed, was in time with the rolling of Arabian Sea waves crashing onto the beach below. The yoga teacher gave us directions to the school he learned his craft, in Trivandrum.

In Trivandrum, the Sivananda Yoga School is tucked into a neighborhood house. Above the din of music and speech from huge speakers set across the street for an annual neighborhood residential meeting, two teachers explained the history of the school, which they said originated in India and is now world wide with it’s headquarters in Canada, north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. Pictures of two swamis, hung above an eclectic altar, that included a picture of Jesus, a picture of one of the swami’s elderly mother, flowers, oil lamps and bright fabrics. Classes are given at the school for people who stay elsewhere, since there are no accommodations for students at this branch. The teachers, one a red head originally from South Africa, explained all teachers are volunteers, accepting donation from students. The donation amounts are listed in the school literature.

Moving onto our first ashram

A moderately crowded, winding, two lane road following a couple of different small rivers leads up from Trivandrum, through coconut palm forests and rubber tree plantations. A hired driver deftly swerved between buses and trucks coming down, passing slower vehicles in pure Indian style. In some stretches, market stalls were clustered on either side of the road before the steeper climb into the tea and spice growing Agastya Mountains. The well known Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwastari Ashram sits on the edge of a man made lake, on a hill above the Neyar Dam. The complex has separate men and women dormitories. Each cubicle has two cots, with mosquito netting and bedding provided. Huts are available for a few students. A large, two story covered open air teaching pavilion doubling as an eating hall, kitchen, temples and various other out building are within a pleasant garden. Since we arrived unannounced on a Sunday, we were placed in the dorms for the minimum three night stay. There are set times for yoga and meditation classes, meals, Karma yoga (which means light work around the place) lectures and lights out. A signature is required on one page list of mandatory rules at check in. In addition to the Yoga Vacationers, like us, we discovered that an international teacher training here has brought one hundred and sixty seven yoga students from twenty-two different countries. We’ve met students from England, Switzerland, Uruguay, Spain and amazingly, Iran. The head swami, who flew in from Canada with some other teachers for the course, announced that chants will be given in various languages in the next few days. There is a chant book, all in Sanskrit with the notable exception of the gospel Amazing Grace. Staff prepare huge quantities of vegetarian food which several hundred students devour with fingers off of metal plates, silently (it’s another rule) twice a day while sitting cross legged on the floor of one of the great halls. Ten Hindu gods, Siva, Ganesh, and Sarawati in their traditional postures and accoutrements (tigers, snakes) included, all in bright painted colors look down from the walls. At the end is a large stage with statues and hung hanging photos of the two founding swamis, and burning oil lamps. The day officially begins before light with a gong at 5:00 am, but Bollywood movie music from a nearby village radio and lions roaring from a “wildlife park” across the lake wake us earlier. After morning yoga classes, one by the lake with the Western Ghats looming in the distance, we sneaked away and found a lovely place behind the kitchen, near staff dormitories, under trees loaded with birds I’d never seen before, to read our stack of New Yorkers. Reading is supposed to be limited to spiritual literature. So, on to the next yoga school, perhaps in Kochi.

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