I’ve just returned from a week at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas. Once a year for the past three years I’ve been invited to the ashram to run a workshop called “Yoga for the Nervous System”, which is all about using restorative yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques) to support the nervous system and promote healing in the body.
To be clear, I’m not an internationally-known yoga teacher who gets invitations like this on the reg. It was a “right place, right time” situation that created this possibility for me, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
I’m also filled with appreciation for the people who keep ashrams going so that householders like me can drop in for a week at a time. Spending time at an ashram is different from attending a one-off retreat with a yoga teacher. When you visit an ashram, it’s like stepping into a river and letting the current pull you along. Ashram life has its own momentum, and it doesn’t take long before the flow of your days is established.
A typical day at the Sivananda Ashram begins with the first bell at 5:30am. Ashram residents and guests make their way to the Garden Platform for silent meditation from 6-6:30. From 6:30-7 there’s kirtan (devotional singing), and from 7-7:30 a swami or senior teacher offers a scripture study. Following a short break from 7:30-8, there’s asana (posture) and pranayama practice from 8-9:45. While guests are busy practicing their inverted v’s (which is the Sivananda name for downward dog pose), karma yogis (volunteers practicing selfless service) are busy in the kitchen preparing a delicious vegetarian brunch, which is served at 9:45.
After brunch, the pace slows down and there’s ample time to snooze in a hammock, walk on the beach, or swim in the glorious Caribbean Sea. A variety of elective programs run in the afternoon, such as my workshop, “Yoga for the Nervous System”, which ran from 2-3:30 this year. The schedule picks up again at 4pm, at which point there’s another asana and pranayama practice from 4-5:45. Dinner is served at 5:45. From 7-7:30 there’s a gathering in the main temple to chant a chapter of The Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, followed by a short scripture study. From 8-9:45 residents and guests meet back on the Garden Platform for silent meditation (8-8:30), kirtan (8:30-9), and evening program (9-9:45).
Keep Up and Be Kept Up
While I’ve had the pleasure of diving into this schedule a number of times already, on my most recent visit I really came to appreciate the way that ashram life holds space for householders to drop in to a fully-formed spiritual practice. As someone who is constantly struggling to define my personal sadhana (daily spiritual practice), it was a relief to join this community for a week and let the current pull me along. I think I finally understand what Yogi Bhajan meant when he said “Keep up and you’ll be kept up!”
There’s so much support that comes from doing these practices in community. It’s hard to roll over and go back to sleep at 5:30 when I know there’s an actual person out there ringing the bell for my benefit as opposed to my alarm clock sounding off. In meditation practice, I feel a sense of responsibility to the community to sit still and steady, just as I know others are sitting still and steady for my benefit. We steady each other. The call-and-response format of kirtan means that I can sing all the songs, even if they’re new to me. Someone is calling, I only need to answer.
One of my favorite ashram activities is chanting The Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. Every evening a small study group meets to chant one chapter of this essential yogic text. The text is comprised of 18 chapters and when they’ve completed all 18, the next evening they begin again with chapter 1. I’m so grateful to the people who keep this group going the 51 weeks a year I’m not at the ashram, just so I can participate the one week a year that I am.
“I am bliss, I am bliss, bliss absolute, bliss I am” is one of the lines we sing twice a day at kirtan. This sums up how I feel when I’m at the Sivananda Ashram, and this is the feeling I bring home with me every year.
Images © 2018 Erin Bidlake