Remnants of the Hippie Trail at the Sivananda Ashram

Posted on 26 January 2012

Claire and I arrived at the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam in southern India on a decrepit bus. It had heaved its way up into the foothills of the Western Ghats, stopping as it went to collect tiny rural people toting vast bundles of spices, flour, toiletries, clothing, electric fans and other purchases made at the market towns en route. When the roof was overladen and the aisle full, people clutched on to the bus’s sides, and as we wove our way up and down the winding road they remained content enough to gaze in at us, the exotic foreigners, and waggle their heads approvingly.

We registered at the ashram’s reception desk, where we exchanged our valuables for sheets, pillows and mosquito nets, along with an outline of our yoga vacation’s mandatory schedule:

05:20     WAKE UP BELL
06:00     SATSANG
07:30     TEA TIME
08:00     ASANA CLASS
10:00     BRUNCH
11:00     KARMA YOGA
12:30     COACHING CLASS (optional)
13:30     TEA TIME
14:00     LECTURE
16:00     ASANA CLASS
18:00     DINNER
20:00     SATSANG
22:00     LIGHTS OUT

Claire was dispatched to the women’s dormitory and I made my way, with the receptionist, to the men’s. My bunkmate was a Keralan Christian called Thomas, who shared his name with Doubting Thomas, the saint and apostle who established India’s first Christian community after crossing the Arabian Sea in 52 CE. Thomas was tall and well-built; he was dressed in white cotton trousers and a pale yellow t-shirt, with Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training Course printed on its front. It was a uniform, he said, used to separate the two groups of people at the ashram: yoga vacationers, like Claire and I, and a group studying to be yoga teachers, whose lives were governed by an exacting, month-long schedule.

The ashram was in a sprawling, walled compound. The dorms and a scattering of private rooms were at its edges; in its centre, a two-tiered hall functioned as a temple as well as a space for asana yoga classes and meals, observed in silence. A small room with a pointed roof was perched on the hall’s top; this, I learnt, was a sattvic library, stocked with only pure books. The food at the ashram was sattvic too: it was not just vegetarian, but cooked with ingredients that grew in direct sunlight. Roots vegetables like garlic and potatoes were not sattvic, but unpasteurised milk and its products were, because they were gifts from the sacred cow. Beyond the hall, there was a small, ceremonial temple, staff quarters and an Ayurvedic clinic, where Claire and I would go for massages later, when our bodies ached from doing four hours of yoga each day. There was a ramshackle structure outside the compound, beside the cool, clear water of Neyyar Dam, with a packed earth floor and a roof of woven palm fronds. It was used sporadically for asana classes and lectures on Vedanta, but on other occasions visitors needed to request permission to leave the ashram, and to sign in and out with the security guard who idled at the compound’s gate.

The reputation of the ashram was a constant concern. The bohemian rabble of Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Pushkar and other places on what remained of the Hippie Trail visited it in large numbers, and on our first day, when the chores of karma yoga were being assigned, there were questions about where we could smoke. The answer – nowhere – came with instructions forbidding us to eat meat or drink beer at any of the small restaurants and chai shops in the vicinity, because locals would struggle to reconcile our easy excesses with traditional ideas of religious hermitage. Women were only to swim in the dam fully dressed, and when Claire broke this rule, by swimming in her bikini a few hundred metres from the ashram, in the seclusion of tall trees and thick scrub, an Englishwoman – and senior figure at the ashram – came crashing out of the bushes to reprimand her.

Visitors who wanted to continue self-indulgent holidays soon left, but most chose to stay, and gave their lives over to the ashram’s routine. I was almost broken by satsang, the congregational service with hymn singing and dull sermons that dragged three hours out of every day, but I took a novel with me, secreted in my chant book, and after a week of asana classes I could do a headstand and comfortably touch my toes. I had stopped smoking too, without much effort, and was waking up refreshed at 5:20, with the morning bell. It was an orderly, repetitive existence without the anxiety of choice, and it made a number of people exceedingly happy. They stopped using English words if Om namo Shivaya – In the name of Shiva – or just Om would pass as substitutes, and went about with sparkling eyes and wide, mirthful grins. Two women from Brighton, whose eyes sparkled especially bright, learnt from Claire that I would be at the ashram during my birthday. They told the ashram’s staff and, on the day I turned 24, I was summoned up in the front of the few hundred people assembled at satsang and presented with a book called Meditation and Mantras, written by the order’s deceased guru. Everybody was then told to pray for my moksha – my release from the cycle of reincarnation – which they did, while my cheeks glowed red in front of them.

The ashram had not one but two gurus – an elder ascetic, named Swami Sivananda, and his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda. Sivananda, born in 1887, was a doctor whose spirituality was said to have grown out of his medical practice. He spent most of his life in Rishikesh, where the Beatles found their own guru, and in the story of the ashram’s founding it was there that he first encountered his young disciple. Vishnudevananda had travelled to meet the sage, after reading one of his 296 books, but when he saw the elder man ascending the stairs after a ritual immersion in the Ganges, with the pilgrims and sadhus of Rishikesh prostrating as he passed, Vishnudevananda hid. Sivananda noticed, found him and, in what is described as the guru’s first lesson, prostrated himself at the feet of his embarrassed junior. The younger man took a vow of chastity soon afterwards, in 1947; ten years later, Sivananda gave him ten rupees and, with the words “people are waiting,” told his disciple to take what he had learnt to the West.

It was perfect timing. In 1959, after passing through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Australia and the US, with people in every place paying for him to move on, the Flying Swami set up his first Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Montreal. In 1961, he held his first yoga camp; in 1962, he opened his first ashram in the forested hinterland of Quebec; he met the Beatles in the Bahamas in 1965 – “I can’t even stand on my legs, let alone my head,” said Ringo Star – and opened an ashram on the country’s Paradise Island in 1967. In 1971, he opened a third ashram in California and in 1974 a fourth, in New York. It wasn’t until 1978 that he opened an ashram in India, at Neyyar Dam, and in some ways the retreat Claire and I were on, in spite of its rituals, was not traditionally Indian at all.

None of the yoga vacationers were Indian. They were from North America and Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, or, in an example held up to us as evidence of yoga’s power to bring people together, Israel and Iran. The group studying to be yoga teachers was mixed, but like my Christian bunkmate Thomas, the majority of Indians were not overly interested in ascetism or the finer points of Vedic philosophy. The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres taught a recognisable brand of postures and stretches, and with the qualification they would receive at the end of the course, after completing a test, they could hope to find well paid work. They could teach tourists in Goa or go overseas, to London, Dubai or Shanghai, where a yoga school with an Indian teacher was the equivalent of an Italian restaurant with a Neapolitan chef.

The ashram was, in its way, an outpost on the Hippie Trail, as well as a transplant onto India from the West. Swami Vishnudevananda had adapted the teachings of his guru to Western devotees, and it was only after his incredible success that the model was exported back to the country of his birth. After Vishnudevananda died, in 1993, his devotees were left to run the organisation, and the organisation’s Western roots explained the awkward worry over its reputation in India, because try as it might, the ashram didn’t completely fit in.

Although they were happy away from the decadence of Goa, the yoga vacationers wore the same uniform I had noticed there, on more dissolute members of the same tribe. Women had to adapt their dress to conservative India, but instead of saris or a salwar kameez, they wore the outfits hippies had cobbled together between Istanbul and Kathmandu before them, which were sold now in bits and pieces at the tourist markets of India’s seaside towns. The look was described in another of A Season in Heaven’s interviews, by Carmel Lyons. “The fashion was prayer shawls,” she said, and “pyjamas and beads and drifting fabrics and waistcoats and bare feet and harem pants,” and it still was, on sweaty bodies after an asana class, or during early-morning meditation, when a shawl protected against the cool morning air.

Our yoga vacation lasted two weeks, but after ten days most people were ready to move on, including Claire and I. Instead of dispersing, everybody shared taxis to the beach at Varkala, where the only Indians were guesthouse owners, shop attendants or waiters, and bikinis were very much allowed. For some, Varkala was where their holiday ended; they were flying out of nearby Trivandrum in a few days’ time. The ashram and the beach would be the whole of their Indian experience. Others were moving doggedly on, to places along the well-worn trail, and I watched an Israeli couple book themselves onto a 50 hour train to Pushkar, which would carry them in sweltering sleeper class, without pause, across the whole length of the country. Nobody spoke enthusiastically, like we did, about getting back into the thick, confusing, revelatory mess of Indian cities, and it seemed that most of the yoga vacationers had borrowed a narrow view of India from their hippie predecessors, along with their clothing.

Read more about the the Hippie Trail at Old World Wandering, the story of a South African couple’s overland journey home from Shanghai.

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