Our teacher informed us that we were each going to be singing in turn and needed to have a couple of songs that we were familiar enough with to be able to sing in front of the class. I like to sing as much as the next person, but I prefer it to be in my car or maybe the shower. Definitely not in front of 140 people and a microphone. Lucky for me, Devesh helped me pick out two, four line chants and learn the melodies. I got to have the chant book in front of me, so I didn't even have to memorize them. My number (we were each given a number at the beginning of the course) was never randomly called, though, so I never had to show off my lack of talent to the ashram :)
The chanting, in all fairness, did get easier. We chanted at each morning and evening Satsung and at the beginning and end of each class and lecture, so we were constantly hearing the words and their pronunciation. By the end of the month I had actually memorized portions of the daily chants we repeated several times a day. Here's a glimpse of some of what we sang in Hindi:
Jaya Ganesa jaya Ganesa jaya ganesa pahi mam
Sri Ganesa sri Ganesa sri Ganesa raksa mam
Saravanabhava Saravanabhava Saravanabhava pahi mam
Subrahmanya Subrahmanya Subrahmanya raksa mam
and part of our opening prayer in Sanskrit:
Gajananam Bhutaganaadi Sevitam
Kapitta Jambu Phala Sara Bhakshitam
Uma Sutam Shokavinasha Karanam
Namami Vigneshvara Pada Pamkajam
Yeah… it came out of my mouth as a jumbled mess too. But, For all of the confusion, chanting really was an enjoyable part of the program. There were always miniature drums and belled instruments floating around, so there was a lot of accompaniment and swaying going on.
Here's the lot of us chanting at an evening satsung -
I struggle with meditation, but recognize the benefits and would love the clearer, more focused, less scattered brain it provides. We started each morning by sitting for 15 to 30 minutes, before the sun rose, on rolled up yoga mats or meditation pillows trying to focus on the singular thought of our mantra. At first, all I could focus on was the physical discomfort my body was in, my back specifically. I couldn't sit five minutes without it beginning to ache. I'd attempt to meditate for as long as possible and then pull my knees into my chest to rest my back and wait out the rest of the time until the chanting began. I had a teacher who said that none of us, including herself, were actually meditating; we were all trying to meditate. I think that's an accurate description.The mind has an awful lot of background chatter. Getting it to focus on one thing, and one thing only, takes a substantial amount of practice. I didn't even come close for more than a few seconds at a time. It didn't help that we were always on the the floor. Morning satsung, both of the lectures and both of the meals were on the floor. We literally spent hours, each day, on the floor without anything to rest our backs against. It took some getting used to, but I did, for the most part, get used to it. By the end of the course, I could make it through twenty minutes of meditation (that doesn't sound like a lot, but try it some time) before my knees started to bother me and back cried out for a rest.
There's a lake across the street from the ashram and even though there was a sign warning about crocodiles, my first Friday I went to the morning yoga class and then went to the lake to enjoy a dip (no one had ever actually seen a crocodile there). The water wasn't cold, but it was cooler than the ambient temperature and it did feel good to just relax in. The weekend our course started coincided with the Holi Festival (Festival of Colors) in India. We didn't do the traditional bonfire the night before, but we did have lots of colored powder mixed into water to throw all over each other. Everyone was fair game and anyone in the area came out colored in red, yellow, green, blue and a mix of all of the above. It didn't come out of clothes and it left your skin dyed for a few days before it faded, even if you scrubbed with soap and water. That had been my first introduction to the lake, to try and wash off what I could of the paint. It didn't really work and I still have a tie dye looking shirt that I haul around with me to prove it. There wasn't enough time during the regular days to sneak away and swim, so I never got in the water as often as I wanted to. I spent my other three free Fridays taking a trip to Trivandrum, Kovalam and exploring the jungle and a waterfall near the Ashram. Trivandrum was my first experience in an Indian city. We took a bus out and spent the day walking around, eating delicious Indian food and exploring a seven story department store. The colors... Amazing. So vibrant. Nothing in India is dull. I don't think they could made a dull piece of clothing if they tried. There were several of us that went so it was also fun to get to know everyone outside the Ashram setting. Kovalam was the day before our exam and we lugged our books and materials with us to study while staring out at the beach. We found ourselves a little cafe that boasted Westen breakfasts and filled up on Cappucinos, Indian spiced coffee, and eggs, none of which we could get at the ashram. That egg was the one and only non-veg food I had during my lacto-vegetarinan (dairy allowed) stay at the ashram. I'd resolved to embrace the culture, including the diet, to get the full experience, but seeing eggs on the menu I couldn't resist. And, it was the fullest I felt probably that entire month :) Yes, there is protein in vegetables. No, it didn't keep me full. The jungle trek was an Ashram sponsored trip that included a boat ride, some jungle walking and swimming, and lounging at a waterfall. The 25 or so of us that signed up were all up and at the lake at six to catch the boat that would take us an hour and a half to our destination. We got to watch the sun rise on the water and it turned out that one of the yoga vacationers on the boat was from Prague. He'd emigrated to the US around the same time my family had, but ended up in California rather than Utah. He's a physical therapist and was trying to bring the practice and healing of yoga back to his patients. Hearing his memories and stories of moving made the hour and a half go by quickly. When we got to the right island, we each grabbed something from off the boat to carry and started the two hour walk. Kerala is hot and humid, so about ten minutes in we were all sweaty and nothing sounded better than a dip in some water. We got there, cooled off in the water and finally had breakfast. We ate our rice, sweet curry and banana on a banana leaf and washed it down with some masala chai. We were there most of the day, so we alternated between lying on the grass/rocks/sandy shore and getting into the water. I had to teach my very first class the next day, as did a few others in the group, so those of us got together and studied. Even with having to study for the exam, it was a nice way to take a break from the ashram and its demanding schedule.
There were other things that broke up the monotony of the daily schedule. There was a talent show every Saturday night that always involved a lot of singing and dancing. I got to hear all the Hindi songs at the top of the charts and see some dance moves from the newest Bollywood movies. There were two brothers, yoga vacationers, who had some kind of acrobatic show and we watched them bend themselves into all sorts of intricate knots and walk on their hands down the steps of the stage, all the way across the length of it and back up the steps on the other side. Lots and lots of talent at that ashram. A couple of the evening Satsung's were cut back to include a movie (on one of the Swami's or the benefits of vegetarianism) or we were given an hour to finish homework, review our asanas before teaching or study for the upcoming exam. We also had cultural shows once a week. We saw a traditional play the first week and traditional bands, with traditional instruments, from the surrounding areas, the next three weeks. The play was all men, dressed up in costume and made up with makeup using bright colors and lots of dancing to tell a story of the Gods. One of the band nights ended in a dance party and almost everyone, including myself, got up and mimicked whatever Indian dance moves were going on around us.
The people were the saving grace of the ashram, especially on the roughest of days. There was that sense of community that comes from everyone following the same program. We all helped each other with the poses (and everything else). It's funny how one word on how to shift your weight or adjust yourself slightly can make the difference between a proper headstand or falling over backwards. Everyone had their own, unique story and reason for coming. Some of us just came for the experience, not necessarily to teach. Some were teaching as soon as they left. There were people from all over India and all over the rest of the world. There were a few Americans, some Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Europeans, too. The course was in English and almost everyone spoke it. I was lucky enough to get to know a few people well and even see several of them after I left the Ashram. Marie, my roommate, was wonderful. I wish she lived in the states rather than England because I think we'd have a lot of fun together in normal, non-ashram life. Devesh, a Delhi native and a travel agent who could arrange anything and everything, was nice enough to let me be his guest at a wedding in Delhi. The friends and family I met couldn't have been any more inviting and the wedding was amazing (don't worry, it'll have its very own post). I saw Luis, Anand, Emily and Katerine again in Dharamshala and they're probably the reason I stayed so long. We spent hours together in cafes and exploring the towns and surrounding mountains. Luis and I took a bus from Dharamshala to Amritsar and visited the Golden Temple and the Pakistan/Indian border to watch the changing of the guards ceremony. He put up with me dragging him all over the mountains in Dharamshala, and then my grumpiness when we got to Amritsar and were back in the heat and noise (I have to take heat and noise in doses). We were instantly good friends; one of those people you've known forever even if you haven't really. Anand, the group joker, always, always, always had a smile and some good travel advise. It's one of those great smiles that stretches to every corner of his face and you can't help but smile along with him. Biggest grin ever. We all had the ashram in common, but even more than that, we spent time together simply because we enjoyed each others company. It was the first time I spent more than a few days in the same place and it was rejuvenating (and comforting) to get to know people based on more than what you could cram into a few hours.
All such different people. All such different backgrounds. One incredibly interesting mix.
Whether or not we passed the course depended on our attitudes, how we did in the yoga class, how we did teaching and, finally, whether or not we passed the written exam. The written exam covered what we'd learned about the fundamentals of yoga, our founder, anatomy, the Bhagavad Gita, the sequence of the asanas and anything else that was deemed important. If I remember correctly, there were somewhere around 130 short answer questions. The Friday of the exam, we woke up and were given breakfast after satsung. We were taking the exam in place of the morning yoga class, so we needed a little brain food. We ate the bowl of fruit and oats on the roof of the dining hall. After that, we were called into the main hall in numerical order and sat a few feet away from our neighbor. I think the test took me just over two hours, and there were a few things that I didn't know or left blank, but for the most part, the info had been pounded into our head enough that, to a certain extent, it was mostly there (yay for partial credit).
After all the points were counted and everything else considered, we found out that we had all passed the course. We were given our certificates and had a celebratory dinner in honor of ourselves, where the teachers served us a special Indian meal and goodies we hadn't yet had, or had only had rarely.
And then, somehow, four weeks had gone by and we were done. I thought a lot, during the course, about how overwhelming it could be and how to make it less so. I think, though, that's kind of the way it has to be. There's a lot of information to cram into that month and other than extending the course, which is already a month long, the two a day practice, classes and constant repetition are the best way to make sure everyone walks away with the knowledge needed to be a good Sivananda teacher. Some days still sucked, though. You were constantly on the go and I really was sore everywhere, all the time. For all that, it was a great introduction to India, Hinduism and the Indian culture. I made some friends I know I'll have for life, even if we don't see each other often and, just like I wanted, I can unroll my mat anywhere and guide myself to that peaceful energy that yoga provides me. Who knows, maybe one day i'll be helping provide it to other people as well.
Win all around.