Category Archives: South India

Yoga Teacher Training – week 1

Given the privations that I had been led to expect on the 4-week Yoga Teacher Training Course, I decided to revert to type for my last 24 hours of freedom before re-entering the Ashram last Sunday – I sank a few Kingfisher Beers with friends in a restaurant by the beach on my last night, and soaked it up in the morning with coffee and a fry-up. Granted the Kingfishers came wrapped in newspaper and served in mugs (alcohol licenses are expensive in Kerala), the coffee had a (tasty) silt texture, and the fry-up was Indian and Vegetarian (Puri Masala), but the sentiment was there.

On the first evening, as the 175 course attendees assembled in the Shiva Hall, we were issued with uniforms (yes, uniforms) of bright yellow t-shirts and white yoga trousers, many of which were amusingly ill-fitting.

As part of the “initiation” ceremony, each attendee trooped up to the stage to say why they had come in the course. With the nature of this Ashram, I was aware that there would be some people here with a more spiritual intention than others, but I was slightly taken aback by the numbers that said they had some to “deepen their spiritual practice”, “find my spiritual path”, “learn to love myself and others”.

I was mightily relieved therefore to see that I was near the end of the line for taking to the stage, and even more relieved when the increasingly serious mood was broken when a Japanese man took to the stage. He spoke a few short words in Japanese, and before the translator (more on that later) could do her job, the 20-strong Japanese contingent were collapsed in laughter.

The translater enlightened us. “He says that he is please to be here, but right now he needs a bigger t-shirt!” Beautifully put. He looked like a 20-stone prop in a scrum-half’s jersey. (Rugby analogy for the international readers). When my turn came, I told them I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about, and curious about how long I could cross my legs for.

I am surviving. There are enough yoga experts to learn from as I try to hide the fact that the headstand is not my natural forte. I am also trying to avoid the mistake I made on the third morning, of sitting slap bang in the middle of the Japanese, Iranian, and Malayalam (from Kerala) groups and their respective translators. Combine that with the heavily accented English of our teacher from Delhi, and it gets seriously confusing. The towers of Babel have nothing on Sivananda ashram with those four in full flow.

The course is fascinating in a thousand different ways, but overall comments can wait till I’ve completed it and had time to reflect/recover at the end of this month. I get another day off next Sunday, and will post again then.

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I always loved Yogi Bear

“In for a penny, in for a pound” has always been one of my favourite phrases.

About half way through my first stay in the Ashram, I learnt about the Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training Programme (TTC). Variously described as challenging, gruellling (but nearly everyone says also rewarding), it is a fast track route to achieving Yoga teaching status. The result is an internationally recognised Yoga Teacher diploma certificate.

I was even more intrigued when I read on the website that: “A sincere desire to learn and openness to yogic techniques is required – a basic knowledge of yoga postures and philosophy is preferred, but not essential.”

So, if my body holds up, that’s what I am doing for the next month – learning to become a “Yogi Siromani”.

This will no doubt be a source of intense amusement for many who remember my stiff London life. When I mentioned my intentions to a Scots girl who had just completed the course, she looked me up and down and said “Well, playfulness is an essential yogic attribute”. I will endeavour to maintain a sense of humour at all times, though this may be difficult given the severe lack of free time, and the significant study requirements. I haven’t taken an exam in anger since 1993.

We have one quasi-free day a week, so I should be able to post every Friday if my muscles are up to it. The daily schedule can be seen here.

Emails of support/astonishment (andy@luddo.com) will be most welcome.

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The Ashram Experience

[A long post, no apologies].

Before leaving London, I had been told by a few people that visiting an Ashram was really de riguer for my trip if I wanted to earn the badge of the International Federation of Travelers. The problem was that I had little idea about what to look for, or what to expect. The only recommendation I got was from a friend who looked at me piercingly and suggested Vivekananda Ashram, 35kn north-east of busy Bangalore. This would be a “hard core” experience, but with nothing to compare it to, this meant nothing to me. On that basis, I decided to give Vivekananda a body-swerve.

Fellow travelers over the past few weeks gave me another option – it was in Mysore that an attractive Spanish Yoga Bunny first told me that Sivananda Ashram would be good for someone suffering from years of desk-bound creakiness; Justin-the-Enfield-biker also confirmed this was an “amazing” place. The decision was finally made a couple of weeks ago when I met an American girl in Cochin who had just returned from the Ashram. She was a producer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. With fellow attendees like that, what could go wrong? Hard Core would just have to wait.

On being inducted

The train journey down to Trivandrum (the stop for the Ashram) was memorable if only for the chronic overcrowding. Traveling on the Sunday before Christmas meant that I coincided not only with the Indian Holiday traffic, but also with a large group of Ayappa Cult devotees (on the way
to Sabarimola for what is the second-largest pilgrimage in the world). There were 21 of us in a compartment made for eight. One particular devotee (pictured) took it upon himself to fix me with a stare for the majority of the 4 hour journey. This was most unsettling, and when he lunged towards my lap after 3 hours of solid staring, I was seriously concerned. It transpired that all he wanted was the magazine in my lap – he then spent the next 20 minutes flicking through the pages nonchalantly, pausing mostly on the advertisements.

On arrival at Trivandrum, I briefly considered having one last slap-up meal before retreating from worldly things, but somehow that felt like it would be cheating. A short taxi ride and I was at the gates. This was it. The real deal.

After my first 20 minutes, I was flabbergasted, consoled only by the knowledge that first impressions rarely tell the truth. The first three people I saw seemed to be carrying dreadful injuries – a bandaged knee, a cradled arm, a hobbling limp. It brought to mind a First World War Hospital Camp. What had I let myself in for?

Things went from bad to worse as I checked in, being told sternly by George (an oversized Kenyan) “READ THE RULES – WE HAVE TOO MANY PROBLEMS WITH PEOPLE HERE”.

“Hey, no problems here buddy, I’ve read them,” I said. George broke into a soft smile which worried me slightly. It felt like he knew something I didn’t. (It later turned out that he had a great sense of humour).

My first couple of days were a slow and painful descent into frustration and grumpiness. My legs stubbornly refused to cross properly, the twice daily chanting started to grate, and the food felt inadequate, particularly for a growing lad like myself. (Later, as I became a senior, I realized that this descent was part of a familiar pattern. It’s kind of like you are getting broken-in before you start to really understand what you are in the Ashram for).

Karma Yoga, from 11am to 12am, is a particularly important part of this Ashram’s experience – an hour of good deeds to help the Ashram run smoothly. Although occasionally painful (I had a narrow escape from shoveling cow dung on Christmas Day) it is also a great way to get people talking. For instance, on the second day I found myself sweeping the steps with a 29-year-old Brazilian beauty who revealed quietly that she was a judge. (Sensing my incredulity, she explained patiently that this wasn’t a joke, and that in Brazil you can take exams to become a judge after completing your law degree). Thank the Lord for Karma Yoga, I thought.

She in turn introduced me to another Brazilian girl, Thais, who had been on a veritable ashram tour over the previous 2 months. She was able to confirm that Vivekananda (the one suggested to me by a friend in London) was indeed “Hard Core”. Dubbed “the prison”, rising hour there was 4am (a full two hours earlier than at Sivananda), the food was truly awful, and free time was a chimera.

I started to realize that Thais was the real deal when she revealed that she spent a whole month at Vivekananda. Not content with this punishment, she good-humouredly told me that she had subsequently taken part in a ten-day silent meditation (Vipassana) and had visited a further two Ashrams in Rishikesh, North India’s Ashram Central. After Sivananda she was heading for the Amma Ashram, renowned for its spiritual leader known as the “Hugging Mother”. When she finally revealed that she had previously worked at Disneyland, I virtually begged her to to write a book. “How I survived Disneyland, Silent Meditation and Five Ashrams” has a nice ring to it.

All these revelations helped to put everything into some sort of perspective. In comparison to the stories from some of the other Ashrams, Sivananda suddenly felt like a summer-camp. As flexibility slowly retuened to my sorely neglected body, the chanting started to become bearable. Cultural events in the evening also helped to shed a welcome ray of light to the proceedings.

Even the food started to taste better, although I suffered problems at meal-time that caused amusement to other Ashramees – being cack-handed, eating with my right hand (no cutlery) isn’t easy; but combine that with sitting stiffly cross-legged with only a stainless steel tray in front of you and you can imagine the carnage. I got round it by rolling my trouser legs up, and resigning myself to a twice daily wash of the legs after mealtimes.

But it was on Christmas Eve that things really started to turn around, No-one except the brilliant minds of the staff in the Ashram could have expected what happened next…

On Jesus, the Hindu God

‘Twas the night before Christmas…

24 December started with a 6am “silent walk”. This came at just the right moment for me. Sitting cross-legged hurts, so the opportunity to walk and meditate was very welcome indeed. And stunning. (The picture in the previous post is of one of the staff Yogi Narayanan meditating by the lake that we walked to).

I was genuinely intrigued to know what the Ashram would make of the evening of Christmas Eve. Having been brought up a Christian, Christmas has always been relatively simple to understand. One God, had a son (miraculously), was born, celebrate. Add Hindu religions into the mix however, and things start to get complex and really quite interesting.

In an admirable display of pragmatism, it seems that at least some Hindus believe Jesus to be just another God (of suffering), to be celebrated for his contribution to the world alongside other Gods like Ganesha, Shiva and Durga. (This rather conveniently side-steps the rather important point that Christians (with their monotheist beliefs) would be unlikely to concur).

The evening started with Satsang (meditation and chanting) as normal. The only concession to Christmas appeared to be a small nativity scene at the side of the stage at the front of the hall, and the announcement that there would be “some carols”.

“Some” turned out to be lots however, led by the assistant Swami with a hastily assembled choir of twelve or so volunteers. By 11pm, Jingle Bells appeared to be turning into a chant as the refrain was repeated for the 30th time. I suddenly realized that the game was only just beginning. Out of the dark recesses of the end of the hall Santa Claus appeared in a wave of incense smoke. As he made his way to the stage, I reflected on this mad world we live in. Here was an Indian dressed as Santa Claus (Pagan), in an Ashram (Hindu), celebrating the birth of Jesus (Christian), with statues of Gods (Shiva, Ganesh) and 20th century Gurus (Swamis Sivananda and Vishnu-Devenanda) on the stage. As one of the girls remarked to me later “Huh! You’re confused? What about me? I’m Jewish!”

As midnight passed, a large cake appeared to feed the masses, presents were dispensed to every one of the 175 people in the Ashram, and a remarkably open, memorable and intriguing evening came to an end. It had all been beautifully organised– and a lot of fun. The suave Swami (ever popular with the girls), his yellow-clad assistant Swami-ess, and the rest of the staff had a lot to be proud of.

On some wonderful people

It would be wrong not to tell of some of the fabulous characters here.

One of the most remarkable things in this most international of Ashrams is hearing English spoken between people from France, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, South Africa, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Ireland, Sweden, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. (And I’ve probably missed a couple).

Top billing in the fabulous list therefore goes to the Basque, Endika Izquierdo. His legendary misinterpretations of English included on Christmas Eve when he got the wrong end of the stick about the carol-singing (“Carrots? When do we have Christmas Carrots?”). Probably the best of all was the following exchange as we developed a firm friendship:

Me: “I’m embarrassed by my lack of flexibility Endika…”
Endika: “In Paris you lack flexibeelitee? You live in Paris?”

We also had a Lebanese Doctor with a talent for amusing everyone, a high-flying Parisian Architect, a sultry Venezualan film director, a man from Calcutta who had lost $500K in the Credit crunch (“Here I can gain something I cannot lose”), a couple of doppelgangers for Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film Magnolia, and many others.

There was even a character who had rearranged the letters of his name from Jonathan to Thaannjoe 12 years ago in a conscious rebirth at another Ashram. This resulted in some confusion when he introduced himself – my own response:

Me: “Errrr… did you say Fangio? Like the racing driver?”
Him: (patiently)“No. Thaannjoe.”
Me: “Sorry. Fanta?”
Etc. Etc…

It was a remarkably supportive and friendly environment.

To Christmas and beyond

In the days following Christmas Eve, I found myself pausing every couple of days to register the imperceptible developments in physical and mental flexibility. It’s a rewarding experience. Christmas Day itself included a talent show where I read out excerpts from this blog – remarkably, a couple of the people at the ashram had stumbled across “Mind, The Gap” in their pre-trip research. Other far more impressive acts included a rap artist, singers, a guitarist and a couple of yogic belly dancers.

By yesterday I felt like a senior at school as those of us that arrived pre-Christmas slowly trickled away to the beautiful beach resort of Varkala. It was too much effort to get to know the new intake – they could learn for themselves. Frankly, I was ready for a break too. For New Year, I enjoyed the freedom of the outside world along with other Ashram escapees. I am here for a few days as I contemplate my next move.

A final note on the teaching of the Yoga Asanas here (the stretching that most people think of when they think Yoga).

Sivananda is a branch of Yoga that is relatively easy for Westerners to do – it is taught in a formulaic way, and allows practice in a repeatable series of steps. It has spread
fast due to the simple and effective Teacher Training Programme.

A consequence of this is that you get the most wonderful set phrases, repeated by teachers from all corners of the world, with wonderfully amusing and contrasting accents:

These include:

- {Indian accent] “Relaaaaaaaaaaax you body…” (not to be confused with…)
- [Spanish accent] “Reeeeeeeeeeelacs your body…”
- [Indian accent] “Sloooowly put your feet together, hands above the head, and stretch-stretch –GOODstretch-BIGSTRETCH and release”
- [Nasal accent] Inhaaaaaaaale…. Exhaaaaaaaaale… Inhaaaaaaaale” (etc. etc.)

Notes on my personal development in response to this teaching will remain only in my personal diary, but yoga (proper yoga not just stretching) definitely has a lot of benefits.

Overall, the time here has been good with many great memories, not least of which was the sound of Lion roars as background to our 6am meditation each morning (the Ashram is situated by a lake, across from a little-known lion safari park).

The Ashram experience isn’t for everyone, and neither is Sivananda necessarily the amswer to all your pujahs. (Maybe you want “Hard Core”). But the ten days worked – for me.

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Lithe and alive in Sivananda Ashram


A short note on Christmas Day… the Ashram is providing plentiful material for this blog. The cast of characters gracing the Ashram include a producer on the Oprah Winfrey show, a 29-year-old Brazilian judge, a Parisian architect, and a whole host of other nationalities. I hope to post within the next week. Last night (Christmas Eve) was a story in itself.
Happy Christmas!

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Autobuses and Ashrams

A short note on traveling by bus in India.

Before I left the UK, a friend advised to make sure you get a seat near the front of any Indian bus. I had forgotten this advice for my first journey, and spent most of the time airborne a couple of feet off the back seat. The drivers see speed-bumps more as a challenge than an indication to slow down, and if you are atthe back, you spend most of the time either crashing your head against the roof or returning to the terra rather-too-firma of the inadequately cushioned seats.

On the bus ride up to Munnar a few days ago, I managed to secure one of the front seats. This was an entirely different experience – it takes a while to understand that the madness on the roads is in fact a sort of organized anarchy. Everyone (including pedestrians) has to stay on high alert. So in a strange way it feels safer, although there are many more tight calls. Most of them involving buses.

On today’s return journey from Munnar to Cochin, we came across a sign on an Indian road that said

“DANGEROUS ZONE
DRIVE CAREFULLY
NO PARKING”

Given the perilous nature of most roads in India, this was slightly concerning. If the Indians think it’s a “dangerous zone” then it’s a fair bet that you’re a couple of steps closer to reincarnation than you planned. We survived.

I particularly enjoyed transferring knowledge from the world of Scottish Country dancing to the domain of the Indian bus. Those of you familiar with cross-country prancing will know the “crossed hands grip”, used to increase strength while twirling a young lassie. A similar cross-handed grip on the bar of the seat in front provides stability above and beyond your lurching neighbours.

From tomorrow I will be in the Sivananda Ashram in the southern tip of Kerala for some time, hence the double post today. Click here for my daily schedule. I’m not sure what I am more concerned by – 5.20am wake-ups, the fact that there are only 2 meals a day and that they are silent, or the requirement to chant during Satsang.

Those of you intimate with my chronic inability to sit still and my astonishing lack of flexibility will no doubt share some of my trepidation. It will be an interesting experience, and one of the more unusual ways to spend Christmas.

I will be in the Ashram for up to 2 weeks, though I may be able to post briefly during the weekly day off. Happy Christmas to one and all.

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Negotiation tactics in India

1. Negotiate in numbers other than multiples of 5 or 10. This throws the other party completely off kilter, since they are used to rich tourists who they can fleece for an extra 10/20/50/100 rupees. (A rupee is c. 1.3 pence). Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: “22”
Him: [flummoxed] “Huh?”
You: “OK, 23″
Him: [still flummoxed]” “OK OK”

Job done.

2. Use the Indian head wobble right back at him. This is bold and audacious, and usually works. It requires a certain degree of patience and absolute silence, and relies on the other party feeling extreme guilt for trying to fleece you. Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: [Silence for up to 5 seconds. Hold his eye. Then gently wobble head. This signifies a silent “Do you think I was born yesterday?”]
Him: “OK, 30 rupee”
You: [repeat as above]
Him: “OK OK 20 rupee”

Job done.

3. Use of “-bhai” as a last resort. The suffix “-bhai” is a term of deep respect meaning elder brother. This tactic uses flattery to wrong-foot the other party, and is the most under-hand of the three, and is normally reserved for the most battle-hardened negotiators. It is also best used if the driver has a name badge that you can append “-bhai” to. It should not be over-used. Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: “20 rupee”
Him “[with determined glare] “FIFTY rupee”
You: “22 rupee”
Him: [dug in, arms folded] “FIF. TEE.”
You: “25 rupee, Arvindbhai?”
Him: “OK, 30 rupee”

Job done, though you will notice not quite so effective.

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Indian Student politics (via a wild goose chase)

Given the forthcoming elections in India, politics are front of mind here. A couple of days ago, I had a brief insight into the student version, via a circuitous route.

I had decided to try and get in contact with an Indian family that had looked after friends, Patrick and Mary Harrison, when they were here 15 years ago. Patrick (now retired) was Secretary of the RIBA and had been visiting an architect in Cochin. The architect had asked his secretary (Katherine Alencherry) to give them a tour of the Cochin backwaters.

The ensuing brief trip (with father Sebastien who worked for Indian Railways, plus two children) was one that I was told all had always remembered fondly. Christmas cards had been exchanged since, but no further contact than that.

To make the connection, I had been given a sparse architect’s scrawl – “ALENCHERRY, Railway Quarters 132/G (or 4?), Beat No.9, Ernaculam South, Cochin”. This drew blanks from the owner of my hotel, as well as from his friends rapidly assembled to help. More enquiries in town were met with similar puzzled looks. I feared a wild goose chase.

A couple of vague directions from random friendly looking people on the streets of Cochin didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time, but after a couple of hours I found myself on the first floor of a small building in a tight back street by the Ernakulam Railway Junction. I knocked on the non-descript door more in hope than expectation. (I recalled a discussion with my father before leaving where we had agreed that “the best thing about being a pessimist is that you’re never disappointed with the outcome”).

I didn’t have time to be disappointed. Instead I was taken aback by the welcome I got from Sebastien and Katherine Alencherry. It was pure chance that Sebastien had a days leave, and that Katherine had returned home for lunch. They had no warning that a random man would be turning up at their door saying he knew someone that they last spoke to 15 years ago.

Tea was conjured up; rapid telephone calls were made; in no time 3 turned into 6 as their law-student son Karol turned up with two of his college friends; plans were made without any consultation of me; and within minutes I found myself in a cramped Suzuki Maruti 800 heading for Cherai Beach with Karol and his friends.

Slightly stunned, I told them that while I was delighted with the rapid turn of events, I was concerned that I might be keeping them from their studies?

“Oh, don’t worry, there’s a strike at the college. There was an attempted murder there yesterday”. Gulp. “Oh yes, one of the BJP [Hindu Nationalists] student representatives tried to stab one of the SFI [Communist] reps in the neck with a sharpened screwdriver.”

Another gulp. I tentatively asked if they were involved in student politics. “Oh yes,” Karol responded cheerfully, “We have started our own party. Very important demands. We want that the college bus stops at the female college BEFORE they get here rather than after. This is very critical indeed – we need to meet girls!”

After a lengthy walk and plentiful conversation, I returned to Cochin for dinner, and an unexpected dip (fully-clothed) in the pool of the pricey Malabar House Hotel. (It’s a long story, not quite as loutish as it sounds, and not making it onto the blog).

I am now in the tea plantations of the Kanan Devan hills. Another amazing bus-ride to get here, and now traveling for a few days with the afore-mentioned Justin, who rode here on his Royal Enfield Bullet. We are staying with legendary Joseph Iype, made famous by Dervla Murphy’s book “On a shoestring to Coorg”.

Given the out-of-town location of Joseph’s home, moving anywhere involves riding pillion down potholed roads on Justin’s Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike. Which is just as fun as it sounds.

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