I arrived in the Bahamas and caught the wee boat over to Paradise Island but only after a tall cold Kalik from a little place on the dock. I was heading into my second turn at thirty days of certain austerity. Surely I could have one last beer? This was five hundred hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training or ATTC at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. (I had completed the 200 hour teacher training course or TTC the previous year).
The Sivananda Yoga Retreat is situated on five slowly eroding acres on the tiny Paradise Island which is just a couple of minutes across the water from Nassau. The ashram enjoys two waterfronts, the South side facing Nassau and the North side facing the Atlantic. Over to the East is the huge resort of Atlantis and to the West, a few private properties.
There were about three hundred people at the ashram for the two months I was there (Dec 2013 and Jan 2015) and the whole place was run by about six monks, a dozen disciples, a few dozen volunteers, guest instructors and local staff who were mainly cleaning staff. The volunteers did an amazing job when one considered all of the work involved in running a business of that size.
So for the yoga teacher training we had a tough schedule:
- 4:30 wake up
- 5:00 Pranayama (advanced breathing techniques)
- 6:00 Meditation
- 6:30 Chanting (or once per week meditative beach walk and chanting)
- 7:00 Inspirational Speaker
- 8:00 Anatomy
- 9:00 Asana Practise (Yoga)
- 10:00 – 12:00 Brunch* Satvic vegetarian (no eggs, no mushrooms, no onions, no garlic, no caffeine)
- 11:00 Karma Yoga (chores, like dish washing, garbage collection, temple preparation, meal preparation)
- 12:00 Raja Yoga Study or Sanskrit
- 2:00 Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita teachings
- 4:00 Asana Practise (Yoga and how to teach)
- 6:00 Dinner* Satvic vegetarian (no eggs, no mushrooms, no onions, no garlic, no caffeine, no alcohol)
- 7:00 Homework
- 8:00 Meditation
- 8:30 Chanting
- 9:00 Inspirational Speaker
- 10:00 Lights out (often, the speaker went late and so lights out was really more like 10:30)
When I showed my teenage son, Leo, the schedule his one remark was: ‘That advanced breathing techniques must have been tough, eh Mom?’ Actually, the morning pranayama was likely my favorite thing, as well as learning to read and write Sanskrit. Yoga asana was also very enjoyable but, the vedanta teaching and raja yoga were barely tolerable. A lot of it was very hard for me to grasp as I am more of a concrete person. Anatomy was interesting but, did I really need to study exclusively the Central Nervous System to be a yoga teacher??! How about a few hours on say, the spine?
We were up at 4:30 for the full thirty days (The previous year, for 200-hour teacher training, we awoke at 5:30 and did not have pranayama practice). On Friday’s we were given a few hours off in the middle of the day. It was my time to walk way down the beach and then to do laundry, shower and a concentrated effort at home-work.
Pranayama practice took place in the dark on a deck by the bay. The water lapping at the deck footings and the breeze off the bay lent the experience a surreal quality. We lined up our mats along the edges of the dark platform and sat cross-legged, facing in, forming a large u-shape. Our teacher stood at the opening of the U and guided us through the seven types of pranayama for an hour. It was completely rhythmical and meditative bringing a
deep sense of relaxation, wellness and calm. The only trouble was, at the end of the hour we were hastily dismissed and had to tear off, silently, to the temple for morning satsang.
Satsang started with thirty minutes of silent meditation, sitting cross-legged on the large garden platform which had been transformed into a temporary temple due to the large numbers at the ashram (a couple of dozen yogis sat in chairs due to various injuries. I myself sat in a chair due to my army-worn knees which would pain badly after about 20 minutes of cross-legged sitting. How I envied the knees of the younger yogis). Chanting took up after meditation and was wonderful especially when it came to twice daily Jaya Ganesha which was fun and musical and small instruments were passed around to make it even more so: bells, tambourines, small bongos and shakers. Now, all of this was taking place before breakfast, so again, there was this lazy kinda of dream-like quality to it.
The inspirational speaker was usually fairly boring and I got the feeling that they really enjoyed hearing themselves speak. The swami who spoke for two solid hours per night for several nights in a row about the Bhagavad gita had us nearly crying in boredom. It was literally painful to be that tired and to have to try to listen to her monotonic voice. She did not once check in with her audience. It was astounding. A few times over the two months I was there, there was actually a very interesting talk regarding something that I cared to listen to. Otherwise, I would usually just zone out and slip back into that meditative state. The best speaker for me was the one about sleep and the importance of dreaming as well as the one about sound healing. At the end of the sound healing talk, we were asked to close our eyes while several helpers floated around with tuning forks humming and waved them over and around our heads to encourage the healing of whatever may be ailing us, physically, spiritually or emotionally. It was a mystical experience.
The ashram experience was riddled with dichotomous occurrences. I will attempt to explain here:
- Compostable Waste: a huge amount of food waste was hauled away daily. Two or three huge barrels of wasted food. Why not compost it or at least ask those at the ashram to take less food. How about stopping the use of trays. People take more food than necessary if given a tray. Apparently they tried composting the food waste but it caused a rat problem so they stopped. So, at least ask people to take less. I saw people loading up their trays and then throwing a third of the food away. Another reason for loading up was the two meals a day routine. People were VERY hungry come brunch at 10 and supper at 6. Food waste has always been a sore point for me, raised the way we were. Mom taught us to not waste precious food. Fill a plate, then come back for more, if necessary. One of the inspirational speakers did a talk about wasted food. But, nothing changed. It was weird. Hire a speaker. All sit and listen, nodding, ask questions, applaud…then….do NOTHING differently.
- Plastic Bottles of Water on the temple. This confused me every time I looked at it. There was fresh water available at a filtered tap for everyone in the ashram and it was located just a few steps from the temple. There were temple workers who kept everything perfect in the temple. How much effort would it have been to fill a nice refillable glass bottle or jug and glass for the temple? To watch the volunteers off-loading cases and cases of water in plastic bottles for the monks in the temple was just ridiculous. This could be improved easily and help save our plastic-choked oceans.
- High-fructose Corn Syrup Products like Skippy peanut butter and crap jam was being served to us in the meal hall at brunch. That’s fine and good but let me get this straight, we were not allowed to have (gasp) eggs, mushrooms, onions or garlic BECAUSE WE WERE ON A SATVIC (clean) DIET, BUT HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP is ALLOWED????!!! I’m sorry. That’s just wrong. One of my classmate yogis stood up and informed us of this because he had been helping to offload the supplies. We would not have known about the poor quality peanut butter and jam because it was dispensed daily into huge bowls. The brands and ingredients were hidden from us. This just seems like a pure business decision. These products were obviously cheaper than the better quality more pure equivalents like the peanut-only peanut butter and the fruit-only jam. My beef here is that if you’re going to spout a SATVIC (clean / yogi) diet. Make it ALL satvic. Don’t demonize harmless God-given, Earth grown mushrooms, onions, garlic and eggs.
- Beach platform there were several large platforms around the ashram but the best and most coveted platform was the beach one. It is ironic that the marketing photo of the Yoga Teacher Training Class in yellow and white uniforms above was taken on the beach platform BECAUSE FOR THIRTY DAYS OF TWICE DAILY CLASSES, WE DID NOT ONCE HAVE YOGA ON THE BEACH PLATFORM FOR OUR CLASS OF ATTC students even when we repeatedly requested it. Our classes took place in the forest or on the Bay platforms. The beach platform was ALWAYS saved for yoga classes for guests, not for paying Yoga Teacher Training students. Hmmm. That was a piss-off because when I decided to do Sivananda Teacher Training, I saw the marketing photos and wanted my classes on the Beach platform, just like the photo. It is lovely to do yoga while looking out to the horizon over the sea. And, by the way, the fee for our month-long program was not inexpensive ($5000 plus flights) . We too, albeit yoga teacher training students, were paying customers.
- Light Pollution at Night lighting around the ashram should be on timers and / or on motion detectors. There were many lights left on all over the ashram, all night long and for those in tents, it must have been impossible to sleep. In my bunk, I used a dark cloth to form a curtain to block the light. But here’s the thing. One of our inspirational speakers spoke about the menace of light at night and how it can interrupts sleep cycles, hormonal release and production especially of melatonin. Again, nothing was done.
So, after twenty-nine days of our strict schedule, we were given a three hour written exam on the final day. I had studied hard for my exam, in every spare moment allotted. And you may be getting it that there is a lot more to yoga than just stretching and contorting. In fact, there are volumes and volumes of ancient teachings on yoga. From my text: Yoga is the process of uniting the individual soul with the Universal Soul. Yoga is also the state in which the activities of the mind are restrained. In a nutshell yoga is really about quieting the mind (in Sanskrit – chitta-vritti-nirodhah) for meditation in order to one day become fully realized but, only after ages of study (jalna yoga) and devotion (bahkti yoga) asana practice (raja yoga) as well as karma yoga (selfless service). I was never a scholar, so some of the material, like: What are the six orthodox heads of the Sanskrit literature? or What is the Sakshi Bhav method of Vedantic meditation? (yikes!) came down to straight memorization.
After morning pranayama on the Bay Platform, we were offered a light breakfast with an open lunchtime promised after our exam. I wrote my heart out and was somewhat pleased with myself that I was the second person finished. I re-read it and re-read it again then handed it in and walked over to the kitchen. The first guy finished immediately started asking me about my experience on the exam. He asked me: Martha, what did you think of the anatomy questions? I stopped eating, my food mid-way down my throat.
Oh my god. I didn’t have an anatomy section!!! OH MY GOD. I somehow FORGOT to do the anatomy section. But wait, I had re-read the exam and re-read it again. There was NO anatomy section on my exam.
So, reader, you may be wondering why I was panicking so much over this. Well, I had worked really hard for thirty days of austerity, discipline and spirituality. I did not want to finish this with the PARTICIPANT Certificate. I wanted the full 500-hour Yoga Certificate. Yoga Acharya. Call me crazy, but I wanted to finish with the full designation, and, it wasn’t my fault that a page of my exam was left out by them.
I ran to find the teacher of anatomy and report this error. There was no way I was going to just keep quiet about it. Better to tell them. I found Isaiah in one of the nearby buildings and with pale face and furiously beating heart, told him what had happened. He said, okay, stay around here. I will speak to Swami B about it and let you know what he says. Four hours later, he still had not told me what was going on. My hands were visibly shaking now. I read in the central garden and I helped in the kitchen. Finally my Asana teacher found me and told me, All is well Martha. I was there when the Swami marked your exam, he said it was very strong. You can go now. All is well.
So, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and went for a long walk way down the beach and into and around the Atlantis Resort, which, by the way, was like walking around Mars in comparison to the ashram due to it’s opulence. I looked at the price tag on a simple summer dress in the boutique: $5000 U.S. I looked down at my simple skirt and cotton blouse. No comment.
When I came back to the ashram, I helped again in the kitchen and then one of the younger disciples came up behind me and said, Are you Martha? You need to go see Isaiah, he was looking for you earlier.
What the hell. Oh my god. This wasn’t over yet at all. My heart started to race. It had been a long, stressful day.
I found Isaiah and he told me he would test me orally on Anatomy. I was to meet him in the south garden at 7 pm.
I was basically a basket case by this time. I looked over my notes but my eyes were blurry and my pulse was all over the map. From my learning about the Central Nervous System, the very topic I was to be tested on, I knew that I was having a stress response. And, that is pretty much all I knew. Ironic. Consequently, the oral test did not go well. I could barely remember my name let alone the parts of the cell, nerve and brain. In fact, I had one nerve left and it was frazzled.
Finally, the oral test was done and I was free to go to my room and prepare for graduation. First, I asked Isaiah if I had passed. He said he wasn’t allowed to tell me. Wonderful. You may be getting a feel for just how torn I was about this place by now.
As it turns out, I passed and Isaiah apologized to me. He said that the mistake was theirs and that I should not have had to be tested on Anatomy. Thanks a pant load, Isaiah.
Now I couldn’t wait to get home to wintery Nova Scotia and just chill and have my own time to do what I liked. It’s funny, I went away to a yoga retreat to do something that most people would think of as relaxing. A month at a tropical beach-side ashram (I swam twice in the month I was there) to learn something I was already pretty good at. Most of the time I was there, though, I was stressed, and I wasn’t the only one. My roommates complained about the scheduling a lot. They were not getting enough sleep and they were very over tired. People were always falling asleep during Satsang and lectures. During yoga classes (asanas) several yogi classmates would lay in sivasana (corpse pose – laying flat on their backs on their mats) for the whole class, sleeping. Everyone became sick with a head cold and some with stomach upset.
Every part of the day had Attendance takers for arrival and dismissal of the section of the day. Too many lates or abscesses and the disciple in charge of discipline would speak to you. One could even be sent home for too little discipline. The first time I was at the ashram, in December 2013, a young woman had taken to walking around the ashram during part of the Satsangs because the Hindu teaching confused her as she was of a different faith. She was sent home.
Uniforms were to be worn for most parts of the day, as seen in the photo: white pants and yellow t-shirt. We had two uniforms and only a few machines for laundry to share among 300 people. A slight problem for getting laundry done.
Before arrival at the ashram, I had asked for a Doctor’s note about my mental illness (I am Bipolar 1 – the kind of bipolar that has led me to psychosis). I was worried about sleep deprivation and its effects. Sleeping from 10:30 – 4:30 was just not enough sleep for me. My doctor insisted that I get at least seven hours per night or eight if possible. So, I had a get out of jail free card for the final speaker at Satsang every night. BONUS. My roommates understood and I was honest with them about how bad it could get if I had an episode but, it was hard on them because of the perceived favourtism I had arranged for myself. At this time, I was managing my bipolar disorder with lifestyle. I was not on meds (which I know now was a very large risk and, with Bipolar 1, was actually stupid). So, one day, early in the month of the second time I was there, one of the disciples confronted me on my leaving of Satsang at 9:00 every night. He asked me if it was truly necessary. I asked him if he wanted me to contradict my doctor’s instructions. That shut him up. I left Satsang at 9:00 every night.
So, yes, I was happy to have completed the 500 hour advanced yoga teacher training course but, I am really not sure if I could recommend it to anyone. It would be best to go into it knowing all the seeming weirdnesses. One more thing, it was cult-ish. What do I mean by that? Well, it seemed that with all the strict rules around little sleep and with feeling hungry all the time and then attending teachings twice per day as well as the chanting and such, I would worry that some poor souls would be pulled a little too far into the vortex of Sivananda. I personally met and spoke to several full-time, somewhat tight-lipped, glassy-eyed and therefore mysterious volunteers (karma yogis) who DO NOT GET PAID! They stay there and perform their highly skilled trades or professions (like marketing and videography) for months and years at a time. Ok. You gotta ask yourself, where are the revenues going? They are definitely NOT going into salaries or peanut-only peanut butter or fruit-only jam or washing machines.
But, even with all the inconsistencies of this ashram, I will always love yoga and will always have it in my life. I will invite folks to join in yoga because even a simple practise is good enough. For example: sit cross-legged or in a chair, then all fours or raise arms in chair, breath, then stand move to tree pose, breath, all fours then cross-legged and next time add another posture that appeals. Put on some light instrumental music. Sit. Eyes closed and breath. This is intentional. This is yoga. As one of my best teachers would whisper to me profoundly, Any amount. Any amount.
It is a wonderful, uncompetitive way to brings calm, wellness and peace.