Note: this piece collates research and details our/my personal experience of attending the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala. It extrapolates, to a certain degree, based on the evidence. At times, its style borders on the tongue-in-cheek, but its message is sincere.
Nestled amid Kerala’s green-yellow foliage, and breathing daily its damp hills, Sivananda (Yoga Vedanta Dhanwatari) Ashram sits, imperious and well-ventilated, overlooking a lake which both contains, and does not contain, crocodiles. Its flowery views of the Western Ghats are sometimes green and sometimes yellow—occasionally, the still, yogic waters are disturbed by a passing puma, or a long snake. Hell, you might even find a potentially deadly scorpion in your room. This is an integral part of living an ascetic lifestyle.
Structure and hierarchy at the Sivananda Ashram
Hidden from view, the ashram’s seneschal is a mysterious and private director. (He is named on the website simply as The Director) In order to meet him, you must book a 5 minute appointment in advance, within a small daily window. This elusive white man, about whom lurid stories abound (no, really), oversees the acquisition of large sums of money from naive western tourists. He initiates contact only if it is to expel said tourist—a gesture which is made in no uncertain terms, and with very little notice. His work is carried out for him by three primary staff members and several volunteers; the latter pay for their positions.
Its holy/NOT HOLY personages are Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, the latter of which is best known for introducing the Beatles to yoga in the 1960s. The parent organisation has ashrams in California, New York and the Bahamas, among others.
Public opinion is varied
A Google search for “Sivananda reviews” brings up some troubling results. The very first, entitled ‘Ashram, or overpriced cult…?’, argues that “any place that has 200 students gulping salt water and making themselves sick into a lake may need to be more up front about what you are asked to do while there’. It gives two out of five stars.
The low-scoring reviews are only funny until they aren’t. A cursory glance shows the centre has a very chequered reputation. It is described variously as an “opportunistic commercial centre” with “rigid, outdated attitudes” which makes a “mere mockery of yoga”. Reviewers frequently invoke the experience of a prisoner, or naughty schoolchild, reprimanded for giggling in the brunch hall, or monitored during toilet breaks to ensure they return to the mandatory morning satsang. One reviewer goes further, saying it is “very racist”, charged with “hypocrisy” and “1950s-style sexism”, and that it preys on the naivety of tourists. Some raise the issue of hours spent chanting religious hymns, making symbolic gestures and prostrating before idols.
Others paint even ghastlier pictures. In 2013, a female attendee was taken to hospital and underwent an induced abortion. She received zero pastoral care from staff, was required to pay for the damage to her sheets, onto which she had bled. When she acquiesced, she was accused of stealing them. The only person with any authority who came to her side was a volunteer. In 2015, another reviewer describes the case of an older lady who broke her ankle in the washroom. She was only provided the most basic medical treatment, and received no extra care or personal attention from staff. Incidents like this clearly illustrate an institutional disregard for women who have suffered taxing tribulations while staying at the ashram and, ostensibly, under the care of the ashram staff. The following year, a group of male volunteers was overheard making comments about how they could “feel up foreign girls” while practicing yoga.
That same year, a guest (link to her full write-up below) remarks on how the karma yoga (which, in this context, meant doing chores to assure favourable reincarnation prospects) tasks were divided according to ethnicity. Iranians served tea and Indians cleaned the toilets and served food, while whites were given “white collar jobs” such as taking attendance or assisting in the bookshop. When asked to explain such stark racial stereotyping, the director replied, “Indians are good at serving food”. This was in 2017.
Consistent over the past nine years, such negative reviews are indicative of an institution unwilling to accept and, Shiva forbid, integrate feedback into their program. Responses from the director are often formulaic and fail to actually address any detail of the review. Worse still, they argue back, as if pedantry is a substitute for pro-activity. Reading of these experiences justified the way we reacted to our own.
Why we left Sivananda Yoga Ashram: science vs religion
Our reasons for leaving were not particularly severe, not in light of the reviews quoted. They were also not trivial. We felt uncomfortable but convinced ourselves to stay. Then, the following day, we felt unable to. Initially, our concerns were to do with the (pseudo-)academic content and manner of delivery, i.e., pseudoscience delivered sanctimoniously.
A compulsory part of a day-in-the-life was the lecture. (Attendance was recorded; three black marks in a two-week period and you’re called up for a meeting with the director) Lectures generally lasted two hours. At first, the anthropologist in me found these sessions entertaining, if not edifying. It was kind of fun to be told that our bodies comprise five basic elements; that stone, when melted, turns into water; that one ought to treat boils (which are wet, as in, filled with water) with powder (which is dry, like earth, like kapha); and that induced vomiting, repeated three times a day for a month, is a stepping stone on the path to becoming certifiably yogic.
But opportunities for amusement wore thin. The derision of science quickly became abrasive. I found myself disagreeing at every other turn. No, yogis did not invent breathing deeply, as the teacher claimed. No, it cannot be said to be “true” that the ‘causal body’ will depart from the physical realm at the moment of death and, in time, inhabit another body. You cannot presume the existence of a soul. And no, the human body is not made up of ether, air, fire, earth and water, just as it is not made up of black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood. We have moved on from then, thankfully, to greener pastures. Please do not teach this as a scientific practice.
It was apparently deeply surprising that any of us western laypeople should know the names of more than five organs. Likewise that any of us actually think about breathing in our everyday lives—to breathe consciously and mindfully is practised only, and only ever, by yogis. Breathing consciously is a yogic practice, invented and defined by yogis.
We were told that no form of exercise other than aasana practice clears the mind—“But are you really relaxed when you’re at the gym? Are you really?”—and that creative energy takes 30 days to regenerate. All in all, our teacher’s rejection of science was based on a narrow view of western medical practice. It was rendered simplistic and therefore easy to criticise. Being given the wrong drug is not a failure of science: it is human error. Similarly, suffering terrible back pain three days into a yoga vacation does not mean yoga is at fault—it means the institution is at fault, for creating an environment in which that happens, repeatedly. Doctors are imperfect. So are managers and instructors.
Injuries are surprisingly frequent at the ashram
An acquaintance of ours, while we were there, sprained his wrist while attempting one of the aasanas. We were told of the commonality of neck braces. Several guests experienced acute back pain, including my partner, who had to duck out of two yoga classes. We attributed this, at least in part, to the lack of guidance and tuition offered to individuals, regarding specific postures. (Also, to fatigue caused by the rigid, 05:30—22:00 schedule, during which we spent at least six hours sitting on the floor)
We were also told, in hushed tones, of multiple suicides which have occurred within the high walls of the ashram. Evidently, people stay in a place like this in order to process darkness they hold within them, to ‘deal with shit’. Fair enough. Please, Mr Director, provide pastoral support for the people who struggle along the way.
Vacation vs religion
For us, the draconian implementation of outdated policies outweighed the benefits of staying. That, and the exploitation of certain tenets of an ascetic yogic lifestyle. Karma yoga is transliterated to become working the bins, mopping the dorm room floor or serving your fellow ‘vacationers’ during the half-hour eating periods. Devotional practice, the spiritual practice of worshipping a personal god, an inner god, becomes call-and-response chanting of unknown Sanskrit words, prostration before an altar and pretending to rub fire in your hair; and so on. For a non-religious institution its religious elements were pervasive.
Despite the twice-a-day chants, prayers and prostrations, and the weird bit where we self-blessed with a sacramental flame, the operation is peddled as entirely nonreligious. Congregations, idols and nibbles from a silver bowl taste like religion to me, especially when surrounded on all sides by images of mythical deities and watched to make sure I don’t leave. The cultish dogmatism and strict regime were a far cry from the ‘vacation’ we signed up for—nomenclature is important—and further still from the open, spiritual journey we were continually promised. The giant statue, referred to as an altar, was another giveaway.
The importance of pastoral support
But the incident which set us both particularly on edge was the flat, non-negotiable refusal, by one of the more willing volunteers, to allow my partner to leave the premises. Sure, this was in line with regulations, which we all sign on the dotted line on arrival. However, denying a woman of 30 the right to a private walk, who is visibly distressed and shaking with sobs, who wants to feel less entrapped and spied-on, is a clear marker of institutional neglect for the feelings of the patrons it attracts.
This is an organisation which makes large sums of money from often naive or mentally fractured westerners—it is a retreat, or vacation, after all—and does next to nothing to assist them in dealing with the issues they might face during an incongruously regimented spirituality camp. Bizarrely, the place of solace – of refuge – to which my girlfriend was taken, was a rooftop within the compound. In a twist of irony, or satire, she was left up there, not checked on, until she came down. What if she had been deeply depressed?
We had intended to stay for 14 days. For my part, I have always been able-bodied and flexible (I have always been able to get both of my legs behind my head—a neat party trick). I had been practising yoga in some form for six months, and my partner, the other half of ‘we’ in this piece, had done so for a number of years. We are by no means unfit. But we do value autonomy, and we hold compassion in very high regard.
Individuals should be treated as individuals; there is always room for that. Years of scathing reviews, the most troubling of which concern the hardhearted treatment of women in distress, should serve as a clarion call for structural change. Offering free basic counselling training to all volunteers would be a good start. That way, they would feel empowered to approach guests who are struggling. Allow people their freedoms or stop calling it a vacation.
For a more thorough analysis, with regard to actual yogic practice and an understanding of the Sanskrit element, read—Why I left Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training course within five days on yoganama