Sivananda Ashram - Divine Life Society

»Be good do good«

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Sivananda Divine Life has a monastic feel to it, and traditional yoga teaching. This is where a great yogi made his mark on modern yoga, and his disciples maintain his legacy with an air of faithful antiquity, teaching yesteryear yoga. There is nothing cutting-edge here – just a gentle place with a gentle pace.

  • What we love
  • The legacy of the great Sivananda himself
  • Old-school yoga style
  • Location (Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world)
  • Open daily classes
  • Lessons on meditation & philosophy
  • What to know
  • No accommodation on-site
  • Two-month courses are for Indian men only
  • Not to be confused with Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam
  • Why go
  • Yoga history
  • No-frills yoga
  • Broad educational sessions

Studying at the Sivananda Ashram is akin to dropping a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Italy. While many have walked this path before you, the deep feeling of satisfaction, of being able to say “I was there,” is nonetheless strong.

Hatha yoga is the dominating style here. Gentle yoga that is a physical complement to a spiritual focus. The monks and teachers at the ashram are devoted to two things: God in all forms, and detaching from the physical self. Sleep and food are taken sparingly, and abstinence from physical vices including sex, is high on the list of importance.

Abstaining from all the things that a modern world treats as desirable has a surprisingly less-than-depressing effect. There are no glum faces here, no dour attitude of simply surviving the misery of this life in anticipation of the rewards of the next. Instead, the disciples, teachers and other staff exude a gently cheery air. Although the ashram is quiet, it is quiet with a sense of purpose and happiness.

This is the legacy of Sivananda, who brought yoga to the modern world when it had been relegated to the realms of cheap parlor trick. He was the first to hold yoga classes open to women; the first to hold yoga classes open to the Untouchables; indeed, the first to hold open yoga classes at all. This was a time when yogis were an academic & intellectual antiquity, and those who publicly performed yoga were seen as little more than a flexible circus act. Sivananda gave yoga back to the people, and in doing so created a platform for bringing yoga back to the world.

Staying at the ashram is not an option. There are a very small number of beds on-site but these are not generally available to the public. Only after extensive communication, usually by letter, expressing a deep devotion to Sivananda and explaining the purpose of one's spiritual journey, may a traveller stay here. In short, it's just too hard. But this is Rishikesh – accommodation is plentiful, and the likelihood of sharing an apartment with another yoga devotee is pretty good. Even the folk at Sivananda will give you any info they have collected on the best nearby places to stay. A word to the wise – if visiting Sivananda is on the itinerary, it will be best to simply show up. Like so many things in India, face-to-face communication is the most effective way to achieve anything.

Daily classes are the best way to share in the knowledge of the Sivananda followers. The 'real yoga' classes, involving physical poses and the controlled breathing so familiar to foreigners are held daily. These are single-sex classes (except Sundays) with the women's classes running from 5.30am – 6.45am and the men's from 6am – 7am. The rest of the day is a mixture of worship sessions, special rituals to salute the rise/set of the sun, and the evening lecture session in English and Hindi, perhaps most interesting for newcomers.

For a beginning yogi/yogini in Rishikesh, or an experienced one who sees the value in a pilgrimage of sorts to the spiritual home of modern yoga's founding-father, Sivananda Ashram is a worthy stop. Between the sweetly happy peace of the monks and the peace of the grand library, this is a tranquil retreat from the hustle of greater Rishikesh.

About the area: Rishikesh

Rishikesh is to yoga what Las Vegas is to partying: At every turn, seemingly on every corner, another yogic experience is waiting. However, some are a better quality than others. To understand what makes a truly good yoga experience, one must understand yoga in India. Rather than a twice-weekly class, yoga here is a way of living. Yogic practices permeate every aspect of the day. A guru is for life, with no mixing of styles or ‘teacher hopping.’ Knowledge takes many patient years to accumulate. This is at odds with the concepts of the 'celebrity guru' and two-day yoga courses or retreats that so many travellers visit Rishikesh to experience, and it is easy to see why traditionalists speak of this approach as something like McYoga.

Nonetheless, a student must start somewhere. What better place to begin than in The City of the Divine, Rishikesh, the world capital of yoga. The world capital tag is no overstatement: Purity is enshrined in law, with alcohol and meat consumption being outlawed within city limits. This is one of Hinduism's most holy cities, where the Beatles famously studied under their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and pilgrims are a common sight, often beginning their Four Shrines journey in Rishikesh. There are several yoga festivals held here each year, and simply wandering the streets is a great way to spend the day, as long as food is carefully protected from thieving wild monkeys who loiter, gang-like, on the bridges.

Rishikesh is also the gateway to the Himalayas, with the cool green foothills providing a welcome respite from the sometimes-suffocating Indian summer heat. There is still part of the Maharajah's palace open for viewing – a sweeping view from a green throne high above the city.

Image credit: Coni Hörler Photography

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