Yoga vacation. The phrase conjures up visions of serene settings, enlightened devotees, and peaceful yoga practitioners. You get all these and more during a yoga vacation at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram at Neyyar Dam, near Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum – the state capital of Kerala).
I have been to the Sivananda ashram at Neyyar Dam three times over the last 2 years for a yoga vacation. I have usually stayed at an average of 4-5 nights during each of my visits. While I have joked about my experience there in a previous blog, these vacations have been an immense grounding experience in our life. During our first visit, Mukund and I had no clue what to expect. But by the third visit, we quickly and easily slipped into the ashram schedule, even though it was a year since our previous visit.
Here are a list of things you need to know about visiting the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam for a yoga vacation.
Who is Sivananda? What is the Sivananda Ashram?
Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) is a spiritual guru who expounded on yoga and vedanta philosophy. He has authored over 200 books on yoga, and established an ashram in Rishikesh, under the aegis of the Divine Life Society – an establishment to systematically promote philosophy and yoga. One of his chief disciples is Swami Vishnudevananda, who established Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, to propagate his master’s yoga principles.
The Sivananda Ashram (under Swami Vishnudevananda) is also established at Madurai and Uttarkashi, with centres in Chennai, Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. These ashrams and centres are NOT affiliated to the main ashram at Rishikesh, but faithfully carries out teaching and practice of yoga as set out by Swami Sivananda. For more info about the ashrams, please explore this website.
What is a yoga vacation?
The ashram defines a yoga vacation as a stay where you follow the ashram schedule for a minimum of three nights. You do not need any previous experience in yoga practice, nor do you need to be affiliated to the teachings or the philosophy of the ashram. All you need is an open mind to explore the possibilities, and the willingness to try out the yoga sessions, which are conveniently divided into beginners and advanced courses.
What can you expect to do in three days? What is the schedule like?
On the first and the 15th of every month (roughly), the ashram starts the yoga course for beginners and advanced practitioners. You necessarily do not need to start your vacation on day 1, but it helps. Our first visit was on the 22nd, which meant a week had already passed by. So for our third visit, we timed it as close to the beginning of the course. Either way, the teachers are extremely patient and let you do the asanas at your own pace. They also have a special time during the day where they will coach you one on one, if you have difficulties with any particular asana. If you can afford the time, please do plan on going for at least 2 weeks so you get the full experience from your yoga vacation. The ashram also recommends the 14-day vacation, but the most I spent at the ashram was 6 days.
A typical ashram schedule is packed from 6 AM till 9:30 PM, with some limited personal time in between. (See the complete schedule here)
. In a typical day, you can count on being in meditation, lecture and bhajan sessions for 3 hours, yoga practise for 4 hours, karma yoga/volunteering for an hour, and in a lecture class for at least 90 minutes. Lectures could be on Ayurveda, Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatham, Philosophy, Patanjali yoga etc. In between, you will get your morning tea (at 7:30 AM), brunch (at 10 AM), evening tea and fruit (at 1:30 PM) and dinner (at 6 PM). Lights are switched off at 11 PM, and the morning bell for your wakeup is at 5:20 AM, with the first session of the day starting at 6 AM.
It is mandatory to participate in all ashram activities while you are at the ashram, irrespective of the length of your stay. However, if you are part of the Teachers Training course (TTC), Advanced Teachers Training course (ATTC) or special camps, the schedule would change accordingly. And if you have signed up for the Ayurveda related programmes (detox, wellness etc.), the schedule is also different. The basic ashram schedule is primarily for those who are on a yoga vacation. (See all the different programmes at the ashram here).
What kind of food can I expect to get at the ashram?
Unless you have signed up for the detox or the wellness programmes, all ashram inmates and attendees get served local vegetarian cuisine that is primarily based on vegetables and fruits that is grown in the ashram. In fact, very rarely would we get chapattis/rotis (which is mainly part of the North Indian cuisine). Actually, the food is sattvik, which means the cooks do not add even onions or garlic. You can expect meals that are extremely mild in terms of spice, highly satisfying and great for your stomach and your mind – exactly as we ought to eat
The ashram also has a health hut that serves sandwiches, snacks, drinks and juices (all vegetarian again!) at certain times during the day so it does not clash with the meal times. This hut is open only during peak season (October through April). (See the complete list of facilities at the ashram).
Where do I stay? Do I need to book early? Are accommodations easy to get?
The Sivananda ashram has three types of accommodations – bedrooms (with and without A/C, in-room bathroom), bedrooms with common bathrooms, and dormitories. You can also bring your own tent and pitch it on the ashram grounds. Except for dormitories (which is on a first-come, first serve basis), you need to book in advance for the bedrooms. During the peak season, it is impossible to get a room, sometimes even if you call a month before your visit! So in short, depending on the time of your visit, and your desired accommodation, plan for it as early as you can.
How much do I have to pay for a yoga vacation? Or for the Ayurveda programmes?
Payment for the ashram accommodation covers food and all the activities at the ashram, including the weekly hike up the mountains! However, payment for the training courses, camps, wellness courses etc. are different and you need to contact the ashram office for more details. Here are the details only for the yoga vacation
How do I get to the Sivananda Ashram at the Neyyar Dam?
The closest international airport is at Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. Other airports in the state are at Kochi and Calicut. Since Kerala is a small state, the distance you need to travel by car or train/bus will not exceed 6 hours – unless you are coming into the ashram from the northern tip of Kerala! From Kochi, the car ride took 5-6 hours, with a couple of stops for food. From the Thiruvananthapuram airport, you can either take a pre-paid cab/taxi to Neyyar, or take a bus from the city center to the Ashram. Not sure if Uber operates at the dam! Will find out the next time I visit! Here are the contact details of the ashram.
Some quick hacks to get the most out of your yoga vacation
- Timing your vacation: Time your yoga vacation as close to the beginning of the yoga course at the ashram (usually around the 1st and the 15th of every month).
- What to wear: Pack and wear comfortable, cotton clothing so that it is easy to practice yoga and meditation. Leggings, sleeveless dresses, or outfits that show midriffs/skin/legs are frowned upon. A typical outfit is t-shirts and loose pants/pyjamas.
- What to pack: The ashram store sells some snacks and cookies/juices, and basic stuff you need for washing your clothes and cleaning your room. So there is no need to pack too much from home. Each room comes equipped with a mop, a broom and a clothes pane for drying your clothes. Bring extra pillows, sheets etc. if you want, but the ashram provides a mosquito net, a pillow and a couple of blankets.
- Going out of the ashram: Once you are inside the ashram, you need to take special pass to leave the ashram, which you can do during your free time. I would recommend you stay in the ashram and get used to doing nothing!
- Friday trek/hike: Every Friday morning, the group hikes up the nearby mountain and does the meditation and prayer session there. It is a fantastic experience. See if you can fit in a Friday in your yoga vacation. Fridays are also free days…..you can leave the ashram after the morning meal, go around and come back in time for the evening meditation session. This is a good time to simply vegetate at the ashram (which is what we did!), visit the Neyyar Dam Tiger Sanctuary or hit the city. (Thiruvananthapuram!)
Come with an open mind
You may never have done yoga before. Or stayed in a place with just basic comforts. But do come with an open mind. Be prepared to experience a vacation that will make you want to come back for more. And changes the way you think about life.