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The Times

Title: Back on the Chain Gang

A retreat for just £6 a night? Helen McNutt discovers why as she cleans the loos.

It is 5.30am when the wake-up bell rings on my first day at the Sivananda ashram in Southern India. I walk, zombie-like, from my dorm following a slow trail of people along a dark uneven path to wherever it is they’re going.


We enter what seems to be a huge hall and sit cross-legged on mats and begin to meditate. After 20 minutes a prayer is spoken, then someone starts to sing. Only then do I feel that it’s OK to open my eyes. It is now much lighter. I realise that the lumps on the stage are actually five swamis  - holy people- and that I’m surrounded by about 150 people who have all begun to sing along too.


The hall becomes a beautiful, reverberating mass; it feels mystical and otherworldly. Yet all I can think of is the pins and needles in my legs and my cravings for a double espresso.

I have been warned that this place is hardcore. Half past five is a lie-in – those on the teacher training course are up an hour earlier. The daily routine is filled with meditation, yoga, chanting, lectures and general holy behaviour. Lunch is at 10.30am. No sex, no naked flesh above elbow or knee is allowed, neither is any smoking, drinking, meat, dairy, coffee, sugar, garlic or onions.


Guests must spend an hour each day doing karma yoga – an hour of selfless service that is meant to help you get over your ego. This includes cleaning lavatories, but you can choose other jobs such as serving food or sweeping up. I get the bogs. Later that day, Marigolds up to my elbows, all I can think is that I am paying to do this. And that everything ever said about vegan diets and digestion is true.


My main reason for coming to the ashram is the yoga. It has a brilliant reputation. The tutors are thorough and there’s emphasis on posture and breathing. Although the spiritual, relaxing elements are stressed, it’s vigorous exercise. My body feels satisfyingly tired after working through the 12 classical Hatha poses and sun salutations. I have never sweated so much; I cannot have a toxin left inside me.


One class a day is held by the lake in a studio that looks out over a dam and mountains – the scenery is stunning. So, too, is the soundtrack. From across the lake comes the bellowing of lions mating; cue jokes afterwards about “at least someone’s getting some”.


There is a dawn walk up a sacred hill and a night moonlit walk around the dam. The ashram follows Ayurvedic principles - hence the diet and routine. Initially I find the discipline difficult but after four days it all falls into place, and I decide on the eve of my last day to extend for another four days.


By now I feel incredible. Calmer than, well, ever. My insomnia has disappeared, my body feels stronger, more flexible. I’m very happy. When I recount all this to my boyfriend on the phone, he assumes I’ve been sucked into a cult.


But the ashram has none of the hallmarks of a cult – the people don’t want to sleep with you and aren’t interested in your money (it costs about £6 a day for everything). It would seem that their aims are only for their guests to experience a spiritual, Ayurvedic lifestyle and to leave a little bit bendier, calmer and an awful lot less afraid of 5.30am.  

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