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Review of a 30-day residential Yoga Teacher’s Training

Sivananda Residential Yoga Teacher Training Review

Barely a month or two after starting yoga, I decided to do a full-time month long residential yoga teacher’s training at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai, India. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My body was about as flexible as a steel rod. Why did I embark on this crazy endeavor then? In my limited time of practicing yoga, I’d found it to be a bit of a precise science. Just a little change in alignment here, a deeper stretch there, and you could see a dramatic change in physical benefits. So I figured I could spend the rest of my life getting incremental benefits or I could dive into the deep end and learn from the very source in our sabbatical. As a yoga novice, it was the toughest 30 days of my life yet by far among the best decisions I’ve ever made. If you’re contemplating diving deeper into yoga, go immediately for a residential course in an Indian ashram! Here’s my honest, unbiased review of what I feels like. But first a quick background:

Why I chose Sivananda?

They’re very well known for their teacher’s training course (TTC). And as I catalog here, the Sivananda style is perfect for beginners—traditional enough to be true hatha yoga but not so intimidating that you want to throw in the towel on the first day itself.

Where is it?

They have many locations over the world but I did mine in a rough-and-tumble ashram in Madurai, twenty miles from civilization in the middle of a forest filled with monkeys, peacocks, snakes, and a wild bison.

What are the physical living conditions like?

Sparse. There’s running water and occasional power but you have to share a dorm room with forty odd folks (quite a few of them snorers). The four bathrooms shared by the ashram-dwellers are outside the dorm  and you better not use them after lights-out else you may run into a cobra on your way. It’s hot and humid and you’ll likely have your backpack ripped apart at-least once by monkeys in your stay. And yet despite all of this, the ashram is very clean and comfortable too! Maybe it’s the yoga, maybe it’s just the mix of folks from around the world, you quickly learn not to be a diva and realize the succulent two meals you receive in a day are all you need to be satisfied.

How much does it cost?

Varies by location. In India, honestly it’s way more expensive for foreigners than it should be ($1800 when I did it) given the sparse living conditions but hugely subsidized for Indians ($400). The right price should be around $800-$1000, I think, but money is maya, right? I’m hoping they use the profits to build more ashrams but even if they don’t, I’d say don’t let money come in the way of doing the course. You won’t find a better deal anywhere else, certainly not in the Western world.

What’s the everyday schedule like?

Here’s a life in the day for six days a week. The schedule below is followed religiously—and don’t even think of slacking. If you miss more than three lectures, you’re called for a talking-to by the ashram coordinator:

  • 5:30 am: Wake up
  • 6:00 am: Satsang (Meditation, chanting, random lecture)
  • 8:00 am: Asanas and pranayama
  • 10:00 am: Breakfast (or is it lunch—since that’s the only meal until 6p.m.?)
  • 12:00 pm: Karma Yoga or Selfless service (Read, sweeping the dorm room if you’re lucky and washing bathrooms, if you aren’t.)
  • 1:00 pm: Bhagavad Gita Lecture
  • 2:00 pm: Main lecture in Vedanta philosophy or effect of yoga on anatomy.
  • 4:00 pm: Asanas and pranayama
  • 6:00 pm: Dinner
  • 7:30 pm: Satsang (Meditation, chanting, lecture)
  • 10:00 pm: Lights out

If you thought that was intense, you also have to somehow fit in time for homework every day and give both a theory and a practical exam at the end of the course (everyone clears unless you’re spectacularly unprepared).

Should I embark on this masochistic endeavor?

Yes! But here’s the full balanced review:

  1. Yoga Teacher’s Training is physically and emotionally intense

    You probably got a sense of the physical hardship from above but mentally too, despite all the yoga, no rivers of bliss flow through the body for at-least 95% of the duration of the course. Instead your mind will likely be rebelling against the unrelenting intense schedule daily or seething in indignation that you have to chant two times a day when your match.com profile says you are “spiritual not religious”. The dramatic change from your everyday routine also brings up an avalanche of emotions and memories,  not all of them pleasant. And yet, there are those moments of sudden silence when you unexpectedly find yourself in a pose that you didn’t think your body was capable of or you find yourself alone in the dorm room, blissfully empty of the usual waves of restless thought, when it all starts to make sense. Maybe, just maybe, surviving these thirty days will give you some insight into a reality shimmering below the surface, tantalizingly close but not quite visible yet.

  2. Anyone can do it.

    If the above scares you, don’t let it. You’ll be surprised at how easily you get into the groove of things and dare I say, even start to enjoy it. Everyday, you realize you are learning and growing and changing. One day you can touch your toes, the next day you are standing just a little more erect, next you know a bit more about the anatomy or Vedanta philosophy. I was woefully out of shape and kept toppling over in headstand and sweating buckets in pranayama when I first started while the more experienced practitioners in class were flying all over in impossible poses. Yet I never felt out of place. Somewhere you understand that we all enter yoga at our own stage of development, some dogged by physical inadequacies, some by emotional challenges, but it’s all fine as long as you just commit yourself to learning a bit more each day.

  3. It’s a bit of an ideological hodge-podge

    Westerners romanticize yoga in Indian ashrams as “authentic” and “spiritual”. In my opinion, it’s barely a little less confused. In the TTC, for instance, one moment you’ll be learning that the pantheon of Indian Gods and Goddesses are just symbols of the one infinite truth, the sum of all realities which lies both within and without. At the next moment, you’ll be circling around and putting flowers over a statue of God treating its form as a living reality. With its hodge-podge of chanting, worship, physical yoga, transcendental wisdom, meditation, and everything else, contradictions abound in every moment. The seeker after truth always has to be discriminatory in every moment and yoga teacher’s training is no exception.

  4. You will find your people.

    What is it about fellow seekers, travelers, misfits, that you feel instantaneously at home in their company, more understood in a day than you feel with friends and family back home over a lifetime? If you’re feeling a rising sense of alienation with the people you’ve known all your life as your meaning-of-life questions deepen, you’ll find your crowd at Yoga Teacher’s Training. Our class of forty came from India, US, UK, Australia, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Germany, Dubai, everywhere and they varied in age from twenty-one to fifty-five and yet we felt such a deep, intangible connection with each other almost from the first day that you know you were meant to be there, it’s just a pity it took you so long to get there.

  5. Your life is going to change in significant ways at the end of the training–guaranteed.

    And that in a nutshell is why I give Yoga Teacher’s Training such a thumping recommendation. I whined and complained often during the thirty days but at the end of it, something fundamentally shifted in me. I quit caffeine and alcohol and I turned vegetarian—without trying to. My body just seemed to understand what was right for it. As a result, I dropped twenty pounds and felt both physically and emotionally lighter than ever before. Learning how to become a teacher also gave me an independent practice for life, dramatically increasing the frequency with which I practice yoga. My spine is now stronger and my body younger than it was two decades ago. Perhaps most importantly, my on-again, off-again interest in Eastern philosophy turned into a deep, passionate interest in understanding ancient yogic and Buddhist text which has made me calmer, happier, but also given me something more—a deeper understanding of my true purpose as a human. Now, I can’t wait to suffer through an Advanced Yoga Teacher’s Training!

I hope this inspired you to sign up for your Yoga Teacher’s Training course today. Go for it, you’ll never regret it. And if you enjoyed this article, you can get more tips and expert interviews on lifestyle, writing and your spiritual practice, including a free meditation video course, when you sign up for updates about The Seeker here.