Ishwara Pranidhana: Surrendering To Life In An Ashram

In April of this year I travelled to Sivananda Ashram in Neyar Dam, Kerala, India. The ashram is a beautiful oasis set in the foothills of Kerala’s Western Ghats and is the perfect location to practice yoga with nothing else around but an endless galaxy of green coconut tree groves and tropical plants and flowers. I was looking forward to immersing myself into the yogic way of life and temporarily renouncing my worldly pleasures and comforts to fully embrace life in such simplicity.

A Late Arrival and a Difficult Start

I arrived at the ashram at night, just before lights out at 10pm due to the early start of 5am for satsang. I was drenched in sweat from India’s sweltering humidity and quickly asked the serene lady at reception where I could buy water. She pointed at my empty water bottle and told me I could fill it up with the ashrams water. I quickly realised how ignorant I was and that there was not going to be any packaged mineral water from outside here.

The ashram is a peaceful abode away from external distractions and worldly comforts.

The ashram is a peaceful abode away from external distractions and worldly comforts. Coming from hygiene obsessed culture I immediately began to panic I would be sick from drinking it but it was either that or dehydrate!

I was shown to a spartan dorm with a flimsy mosquito net to construct above my bed which hung claustrophobically two feet high above my body. As I lay under it, I looked on in horror at the giant cockroaches and other insects that hopped onto the outside of the net and clung there for the night while the inside of my net began to fill up with mosquitos that had made their way through the tears. A stray cat then crawled under my bed for a nap.

My Heart Sank

My heart sank and the full gravity of my situation hit me. I had spent the previous week lying on a beach, feasting on curries and going for Ayurvedic treatments daily, living in the lap of luxury, my every desire and need exceedingly met. Now I was in the middle of nowhere, all my luxuries taken from me and dumbfounded by this reality.

I could not remember why I thought it was a good idea to come here at all. I wanted to escape, but there was no way out! I was far away from civilisation in the middle of the night. So I did all I could do at that moment in time. I surrendered to it. With my breath as my anchor, I rode the waves of fear and regret and allowed their current to wash over me without being sucked under. I became the witness to it all and allowed it to flow freely through me.

I realised that renunciation was going to be a lot harder than I had envisioned.

In this process of allowing I saw the sheer strength of my attachments and their binding power. I realised that renunciation was going to be a lot harder than I had envisioned but beneath the chaos of my mind there was a backdrop of stillness and peace that could weather any storm.

That first night was the beginning of the practice of Ishwara Pranindhana which would guide me through my stay in the ashram. I thought I was just going to surrender my comforts and communication with the outside world for a while. This had quickly grown into something much greater, more sacred than that, I now had to surrender my ego.

Life in Sivananda Ashram

All activities performed in the ashram were done in the spirit of offering to the Divine and as a doorway to reach a higher state were the smaller ego mind is relinquished so the greater self can be revealed.

Satsang and Bhakti Yoga

Each day began with satsang in a high open air bamboo shrine room with a panoramic view of the green, crawling hills. Here we performed Bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion were each person fully surrenders to the Divine to allow the transmutation of emotions into unconditional love.

We meditated by candlelight and chanted to the sun coming up. The chants were so uplifting and joyful and as they built in intensity as the sun began to rise it felt as though the power of our chants were invoking it and powering it up into the sky as we celebrated the dawning of a new day to be lived fully with awareness and purity of heart.

Raya Yoga

After this we had Raja yoga, the science of physical and mental control. The practice hall was adorned with beautiful paintings of deities in such incredible size and splendour that an air of reverence and dedication infused the room. Suryanamaskar in its origins was a moving prayer in which every breath offered the yogi`s energy back to the sun. With this in mind I performed my practice in the spirit of giving.

Practicing Karma Yoga

After class we had a sattvic meal and it was here I practiced my karma yoga for the day, an integral part of life at the ashram were each person must perform selfless duty daily. It is seen as the yoga of action and is to purify the heart, teaching you to act selflessly, detaching from the fruits of your actions and offering them up to god to dissolve the ego.

Swami Sivananda said about this practice‚ “Give your hands to work, and keep your mind fixed at the lotus feet of the lord”. As I served food daily to the others I felt a great sense of joy and unity arise in my heart for all the people there as we were all in this together, far away from our loved ones and I felt deep gratitude to be able to provide them with fuel for their bodies and minds for the day.

Jnana Yoga

In the afternoon we had Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge and wisdom. Daily talks were given on different aspects of the Vedanta. In one class the teacher said‚ “True freedom of the mind is being able to do what you don’t want to do and not being able to do what you want to do”.

This statement reverberated within me as I realised how my peace of mind usually came from favourable external circumstances. My stay in the ashram became a reversal of this conditioning in me. I had spent my first night lamenting my loss of choice and what I had perceived as my loss of freedom but I then recognised that my true source of freedom was my own ability to choose how I would respond to each situation and that power of choice lay within me only and was untouchable by others.

More Karma Yoga and a Final Satsang Before Lights Out

I had some free time in the afternoons before another physical practice, more karma yoga with the serving of dinner and a final satsang before lights out. I enjoyed walking around the ashram grounds admiring the bountiful bloom of different plants and flowers.

I felt a deep communion with nature and the Divine as I marvelled at the endless diversity of Creation and its infinite organisational powers, revelling in its endless manifestations of colours, scents, shapes and forms. I saw the beauty and intelligence of this force at work and the radiance and perfection of all it created. I felt a great surrender to the Divine in my heart as I saw so clearly that it knows exactly what it is doing, and is a force more powerful than my smaller mind could ever imbue. No plant or flower was struggling or straining to grow, each fully surrendered to the rhythm of nature and allowed it to fully flow through, unimpeded, as when you do this you have the power of the universe on your side.

How Sivananda Ashram Changed Me

My stay in the ashram changed from my aim to “go to do yoga” to a process of undoing as I relinquished my egos demands and desires and moved in harmony with the currents of life. When we surrender ourselves to the flow of something much greater we open ourselves up to living from a state of grace, clarity and deep natural peace. As Thomas Merton once said‚ “Self-conquest is really self-surrender”.

There is nothing weak about surrendering; it comes from a strong place of trust and faith with a spirit of courage and resilience. Ishwara Pranidhana teaches us to train our smaller ego to step back to allow the beauty of the bigger picture to emerge. So surrender daily, to whatever comes your way, as the growth of your spirit takes you in boundless, beautiful new directions with joyful, effortless ease.

Written by Jennifer Ryan

Jennifer Ryan: Ishwara Pranidhana: Surrendering To Life In An Ashram

Jennifer Ryan qualified as a trauma sensitive yoga teacher with The Trauma Centre at JRI in October 2011. Jennifer can be contacted at jennyryanxx AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk