“Serve. Love. Give. Purify. Meditate. Realize.” ~Swami Sivananda
Ten years ago, I was a devoted yogini, a confused college student and a privileged American consumer. Yoga had been my salvation (on and off) since middle school.
My parents had given me the book, Power Yoga, by Beryl Bender Birch the Christmas before. Sun salutations really threw me for a loop at first. Coordinating my breath with my body movement and jumping through vinyasa flows was complicated and awkward.
I was working part-time at an ad agency in Austin. A couple of coworkers invited me to attend a yoga class with them at the gym. It had never before crossed my mind to attend an actual class, I was so used to practicing on my own with the aid of a book. Immediately, I befriended and interrogated the instructor. Her name was Brenda, and she told me all about how much she’d loved her month-long teacher training at an ashram. I looked into organization online, got the brochure and applied. I didn’t think much about it. I certainly didn’t investigate any other teacher training options.
Throughout the spring and summer, I was slipping slowly into what I didn’t yet know was my first bout with clinical depression. I was nearing the end of my college career, feeling queasy about having chosen of advertising as my major and career, experiencing joyfear about how deepening my spiritual practice and beginning to teach yoga would affect me, wondering what my true life’s purpose was… all that quarterlife crisis nonsense. I became listless and lethargic. I figured a month of yoga and meditation in the woods would cure me of this funk.
I followed in Brenda’s footsteps. On July 1, 2001, Canada Day, I flew to Montreal and took a bus into the mountains outside Quebec. The great Indian yogi, Swami Sivananda, had built an ashram there with the vision of spreading yoga to the West, generations prior. The trip involved two planes, two buses and a whole lot of waiting. I was only 21. But I kept positive. Thanks be to Shiva, I met two people headed to the ashram at the Montreal bus station. One of them had been before, and when the bus dropped us off on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere in the rain, she surreally knew just enough French and just what we needed to do.
After sleeping in the lobby for a few hours, I woke up the next morning, enchanted by the beautiful mountains surrounding me. I pitched my tent, a slightly moldy, ocean blue teepee my parents had owned since the seventies.
I was impatient for enlightenment.
I expected to be instantly relaxed, for my drowsy, bored despair to disappear magically. Guess what? Didn’t happen. Those pesky problems have the ability to follow us wherever we may go.
After my first cold night of camping, I woke up on the soggy ground with a rock jutting into my sacrum, my air mattress having deflated overnight.
The ashram had a strict daily timetable. A gong announced the mandatory 5:30 a.m. meditation session.There was no instruction, no technique given. Just sit, spine erect, eyes closed, silent. Sustaining a solemn, unguided, sitting meditation with no experience and no guidance is borderline impossible.
We did half an hour of silent meditation, then half an hour of chanting. At that time, I’d never heard any Sanskrit chanting. (It might’ve been the chanting that did me in in the end.) Everyone else seemed to chant the incoherent strings of syllables, happily and chorally. In silent rebellion, I mouthed. I didn’t know what any of it meant, and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. The chanting happened twice a day, plus before meals and at frequent other random times throughout the day. Everybody else would repeat the swami’s chant. It seemed to go on forever.
Then the swami told some story related to yoga philosophy. He was verbose and elderly with a thick Indian accent. He bloviated about esoteric concepts like reincarnation and karma without explaining them. I was thinking, WHAT THE HELL HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO? For a month? I was constantly teeter tottering between, “I can’t handle this,” and, “Yes I can.”
One good thing — my karma yoga assignment was clerical work. No cleaning toilets! That was a relief.
After we got our uniforms (yellow t-shirt, white pants), we each had to go up to the front of the yoga hall and say our name and where we’re from and why we came. I said, “Hi. I’m Michelle. I’m from Austin, Texas. I love yoga but I’m really scared and I want to go home. But I’m not going to.” I nearly broke down in tears right then. I was expecting the ashram to be calming, relaxing and enjoyable. Being there and finding out how rigid and rigorous it was was a slap in the face.
After a lengthy, tumultuous inner battle, I gave up. I submitted my resignation on day three.
I went to the office with a letter explaining the reasons for my early departure. I was told to go talk to the swami after satsang. He all but forbid me to leave. He said I was weak, that everyone wants to leave, that I should push through. But I was sure I needed to leave. I was sinking further and further into depression. I stuck to my decision. No means no. (Please note: I have nothing against the Sivananda organization or its teacher training programs. I just wasn’t in the right mental place at the time. I’m sure if I went back now, the experience would be utterly different and remarkably better.)
Soul searching was so tiresome. I came home feeling sadder and more hopeless than ever. I told myself I was the epitome of a pathetic loser; I couldn’t even do my favorite thing right. I went to therapy, started on antidepressants and spent a lot of time in Child’s Pose.