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April 8, 2020

“Inside Keralan Yoga Retreat Sharanagati: Learning the Power of the Present”

Welcome to Sharanagati

When stepping inside the gate to Sharangati Yogahaus (— just a few hundred meters away from the Varkala cliff that overlooks the Arabian Sea—one has the feeling of arriving. The true depth of this meaning of arriving would evolve immensely over the course of my two weeks at Sharanagati. The feeling was not of just arriving in a place, but of arriving within oneself.


Sharanagati stands as the only yoga residence in Varkala, which is a coastal town in the southern-most Indian state of Kerala. Varkala is plentiful with yoga schools and drop-in classes but the nature of Sharanagati is intentionally different. Set on one acre of lush, gated property, the residency consists of two houses, two open-air yoga shalas, and an outside food and common area. This is all set amidst a wild garden of palm trees, colorful hibiscus, and hanging orchids. Small relics, statues, and tributes to Hindu gods dot the property and delicate wafts of incense tangle among the scent of wild flowers each morning.

Vegetarian breakfast and lunches rich in local fruits and vegetables, with a twist of Keralan-influenced cooking, are provided each day. Over some of the most nourishing and delicious food in all of Varakala, the guests of the yoga house engage in conversation that lingers long after the end of meals.

Sharanagati in short is simple and serene. The intention is to provide guests a quiet, distraction-free space to retreat to. Unlike many overly-westernized and curated yoga retreats today, the focus at Sharanagati is not on providing fancy, superficial amenities and comforts. Rather, the intention is to create a space of clean energy in which to return to the basics of yoga and to the core of oneself.


Sivananda Yoga: Back to the Roots

Sharanagati follows a Sivananda style yoga practice, which emphasizes yoga for the entire body. This is inclusive of positive thinking, hatha yoga, breathing, meditation, savasana, and a wholesome, vegetarian diet. Through this holistic practice, one is brought back to the roots of yoga, incorporating elements that are often missed in a modern or westernized yoga practice.

We start each morning on the rooftop, waking before the heat of the day has set in, with a pranayama and meditation practice. The practice of pranayama is not just imperative to cleanse the energy channels but also to connect one to the breath. The pranayama practice seamlessly gives way to a vipassana-style meditation, in which we focus simply on following the pattern of our breath.

Hari, who heads up the retreat, instructs us to follow the inhale, to notice the small pause in-between the inhale, and then to slowly exhale. Following the cycle of the breath serves to quiet the mind and bring one into the present. Through quiet reminders from Hari, we are encouraged to release our grip on past and future concerns, to remove ourselves from drowning in the burden of our own mind, and to simply become aware of the present.

Is it easier said then done? Without question. Focusing entirely and solely on what the present moment is, is not necessarily an easy concept to grasp. However, by observing our thoughts as they flow through our mind, we can gain a deeper insight to our consciousness, regardless of the wandering of our thoughts. The discipline and focus of the mind becomes easier with time, like strengthening any other muscle in the body.

After meditation is a two-hour asana practice, which is followed by a second asana practice in the late afternoon. In asana class, we repeat the same poses each day, drawn from the Rishikesh series, which becomes an avenue to stay tied to the present and go deeper within ourselves. Throughout our practice, there are simple insights used to bring us back to the present. We are continuously prompted to relax the body, relax the mind, and focus. As the open yoga hall echoes with a resounding “Om,” closing each class, I linger for a few moments to seal in the practice, the silence, and the energy from the meditation.

At the heart of all of these three practices—pranayama, meditation, and asana— lies the ultimate intention behind Sharanagati: to be present. To remove the tendency to live in the past or the future and and to simply be in the “now.” While this message is repeatedly woven throughout the classes, the actual application of the concept is not as easy to digest. In short, the mind is a powerful tool that we are so often used by, rather than using it.


Going Silent

The longer I spent at Sharanagati, the deeper I sunk into the understanding of Hari’s teachings. However, I noticed a sort of clarity was still missing, preventing me from fully grasping the depth of what was being offered. In an attempt to go even deeper, I spent my final few days in Sharanagati in silence.

My first morning in silence, I gestured that I was no longer talking and thereafter only gestured to communicate briefly in a class or at a meal. This was the extent of my very limited communication in this otherwise non-silent, group yoga retreat.

At first I felt isolated by the silence, a silence that was initially uncomfortable and unnatural-feeling. Yet, I also found a simultaneous relief in knowing that during this period, I owed nothing to anyone but myself. A true rarity in the fast-paced, modern world. I attended the yoga and mediation practices and spent the remainder of the day, meals included, on my own within the property of Sharanagati.

In the silence, I started to hear so much more. As I sat on my balcony or lay on my bed in savasana, I found resistance. Resistance to a full day of program, cravings for certain foods, negative thoughts, boredom and loneliness. The quiet allowed for these resistances to emerge and gave me the clarity of mind to understand their root cause. I let them rise to the surface, observed them, and then let them go. And through that pattern, I began to grasp Hari’s repeated encouragement to witness your mind. To not be controlled by your emotions. That you are not your thoughts or emotions.

As the resistance started to make more sense and to fade away, I watched as other realizations and deeper insights into myself and patterns of my behavior became illuminated. The silence opened up a gateway to many more levels of my consciousness. Quite simply, it reminded me to slow down and move forward with intention. Hari’s notorious “shanti shanti” reminders—to go forward peacefully and slowly—had taken hold.


The Heart of Sharanagati

In many small ways, my time at Sharanagati helped me to rediscover the pure essence of yoga and realize that it can only really be found in one place: within oneself. Sharanagati is a gentle reminder of the power that lies within us and the importance of taking a step back and removing distractions. Through doing so, we can quiet and sharpen our minds. In turn, we can better understand ourselves and our reactions, and extend that back out into the world and to those around us.

For most, it is not possible to live in an enclosed yoga retreat. Places such as Sharanagati, however, serve as quintessential reminders that we already possess all the tools we need. That while we are constantly moving and changing and evolving, we can go within ourselves and find the means by which to best handle this movement.

Will one be able to leave entirely transformed? Perhaps not, as that is a life-long, ever-evolving process. However, what one can obtain, if arriving with an open mind and a willingness to be present, are the tools with which to through the constant movement and unpredictable chaos of the world in a more conscious manner. Practicing yoga on the mat is just that—practice— and the true test is applying it in everyday life.

Above all, I took with me the recognition of the power of rest and quiet in order to unlock one’s creativity. Sharanagati—a Sanskrit word meaning to surrender— serves as a gentle reminder, a slow awakening back to the roots of yoga, back to the roots of oneself. And if you do just that during your stay at Sharanagati—surrender—then perhaps you, too, will arrive a little closer to the heart of oneself.

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