Locked down in the Ashram

No sports-oriented blog should be without its Coronovirus Lock Down story, so here is mine. Back in 2019 I had booked in for the month-long Advanced Yoga Teacher Training Course at the famous Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram, Neyyar Dam, in Kerala, starting on 9th Feb 2020.

As the date approached, the epidemic was well under way, with Wuhan in lockdown, the Diamond Princess going round in circles at Yokohama, and three reported cases in Kerala State.

Time for some risk assessment. Did I really need a further Yoga qualification to add to the three I already had? If so was it worth the risk of getting ill or stranded?

Risk assessment

The answer, I soon concluded, was yes and yes. If I was to teach Yoga instructors in Bergerac and elsewhere, I would really need the certificated higher-level qualifications as recognised by the International Yoga Alliance. And if I did not get qualified now, there might not be another chance for a while.

So I flew off from Heathrow as scheduled on 6 Feb, with a stopover in Bangalore to see a friend. While there, we went to watch the local Indian Army rowing team doing loops of a lake in central Bangalore. They looked strong and fit, and were doing some useful-looking yoga exercises before going on the water. Sadly, the actual oarsmanship looked less impressive: I can say with some confidence that we’re unlikely to see these crews at Henley for a year or two.

The local Indian Army rowing team

I arrived at the Ashram on the 8th, and was greeted by the doctor, who checked my temperature and weight before clearing me for admission (Temperature normal, weight 81.9 kg, sigh of relief). While checking in, I found that few of the Europeans I was expecting to see had showed up. On my previous visit to India (Rishikesh in Dec 2018) the “Westerner ratio” had been about 90% – but this time they had nearly all cancelled.

Among the exceptions were Damian from Barcelona (Basques, he told me, seldom change their minds); Vincent, a super-fit Quebequois who had, astonishingly, cycled all the way from Orleans. (This being a journey of nearly 11,000 km, he was was past the point of no return by the time the epidemic started.) And then there was Vanessa, an Argentine tango and salsa dance teacher based in Dubai. There was also a group of about 16 from Iran, and 3 from Japan. In all, there were 114 pupils on the course, around 80% of them Indian.

A full schedule

The course began as it would continue for the next 4 weeks, with a rigourously monastic timetable and no concessions to jetlag or individual sleep patterns. The day went something like this. Wake at 4.30 for a 5.00 am start with Pranayama (breathing exercises) followed by Meditation from 6.00 and then Satsang (mantra chanting). Then at 8.00 a lecture on anatomy, yoga scriptures, Sanskrit or some other curriculum topic. At 9.00 a supervised session of Asana yoga excercises. Then at 10.00, the first meal of the day – a breakfast of rice, beans and fruit. Back to work at 11.00 with a Karma Yoga session (housework tasks) followed by further lectures from 12.00, with an hour’s break at 2.00, an anatomy class at 3.00, followed by a second Asama class, then Dinner at 6.00 (usually rice with dal and a veg curry). A second Satsang session at 7.00, leaving about an hour and a half or so for writing up our class-notes and doing any set homework. Then to bed for lights out at 10.00 pm. In other words, not much spare time.

The main hall, where the twice-daily Asana sessions were held.

All this was physically and mentally very demanding: we were told that the aim was to compress a year’s worth of learning into a month. But thanks to the quality of the tuition and guidance provided, most of those on the course, like me, soon adapted to the the restricted diet, the sleep deprivation and the almost-total isolation from the outside world. And in the process, we gained much new knowledge about the human body and its capabilities.

Mohammed and his wife

I saw quite a lot of the Iranian contingent, partly because I had been accidentally categorised as Iranian myself on arrival (my nickname Ali might have had something to do with this). They were friendly people, and very interesting. For a reason which I never quite understood, they were divided into two groups, each with their own interpreter. There was no apparent conflict between the groups, but they did not socialise. Each of the groups included a high-profile teacher: Aria runs popular yoga classes in Tehran, often in groups of over 100. The other was Zoe who teaches at her own studio in the NE town of Ardabil, near the Caspian Sea.

I had heard that Yoga was being officially discouraged in Iran, so it was pleasing to see that in reality it’s flourishing.

Another Iranian, Mohammed, had come with his wife from Turkey, where they had a popular tourist cafe near the Mediterranea coast. Shortly after arriving in India they had been informed by the Turkish authorities that they would not be admitted back into the country. This was a serious problem, because returning to Iran was not an option either, and their tourist visa for India would soon be expiring.

Somehow, despite this awkward situation, Mohammed remained completely calm, no doubt helped by the daily Karma, Pranayama and Asana sessions.

As we approached the end of the course on 7th March, everyone’s thoughts turned to their return journey. Scheduled flights into Iran were, we heard, being cancelled, and there were reductions in flights to other overseas destinations too. Movement within India were also liable to be restricted at any time without notice. Nothing was certain – except that I had completed the course and had my qualification in the bag.

Three happy graduates with their certificates

So 4.7kg lighter, a lot bendier, and I hope a little wiser than when I arrived, I said goodbye to my teachers and fellow pupils, and with some trepidation set off for the airport, where I was relieved to find my connecting flight to Bangalore departing as scheduled. Arriving in Bangalore, I found the airport strangely empty, and made straight for the BA desk to find out whether my Heathrow flight was actually leaving. I was told by a smartly-uniformed BA official that indeed it was. Looking at my papers, he asked what I had been doing in India. Yoga teachers’ training, I told him. His face lit up – he was a Yoga enthusiast himself, he said. Could I perhaps give a lesson here today, before the flight left? OK, no problem, just find us some suitable floor space, I replied, assuming that he was joking. He handed back my papers, and I set off for the security check area.

BA’s impromptu pre-flight Yoga session at Bangalore Airport turned out to be the last group activity I would take part in for quite a long time

Arriving at the departure-gate a little later I saw that he had not been joking. With him was a group of eight people who really did want to do some Yoga, and he had selected an area behind the departure-lounge check-in desks for the purpose.

So as the grand finale of a memorable trip, I got down on the polished marble floor of Bangalore airport with 8 total strangers, and took my impromptu class through the Sun Salutation sequence. (This is a classic warm-up routine which I have been adapting for use by Scullers, and about which I’ll be writing more shortly.)

The flight then left on time, and arrived at Heathrow on time too. Well done BA – and we’re sorry to hear about your current difficulties.

I was lucky to get home, but the same cannot be said of all my fellow pupils. Some of the Iranians managed to get on the last flight back, but most of the ones who didn’t are still living at the Ashram as I write – more than two months later. Being stranded in India could in some ways be seen as a mixed blessing though: several of their compatriots who made it home went down with the virus shortly after getting back, and some, including Zoe, have been very ill and are only recovering slowly. Meanwhile the stranded ones are still fit and well and being looked after by the kind monks. They still don’t know when they will be able to leave, or what will happen if their tourist visas expire. Many of the Indians will be in a similar predicament; the public-transport lockdown came shortly after my departure, and nobody in India can go anywhere at present.

Now locked down in rural Derbyshire, I practise an Upward Reach stretch while greeting the morning sunlight as it advances up the valley

Luckily for me, it turned out to be a wonderful trip, and a great experience. It’s just a pity that it had to end less well for some others.

To my stranded friends still in the Ashram, I say Have a safe journey home soon; to my convalescent friends in Iran and elsewhere I say Get well soon. And to my wonderful teachers on the course, I say Thank you for all you’ve done for us.

Let’s all stay in touch and do what we can to make the world a better place!


June 3rd: I’ve just heard from some of the Iranian friends who became stranded in Kerala after I left on 7th March. Six of them are still there, nearly three months later, unable to arrange a trip home. But they’re being well looked after, and are becoming better than ever at Yoga.

They’re visible in this collection of pictures by the award-winning photographer Saurabh Narang, who joined us for a week in February. Click on any thumbnail to see it in Gallery format.

Many thanks to Saurabh for permission to show these beautiful images. You can read more about him and his work on the Saatchi Art website.

3 thoughts on “Locked down in the Ashram

  1. What a lovely account of your dedication to yoga. The description of the impromptu yoga class at the airport was just so you! It captured your spontaneity and giving nature. I am glad that you did not get sick due to traveling during a pandemic.


    Comme Diana, j’ai beaucoup aimé le passage du cours de Yoga dans l’aéroport ! La vie est pleine de surprise… Je suis soulagée de te savoir dans la verte campagne du Derbyshire (endroit idéal pour un confinement chlorophyllisé… n’hésite pas à abuser du Buxton pudding et des oatcakes… et ramènes nous quelques Ashbourne gingerbread please !).
    J’espère que tes amis iraniens/turcs auront pu trouver un chemin vers la turquie… et je leur souhaite beaucoup de courage (et d’énergie) pour supporter cette dictature où l’on ne construit aujourd’hui que des prisons où l’humour reste malgré tout présent : à la bibliothèque d’une prison turc, un détenu demande un livre : ” non, nous ne l’avons pas… mais nous avons l’auteur !! ”
    Gardons espoir pour que ce monde change…


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