There's no doubt that the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, at Neyyar Dam near Trivandrum in Kerala, is very popular. But is it really one of the best yoga centers in India, particularly for yoga teacher training?
A reader, who undertook the intensive one month Teachers Training Course, wrote to me about his experience. He said he found the teachings of Swami Vishnudevananda, the Center's founder, to be of a high value. However, he questioned whether the teachers and classes were up to the top level. In particular, he didn't think that the philosophy class was good, as the teachers struggled to clarify with real experiences what they were saying. In addition, personal guidance was almost nil.
Does his experience match that of others?
In reality, everyone's experience is subjective. While many people have a remarkable, life-changing experience at the ashram, others are disappointed. It depends a lot on what your expectations are, and there are certain things you should keep in mind.
What You Should Know About Studying at the Ashram
Sivananda is widely regarded as an excellent yoga school, with solid training. The cost depends on the type of accommodation. There are no single rooms. You can choose from twin share (some rooms have common bathrooms), dormitory, and tent space (bring your own tent). Rates range from $2,030 per person in a tent, up to $3,490 for a twin room with air conditioning and private bathroom. You can expect to pay $2,335 in a dorm.
The price is more than many other similar courses in India but a bit less than than in the west. Note that there are many Sivananda Yoga centers around the world, and you won't gain better skills or knowledge by doing a course in India rather than elsewhere.
The teachings at Sivananda are very traditional and focused on Vedanta, which is yoga philosophy, rather than practice of asanas (postures). It is Hindu-centric and there is a substantial religious aspect to it, including around three to four hours of chanting per day, plus prayers to Hindu deities and the ashram's founding gurus. Some people do feel that explanation about the meaning of the prayers and chants is lacking, so they are unable to say them with conviction.
During the Teachers Training Course, you'll learn about many topics related to yoga philosophy, but none of them will be covered in depth. Instructions on how to perform the asanas are also limited. The asana classes are mainly focused on personal practice, with little discussion about how to actually teach and make corrections. This leaves some students feeling ill-equipped to teach after completing the course. If you're hoping to learn yoga and perfect your postures then this definitely isn't the course for you.
Most of the staff at the ashram are people who have completed the Teachers Training Course and are working there on a voluntary basis to help with the yoga classes (the only people who are paid are locals who carry out work such as cleaning). Feedback often indicates that they are not very enthusiastic or supportive.
The schedule at the ashram is extremely strict and the atmosphere is controlling rather than nurturing. All classes are compulsory and marked for attendance, from satsung at 6 a.m. until lights out at 10.30 p.m. (you can see the schedule here). You'll get one free day per week, on Fridays, and you can only leave the ashram on this day. In addition, you'll need to wear a uniform provided by the ashram. Two vegetarian meals are served a day, at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Black tea and coffee are prohibited.
Due to its size and popularity, the Kerala ashram gets extremely busy during high season (from October until April). The Teacher Training Course consistently gets between 100 and 150 participants. January is the peak month, and the Teacher Training Course is always oversubscribed then, with up to 250 participants. Add to this the people staying at the ashram on yoga vacations and there can easily be 400 attendees, making it very overcrowded.
If the Teacher Training Course does interest you but you'd rather study somewhere more intimate, the Sivananda Madurai Ashram is a good option and receives positive reviews.