Travel: Long Haul: Bend me, shape me

Eight hours a day of contortions and meditation: no one said a yoga retreat would be easy. Or enjoyable.
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The Independent Culture
My first yoga session was not an entirely happy experience. I had never done yoga in my life, and the eye-rolling exercises made me feel sick. I could not keep up with the sun salutation, got a numb arm from doing the shoulder stand, and almost blacked out bending my head backwards into the fish position.

My second session was not much better, nor were my third and fourth. After two days in the ashram, or retreat, I was, frankly, ready to pack up and walk out. Or at least I would have been if my legs had not been so stiff from all that bending.

I stuck with it, however, and by the end of my fortnight-long Indian yoga vacation I was twisting myself into positions I had never dreamt it possible to get into. Not only that, but I felt calmer, more relaxed and more clear-headed than I had done in years.

I had first heard of the Sivananda Yoga Ashram, in Kerala, southern India, from a guy I met in Calcutta a couple of years ago. I am not, nor have I ever been, an ashram type of person - whatever else God made my body for, it most certainly was not yoga - and at the time I had scribbled down the details more out of politeness than from any genuine conviction that I would ever go. So when I suddenly booked myself a flight and went out to India for two weeks of contorting and meditation, no one was more surprised than me.

The ashram sits in stunning surroundings in the foothills of the Western Ghats, 30 km east of Trivandrum. Luxurious it is not. Accommodation is basic in the extreme - either in a dormitory, a two-man hut or, if you bring one, a tent. All washing and toilet facilities are shared. Meals are eaten with the fingers sitting cross-legged on the floor of a communal hall. The idea is to pamper the spirit, not the body.

Anyone is welcome, of whatever age, creed, nationality or shape. Among the acquaintances I made while there were a disabled Italian academic, a fitness fanatic from Guadelupe, a Canadian folk singer and a gay building contractor from Battersea.

The only stipulations are that you do not drink, do not smoke, and participate fully in all of the ashram's activities. Those who do not join in, the rule book warns sternly, will be asked to leave, although, so far as I am aware, it is a threat that has never been invoked.

The first few days are, particularly for those such as myself who have never done this sort of thing before, hell on earth, more mini boot camp than holiday. Ashram life is rigidly structured, starting at 5.30am with a wake-up bell, and involving, over the course of the day, a couple of two-hour meditation and chanting sessions, four hours of yoga, a lecture, some cleaning (euphemistically described as "karma yoga"), two frugal vegetarian meals and then lights out at 10pm. I was at public school, and it was never as bad as this.

Once you get into the swing of things, however, the whole thing is surprisingly good fun. I have never had much time for religion - a childhood of synagogue- going guaranteed that - but still found myself chanting Hindu devotional verses with all the bellowing enthusiasm of a fanatical Arsenal supporter. Lectures, likewise, have never really been my thing, yet it was impossible not to be spellbound by the resident doctor's descriptions of how to give an Ayurvedic enema. Even the frugal vegetarian food grows on you (although I did have to supplement it with a daily fix of coconut biscuits).

Yoga forms the backbone of ashram life, with two two-hour sessions every day - or more if you fancy doing some on your own. It is hard work, and some of the positions, notably the fish posture and the gravity-defying sideways crow, will, I fear, be for ever beyond me. The teachers, however, do not push you, and you are allowed to progress pretty much at your own pace. The fact that I am still doing my asanas (exercises) now that I am back in Britain is testament to just how good it makes you feel. For the first time in my life I can describe myself as supple without sounding ironic.

It is not all yoga and chanting, of course. You get plenty of time to yourself and, although it is not strictly allowed, no one complains if you bunk off the odd lecture or meditation session. The ashram sits on the shores of an idyllic, picture-postcard tropical lake in which, despite the crocodile warning signs, everybody goes swimming.

There are some superb walks in the area and a resident ashram masseur. Saturday nights are given over to a "talent show" for anyone who wants to participate - the building contractor from Battersea and I did a comedy routine that was greeted with blank stares all round.

The ashram also arranges day trips to the Kerala backwaters and Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India, with a running commentary by the ashram's portly director, Swami Maha Devananda (a dead ringer for the late Robert Morley). Fears that the whole thing would be a dour, brain-washing, weirdo- sect sort of experience proved ill-founded.

There is no limit to how long you can spend on the ashram. Some people come for just a few days, others stick around for several months - at only pounds 3.75 per day all in it is hardly going to break the bank. The two- week long "yoga vacation", however - starting on the 1st and 15th of every month - is perhaps the ideal length, giving you time to wind down and relax without becoming so wound down and relaxed that you cannot integrate yourself back into society at the end of it all. As the literature says: "Yoga will show you the way to happiness and peace."

Mind you, it does not last. A week after getting back I could already feel those city anxieties creeping up on me again. Time to start thinking about another trip, I reckon.

Fact File

PAUL SUSSMAN flew from London Heathrow to Trivandrum via Doha with Qatar Airways for pounds 399 including tax.

The Sivananda Ashram is at Neyyar Dam, an hour's bus ride east from Trivandrum. You can write for details of courses to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Neyyar Dam PO, Trivandrum District, Kerala 695 576, India, or call 00 91 471 290 493. They also have a centre in London (0181-780 0160).

Flights to Calcutta are widely available through discount agents. For travel in September, Bridge the World is offering a fare of pounds 478 on KLM via Amsterdam, or pounds 538 on British Airways direct from Heathrow.

Visa requirements

British passport holders require a visa to visit India. If you call the 24-hour visa information service (0891 880800), you will spend a lot of time and money finding out the following.

For a three-month tourist visa, you can apply in person or by post to the Postal Visa Section at either of the following: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; or the Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS.

If applying by post, first send a stamped addressed envelope for a visa application form to either of the above addresses.

Once completed, send the form with three passport photos, passport, and the fee of pounds 13. "You are advised not to finalise your travel arrangements until your visa has been issued," says the High Commission.