That One Time is a recurring series of essays highlighting oddball, first-person experiences from around the world. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Complex City Guide. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed. To submit your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not a hippie. My parents are not hippies. I’m sure the first time I smelled patchouli I almost vomited. I grew up in a Christian household and went to a church that taught me humans are evil and most of us are going to hell. To my surprise, I learned not all religions or spiritual philosophies are this heavy handed.
The place welcomes everybody—but there are rules.
Enter yoga—a way of life that promotes personal transformation and acceptance. Yoga is very chill. When I started practicing regularly, it changed my life. Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street, and the Westboro Baptist Church no longer caused me to hyperventilate. Yoga made me feel grounded, in control, and less reactive. It kept me balanced. I wanted more of that, so I decided to go to an ashram. That was my first mistake.
My real intention was go on a generic yoga retreat where I would deepen my practice, unwind, and spend time on the beach. When I couldn’t find a retreat that was affordable and worked with my schedule, I decided to book a week at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Islands in the Bahamas. Before I left, I met with my friend Michael for a drink. He had one thing he wanted to tell me: “Don’t join a cult.”
I couldn’t image what he was talking about. Sure the place had a dress code and there were some disturbing reviews on TripAdvisor warning me “not to talk to people wearing yellow shirts,” and claiming that the place was actually a cult. But then again, there were some perfectly positive reviews as well. I decided to take my chances.
I arrived in January and the location was beautiful. There are massive cruise ships docked right across the bay, but the ashram is tucked away and hidden by beautiful greenery. There are temples everywhere and gardens and fruit trees. In addition to renting small huts and cottages, the ashram also allows people to bring their own tents. The place welcomes everybody—but there are rules.
Once the alcohol and French fries were out of my system, I started to enjoy myself.
The first rule is that all guests are required to attend satsang, which is basically a religious ceremony, twice a day. Satsang takes place at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. It includes 30 minutes of silent meditation, and devotional Kirtan singing. (There’s lots of “hare Krishna” during satsang.) The ashram also requires all guests attend yoga class twice a day. Every class follows the sequence developed by Swami Vishnu Devananda who founded Sivananda in 1969 and is renowned for his airborne peace missions. Devananda bought a junk plane, fixed it up, became a pilot, and would fly internationally with no passport or visa. He famously flew over the Berlin Wall before 1989. Other rules include: no alcohol, no bare shoulders or knees, vegetarian meals, and lights out at 10 p.m.
My first few days on the ashram I was all in. I was committed to following the rules. The people in yellow shirts (full-time staff members and students training to become yoga teachers) looked rude and miserable, but I wasn’t going to let them stop me from having a good time. Once the alcohol and French fries were out of my system, I started to enjoy myself. I took an amazing vegan/raw food workshop and met cool people from around the world. This must be what being healthy and happy feels like, I thought. I decided I had come to the right place. That was my second mistake.
The minute I decided that I wanted to be part of the ashram, not just a guest, was the minute I realized that things were not as they seemed. There was a reason why the people in yellow shirts looked so miserable. I heard the teacher-training course was so rigorous that many students left the ashram feeling angry and cheated. I also heard the students in the teacher-training program and the people who lived on the ashram resented the guests who just came for the beach vacation and free yoga.
Yoga, the thing that helped me improve my life and inspired me to take this trip, wasn’t as chill as I thought it was.
There was a serious “us versus them” attitude. You were committed to ashram life and devoted to Vishnu Devananda (one of us), or you were passing through and fucking up the vibe (one of them.) I didn’t know what side I wanted to be on, but my real life (the one that includes a job, steak, and beer) pretty much made the decision for me. I was one of them—an outsider. Yoga, the thing that helped me improve my life and inspired me to take this trip, wasn’t as chill as I thought it was. I guess every form of spirituality has its hang-ups.
I left the ashram after a week. That day in January feels like it was years ago at this point. The experience didn’t really improve my practice, but I still love yoga. I didn't need a week on an ashram to know that. That said, Sivananda did teach me a few things about perception and reality: One person’s ill-planned yoga vacation is another person’s ashram, which may or may not actually be a cult. It's probably a good idea to stay away from all three.