Turns out, Madurai is just a giant, dirty city. A giant, dirty city that is home to one of the most beautiful temples in India, the Meenakshi Amman Temple, drawing locals and tourists to stop over while visiting Southern India. A religious center of the Tamil Nadu area, it was given the name Athens of the East, and while I've never been to Greece, I want to say people describe it in a similar way: dirty. The Meenakshi Amman Temple, however, was gorgeous and definitely worth staying in Tamil Nadu's third largest city.
We arrived in the middle of the night, as it goes with all of India transportation, and showed up at our hotel around 4am. We had called the day before to alert them of our non-conventional arrival time and even booked the hotel for the previous night to ensure there weren’t any issues checking in. When we arrived, the doors were locked and no one was responding to our incessant knocks. Our tuk-tuk driver was amazing and stayed with us the whole time, even when someone finally opened the door, allowing us to peek inside just enough to see people sleeping on the floors, only to have it slammed in our faces telling us no booking. No booking? WTF!?
I was tired, hungry. and furious. Bad combination. I banged on the door until someone opened it again, showed him our confirmation, and walked inside without an invitation. After several undecipherable comments, we were finally taken to our room, where we had to step over people sleeping in the hall way to get by. Brian and I were so tired we didn’t even think twice about it. We fell asleep, woke up, and switched hotels in the morning. PS. You may want to think twice before staying at Hotel Radhakrishna in Madurai.
The highlight of our stay in Madurai was hands down the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Dedicated to Parvati (Meenakshi is an avatar of Parvati), Shiva's consort (what a strong name!), the Temple was nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and attracts over 15,000 visitors a day. The structure of the temple outlines the heart and lifeline of this ancient city and is seen as the pinnacle of Southern Indian architecture. Brian and I were blown away, not only by the sheer magnitude of the space, but the beauty and sacred environment that captured us from the moment we stepped foot inside.
When we had decided to spend a couple days here to sort out the money issue, I planned on taking the opportunity to visit the Meenakshi Ashram since I wasn’t able to go to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry.
I had always planned on visiting an Ashram while in India and had hoped to go to Parmath Niketan in Rishikesh, but since we didn't make it there this trip, I went with Meenakshi even though I didn't know much (or anything) about Sivananda Yoga. I had read great things about it, so for the first time in three and a half months, Brian and I separated. The plan was for Brian to work in Madurai, (and figure out the ATM situation) while I spent four nights at Meenakshi. It was only an hour north of the city and accessible by public government buses so if I hated it, it would be fairly easy to retreat back into town.
There are different housing options to choose from: single room, shared room, or dormitory. I, of course, had no choice, and landed in the dormitory (with no hot water, something I was somewhat used to by now). The whole experience was pushing me out of my comfort zone, but it was exactly what I was seeking.
We eventually found a local bus that was headed in that direction and started the journey. Taking a public bus vs a private AC charter bus is a whole different experience. It's crowded, it's hot, it's loud, and it's awesome! We stood the whole way as the bus jerked us around for an hour and a half. It didn’t matter how full the bus was, we just kept picking up more people. But, you know what? It only cost 20 rupees each (not joking, that's about thirty cents)!
When we finally arrived, with the help of almost everyone on the bus, it felt like we had gone through a warp zone into a tropical paradise. It was beautiful! There were no signs of city life whatsoever. As we approached the ashram, my stomach was in knots. I was already nervous and tacking on going solo just added to my uneasiness. My biggest concerns were 1) what if I can’t do it, and 2) will they feed me enough food?
The first time I sat down for a meal my heart sank because the pictures above was what we were served. Thankfully, my karma yoga was favoring me because before I was finished I noticed the staff would come around to refill your plate. Not to mention, the food was delicious. The ashram shys away from salts and oils, but somehow all the food was delicious and flavorful. The only issue was you were hungry again thirty minutes after eating. Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, no, I did not lose weight. If anything, I gained some. Typical.
Here is what a basic day at Meenaskhi Ashram looked like:
- 05:20 - The morning bell goes off
- 06:00 - Morning Satsang (meditation and chanting)
- 07:30 - Tea time
- 08:00 - Yoga
- 10:00 - Brunch (sitting on the floor, eaten in silence, and using your hands)
- 11:00 - Karma Yoga (working at the Ashram, I was assigned cleaning the main auditorium twice and cleaning the bathrooms and showers once)
- 12:30 - Optional asana coaching
- 13:30 - Tea time
- 14:00 - Lecture with Swami
- 16:00 - Yoga
- 18:00 - Dinner (sitting on the floor, eaten in silence, and using your hands)
- 20:00 - Evening Satsang
- 22:00 - Lights out
Overall, my experience with the ashram was great. The only downside was I didn’t love the yoga. The Sivananda method is based on five principles aiming for optimal health and spiritual growth. The principles are as follows:
- Proper exercise (Asana, focusing on 12 postures listed below)
- Proper breathing (Pranayama, specifically Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma)
- Proper relaxation (Savasana, which is taken between every posture)
- Proper diet (vegetarian, the moto is "eat to live, don't live to eat." This should have been my first sign!)
- Positive thinking (Vedanta) and meditation (Dhyana)
Now for the yoga. Like I was saying, this was the only part of my stay that I was disappointed in. I’m not sure what I was expecting really. Obviously. I knew it wouldn’t be Stephanie Snyder’s Sunday class at Yoga Flow but I did expect a little variety for four hours of yoga every day for four days in a row (and for most people two weeks!). But, there wasn’t. Not one small variation. Every day, twice a day, we followed this exact sequence below. Oh, and the way the teachers taught the classes drove me crazy. I know the intention is to keep from distraction, but there is only so much of monotone and drawn out, "inhaaaaaaaale now exxxxxxhaaaaaaale" one can take. I still hear those voices in my sleep sometimes (no offense).
Every class began in Savasana. Afterwards we went into our pranayama exercises, first Kapalabhati followed by Anuloma Viloma. I felt like I was going to faint every time. Is it normal to be able to hold your breath for ninety seconds? Once again, we were back in Savasana, preceded by a warm up of several rounds of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations) except they weren't the sun salutations I was used to. They were all very static movements.
After warming up with these strange variation of sun salutations, the focus was on the mastery of the twelve basic poses in the following order (and don't forget Savasana in between every single pose; I just didn't feel like typing it out):
2. Shoulder Stand
5. Seated Forward Bend
9. Seated Spinal Twist
10. Crow or Peacock
11. Standing Forward Bend
I welcomed the structure and discipline of the whole experience, but I will definitely choose a different ashram for my next stay. There are two options at Sivananda, the Teacher Training Program and the Yoga Vacation (800 rupees a day). Since I didn’t have time to complete another TTC, I chose the Yoga Vacation. They recommend two weeks but at minimum three nights. By the way, the use of vacation is extremely misleading (I knew this prior to arriving) but wanted to put it out there. Don’t expect a yoga retreat as that is not what the ashram offers. The 800 rupees a day includes a bed in the dorm, a mosquito net and bedding, and everything in the itineraries provided above.
There were many times that I was tempted to skip practice which wasn't enforced but frowned upon by the ashram if you didn’t attend. I ended up attending all the activities every day because I kept telling myself this was why I was there. I wanted to embrace it fully, even if I didn’t love it. So, will I be back again? Like I said, most likely no. Although I haven’t closed the doors to all ashrams, I just need to find the one that suits me best.
Meanwhile, back in Madurai, Brian has spent the last four days waiting in lines at ATMs. He’s made friends with locals that line up every day with him, only to be disappointed to find out there won’t be a money delivery. He was successful one day and took out the maximum of 2,000 rupees. He found his favorite chai stall and even discovered a delicious restaurant that accepted credit cards (which he ate at every single day).
Brian was supposed to come pick me up so on the bus as neither of us wanted me to take a public bus alone. A friend at the ashram was heading to Madurai (Hi Ever!) in an attempt to exchange money, so we came back together and met Brian at the bus station.
One day, as we were walking back to the hotel in the afternoon, we saw a rush of people chasing after a truck and we quickly realized it was the money truck! We quickly joined the group and then rejoiced in high fives all around as we all were successful in retrieving cash. While the whole money crisis was a huge inconvenience and somewhat of a scary situation, the camaraderie that came out among the locals and tourists was incredible to be a part of.
Brian had made friends with a couple tourists during the ATM dilemma (which spoiler alert, never ended during the rest of our stay in India) and one of them, Peter from Germany, ended up becoming a great friend and travel buddy as we all decided to travel together to Munnar the next morning.
Next up, fresh air and stolen shoes in Munnar!