From Madonna to Enlightenment

Discovering conscious clarity and peace through Sivananda yoga

My first exposure to yoga was, if I’m honest, through Madonna. I was 14 when the American pop icon relaunched herself as an earth mother with her Ray of Light album, attributing her new impressive, toned physique to the “Ashtanga” form of the practice. In pursuit of a similar set of triceps, I tried yoga in a handful of different gym classes at home in London, and like most Westerners I understood it purely as a form of exercise, and an unsatisfactory one at that.

It wasn’t until I started taking classes with a teacher that had trained in India that I truly began to comprehend what yoga is. Unlike the gym classes I had taken before, these began with 30 minutes of breathing (“pranayama”) and relaxation, while throughout the instructor talked about visualizing our past, present and future through postures, or “asanas.” Soon I learned that yoga is not about getting ripped arms at all, but a holistic practice designed to bring body, mind and spirit into harmony.

Originally practiced by holy men in India thousands of years ago, at its core yoga practitioners seek to connect with God through discipline and religious devotion. The spiritual element is often lost on foreigners, however it is something that Hanh Nguyen, a Saigon native, connected with strongly on her visit to India. “A few years ago I visited Mayapur in north-east India and I stayed in The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. There I learned a lot about Krishna Consciousness, mainly about the existence of God, and I learned how to practice by chanting the Maha mantra.”

Yoga For The Masses: Sivananda Yoga
Chanting forms a central part of any holistic yoga practice, whether it be just the simple “om” mantra (thought to be the universal sound of existence) or full verses of Sanskrit devotions. I practiced both during my visit to the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, South India this year, which is part of a network founded by one of India’s foremost yoga gurus, Swami Sivananda. In the 1960s he and his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda sought to spread the word of yoga throughout the world, and Sivananda Yoga is now practiced in nearly 40 venues globally.

Set among tropical forest at the mouth of a breathtaking lake, at the Neyyar Dam ashram I took part in three hours of meditation and chanting (“satsang”), four hours of asana practice and one hour of “karma yoga,” or community service, every day. I also attended regular lectures on the Swami’s and the finer points of yoga philosophy. Indeed, far from the place of idol rumination and gentle stretching I had formerly imagined an ashram to be, here I was absorbed in activity from 5:30am—summoned by a shrill morning bell—until lights out at 10:30pm.

This was a gruelling schedule and one that I yo-yoed between love and hatred for on an almost hourly basis. However, through the fatigue I felt a connection with myself that Hang—a yoga practitioner as well as a spiritual enquirer—describes as a “smooth flow that runs from top to toe—a wonderful feeling.” Intent on capturing this indescribable flow and mental clarity once again, upon returning to Ho Chi Minh City I joined the Sivananda Vedanta Center in Tan Dinh.

Oi VietNam - Indian Yoga - May 2018 - IMG_6704

India To Vietnam: Yoga In Translation
The format of the asana classes at the Sivananda Ho Chi Minh City center are similar to those in India; each 90 minute session beginning with relaxation, chanting and pranayama before moving into asanas and finishing with a well earned period of lying very still on the floor. Unlike their new venue in Dalat, though, the HCMC center is not an ashram. Members can attend satsang on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, but they are free to come and go as they please, slotting the practice into their daily lives.

Seeking to get a sense of the work that the Sivananda community does here I spoke to Ganga Chaitanya, director of the center. Born in Saigon, Ganga (her yogic name) discovered Sivananda yoga while living and studying in the US and has been involved with the Ho Chi Minh City house since its establishment in 2011. She is a strong believer in the benefits of Sivananda yoga for Vietnamese people— who accounts for 70 percent of the center’s visitors—especially those that live in hectic Ho Chi Minh City:

“Vietnamese, especially women, are strong, and we are very busy and active people. Our ambition at the Sivananda center is to try to bring people to have more awareness of their health and happiness and how they can get more peaceful, while still living their lives. We teach what we can: from yoga for children to pain management to singing. People can change the way they feel through yoga, especially how they respond to stress and anger.”

As a case in point, Ganga gives an example of a local woman who arrived at the center raging that the trial class wasn’t starting at the time she wanted. However, so inspired was she by the calm way in which the staff responded to her screaming and shouting that she came back at the right time anyway. She is now a regular attendee and, apparently, a changed woman. This, says Ganga, is the goal for the staff at the center—all of which volunteer to manage the household and provide classes while deepening their own practice and understanding.

This, perhaps, neatly encapsulates the true spirit of yoga: service, dedicated practice and devotion to a higher form of consciousness. According to Ganga, it is only through living in harmony with the people and the natural world around us that we can truly come to understand where we fit into it. And it is only through communing with our own minds and bodies that we can come to see our path and walk it as we strive towards the ultimate goal of yoga, if not all religions: self-realization.

To find out more about the Sivananda Vedanta Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, or the Sivananda Ashram in Dalat, visit: And for information on Sivananda centers in India, visit:

Images by Vy Lam

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