The transition began with teacher training followed by live-in volunteer (‘karma’) work at the Los Angeles and San Francisco Sivananda centres. After approval came from senior teachers and board members, Pranavananda made a vow and accepted the Swami title.
“It’s similar to being a nun or priest, except you dress normally in public,” he explains. “It’s not about sticking out or giving up who you are, but you do give up your life and you don’t get married.”
Currently, he spends most of his time at the Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California, but he visits the Vietnam centre at least once per year.
Peacefully and discretely situated on a wide and developing street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan is Sivananda Yoga Centre. The four-storey house serves as a home for volunteer yogis who teach and live at the centre. It’s also a short-term residence for tourists, expats and locals as well as a simple, warm and vibrant space for casual yoga practitioners who seek a sensible, spiritually-oriented and lifestyle-based approach to this popular physical activity.
Ganga Nguyen, live-in volunteer yogi and Sivananda Ho Chi Minh City centre manager, says, “This is a good place for tourists and expats to stay to feel relaxed and protected in a balanced environment.”
The Saigon location opened in 2011, but it’s part of a large network headquartered in the Laurentian Mountains, one hour north of Montréal, Canada.
A Brief Background
In 1957, a cheerful and determined Indian man named Swami Vishnudevananda (aka Swamiji) landed on US shores without any knowledge of the culture or language. He had been a student and follower of Swami Sivananda, a famous top-caste medical doctor turned spiritual leader and writer. His mission: expose post-war North America to an accessible and grounded yogic lifestyle. The five points of the Sivananda lifestyle were simplified as much as possible for the masses: proper exercise (yoga asanas), trained breathing, effective relaxation, a structured vegetarian diet and positive thinking and meditation.
In 1959, Swamiji opened the first centre and current headquarters. Currently, there are more than 29 centres, nine ashrams and many affiliated centres that have aided in the education of 33,000+ yoga instructors via teacher training courses and live-in volunteer teaching programmes.
Gym Yoga versus Sivananda Yoga
“Yoga at the gym focuses on muscle-building and flexibility,” says Ganga. “There’s no focus on shifting one’s consciousness. It’s more like showing off and competition, which is all ego. We try to teach self-awareness here.”
Understandably, it can be tricky to teach and learn an all-encompassing mind-body-spirit practice in less than an hour near workout rooms with booming club music. This is why the Sivananda philosophy stresses the twelve basic postures with sensible variations that cut out the unattainable human pretzel act. The point is to efficiently integrate breathing, concentration and relaxation, as well as physical strength and flexibility.
In 2009, Ganga was 21 years old and working in Ohio for Six Flags, an American amusement park corporation. This foothold gave her a chance to travel around the US and improve her English.
When her visa came close to expiring, her parents encouraged her to use the last month in America to become a yoga teacher. As avid travellers who enjoy trips and retreats of a new-age nature, Ganga trusted their advice and headed to the Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California.
After volunteering at the Cu Chi training course, as well as at the centres in Grass Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, she was chosen to manage the Ho Chi Minh City location when it opened in 2011.
One Expat’s Solution to Burnout
It’s a true story and we’ll call her Warren — yes, she has a boy’s name and she knows it. Warren had been working in Ho Chi Minh City for a few months and was trying to acclimate to the city’s hustle while taking on hefty and high-demand work ventures.
For a while, it was possible to mask the growing overstimulation with cheap beer and quirky conversation on Bui Vien. However, extreme fatigue and stress were showing via baggy eyes and dramatic hair loss (the latter leading to a constant burning scalp sensation). After several visits to both foreign and Vietnamese doctors had proved fruitless, she took the plunge and opted for a lifestyle makeover. However, this wasn’t ushered in with tickles, giggles and tofu. Then again, meaningful and lasting change never is.
“[Yoga residents] are usually more serious with their spiritual practice because they must follow a lot of rules. We don’t just take anyone,” says Ganga.
The daily routine began at 5.30am to a ringing bell and the Sanskrit mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya”. Once 6am hit, Warren sat cross-legged listening to guidance on how to observe breathing patterns and visualise the brow chakra — her third eye, the gate that leads to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness.
This lasted for 30 minutes. Satsang ended the silence (the singing of Sanskrit chants and mantras). The morning meditation session concluded at 7.30am, quickly transitioning to the day’s first yoga class. Yoga ended at 9am, leaving a few hours for a nap.
Sleep was hard to come by amidst the changes Warren was going through. When her restlessness persisted, she’d lie in bed with books about meditation and yoga positions, or she’d get up and do karma yoga (volunteer work that included upkeep around the centre). Lunchtime was at noon and everything was vegetarian, without eggs or onions. Nevertheless, the food was always carby and tasty.
Her full-time job began in the afternoon, meaning that she sometimes missed out on group activities and special classes like ayurvedic healing, positive thinking and yoga for beginners (working during her stay was an inadvisable, if necessary, burden). Regardless, the final results were that Warren’s hair began to grow back, she became healthier and more fit than she’d ever been in her life, and she learned how to effectively relax and clear out unproductive brain clutter.
Ganga says, “I feel like many of our residents leave feeling calmer and happier. Their viewpoint often changes with a better focus on health and functional routines.”
For those interested in the live-in residency program, the application process consists of filling out a registration form and communicating with staff about details and compatibility. It’s possible to stay for just a few days, but the best package economically and educationally is to stay for at least one month.
“It’s not only yoga, meditation and vegetarian food at a cheap price,” Ganga says, “but there are rules that we all follow to start and maintain self-control, discipline and good habits. If you’re serious and sincere, we can see it.”
For those interested in daily classes, don’t fret because they’re casual and more laid back. Also, note that a new Sivananda location has opened in Dalat and may end up serving as an informal year-round yoga retreat — or rehab.
Sivananda Yoga Centre is located at 25 Tran Quy Khoach, Q1. For yoga course information, residency programme registration forms and contact information, visit sivanandayogavietnam.org