The first Sivananda TTC in Vietnam, a historical moment.
Seen through the eyes of a student, teacher, a karma yogini.
By Durga Devi, Nirmala, Theresa Tram
Seventy students from all over the world came together in Vietnam to participate in the first Teacher Training Course in Southeast Asia, in March 2010. Over the month the group was united as one as all pre-existing preconceptions and boundaries were broken down – a profound example of the True World Order of Swami Vishnudevananda.
Five years previously, Theresa Tram, had stepped to the microphone to introduce herself to her TTC group at the Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California. Instead of saying, “I want to be a yoga teacher” she was astonished to hear the words “I came here to bring Swami Sita back to Vietnam.” come from deep within her.
Sitting under tree
She was the first yoga student to come from Vietnam, originally not knowing that Swami Sitaramananda was Vietnamese born and had not been back to her country for 35 years. Therese’s words contained a vision and inspiration which was prophetic.
This vision materialized as students – bearing diverse sounding names- from 14 countries (Vietnam, Taiwan, Europe, United States, Japan, Australia, China, Canada, Great Britain, Singapore, Dubai and the Philippines) came forward to the microphone at the big yoga hall at the Wellness Center in Ba Thuong resort to introduce themselves. It was an emotional experience because everyone knew that something good and special was happening, not only because it was the first time, but also because they were staying on the very grounds that once were killing fields, in Cu Chi, famous for its hundreds of miles of tunnels undergrounds and for being the target of many battles, located strategically in between the Ho Chi MInh Trail entrance and Saigon.
Forty years before Cu Chi had been a place of tears for the people who died in this village – one quarter of the population of 200,000. This was once a so-called “white zone”, where no rice fields, trees, bushes or even a blade of grass was left. And here, on this very spot, the first Sivananda TTC was taking place, 15 minutes from the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. Surrounded by rice fields, the tropical manicured landscape is now breathtaking, with flowers, many banana, mango and palm trees and wonderful lotus ponds. It was as if the land, which had been dormant and waiting, was coming alive with the arrival of the yogis and their uplifting energy, pujas and blessings and healing mantra, Om Namo Narayanaya.
The preparation for this venture took years of hard work and diplomacy. The two swamis, Swami Sitaramananda, Swami Pranavananda and some of the staff arrived only a week before the TTC began, and set to work transforming the brand new buildings into an ashram. Within a week the big tiled dining
Yoga triangle pose
room had become a yoga and meditation hall with a beautiful altar with Om and Ganesha and pictures of the Gurus. Kitchen supplies and food were hauled from Ho Chi Minh City (previous Saigon) about an hour drive away and a dining space was created. A dusty, empty room was transformed into a welcoming boutique and a smaller yoga vacationer hall, a reception and an internet-space were also created.
About a week after the teaching began it was International Woman’s Day, an occasion not much celebrated in the West, but a big event in Asia. The altar had been beautifully prepared for a puja, adorned with tropical fruits of all kinds and 100 lotus blooms and sophisticated flower arrangements arrived to be offered one by one to the beloved Buddhist female deity, Quang Yin. The puja was followed by a procession in the grounds, with abhishekam and incense offerings to the large white marble statues of Quang Yin and of Mother Mary. Staff and almost all students, men and women, were dressed in colorful silk and shiny brocade traditional Vietnamese tunic “ao dai” to honor the country and its brave women and the Universal Shakti as Divine mother. Among the invited guests were the owner and creator of Ba Thuong, Mr. Kieu, whose father lives next door, a 101 year old silent man who has gone through the many decades of war – from French war to the American war. Several elderly ladies in their eighties, who came dressed for the occasion, also came as honored guests. Everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, yogis of all cultures and faiths, became part of this wonderful and inspiring International Woman’s Day puja.
From that day it was as if the grounds of Cu Chi carried a different energy. Students and teachers began talking about dreams and visions which they had experienced – Swami Vishnu-devananda smiling contently, waking in the middle of the night to the sound the daily chanting of Jaya Ganesha and the feeling of being softly touched.
The magic in the air was palpable; every participant felt and was part of this special energy. It was this group energy that carried the students through the month. For four weeks, each student was confronted daily with their own challenges between waking up at 5:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., when the day ended. For some it was the physical hardship of conquering certain asana poses, focusing the mind or working with the ego during the karma yoga tasks of cleaning toilets or sweeping floors. This would not have been possible without this special energy, the patient guidance of the swamis, asana teachers, karma yoga supervisors and the support among the students. After a while even the heat and humidity, the new, exotic unaccustomed vegetarian, Indian and Asian diet, the exhaustion that inevitable grows toward the end, were met with ease as the students became stronger by the day.
But not all aspects of yoga practice were greeted with equal willingness. The kriyas did not evoke much enthusiasm, especially amongst the more western students who struggled with this task. Neti, cleaning of the tongue, was no problem, but drinking all that lukewarm, salt water to clean the stomach by throwing up was too much! In spite of this everyone felt great respect for the teachers who had taught them each kriya.
Controlling the body and mind was put to the test each week, except on the free day when excursions were organized outside of the ashram. Students, swamis and teachers together were able to get a real taste for the Vietnamese culture. The Cu Chi tunnels and its booby traps, the war memorial and its thousands of names inscribed on golden plaques gave insight into the horrible war. A day was spent in Saigon visiting pagodas and museums displaying a rich, cultural, proud past of Vietnam. The foreign students who experienced the traffic in bustling city of 8 million people and
Asanas Posing at Cu Chi ashram
4 million motorbikes saw how the Vietnamese people are able to keep their calm, even amongst the worst chaos. A visit to the Cao Dai (a mixed religion of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) temple indicated the mixed influences in the history of the country and how the Vietnamese are able to harmonize and respect each other even with so many different religious beliefs.
There were two especially heartwarming events. The first were the special yoga lessons for the elderly yogi-volunteers, among them one old Vietnamese lady, aged 84. She took yoga for the first time in her life, which was taught with love and patience by the Vietnamese yoga teachers every morning at 8 o’clock. She learned it so quickly that she must have been a yogi in a previous life. “I am so happy,” she said. “Although yoga came so late in my life, I am so grateful.”
Second was hearing the young and earnest voices in Vietnamese, English, Chinese and Japanese, as the student recited in their own language “O Adorable Lord of Mercy and Love, Salutations and Prostrations unto Thee. Thou art Omnipresent, Omnipotent and Omniscient. Thou art Satchidananda”. This brought tears to many eyes.
On the evening of the graduation a bright navy blue sky hung over the ashram just before it turned dark, giving way to a spectacular thunderstorm which, during the ceremony, was literally shaking the grounds. The winds blew through the yoga hall, even opening up the wall behind the altar as the wind came rushing in. Rain was pouring down after months of no rain at all. Everyone saw this as an auspicious sign, a blessing and a goodbye from the elements.
Before departure, the two swamis and staff went around the grounds ringing bells, waving incense, blessing and purifying the land with peace mantras, at the same time saying thank you to these grounds that had given us all so much and with the hopes of returning very soon.
This first TTC in Southeast Asia was a historical moment in more than one way. It could not have been successful without the love and help of the Gurus and the ancestors. The love of Swami Sitaramananda, Swami Pranavananda, Thanh Son family in Vietnam and the love of all who came to Vietnam to participate with teaching, translating and volunteering. The outpouring of gratitude from the students at graduation showed that this initiative was more than a success – it was a blessing.
It united the Vietnamese and Americans, the Japanese and Chinese, the Dutch and Germans through Guru’s grace and vision. This was a true example of Swami Vishnudevananda’s teachings as we read in his Upadesa book: “Let us not fight. Let us bring this message of TWO: world brotherhood. He further said, “If we can live peacefully, respecting other’s wishes, other’s religions and other’s philosophies, and yet sticking to our own philosophy, our own religion, our faith, our way of life, this is beauty. This is called Unity in Diversity”.
For enquiries www.sivanandayogavietnam.org