“The key to success is to keep growing in all areas of life – mental, emotional, spiritual, as well as physical.” – Julius Erving
Rishikesh, India, was meant to provide a “soft landing” for my India travels. After a few days in New Delhi, I had planned on meeting a friend in Rishikesh to spend a couple of weeks at a yoga ashram. On the agenda were daily yoga classes, meditation and some introspection. If you will, a beauty spa for body, mind and spirit. However, I’d end up making the trip solo as my friend had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances.
Choosing a quick arrival over frugality, I bypassed the 8 hour bus ride from Delhi to Rishikesh in favour of a 1 hour flight into nearby Dehradun. The spiritual significance of Rishikesh was readily apparent in the airline waiting area with numerous people dressed from head to toe in white linen clothing. Rishikesh has the scenic backdrop to match its holy reputation. The Himalayan mountains bear hugs the sacred town while the turquoise waters of the Ganga (Ganges River) flow through the town centre pumping life and inspiration to those around her.
Before leaving Canada, I met an Indian man and asked him what Rishikesh was like and his reply was:
You want to go to holy places? If you go there, you will find peace.
Regarded as one of the holiest places in the country, this small town (population just over 100,000) is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas of northern India where thousands pilgrimage to every year to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga. It’s believed that the sacred waters of the Ganga have power to purify by washing away one’s sins.
Credited as the birthplace of yoga, Rishikesh is often referred to as a spiritual Disneyland for Westerners ever since the Beatles came and stayed in the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in 1968. Swarms of tourists descend on this small town daily looking for enlightenment starter kits to jump start their spiritual journey. However, I did meet many people that ended up staying longer than originally planned. Some stayed a few extra months while others have been here for years. While for some it may be escapism, but for others, it was undeniable that they had found a nugget of peace that centered their person. I couldn’t fully understand it, but I was envious.
Regarded as the world capital of yoga, Rishikesh was home to countless yoga and meditation ashrams. I braced myself for swarms of burnt out hippies and enlightenment dilettantes greeting me with patronizing and disingenuous pleasantries of “Namaste”. However, I committed to keeping an open mind to allow myself the opportunity to sample a new menu of experiences. Prior to visiting India, I had only taken a couple of yoga classes back in Canada. With marketing machines often presenting yoga as exercise and sport, my first yoga experiences were detracted by my need to fit in and keep up.
First yoga class
A sense of incredulity slapped me in the face as I awoke to attend my 6:00 am yoga class at the ashram. In the dark of morning, I could feel the biting cold winds sweeping off the Himalayas. Only head nods were offered as greetings to other yoga participants since the ashram observes silence from 9:00 pm until after breakfast the next morning.
Nervous like a child attending their first day of kindergarten, I was expecting to see Cheech and Chong clad in Lululemon. Instead, I walked into a dark room with people wrapped in blankets and some even wearing ski jackets due to the morning cold. Combined with the solemn atmosphere, the morning Akhanda yoga felt more like “combat” yoga.
After a series of breathing exercises, everyone curled up into “child’s” pose to chant three “Om’s”. At that point, I expected Kumbaya to be on the playlist as well. The first “Om” belted out by about 60 people burst through my torso like a sonic boom. I almost laughed with giddiness. Like a pin popping a balloon or compressed gas being released, a soothing sense of relief rippled through me.
We next moved into chanting mantras. I let go of the urge to judge the unknown and mumbled along. I started to recognize and mimic the verses after about 5 minutes of chanting. It’s believed that there is healing and knowledge found within the rhythms and vibrations of the chants. But in practical terms, I found the chanting to replace all the unavailing thoughts I generally have, such as what’s on the breakfast menu or whether I have enough money in my bank account to sustain me. For all intents and purposes, the chanting gave me a reprieve from my own mind. Just try chanting and think of something else at the same time. It’s impossible!
We didn’t engage any series of yoga poses until about 15 minutes into the class. Most of the poses were seemingly simple with variations to add difficulty. To my surprise, I woke up the next morning feeling like I had spent an inordinate amount of time on a bench press and squat rack.
From my understanding, postures weren’t added to the yoga tradition until much later in its history. The original purpose of yoga, in layman’s terms was to be the best person that one could possibly be, through an internal query of mind, body and senses. Postures were later added to strengthen the body in order to extend this inner search for a longer period of time.
In retrospect, my initial assessment of the class being “combat” yoga wasn’t that far off, except that the fight was within me.
Each of the yoga classes that I participated in had a “lesson” or “purpose” attached to it. For example, in one class, yogi Vishva referenced how many people, despite having a strong commitment to a goal, continue to fall short of reaching their objectives. He indicated that there were limiting subconscious elements that prevented us from completing our goals. The focus of that day’s class was to explore this issue. Despite being a bit abstract for my palate, it was a concept that I certainly related to.
Vishva often taught the classes with much humour and whimsy. He often encouraged the class to “breathe happy”. As obscure as this sounded, I intuitively understood what he meant. Many of the teachings were like this: slightly cryptic to my brain, but understood by my heart.
I attended a graduation ceremony at the ashram for a group of students who just finished their yoga teacher’s training. One of the guest speaker’s was a woman from Mumbai and considered to be one of India’s first supermodels. She told her story of how she walked away from her career at its peak to study yoga full time. Thought insane by her choice, she stayed committed to this way of life. Years later she wound up in a coma from a car accident. She shared of how deeply rooted her yoga teachings were and how they eventually helped to rehabilitate her from almost scratch after the coma. It was an inspiring story that stayed with me.
I left that graduation ceremony with a new found respect for those who choose this way of life. Extreme discipline is required as all components of one’s life are deemed inter-connected. The body is meant to be nourished as much as the mind and soul. Meditation is meant to be performed at the same time daily. What you eat matters: chili dogs and donuts have no place in this lifestyle.
For reference, I stayed at the Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram and participated in their residential program which offers accommodations, 3 daily vegetarian meals and 2 daily yoga classes for a donation of 1100 Rupees ($22 CAD) per day. You can also participate in the ashram’s daily Agni Hotra fire puja ceremonies and Kirtan chantings. Alternatively you could omit the meals and pay only 800 Rupees ($16) or find your own accommodations and attend the yoga classes on a pay per visit basis. Silence is observed in the ashram from 9:00 pm until the next morning until after breakfast. Accommodations weren’t available for me inside the ashram itself as I arrived during the week of the Holi festival holiday but was provided a room at a neighbouring guesthouse. The ashram also offers yoga teacher training as well.
People from all walks of life with varying reasons attend the ashram. While I was there, a significant portion of the guests were there for yoga teacher training while most others were there toiling in their own spiritual journeys. The most difficult part of attending the ashram as a solo traveller and an introvert was finding my place amongst the people. Initially, I felt like the kid picked last for dodge ball but eventually I was forced to say the five scariest words while on the road: “Hi, my name is Wayne.”
The people were no different than I. We all want to find our slice of peace and joy. But more importantly, I found that the people at the ashram were just as ready to share it. Regardless of your background and reasons for attending the ashram, the staff and people of Anand Prakash will make you feel welcome.
I didn’t appreciate the beauty and tranquillity of Rishikesh until after I left. With the chaos and challenges of India, Rishikesh is a welcomed nirvana. Upon leaving Rishikesh, I can’t say that I’ve found peace or have any desire to be a yogi. However, I know that I can always “breathe happy” whenever I want.
“Self-awareness is not self-centeredness, and spirituality is not narcissism. ‘Know thyself’ is not a narcissistic pursuit.” – Marianne Williamson
Have you ever stayed at an ashram or took a yoga class during your travels in India or elsewhere? If so, I’d love to hear your experience.