THE ULTIMATE SOULFUL DESTINATION
On the banks of the Ganges, in the tranquil Himalayan foothills, Rishikesh is a renowned sanctuary for travellers seeking a deeper cultural understanding of northern India. Dawn Gibson follows in the footsteps of The Beatles, by studying yoga at one of the town’s many ashrams.
The fast pace and interconnected nature of modern life has made real relaxation more sought after than ever before, especially during our precious time off from the daily grind. It’s not surprising, then, that blissful mountain and country sanctuaries are overwhelmingly popular, welcoming thousands of stressed out city dwellers every year, enticed by the lure of a break from demanding emails and phone messages.
However, if you’re a cultured traveller bored of typical retreats, and keen for a more novel respite from the everyday, you might like to consider booking a stay at an ashram, an Indian centre for meditation, yoga and spiritual awakening, traditionally presided over by a religious guru and their disciples. However, be forewarned – this is not an option to enter into carelessly, as you may find it one of the most challenging travel experiences of your life, from both a physical and a mental point of view. That said, the number of people who return to India year after year to visit ashrams is a glowing testimony to the relevance of this ancient practice to our increasingly busy lives.
While there are countless ashrams throughout India, I was lured to Rishikesh in the northern state of Uttarakhand, the self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world. From New Delhi I took a 50-minute flight to Jolly Grant Airport (DED) at Dehradun, followed by a 20km taxi ride onwards to Rishikesh.
A pilgrim destination for centuries, The Beatles put Rishikesh on the adventure tourism map when they travelled to Northern India in February 1968 to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, writing much of the material for their legendary White Album during their stay.
Though the ashram that hosted the Fab Four is now in ruins, Rishikesh itself continues to thrive. The Hindu faithful flock to the banks of the Ganges at dawn and dusk to bathe in its soul cleansing waters, which are visibly much less polluted here than in towns downstream. Sadhus (holy men) in their distinctive bright orange robes sit watching passersby with eagle-sharp eyes, while sacred cows wander amongst the new age tourists and crowds of women bedecked in vivid, jewel-coloured saris. Numerous vegetarian restaurants and cafés line the river, named in honour of Buddha or Shiva, together with stalls selling decorated statues of gods in bronze, jade and plastic. Alcohol and meat are banned in Rishikesh.
One cannot wander far in Rishikesh without chancing upon signs advertising yoga classes of all variations – Hatha, Ashtanga, Bikram and the rest – catering to every skill level. If you just wish to dip your toe in, metaphorically speaking, classes are available at most of the hotels on a pay-as-you-go basis.
It is well worth investigating several ashrams personally before signing-up for a course, since the quality of accommodation and what’s on offer varies dramatically. One ashram I visited had rooms so spartan they could have been prison cells, with shared toilet facilities that any decent prisoners’ union would surely protest about. Another had a 4.30am daily wake up call, an experience I decided I could do without, while a third required two months’ written notice in advance. Some ashrams offer free classes, whilst others operate on a donation basis. Basically, it’s well worth doing some proper research before booking any course, and the Himalayan Yoga Academy is a good place to start www.yogaacademy.in/programs.
I chose a seven-day course, with meals and accommodation included, at Shri Sant Sewa Ashram near Lakshman Jhula, one of the two pedestrian bridges. The rooms are basic but clean and functional, with the largest sporting balconies overlooking the river, providing a prime viewing spot for the powerful and spiritually uplifting Ganga Aarti candle ceremony, every evening, as dusk descends.
My course included two hours of Hatha yoga each morning and evening, followed by an hour of meditation. Hatha yoga, a highly popular branch of the ancient practice, was developed in the 15th century, drawing on traditions that go back to at least 200 BC. Asanas (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are used to bring balance and peace to the mind and body, as well as preparing the body for deeper spiritual practices such as meditation. (The word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’, referring to both the union of an individual with the universe as a whole, and the union of mind, body and spirit). Yogis claim each asana has specific health benefits, ranging from improving digestion to reducing aches and pains, and even curing sexual problems.
While I had taken a few yoga classes in the past, it did little to prepare me for the intensity of my first day at the ashram. Even though the classes were advertised as ‘beginners’ yoga’, my body protested mightily as yogi Kamal Pandey encouraged me to manoeuvre spine and limbs through ‘the camel’, ‘the cobra’ and ‘the mountain’. After four hours of practice, I was unsure which part of me was more fatigued. So, it was almost inevitable that the following meditation session was a bit of a failure. Instead of closing my eyes and taking a mental journey to a temple to meet God, as I was supposed to be doing, I was soon dozing on my mat. When I eventually opened my eyes, I was secretly pleased that I had not been the only one to have nodded off in our small group of eight participants. I also wondered if the vegetarian diet would be enough to sustain my body until the end of the week, as I thought longingly of the fat steak and glass of red wine I had consumed the day before I flew to India!
There were more tests of endurance to come. In keeping with Hatha yoga’s philosophy of bodily purification, I was expected to perform morning rituals that escalated in difficulty. The first purification ritual almost had me heading for the door. Dr Pandey, a wiry man in his thirties who had been teaching yoga and naturopathy for over a decade, explained that he wanted us to ‘give back his water’. This meant swallowing as many cups of warm salty water as the stomach would allow, and then vomiting the mixture back up. This process was intended to cleanse the digestive system. Although it sounds absolutely revolting, the ritual became more palatable as the days went by – yes, really. I found the initial revulsion faded with repetition, especially as one was performing this on an empty stomach.
While I never really got to grips with the rituals, the asanas did get easier, and I found my flexibility improve to a level I had not experienced since I was a teenager. I even did a back arch – something I thought I would never do – and as packed to depart, I looked visibly healthier and slimmer.
Upon leaving the ashram, back into the bustle of Rishikesh’s streets with their cows and sadhus, I vowed I would return. It had definitely been a different sort of travel adventure, quite literally a world away from the tropical beaches I usually opted for when I wanted to unwind, but I had reached a level of relaxation that I had never previously experienced.