26 September – 1 October 2011
Rishikesh – the self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world!
It’s also where the Beatles famously did their zoning out with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Widely regarded as the band’s most productive period, they wrote 48 songs between them during their stay here, many of which appear on their famous ‘White Album.’
For Hindus, Rishikesh is a holy place. Lying at the foot of the Himalayas, it is the point where the Ganges river leaves the mountains to begin its journey through the plains of Northern India. Meditating here is said to bring one closer to moksha – or “release” from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Pilgrims still come, and we saw them. Each day they walk up to into the jungle to collect water from a temple up in the mountains, and carry it down to the statue of Shiva, jutting out from the river itself.
But that’s not why we went there. Well, not exactly. Chris chose India as one of our 5 countries. And when I hear India, I think of a few things…and yoga is definitely one of them. Could it be India’s most famous and enduring export? What a chance to learn this ancient health regime at its source! And anyway, I love stretching…and had been struggling (without success) to get Chris to do more of it.
I did lots of research and settled on Rishikesh Yog Peeth. It wasn’t religious. It’s teaching were accredited by the International Yoga Alliance. And besides two classes a day, you were free to come and go as you please. Much better than actual ashrams, which Chris started referring to as “yoga prisons”, and was adamant that “I don’t want anyone trying to convert me.” It also included two massages each, which was a real bonus.
So, bright and early – our daily routine in Rishikesh began as thus:
7:00 – 8:30 Yoga Asana
17:00 -18:30 Yoga Asana
5:45am Wake-up with the dawn
Part I: Drink one glass warm cinnamon tea
Part II: Pour warm saltwater down your nose using something called a neti pot. Tilt your head to one side, open your mouth and water magically flows down one nostril and out the other. Lots of snot follows and you have to really blow strong puffs of air out afterwards to clear it all out + it isn’t at all attractive, but you do feel very clear afterwards. Good for allergy sufferers like me!
7:00 – 8:30am Yoga
Up on top of the roof was our long yoga studio. A few ants would usually join you on your mat, to marvel at how badly you were doing the pose. Monkeys sometimes peered in through the windows too, or pounded across the roof as they jumped from one building to the next.
Our teacher was a rather small man, who nevertheless had a sort of macho persona. He always wore a white tank top and red shorts. He’d mastered many impossible poses and was obviously incredibly flexible and strong. Yet bizarrely, he had no muscle definition whatsoever.
When I first learned yoga in San Francisco, I was led to believe it was all about doing the poses correctly and slowly, progressing little by little in your own time. But this guy meant business. His approach was to push you to the breaking point.
“Higher!” “MORE HIGH!!” he would bellow at us daily. It annoyed me a bit, as Chris was an absolute beginner and you can over do it. But Chris being Chris, he tried his best without complaint.
But the teacher wasn’t that bad. He would smile at times when it was obvious you were struggling, and would come by to modify your pose. And if I learned one thing from it, it was the series of poses known as the ‘Sun Salute.’ He’d have us do 20 or 30 of these each session, and we’d all work up a sweat. It was good exercise and something I could see myself doing in future.
All our meals were prepared on-site. We were the only people there besides one other French woman, so we had a waiter practically to ourselves, and I got to know him pretty well. He’d wear t-shirts with funny phrases on them like: “Don’t Bug Me, Hug Me.” At first he was shy, but little by little he opened up.
All the meals were vegetarian, and all were delicious.
For breakfast, I always ordered a porridge (oatmeal) that the cook made special for me with banana, raisins and cinnamon. Lunch was usually very simple, yet good.
But dinner was what we looked forward to all day…we had the best curries, with the traditional flatbread (chipati) and cumin (jeera) rice. Masala tea or lemon ginger tea were also popular with us. In fact, the food was so good…I don’t think we had any sweets all week and I didn’t even notice!
After breakfast, I’d shower. Cold water only. Oh yes!
Now this would have been much more pleasant had our shower time been just after our yoga course. But breakfast was always promptly after class, so our shower was always after we’d already cooled down. I opted for the traditional Indian method of using a bucket of water – where you pour ladles of water over yourself. It meant the water was on your body for less time = you were less frozen.
The rooms were Spartan. Clean, yet simple. We had a fan overhead and windows overlooking the village and the mountains in the distance.
17:00 -18:30 More Yoga
We’d end our days with yoga. And just as the sun was setting, we’d be doing our last deep breathing, followed by three ‘Om’ chants. The chants were my least favourite part of the yoga classes. I always ran out of breathe before everyone else and I didn’t really see the point of them. But it was part of it, and a memorable part at that.
But my most vivid memory was the pain…each day, we became more and more sore. The first few days we could hardly walk or raise our arms. Yet, we’d have to keep to the schedule of 3 hours of yoga per day. Everyone would josh around about it, saying we’d be better by day 4. But then our yogi would just increase the difficultly. However, I have to say that we did feel amazing after that week was over.
All in all – Rishikesh was a peaceful place that was the perfect introduction into India. Feeling energy in our bodies, and mountain air in our lungs…we’d spend our free time strolling through the village and surrounds.
Rishikesh was divided into two parts. We were in Swargashram – the less touristy area whose focal point was the large Shiva statue & temple in the Ganges down by the bathing area of the river. There were lots of real ashrams there, where families and pilgrims would stay.
There were also lots of holy men or sadhus, sitting along the road. They wore orange and were bare-chested. A kind of wandering monk, many are also yogis. There are an estimated 4-5 million sadhus in India. They live in forests, temples and caves, having denounced all material and personal attachments. They are respected for their holiness and feared for their curses. Pilgrims gave them food, which they shared with the monkeys.
I myself had a short introduction into the Hindu religion courtesy of one of the guys from the Yoga Peeth. He used to be a Hare Krishna and had the characteristic shaved head with one short sprout of hair left on top the size of a doll’s ponytail. He explained that it was Durga Puja, a celebration of 6 days of praying and fasting in honour of the goddess Devi Purga. I, along with Sophie – the only other guest – was invited and attended one ceremony.
The shrine room was on the roof. Me, Sophie (the French guest) and a few of the staff sat cross-legged on the floor. The priest, dressed completely in peach, chanted in Sanskrit for at least an hour. All the while, the Hare Krishna guy helped prepare the various rituals which all revolved around a small bronze statue of the goddess. The goddess was washed with yoghurt, flower, honey and finally water. She was dressed as a doll. She was offered many kinds of food. We all received red bracelets made of string and a red bindi in the middle of our forehead, with rice on top. At the end, a conch shell was blown. The small offerings of food were mixed into larger quantities of the same and we were all invited to partake. Those strictly observing the 6 days of celebrations only eat this special food, and only after a ceremony. There is one each day, but at different times of day and night. The whole thing was mesmerizing, and incredibly complicated. Chris wasn’t the least bit interested to attend, but I found it a fascinating insight into the devotional aspects of Indian life.
But most days in Rishikesh, Chris and I would wander through the narrow passageways lined with shops selling spiritual books, Hindi music and traditional dress. There were a couple shops for tourists selling yoga mats and clothing. I picked up a few more harem trousers and some more traditional tunic-type tops, as in India women are supposed to dress more conservatively. Tops should be long and cover both the shoulders and bum. Skirts or trousers should be below the knee. Normally, I don’t give a rat’s a** about such things, but being in someone’s holy place, I really didn’t want to offend. Nor did I want to draw any more attention to myself than I already did. Like China, the locals had already begun asking me to take photos with them.
One day, we walked to the Ram Jhula bridge, another area of Rishikesh about 20 minutes away by foot. The road was the main avenue used by the daily pilgrimage to the Ganges from the mountain temple, and it was lined with little stalls selling snacks, powder of all colours used for making the bindi dots on the forehead, and other adornments. We had some delicious chickpea and potato cake at one.
In Ram Jhula, there stood a HUGE temple. Pilgrims would walk around each level, ringing bells along the way. Like the bridge at Swargashram, this one was again crowded with people, motorcycles, cows and monkeys. The combined affect was a bit insane, but you sure felt alive and awake in such a place.
Another 45 minutes past the bridge is a path that leads to a waterfall. We trekked our way there, following the Ganges further into the mountainous jungle. At yet another bridge, we asked a local taxi driver and he pointed us to the path. There was a small temple at its entrance, with a Sadhu sat on a wall chanting wildly. His body was painted white and he didn’t stop or alter his state one iota as we passed him.
The path was fairly easy, except for the inevitable mosquito bites. We saw cloth drying on some bushes. Where was it’s owner? Probably belonged to another Sadhu. We crossed a small crystal clean stream and arrived at a powerful waterfall. We splashed around at it’s base, but didn’t have time for a full-on swim. In the peak of the day, it was hot and steamy this time of year. Even wading up to our knees was really refreshing.
One of our last days in Rishikesh, we opted to do separate things, as it’s important to also have time to oneself on a long trip like this. I decided to see if I could find the old Beatles ashram. I’d heard it was somewhere nearby. With guidebook in hand, I followed the river south, past small crumbling homes to the edge of the village. A few people I passed glanced at me with curiosity. I’m sure I looked lost. But I saw a couple people in the distance & I knew found it.
There was a ‘guard’ or at least someone who wanted money from you to go inside. However, he wouldn’t take mine. He said I couldn’t go in alone, as it just wasn’t safe. Great! The one day I try to do my own thing, and I’m blocked because I’m a woman! Luckily, a couple of tourists were just coming out. I asked if any of them would accompany me in, and a fellow American came to my rescue.
Inside, you could tell this was once was a beautiful place. But over time, these once grand designs had faded to black. Nature had taken over, and it was very overgrown, almost completely impassable in places. My American- turned-guide showed me the main ceremonial hall where meditations took place. And I saw John Lennon’s little stone hut! It resembled a two-storied igloo. The bottom for living, the top for meditating. It was a small window into the past, to a time when people sought out answers and took time to explore the possibilities.
And wasn’t that what we were trying to do with this trip…to explore the rest of the world, see different ways of living, new ways of being…and allowing these experiences to reflect inside our heads and hearts, revealing more about what it means to be alive today.