Venturing into the ‘world capital of yoga’

Not too long after CNN ventured into Rishikesh, the New York Times this week has landed in the “world capital of yoga.”

OK, caveat: “unofficial.”

For whatever it’s worth, I checked again on our Yatra itinerary, and we basically pass right through Rishikesh on our way up into the Himalayas.

But check out the Times anyway, which even quotes some of the same folks from the CNN piece:

During my stay, I encountered gaggles of yoga teachers, young and old, but also wealthy young Indians unpacking angst, Midwestern American moms also hoping to decompress, one man who had sold his Facebook stock, some befuddled recent college graduates, several recently divorced and miscellaneous heartbroken souls, some self-described “crusty hippies,” a supermodel yogi, a Catholic priest turned Zen monk, a specialist in “laughter yoga,” several people who had recently quit their jobs and at least one teacher who said he preferred to pair his yoga practice with hallucinogenic drugs.

“What they’re walking away with is much more than just more flexible hamstrings and slightly stronger and more well-defined triceps and some pictures,” Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati said. “People, their lives change here.”

Mornings start at the ashram with prayers and chanting at 5 o’clock, sometimes earlier. Meals are vegetarian, usually rice, lentils and some cooked vegetables, and are eaten in silence while you sit on a floor in a communal space. If alcohol and meat aren’t officially banned in Rishikesh, they’re certainly hard to come by. And many of the spandex uniforms of Manhattan studios clash with ashram dress codes, which ask for women to have shoulders and legs covered.

I’m not sure that two big stories from two big media count as a trend, but it seems strangely like some part of yoga is in the process of being “rediscovered.”

Posted by Steve

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The mysteries of Rishikesh

On Sunday, an old post of ours on Indian syndrome had an unexpected bump in traffic. I mentioned it on Facebook and someone pointed out that CNN has a new, and it turns out, very lengthy, piece on Rishikesh.

That, apparently, spawned some searches, which led here.

I’ve seen some people passing the piece around, and it is notable in its length, and the photos are nice. Here’s a bit:

Prateek then gives me a mystical punch to the gut. He tells me my father committed suicide.

My dad had a hard-to-diagnose neurological disorder, somewhat like Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was progressive, degenerative and slowly stole the active life he’d lived. He was open with me, saying that someday he might want Dr. Kevorkian on speed dial, a comment I more than understood.

But he wasn’t ready for that when he died at 67. He was still getting around and, to some extent, doing his thing.

He and my stepmom had gone to their vacation home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. She’d stepped out for two hours and came back to find him in bed, lifeless, his body already cold. There were no pills, no bloody, gruesome discovery. We never got an autopsy — rushing my dad back to the States was more important — but the medical examiner who showed up that night was certain that whatever happened was instantaneous, natural.

I tell Prateek I don’t like what he’s said and refuse to believe him. My father would have said goodbye. He was a thinker and a writer who would have penned something poetic.

Prateek shrugs and continues.

I might have written the piece differently — I suppose that’s obvious — as it focuses too much on the writer for my taste, but it is worth at least skimming through, seeing if you have some parts that resonate. (I also understand why the story focuses so much on her; my sense from some of the story and comments on it is that that wasn’t her intent.) For instance, this scene from Hardiwar, where we will be in about a month:

Along the riverbank, beggars with missing and crippled limbs or clouded eyes call out for donations. Pilgrims brush by, clinging to their children’s hands, carrying plastic bags full of offerings. Guards scream for us to remove our shoes as we walk near temples.

My head spins as I weave around human obstacles, chasing after Kalam Singh Chauhan, co-owner of the guesthouse where I’m staying. Today, he’s leading me through Haridwar, a holy city for Hindus not far from Rishikesh. It’s a festival day and especially chaotic.

Thousands fill Har ki Pauri, the famous ghat or steps that lead down to the Ganga. People have come to bathe in the sacred river and wash away their sins. Others are here to release the ashes of loved ones. The Ganga is considered a river goddess who gives life, rejuvenates and liberates. She was brought to Earth, it is believed, to purify souls and release them to heaven.

As Kalam strips to his underwear to go into the water, I watch a family of women step off the ghat and submerge themselves, their bright saris hanging wet and heavy. Three children approach and ask if they can pose with me for a picture. A little girl squeals as her mother coaxes her into the river.

Kalam returns, towels himself off and asks if I want to go in next. I know I won’t leave India without going into the Ganga, but I’m just not ready.

What I’m watching is more than I can handle. This isn’t my place; it’s loud, overwhelming, intensely meaningful to those who are here. I’m afraid, amid this crowd of pilgrims, I won’t feel a thing.

I’m of course expecting we will feel quite a few things.

Posted by Steve

The ‘yoga capital of the world’?

Statue of Shiva, in Rishikesh, via the Seattle Times.

A trip to India is, not surprisingly, on Bobbie and my itinerary. Nothing solid yet, but the call of that country grows louder and louder with each Shavasana.

We don’t really have a sense of where, precisely, we will go. Mysore? Sounds like an obvious one, but we all know that things are different there since Guruji’s passing, and we have our teachers here in Encinitas and Los Angeles.

Plus, one of Bobbie’s students in her writing classes at our not-so-local University of California campus, who is from India, perhaps gave us pause with this comment when she mentioned that Mysore was where the Guru was.

“Mysore,” he sneered (according to the version of the story I’ve heard), “that’s like the Arkansas of India.”

So, noted.

What may be the pull, then, is less the yoga — or, precisely, the Ashtanga — and more the spiritual heritage of the country. Does that, then, mean we have to go to Rishikesh?

According to this Seattle Times piece, maybe:

TUCKED INTO a town in India’s Himalaya foothills sits a statue of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s most venerated deities.

Shiva’s legs are crossed as he peacefully meditates, unlike the eager yoga students who clamber up and around the bigger-than-life statue to drape him with garlands.

Yoga and spiritual devotees of every nationality flock to this northern Indian town of Rishikesh along the banks of the Ganges, India’s holy river. The Beatles set off the flow of Western spiritual seekers after their stay in an ashram here in the 1960s.

Now billing itself “the yoga capital of the world,” Rishikesh brims with ashrams, temples and yoga schools, mixing New Age trappings such as juice bars and healing crystals with ancient Hindu teachings.

Actually, that sounds a little like Mt. Shasta, truth be told.

But, we’re very open to suggestions, if anyone has them. (And, if you have specific thoughts on travel agents/guides/etc., we’ll take any comments there, too!)

I assume the Confluence will have “vendors” who will be all about this kind of trip.

Posted by Steve