One day I woke up with a dream to practice yoga in an Indian Ashram. I do yoga occasionally for some time now, but I am definitely not a yogi. And I am NOT a meditation person either:) Nevertheless, the idea of living in a beautiful ashram, while devoting your time to body and mind brought me to google.
Apparently, there’re two main centers of yoga in India: one in the South (towns like Mysore, Kerala), another – in the North of India, in the little town of Rishikesh. Since I decided not to spread thin and stay in the North of India, I chose Rishikesh. Contacted an ashram I liked, and since it was off-season, they had plenty of rooms available.
HOW I CROSSED THE GANGA – MY SCARIEST TRAVEL MOMENT
Among other transportation options I chose the cheapest: the local bus lines Red Bus. While the website is in English and looks totally navigable, it turned out that it didn’t accept international cards, just Indian ones. I was lucky, my couchsurfer offered to pay with her card, I gave her cash back.
I took an overnight bus, which was an adventure of its own. Indian buses never leave on time, we left two hours later than the established time. I was the only foreigner and the only solo girl on that bus. Right before departing they let onboard a big group of seemingly poor families with many kids. Probably for free, or very cheap. Like the departure time, ticket price depends on many various factors:)
Instead of arriving to Rishikesh at 7.30 am, I get dropped off at 5.30am in complete darkness on some crossroads in the woods. They start yelling ‘Rishikesh!’ and drop off my bag and leave. There was a man sitting by a fire next to some kiosk, and he seemed the only person I could ask, where I was and how to get to Rishikesh. Suddenly, more men start emerging from the dark, gathering around, and of course they stare at me and discuss something in Indian. This was the scariest moment of my entire travel by now. I put the backpack on one shoulder, ready to drop and run if needed, clutching to my whistle and deciding which direction is best.
Luckily, that wasn’t necessary… The man by the fire tried explaining that soon there will be another bus to Rishikesh. The first bus didn’t stop, the second did, because the ‘fire man’ was flagging and jumping vigorously.
This bus took me to Rishikesh finally. A sleepy small city, yet dozens of rickshaws and taxi drivers attacked me offering rides. After some negotiating, I got what seemed to be a ‘legit’ price. The driver could take me just so far, dropping me off with words: you need to go all the way downhill, cross the bridge across the Ganga, then go right along the only street until you see the big clock.
That was how I first crossed the Ganga. It was quite and moonlit. And my adrenaline was pumping for sure.
LIFE IN THE ASHRAM
I stayed at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, one of the biggest and perhaps ‘famous’ ashrams in Rishikesh. Very importantly, I stayed off season (January). It was rather empty, quite and mildly cold (jacket, scarf, sometimes headwear).
The ‘donation’ for the room was $5-6 a night (cheapest option). The room was very basic, cold and quite unattractive. On the contrary, the ashram territory is lush and beautiful.
Ashram is house to a Hindu ‘school’ for young monks and for the many pilgrims and visitors like myself. There were very few ‘tourists’ at that time in the ashram, but to my surprise, lots and lots of Hindu pilgrims (or should I say Indian tourists).
I am trying to understand how I felt in the ashram and probably the most accurate description is: I didn’t have a feel of belonging. Nevertheless, we were welcome to some of the ashram’s daily activities. At 5am everyone could attend morning prayer meditation, where guru spoke, everyone chanted and then we all meditated.
And the most amazing thing was the evening Aarti Hindu ceremony – music offerings to the Mother Ganga. It was approximately a 40-minute ceremony, performed daily at sunset. Parmarth Niketan has the most beautiful Aarti in Rishikesh, so people from all around came to pray, sing and listen.
The essence of the aarti ceremony is that all day God offers us light (the sun, his blessings). Aarti is the time we say ‘Thank you’ and offer back the light of our gratitude, love and faith. In the end the monks light up torches and send them around, so that many get a chance to spread/ get hold of the light.
This is Pujya Swamiji (pic below) – the main guru, spiritual leader of Parmarth Niketan. I highly recommend to go to the Satsang with the guru – sitting together in a smaller group, you can ask a question and he would answer. I learnt about it by coincidence and was very happy to attend. A very gentle man, you almost feel an enlightened aura of his:)
At the age of 8, he was “touched by God” and spent 9 years in the Himalayan forest, praying and meditating. Then his guru ordered him to return and he got education (masters degrees!) and now is promoting interfaith dialogue internationally.
Getting blessings from the Mother Ganga. Yes, they drink it too.
Watch a video I made about the beautiful ceremony of Aarti by Parmarth Niketan. The sound (live!) is just unbelievable, and so are the views.
Yoga was offered in the ashram twice a day: at 7 am and 3 pm. I always attended the morning session, and sometimes opted to do something else during the day. This is yoga hall. Giant and gorgeous on the outside, and super simple inside.
I really loved our morning sessions and the teacher. She was a Hindu yogini and we did a lot of interesting breathing and slooow practices. She told me, that lots of people who come to her class, expect to do some ‘cool’ assanas. But what she offers is more universal and needed – breathing is our #1 need and lots of people either don’t even know how to breathe right or have some breathing conditions. I was full of oxygen and fire within after her practices:)
You’re not confined doing yoga in the ashram you’re staying at! There’re many other locations around Rishikesh that offer various practices and workshops. I went to the Laughter Yoga and laughed my belly and heart out. Very awkward and uncomfortable first, but I totally get it and I really recommend it!
Then I went to the introduction of a long course on Tantra Yoga (it embraces all yoga, not sex as it’s often interpreted). It turned out to be a very interesting course, but I wan’t staying in town for so long. But my new friend signed up and every evening we met up and she shared what she learnt at the course. Lots of chakra conversations:)
Rishikesh also offers multiple yoga teacher trainings. My sincere advice: if you can afford to do so, come to Rishikesh with no plan and return date and see how you love it. While I first had a ‘stranger’ feeling, I found many interesting activities outside and really wish I could attend one of the long workshops/ trainings. Explore your mind and body, ponder on your muladhara and sahasvara:)
Ayurveda – the knowledge of life in Sanskrit – is Hindu alternative medicine. I’m not going to go at length here, but I highly recommend doing ayurveda procedures in Rishikesh. It’s really amazing, and most likely, way cheaper than any equivalent back home.
I went to ayurveda “clinic” that was located right in my dorm in ashram (Panchkarma Center). First you pay 500 rupias for a consultation with doctor, who does Ayurvedic pulse diagnosis. He also asks a bunch of questions, and determines your dosha (force), based on that gives you a detailed recommendation on your diet and makes up a treatment plan. You can accept it as it is, or modify based on your budget, or negotiate the price, like I did:)
2-3 hours of intense care and various procedures comes out to be around $20. I had shiroddharas (oil gradually drops on your forehead – cosmic feeling!), oil/herb/paste rubs and scrubs and massages, steam baths… It really gave me baby skin! And lots of relaxation. And warm showers (which I didn’t have in the room:)
The town of Rishikesh is by itself very interesting to explore. Everything is intertwined: cows walking, western and Indian cuisine, wi-fi spots, dirt, beggars and mindful practices.
It’s full of travelers who came here to do yoga, teacher training, meditate. It’s full of Indian pilgrims and locals too.
All in all, Rishikesh is really an interesting and different place to check out. If you have no exact plan and/ or specific course to attend, I still highly recommend coming here. There’s always something going on: various practices, yoga teachings, satsangs (conversations) with gurus from all over the world. I bet it gets crazy around the International Yoga Day in March.
And there’re various choices for your accommodation: big ashrams like mine or very small and quite ashrams, dorms and hotels. Rishikesh is rather well equipped for tourists, and yet it really managed to keep its authenticity.