Rishikesh — The Yoga Capital of the World

Before I arrived at the yoga capital of the world, I had images of yoga schools everywhere, filled with teachers and students. I also heard that one should be weary of babas (i.e. people living as renunciates, but don’t have actual higher spiritual pursuits) who would con me out of money, or “steal my energy”.

I arrived to Rishikesh mid-June. It turns out, the yoga capital takes a break during the summer. The best teachers are out of town, which is a similar situation I experienced in Mysore.

The city however, is not asleep. During this time is a peak for Indian tourism, as school kids are on holidays. There’s also an annual Shiva pilgrimage, and crowds of (mostly) Indian men come walking across India to Rishikesh to pay homage to the Shiva temple on a hill in Rishikesh.

Pilgrims, dressed in all orange, walking to the Shiva temple

I didn’t have a fulfilling practice of yoga in Rishikesh as I did in Mysore. I tried Hatha yoga classes, and a philosophy of yoga class, and I was underwhelmed. My friend Deepika tells me that the energy of the place is way different between low-season and high-season, and I should come back and check it out during high-season. I don’t think I will though. As I get more exposed to yoga, I learn that there is a vast amount of knowledge to be learned and practiced over many years — it is a profession. And I’m not sure if I am that hungry and passionate about it. Even if that is my takeaway from visiting Rishikesh, I am grateful.

I had other great experiences in Rishikesh, here are three of them:

1) Staying at an Ashram

There are many ashrams in Rishikesh, and I wanted to experience staying in one. My friend Sean was also in Rishikesh (who I had met in Mysore), and so we did some “ashram shopping” together. After seeing three places, Yog Niketan had the right fit of having a nice location, nice accommodation, and a daily schedule (yoga and meditation classes in the morning and afternoon). The price was also decent — Sean and I shared a room for 2200 Rs. (with A/C), which ends up being $17 USD each. The price includes three meals a day, along with the meditation and yoga classes. I decided to stay there for a solid week. For those that may go there: there was also an option of a single room, which is 1000 Rs. per night.

The yoga classes are the classical Hatha style. It’s not like a Vinyasa flow as we are accustomed to in the West. It is a sequence of:

  1. warm-up (some cardio, like jumping-jacks)
  2. sun salutation sequence and some other asanas
  3. pranayama

One thing that I found a little difficult during the yoga classes was dealing with the heat, exacerbated by the carpet, which made the room feel stuffy. I didn’t enjoy the asana aspect much as it felt disconnected how we moved from one asana to another. I realized how much I like having a flow, whether it’s a Vinyasa or Ashtanga sequence.

The carpeted yoga room

It was nice to experience the emphasis on pranayama. Two days a week, they would take all the students to the courtyard, and have us each clean our nasal passages with a neti pot, followed by breathing exercises. It might be an awkward experience initially to be in a courtyard and dribbling water through your nostrils with 20 other people in a circle.

The ashram had a mix of foreigner and locals, of all ages. There were some Indian uncles and aunties who would come who had never done yoga, coming here to learn. Some of them would mostly sit through the class, or do a minimal amount of motion. They would leave after 2–3 days since they found it too difficult. This made me realize how important it is to keep doing yoga through life, to maintain the strength and flexibility I have now.

There was a separate group of students doing a yoga teacher training at our ashram, and I got to interact with them during meals in the cafeteria. They were doing a 200-hour yoga-teacher training course, and seemed to be enjoying it, as well as being challenged by it. After some conversations, I decided that if I want to deepen my yoga practice, I should just spend $1200 or so and do a month intensive course to learn. My quest to find a course that’s like a YTT but without the certification (and higher cost) came to an end.

Here’s a video I made to describe the experience of staying at the ashram. The monkeys add a lot of amusement.

2) Visiting Empower HER

My friend Deepika arrived from San Diego, which itself was an interesting moment, having a friend from back home, to now be here in India with me, and traveling together.

Deepika met with “Mata Ji” (which means “respected mother”), a woman from England who now considers India to be her home. Mata Ji recently got involved with an organization called Empower HER, which helps women and children living in the slums of Rishikesh. Deepika offered to help raise awareness about the organization by offering to do a Facebook Live event.

Deepika and Mata Ji

Two days later, both of us went along with Mata Ji and a local woman who would be starting to learn sewing at Empower HER. We went to a slum area in Rishikesh, about 8–10 kilometers away from all the yoga schools and ashrams. Here were women and children from families who were considered “BPL”, or “below poverty line”, making less than 15,000 Rs. a year (~$232).

The women were learning basic English and how to sew. Once they learned how to sew, they would make products like purses, which were made from recycled materials, and they receive a majority margin from each one sold.

Learning to read and sew
The women learn to make products like these purses to earn income

We also visited a school, where children were receiving some basic education. The volunteers aren’t teachers themselves, but people who have full day-time jobs, and do this on the side to benefit the community.

Empower HER helps raise money which is used to rent spaces where the women and children can learn, and the women can earn a living by creating fashionable products. You can learn more through this video (click on the link above the image):

Facebook Live video: EMPOWER HER

I ended up rolling up my sleeves and helping with the website a bit, as the PayPal donation button wasn’t working! No one at the NGO knew how to fix such issues, and the web developer who had built the website said it was an issue with PayPal.

It took me a few hours to resolve the issue, and I figured out it was an out-dated plugin. I very slowly found a decent workaround. There’s no high speed internet in Rishikesh, so it was painful to fix the issue via the cafe WiFi. I was annoyed at the web developer, for this should be an easy issue for the developer to resolve, if he does this for a living.

And that’s the reality of a small NGO in India — struggling to make it work. A humbling experience. If you’d like to donate to Empower HER, you can do so here.

3) The Beatles Ashram

This was a surprise. Lonely Planet described it as an ashram that wasn’t maintained, and had become a free-for-all with graffiti. Once I set foot there, I realized that I had discovered something epic.

The Beatles first met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967 in London. One year later, they came to his ashram in Rishikesh to learn Trascendental Meditation.

While learning meditation, creativity exploded for The Beatles, and it is said that The White album was written here.

It’s unfortunate that the ashram has been abandoned since 1997, though the forest undergrowth consuming the buildings gives it an “Indiana Jones” vibe. If the Indian government was to restore this ashram, it would easily be the best ashram in Rishikesh due to its unique architecture, particularly the egg-shaped domes. I can imagine that this ashram must have had a lot of energy when it was running!

Trying to be a guru. Follow me!
These amazing egg-shaped domes!

Though the buildings have become a graffiti free-for-all, it’s beautiful graffiti, and I especially enjoyed art from @milestoland (that’s his IG), which blends in so well with this lost Indian ashram. Do visit!

Around Rishikesh

There is a relaxing energy in Rishikesh, especially when hanging out by the Ganga river. Every evening it was nice to sit by a ghat by the ganga and enjoy the sunset. In the background there would be the evening aartis (prayers) going on at the ashrams and temples by the Ganga, and could be heard in the distance. There’s also the Ram and Laxman Jhulas (bridges) that add to the scenery. The jhulas also are usually packed, as they are a tourist attraction. You’ll find people taking selfies blocking traffic, incessantly honking-motorcycles trying to get across a bridge that supposed to be pedestrian only, cows just sitting down taking an entire lane, and monkeys on the side ready to snatch a bag of chips or ice cream from an unsuspecting child. Sometimes a monkeys will also snatch a person’s mobile phone and just throw it in to river. As a result of all of this chaos, a normal 1–2 minute walk across the bridge ends up taking 5–10 minutes!

This is India — beautiful and aggravating at times.

Laxman Jhula
(Left) Me looking at Ram Jhula, (Right) Hanging out in a cafe
The fog rolling in at sunset
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