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Rishikesh – spiritual supermarket on the Ganga
Looking back on my trip, Rishikesh is the place that I think I am most likely to return to. Perhaps aided by having many people I knew in town (half of Tushita were there for example) but also because it is a very beautiful, very spiritual place with loads of yoga happening everywhere. Not least the International Yoga and Indian Music Festival which by a wonderful coincidence was taking place a couple of days after I arrived. With a programme starting at 7AM with a Kriya (or cleansing) Yoga session and going through until 7PM when there was an hour of live music it was such a fantastic introduction to all sides of Yoga.
The Kriya Yoga, led by one of the festival organisers and Rishikesh resident, Yogacharya Kamal was something of a new experience. Taking a Netti Pot (small spouted receptacle) and filling it with warm, salted water, tilt your head to one side and pour through one nostril and out of the other. It was great for me, often blocked up by dust in my sinuses, I felt a totally clear head. I tried the next step, which was to take a mouthful of the salty water and then attempt to expel it through the nostrils. If you can get a dribble then supposedly you are on the way but I wasn’t able to get the technique at all. The third step (which I didn’t even attempt) was to drink quite a bit of the water and then vomit it out. All of these techniques are for cleansing the body from within and we also learnt about doing this with a rubber tube (danda) through the nostril and out of the mouth, and a further thorough inner cleansing by passing salt water through the system.
After this, the first actual class was with Umesh who quickly became one of my favourites with his wide-eyed delivery of stories and the joy with which he introduced his ideas. Bringing things to the present moment through meditation, chanting mantras and some tough Asana classes he will be someone I would like to seek out in the future. He is a personal disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ji the guru who the Beatles spent time with here in Rishikesh in the 60’s… speaking of which…
Visiting this spot, now overrun by nature and falling to pieces, was exciting and eye opening more than I imagined. Led by a guide who was able to explain what the buildings had been used for and where the Beatles had stayed in their time there (not least John Lennon’s room #9). He had me clambering through broken windows, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and beating a path through the overgrown foliage. The place was taken over by the Forestry department in 1997 and they haven’t done much to keep it up which makes it more authentic if you like, it also means you have to bribe the gatekeeper 50Rupees to get in.
Perhaps the only problem (although, what is a problem?) with the programme at the yoga fest was that such an early start made it impossible to get breakfast and sometimes meant we would skip out, not because we were done with the Yoga but because we were hungry. This was especially tempting because Ram Jhula, an area in Rishikesh, had one of the best little food places you’re likely to find anywhere. The Office came onto our radar because of a rumour about Chocolate Banana Samosas – a rumour I should add, that was totally true. They also did an Apple Cinnamon Samosa that was equally, or perhaps even more, delicious. Their menu in general was small but perfectly formed, with some of the best Chai i have had in India not even making the highlight reel because of the fruit, muesli, curd, honey which as you can see, was truly epic. Add to this a scrummy pakora plate for 15 Rups and always happy service, the only thing they need to sort out is the fly problem on the balcony.
Sivananda – Om Dwivedi
Sean, who had done a Sivananda Teacher Training Course, was particularly interested in attending this class, and since spending time at the Ashram in Neyyar Dam since, it is a style I am now most familiar with. Following 12 basic asanas after an initial relaxation and warm up, Sivananda style is characterised also by long periods of Savasana as well as a lengthy final relaxation to allow the body and mind to appreciate the benefits from the Asanas. Swami Sivananda opened a large ashram here in Rishikesh and it is here that he spent a lot of time meditating on the banks of the Ganga.
Other teachers included female Yogacharya Kiran who was keen on making us hum like a bee, Yog-Vibhuti Yogrishi Swami Shivyogi jee Maharaj who had lived in a cave for 20 years and seemed pretty wild. Naveen Joshi (“little yogi”) who liked getting us into a posture and telling us all how “Beauuuutiful” it was and Yogiraj who is a highly regarded practitioner who’s class I did enjoy, although I found it more like a form of aerobics. It was a memory I think I will struggle to forget though, seeing a fat old guy in an orange robe doing the lion pose and causing everyone to roar in delight.
So, following on from the Yoga as aerobics thing, I went along to watch, although not participate in, Gurmukh’s Kundalini Yoga session. Billed and then rearranged, presumably to fit into her busy schedule, this was pure new age California and I found it difficult to take seriously. The session started with vigorous running on the spot and jumping and such like before the music really kicked in and everyone was skipping in pairs, swaying from side to side with arms around each other, and crying to a song with lyrics that went something along the lines of ” We are the people the world loves to hate”. As if this wasn’t enough to induce hysterics or vomiting, there was a mantra recited while touching the relevant areas – ” I love you my heart, I love you my eyes, I love you my head, I love you, I love you.” (there is a video of this but I’m not going to post it due to the embarrassment factor of those taking part) I’m not sure it could have got any cheesier and I don’t know quite how this fits with loosening ego-grasping but those who took part seemed to really like it. (Brainwashing springs to mind and one guy described her as an “honest swindler” which I guess would sum it up.)
Another Sikh got rave reviews from those that went to his daily classes held in Rishikesh town because of his skill with adjustments, although with a group of 100 or more this wasn’t so easy, one great reason to go back at least.
Usha Devi – Iyengar Yoga
Usha Devi taught one of the classes I enjoyed least and yet I still remember hints from it to this day. Teaching in the Iyengar style, which focuses on very precise positioning and holding the Asanas in exactly the right way – we spent 90 painful minutes doing a Triangle pose, but I still remember where my feet should be…! She also teaches regular classes in Rishikesh.
Swami Yogananda Ji
Finally, the oldest and most inspirational of the teachers in some ways is 101 year old Swami Ji who took us through a traditional yoga programme of light stretches and exercises for all parts of the body from the eyes to the ankles. He also showed us some of the Kriya techniques. Coupled with this he had myriad tips on health, usually to prevent constipation. We should have motions after every meal apparently. Eat Papaya in the morning, no fried food ever, Jaggery after each meal, hold a point in the centre of the right arm for two minutes each day to live to 100 etc etc. He was in perfect health and a little bit more flexible than I am…
Along with the Yoga Asana classes there were lectures about life philosophy and also Ayurveda, although sitting uncomfortably on the floor in a hot stuffy room meant I didn’t stick around for too many. One I did go to saw Thomas getting chastised for leaning backwards, the teacher thinking he was lying down, maybe sleeping and started complaining about western students not having the right levels of respect and so on. What was a slightly awkward moment amongst the entirely western audience was dispelled when the teacher’s mobile phone loudly went off in the middle of his rant causing laughter throughout the room.
So other than Yoga and some good traveller restaurants (Mahoosive Hello to the Queen courtesy of the Little Buddha or the ridiculous Joney OK at Mohan’s Ganga Beach View) the best food was up at High Bank where Mama would serve up an illicit beverage alongside her sensational thali. The pumpkin dish was incredible in its sweet tastiness and the Banoffee Pie made with oodles of condensed milk was total decadence. Add to that a friendly communal atmosphere and Mama being a total enabler for indulgence and it was always a good place to spend a Rishikesh evening.