It was a hot and dusty afternoon, about 30 hours into my Indian journey, when the bus driver dropped me off in a small town that he said was near my destination: Rishikesh, regarded as the unofficial world capital of yoga. Only a short rickshaw ride, it seemed, separated my fatigued self from inner Zen. Nearly two weeks of life with monks at an ashram awaited.
On what I hoped was my final jaunt, the rickshaw ride took me through a labyrinth of cows, street vendors and bicycles set against a stunning Himalayan mountainscape. The sun was bright, but the tedium and duration of the trip had left me feeling like the cow dung I had stepped in along the way.
“You have to cross the bridge,” the rickshaw driver said as we stopped. I could see Parmarth Niketan, the town’s largest ashram, where I had booked a room, across the Ganges River, but that suspension bridge — bedecked by monkeys — remained. The river bisected the town, and I was on the wrong side. Schlepping my body-size bag across the bridge while dodging mopeds, my real-life game of Frogger finally ended at the ashram’s gate.
From New Delhi, Rishikesh is accessible by train, plane and bus. Without much planning, I had boarded a bus from New Delhi for about $8 on the fly and embarked on an eight-hour, bump-filled journey, complete with “Elephant Crossing” signs along the way.
All of this was in the name of trying to get a sense of what it was like to practice yoga in the place where some think it was born. In New York, I had taken to my sticky mat and found myself wanting to learn more about how yoga had evolved into an urban pastime for the well-off from its roots as an ancient spiritual practice. In the eight years since Elizabeth Gilbert published her witty memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the journey of the single female yogi to India in search of her soul has become something of a trope, with countless women following suit, one backbend at a time.
Yoga’s origins are debated, but many historians say it may have begun nestled amid the Himalayas, due north of New Delhi and along the historic Ganges in Rishikesh. For centuries, it has been considered a holy place, drawing wayward spiritualists hoping to connect with the land, philosophies and the spirit. More recently, this town of about 100,000 has gained fame as the place where the Beatles came in early 1968 and wrote much of “The Beatles,” commonly known as “The White Album.” (Today, that ashram is abandoned.) Everyone from Uma Thurman to Jeremy Piven to Bollywood stars to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall has swung through town.
It is a “land in which to conquer one’s senses,” a guidebook for Parmarth reads, “to conquer the call of desire, to become a master of oneself.”
That sounded good to me, even if it felt a bit on the self-indulgent side for a getaway. Before my departure, a yoga-teacher friend labeled Rishikesh “yoga heaven.” An Indian friend countered, “That’s where the annoying kids from my boarding school hung out.”
Curious and without shame, I joined their ranks: Was Rishikesh a morally bankrupt yoga Disneyland or still a special spiritual destination?
Yoga had entered my life in earnest a few years ago when I was looking for a way to stretch and prevent injuries from running. I became a regular, attending a yoga class at my local gym or studio in New York two to three times a week, but I am by no means a certified teacher or expert on its origins. But if I had to be really honest about why I first got into it, it was because I enjoyed the quiet time and didn’t want to become fat and brittle. Continue reading >>