You can get a full “yoga retreat” experience in Rishikesh without actually going away to a yoga retreat. Because the city is a retreat in itself.
Rishikesh: “The Capital of Yoga”. I’ve heard this phrase spoken by a lot of people over the last few days. This isn’t too far from the truth.
The many streets of the spiritual area of Rishikesh are lined with yoga studios calling out to the hundreds of westerners perusing up and down the streets. Ranging from the living rooms of people’s houses, to the sprawling massive Yoga “ashrams” (some of which have been here for centuries), there are endless opportunities to learn of improve your yoga fix. Also, many of these institutes offer intense Yoga Teacher Training courses, and you can liken Rishikesh as the “Harvard” of Yoga teacher training in the world of yoga instruction.
And then there is the magical view. The town is surrounded by lush green hills, towering not just over the city but also over the flowing Ganga (Ganges) River, cutting the city in two and covering it in eternal holiness. One walk over the Laxman Jhula bridge at sunset and I was hooked. The Ganga flowing under me splashed by warm evening sun, and the sounds of singing and chanting emanating from the various temples lining the river makes this a place like no other.
It’s also no coincidence that the Beatles stayed in Rishikesh for a couple of months back in the 60s living in a cave and studying under the great Swami (). They even wrote a few songs from the White Album here, including Revolution 9 (an ode to Cave #9 where they were staying).
So, being the avid yoga fan that I am, I thought I’d check out Rishikesh. Here is my experience so far.
Yoga Philosophies in Rishikesh
On top of checking out various yoga classes and philosophies, I mixed in some research about the history of yoga in Rishikesh. Many roads pointed me to Swami Sivananda, one of the leaders of modern yoga in Rishikesh. I picked up one of his many pieces of literature available called “Yoga in Daily Life”, and was instantly captivated by the first passage of this book. The passage reads:
“Cultivate indomitable will. Practice self-control an self-mastery. Have self-confidence. Develop independent judgment. Do not argue. Strive ceaselessly for self-realization. Kill this little ego. Develop pure love. Rise above all distinctions of case, creed and colour. Give up the idea of ‘I-ness’, ‘mine-ness. Look within for the happiness which you have sought in vain in the sensual objects.”
Some of you may be wondering why there isn’t any mention of Downward Dog and ‘Om Shanti Shanti’? Many of us are familiar with the concept of “Yoga” as practiced by mainstream Western culture: physical poses, meditation, and Lululemon. But these are only part of the elements of “true” yoga, which encompasses these concepts, as well as with the many other lingas (arms) that address holistic lifestyle elements. These include specific ways of thinking, of eating, of communicating, and of regular of introspection. It’s a very deep book exploring the meaning of life and going out day day living this meaning.
For fun, I also picked up another book here on yoga called “15-minute yoga”. The book has glossy full-color cover show-casing with a woman in yoga gear doing a perfect tree pose, and is written by an instructor based in London. As you guessed, you book covers more of the popular parts of yoga: asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing), and even a little on pratyahara (meditation). The book actually does a great job and covers these techniques, but barely mentions and of the other lifestyle aspects of yoga. Probably because it’s really not something one can practice in 15 minutes.
A variety of Yoga courses and studios in Rishikesh
In any case: I toured a number of different studios around Rishikesh so far, including a couple of yoga ashrams, a roadside yoga studio offering 3 day courses, and then independent instructors who just travel from hotel to hotel and teach.
As someone who has done his fair share of yoga over the last couple of years, and I attest that the yoga here has been incredible. The yogis here are very authentic. They teach discipline. A full day course at a studio here mixes in philosophy, meditation, and breathing courses along with the typical posture courses that we are all used to. Even these posture courses are pretty advanced. I’ve been permanently sore for about 5 days now while trying out various Hatha, Ashtanga, and Vinyasa flow courses here. At many of these places they even serve food vegetarian food conducive to yoga lifestyle.
One of my first yoga classes was at the “Divine Ganga Cottage”, the hotel I checked into upon arrival. They had a nice little rooftop yoga studio and classes taught by Veer, a young but wise instructor who led a group of 2 of us into a great little Vinyasa flow session. All for the price of $4. It felt re-energized after a long long journey from Toronto, to the point where I went again the next morning. This time, it was just myself and Veer. Not only did we work on poses and breathing, but we also had great chats on proper diet and just general philosophies about happiness. Yes, a personal holistic yoga session for only $4. Seriously, could you not love this place?
Later on, I checked into a 3-day intensive yoga program at the Sri Vivekananda yoga studio, named by the Swami well-known in the Yoga philosophy community and someone whose literature I had read many times.
The 3-day course had the same schedule every day, each class building on the previous day classes. Pranayama (breathing) at 7am, following by Ashtanga and Vinyasa flow combinations at 9:15am. We convened in the afternoon, and re-started at 4:15pm with an intense Hatha yoga flow course, followed by an evening meditation at 7pm. By then day’s end, I was thoroughly wiped out, but also felt pretty amazing mentally and physically. The total cost for 3 days was Rs 1800 (US $35). Yes. 3 days of classes, 4 classes a day, for only $35 (not including any food or accommodation – but this is also super cheap in Rishikesh).
If I had all the time in the world, I’d do a one month in-depth teacher training, which is offered here in Rishikesh in a variety of ways. But basically, you can get a full “yoga retreat” experience in Rishikesh without actually going away to a yoga retreat. Because the city is a retreat in itself.