Yoga City Yatra: The Rishikesh Runaround

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“You picked the absolute worst time to come to Rishikesh,” said Shoshana, the Angrezi (Anglo) proprietress of Kripalu Yoga Ashram.

She was referring not to the sticky monsoon weather but to the thousands of orange-shirted Kanwaria pilgrims who have filled the town — to overflowing — to pay homage to Lord Shiva.

It was our first day here, and Tay and I had begun our search for a private yoga instructor and/or an idyllic ashram. Not for this week, as we’ve only got five days before we have to start making our way to our work site in West Bengal, but for November, when we are thinking of coming back — to get down in yoga town in the cool autumn Himalayan air.

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We hadn’t planned on our trip across Northern India being a tour of the major Eastern religions — it just happened that way. First we visited mosques and Sufi shrines in Lahore; then the most sacred of all Sikh temples in Amritsar; then Dahramsala, the very seat of Tibetan Buddhism; and now here, on the banks of the Ganges, where we are witnessing a massive yatra, or pilgrimage, of devout (and rather noisy and messy) Hindus.

Rishikesh is a somewhat scattered village, straddling the River Ganga just as she emerges from the mountains. The river is a massive, flat, brown Goddess that is swift and swollen with the recent rains. The Kanwarias are only stopping through on their way upstream, where a number of shrines in the mountains have been attracting devotees for thousands of years. They are here to make puja, or pay homage, at a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, and also to collect some holy water from the river, which they keep in ornately decorated plastic containers, flamboyant with orange glitter and streamers and cloth, carried triumphantly on sticks across their shoulders.

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The orange-shirts arrive on foot, by bicycle, and motorcycle, choking the streets with their numbers and noise, and obliterating all our preconceptions of Rishikesh as some peaceful escape. This is, after all, the yoga ashram capital of the world, a spiritual gateway which has always attracted many a yogi, guru, swami, and pilgrim (including, in the 1960s, John, Ringo, Paul, and George, who found their Maharishi just up the hill from our hotel).

And while the orange-clad river of humanity flows, day and night, past the front gates of the Yoga Niketan Guest House ($12 a night includes two yoga classes, a lecture, and two meditation sessions each day), the Ganga herself calmly rushes by on the other side, not 20 feet from our room’s balcony. Ghats, or steps, which people use to access the water, line the banks across the river, and along our side as well, and they are filled with people lighting candles, chanting, singing, and bathing.

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We make our way through the crowds, trying to visit all the scattered parts of town, all the ashrams (an impossible task), trying to find something suitable for November, which, we are finding, is much more difficult than we ever imagined.

That’s how we ended up at Kripalu Ahram, Shoshana and George’s place, who ended up inviting us into their small bedroom, where we talked for hours and played with their cats, discussing everything from false gurus and commercial yogis, to the power of the mountains, to the addictiveness of India, to Shoshana’s unique gong meditation class, which we are attending this evening.

“It works on a deep, cellular level,” she said. “The idea is to journey with the gong.”

And journey we will.

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