Thursday, March 27, 2008

Yoga in Rishikesh: many forms, many theories

[More than a year and a half after I went to Rishikesh and Ananda Spa to do stories for Outlook's Wellness guide (posts from that time here and here), the book is finally out. Very readable too: many informative and nicely written pieces on Ayurveda, Yoga, naturopathy and other therapies, plus several loving descriptions of various types of massages (free massages being the chief attraction for the unprivileged freelancers who worked on these articles). Congrats to commissioning editor Juhi Saklani, who did a wonderful job putting the thing together.

Am doing the storehouse thing now and putting up the "yoga in Rishikesh" piece I did for the book. Will post the Ananda one later.

There must be something to that parable about making an arduous trek to the top of a mountain to seek a holy man's advice, reaching there after weeks of toil and discovering that you have become the holy man you seek – for the journey was the destination. I consider this while panting and wheezing up many a steep road (some of which are inclined at almost 45 degrees in places) during my visits to Yoga classes in Rishikesh; the very act of making these trips should qualify one to become a master in the spiritual arts.

As in the best stories, I do indeed find words of wisdom at the top. For instance, in the office of the Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy run by the Sivanand Ashram, the secretary, Ved Prakash Grover, tells me that three vices – kama (lust), krodha (anger) and lobha (greed) – open the gateway to hell, and that the aim of the Yoga course is to combat these. Unfortunately, foreigners are disallowed from conquering their sins, the course being open only to Indians. "We find that the tourists are an undisciplined lot and cause problems," explains the secretary. "They believe in free sex and alcohol. They kiss as freely as we do namaskar. Their women stand arms akimbo." (He places his hands on his hips.) "No respect for elders. Etc."

In a town that’s widely known for its tourist-friendliness, this attitude is an incongruous one – but then Rishikesh, as I soon discover, has many shades. The overriding impression is of a place in constant flux, not always sure what to make of its own status as a major Yoga centre. But major centre it undoubtedly is. The town is known in some quarters as the Yoga capital of the world, and you'll see markers of this if you take a stroll around the vicinity of the Ram Jhula and the Laxman Jhula, two of the holiest spots in the region. Certain words are ubiquitous on signboards and banners, no matter where you look. One of these is "Ashram", another is "Yoga", and you'll often see the two in conjunction. Which is why it's initially surprising to find that many of the older sadhus in the area give you blank stares when you say the word or ask for directions to Yoga classes. The most likely explanation (not counting deafness) is that they know only the Sanskrit root "Yuj" (meaning "to unite"). The term "Yoga" is believed to have been coined when the form began to get widely commercialised a few decades ago. This is why many members of the old school have either never heard of the neologism or stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it.

In fact, the very definition of Yoga is somewhat nebulous. The uninformed city-slicker (read: yours truly) carries the image of a few complicated exercises, mostly done in the sitting posture. But you'll be surprised how many different forms there are. In nearly every nook and cranny of the town, there are classes advertising bhakti yoga and hatha yoga, jnana yoga and raja yoga; there's pranayama, there are innumerable asanas, there are "special light yoga" courses that can be completed in a day. There's even laughing yoga and dancing yoga.

Given the basic idea behind Yuj (achieving harmony between the body and the mind), the most open-ended interpretations of Yoga can include just about any activity that helps a person do this – even if it's something as basic as lying down on a mat and clearing your mind of all worldly thoughts. My most memorable introduction to this attitude comes from Swami Vishnudas of the Kailashanand Mission Trust, an admirably laidback and no-airs teacher who admits that he doesn't really care for most Yoga techniques despite actively practicing them. "See, the basic idea is to achieve Paramatman," he says (and yes, I'm quoting exactly), "and people can do this in many different ways. When a young boy wishes to achieve a young girl, he tries various techniques: he uses fragrant body powder, dresses up smartly, leaves a good impression by presenting a sensitive side of himself. Likewise, the people here try different techniques – bhakti yoga, asanas, pranayam, meditation – in order to achieve God. It's exactly the same thing, really."

The more orthodox teachers would be aghast at the idea of using such an analogy to explain the serious business of "achieving God". If there's one thing that most people in Rishikesh are parochially proud of as setting their town apart from other Yoga centres, it's the "spirituality" quotient. The term is a common byword; I lose count of the number of times I hear it during my peregrinations from one school to another. "Rishikesh has a reputation for being the Yoga City because of its spiritual touch," says Vivek B Gour, a Yoga-naturotherapist and holistic healer who works with the NGO Bharat Heritage Services. "There are many other places where people practice Yoga during the day and then go off and party late into the night. Here, it's different: we understand that Yoga isn't just about doing exercises to keep the body fit. It's about maintaining discipline; it's about an entire way of life."

Gour is being sincere, but in practice things aren't so cut-and-dried. Attractive though the prospect of hordes of Westerners escaping their decadent lands to come here and find Moral Salvation may be to some people, it doesn't always work that way. Many of the tourists who come here for lessons do take Yoga very seriously, stay for months and carry detailed instructions back with them so they can continue to practice it at home; but for the majority it's a pastime that gives them a "flavour of India" during a short vacation. It's no coincidence that Rishikesh, apart from being a spiritual centre, is also a vantage point for mountaineering, river rafting and other pursuits that are attractive to tourists (unlike, say, nearby Haridwar, where you don't find as many foreigners).

This contributes to the sense of schizophrenia one sometimes gets while soaking in the Rishikesh atmosphere. On the one hand there are gurus preaching about how Yoga must be complemented by discipline in general – "no late-night partying or drinking" – while on the other hand many of the students who attend classes conducted by these very gurus move on to the more fun aspects of vacationing after "sampling" the Yoga culture.

The actual courses range from those conducted by long-established institutes (with martinet codes of conduct and provision for accommodation) to short-term ones run by casual operators looking to make a fast buck off a fad. The latter are spread all over the place: even in residential areas, you can check for indicators of makeshift Yoga courses – just look out for motorbikes parked by the side of the road and discarded shoes and socks lying nearby, and soon enough you'll see a signboard with the familiar words in the undergrowth. But there's a randomness about these non-professional "schools". Often you'll find a sign advertising a course, but you'll go to the given address to discover that classes have either been discontinued or "this isn't the right time of year, there aren't enough students". The same teachers freelance their services to different "schools" and timings are often erratic, so it's difficult to pin down their schedules and movements. One limitation, Gour tells me, is that the region does not have a proper school of Yoga that operates around the year. Typically, classes are held on a fragmented basis, in accordance with the level of tourist activity and interest at the time.

This casualness leads to many mutterings of disgruntlement. At one of the largest, most picturesque ashrams in Rishikesh, the riverside Ved Niketan, I meet a wrathful gentleman named Rajiv who has strong views on the commercialisation of Yoga. "The influx of foreigners has done this," he says. "Since there's money in teaching Yoga, just about everyone feels free to start a course and put up a big board – whether or not they are properly qualified. Ever since the firangs glamorised spirituality in the 1960s, things like pre-marital sex, smoking and drinking have gone hand in hand with Yoga. Today, even the yogis at many of these ashrams lead very materialistic lives."

Most people don't look at the spiritual aspect of the form, a couple of gurus explain, they treat it more like P.T. exercises in school. But while physical asanas make for the superficial structure, real Yoga cleanses internally. Likewise, Vivek Gour disapproves of the flippant approach to Yoga in the metros, "where bored socialites just treat it as a sporadic exercise or as a pretext to wear fashionable gymwear and pose for magazines". Tellingly, modern concepts such as "Yogalatis" – where Yoga asanas are combined with Pilates – are almost unheard of in this town. "We don't like to mix pure Yoga with other, newfangled things," says Gour. But the influence of the “metro socialites” may slowly spread here too, he worries; after all, if tourists keep coming here and making enquiries about Yogalatis classes, sooner or later someone will decide to pander to their demands. And what then will become of Rishikesh’s integrity?

The more established schools – the ones that hold regular classes, at fixed timings, and provide facilities for accommodation – tend to be quite rigid about codes of conduct and about maintaining their privacy. At the Yoga Niketan, I overhear a conversation between an earnest African youngster (a former student) and the secretary, who is having trouble following the thick accent. "I want to make a film about Yoga in Rishikesh," implores the young African, "I will try to sell the rights to American TV, or maybe put it up on the Internet." We don't believe in commercialisation, retorts the secretary, wagging his finger sternly, we won't allow your cameras into our meditation halls.

At these organised teaching centres, there are different schools based on methods followed by past masters of the form: the Iyengar school is more physical, for instance, concentrating on the asanas and known for its use of props such as belts and blocks, while Sivanand classes focus on such aspects as savasana (relaxation), Vedanta (positive thinking) and dhyana (meditation). But they usually manage to coexist without any major conflicts, and it isn't uncommon to see the same group of students attending two or more different sessions (in different schools) on the same day. "As long as we agree that Yoga means to become one with the soul," one of them explains, "how does it matter what methods you use?" It seems you can't have too much soul food. And besides, as the always-irreverent Swami Vishnudas puts it, "Now that they're here, they have to pass their time somehow!"

Peek into a session and you're almost certain to see a majority of non-Indians. Speaking to foreigners heading purposefully from one Yoga class to the next, one realises how much truth lies behind the clichés of "tourist-talk". It's all too common to hear sentences like "Yoga has helped me get in touch with my Inner Self, it's changed my energy and my aura."
Why do so many tourists flock to Rishikesh when Yoga can be practiced anywhere in the world, I ask. A few look uncertain. "The original masters were all from this region," one ventures, "and they went out into the world and popularised the form." Another giggles: "Is it because of the Beatles, do you think?" It certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility that at least a few of the tourists who visit each year are on a pilgrimage of a very different sort – to see the place where the iconic White Album was conceptualised during the Fab Four's 1968 visit.

"Yoga is very costly in their countries, so they come here instead," Swami Vishnudas deadpans when I bring up the subject with him later. But Torte, Danish by origin, a London resident and on her first trip to India, insists it's all about the spirituality. "I became acquainted with Yoga in the UK," she explains, "but coming here has been a completely different experience. It's amazing to hear the guru explain the principle behind every movement even as we do it."

"You're a journalist?" she asks, giving me a sympathetic look. "I was in the crazy world of media myself for several years. Then one day I tried to get up from my bed and found I could barely walk. The stress had finally got to me." That provided the impetus to change her lifestyle – to "live from the heart" as she puts it. "Yoga helped me become more mindful of everything I do – even the way you breathe during the exercises is aimed at making you conscious of the breathing process." Now, she says, she's succeeded in giving up alcohol and cigarettes, "but I still can't do without coffee in the morning. That's next on the removal list!"

(As ever, Swami Vishnudas has a perspective that runs contrary to accepted wisdom: according to him, Yoga is better for people who are already reasonably balanced – "because it makes you more sensitive and it can be harmful for people who are already disturbed in some way".)

Yoga is all about self-realisation, goes the popular refrain, which is why it can be very beneficial to people with high-stress careers where one is constantly in a competitive frame of mind. "It helps you internalise your feelings, act on your own strengths, without worrying about what others around you are doing," says Torte's friend and traveling companion, Melanie. "It takes away the negative feelings that come with too much competitiveness." Later, at a Yoga class, I see some of this firsthand: the students aren't self-conscious about what the others in the class are up to, and whether they can match up. They simply do the best they can and try to improve within their limitations. This session takes place in a large hall at the Yoga Study Centre, where Guru Rudra is the teacher. I've been warned that he's a forbidding man, but maybe I've come on a good day; the guru is all smiles and chuckles during a special farewell lecture he is giving for a batch of his students. Nearly all of them are foreigners and though they shift uncomfortably in the cross-legged sitting position that doesn't come naturally to them, they hang on to the guru's every word. "Swamiji has given Yoga such a simple, direct form," one of them tells me later. "He makes each movement seem natural – it isn't like an instructor telling you 'Left, right, left, right'."

Rudra's method involves a lot of complicated asanas, at least at the advanced stage, but at the Omkaranand Ashram in Tapovan Sarai (in the vicinity of the Laxman jhula) Guru Ashish takes classes based on the more contemplative Sivanand style. "Our students come from different parts of the world and different professions, and we look at their individual needs before we start classes," he says. "Ninety per cent of them say they want to do Yoga to escape stress. Then there are cases where people have been let down in love, or were sexually abused as children. We hear their stories before deciding what the best treatment for them would be."

Ashish is the unlikeliest guru I've met here, a clean-shaven young man with a perpetual shy smile on his face, fidgeting with his mobile phone every now and again – even showing me SMSes he received from a French student who continues to do distance therapy with him even after returning to Paris. "I allot a time, we both get into the zone thousands of miles apart, and I then help solve her problems," he explains. The gratitude-filled SMSes run along the following lines:

"Wow guruji, I totally felt the warm waves of sensation just now!"


"That's amazing! How did you know I moved?" (when she failed to maintain a yogic position and he reprimanded her)

Ashish was an engineer once, he tells me, he worked with Hindustan Aeronautics for three years before being drawn by "an inner calling" to come to this town. In fact, that’s a common enough refrain with many of the people I meet. Ved Prakash Grover of the Vedanta Forest Academy is a retired college professor from Jaipur. And K S Rana, advisor, Yoga Niketan left a busy army job in Delhi to, as he puts it, “come here, mingle with saints and merge my soul with mother Ganga". He sounds the spirituality gong too. "You keep yourself – your body, mind and soul – fit by doing Yoga and in the process you keep mankind fit as well. No other discipline teaches this."

At the best of times, it's difficult to reconcile the many definitions of and approaches to Yoga. But here's a last word from our friendly neighborhood non-conformist: in the classes he takes at the Kailashanand Mission Trust, Vishnudas claims to have developed something called "Just Be Meditation", which he describes as an "effortless meditation" based on the invaluable principle of staying still – no unnecessary wastage of energy. "When I was young, I developed the habit of lying down silently and clearing my mind of all thoughts," Vishnudas tells me. "I realised only years later that what I had been doing was a form of reflexive meditation – and, effectively, Yoga." Frankly, his description sounds more like sleep to me, but I don't venture my thoughts. In the final analysis, it's about whatever works for you.

[Note: I haven't included addresses and phone numbers of yoga institutes in this post. Anyone who's interested, please email.]


  1. ...whatever works for you is yoga..
    ..completely agree with that..I guess the commercialisation that yoga is undergoing won't really dilute it's real's about feeling good,peaceful,calm

  2. wish i had come across this excellent post before i went to rishikesh. never mind. will sure visit those ashrams on the next trip. which will be soon. maa gange calls

  3. correction. wish this post was written before i went to rishikesh. for some strange reason, its exciting to discover this was written only yesterday

  4. More questions than answers: actually, this piece was written in October 2006. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the info is outdated already.

    it's about feeling good,peaceful,calm

    Rahul: yes, and like I said, sleep can do that too. (Maybe I'll discover the virtues of Yuj for myself later in life!)

  5. Yoga really is something. I had the same thoughts "sleep can do that too" but when there was a yoga class arranged in office and once i started doing yoga, I realised that it is not popular for no reason. Now I try to go for yoga classes whenever I get a chance.But never been to rishikesh yet. Maybe one day I will.

  6. Jabberwock! My favourite poem in the world! And besides that, a great review and I really enjoyed your writing. Will definitely contemplate your other pieces. I was looking for information on the Bharat Institute, and glad to find some related commentary. Thank you.

  7. nice post ...thanks for sharing it,,,,,

  8. Nice post ..thanks for sharing it...