Meeri chhoti behen, my Indian little sister, Neha steps off the plane at Jolly Grant airport. She looks so grown up and modern I almost don’t recognize her. The last time I saw her, she was still living with her parents and wearing kurta pyjama – a traditional style of dress consisting of a long tunic over baggy drop-crotch trousers. Today she looks very hip, in tight jeans and a top with the shoulders cut out. A lot has changed for her in the three years since we last met. She’s working now for the government of Chhattisgarh (the central Indian state from which she hails), living in a flat, and driving regularly.
We met 8 years ago in a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation in Dharamsala. We were seated next to each other. One day, ostensibly tired of hearing me weep, she turned to me and mouthed, “Don’t just be a survivor; be a warrior.” Wise words from a girl of then only 22, whose conservative parents once tried (thankfully unsuccessfully) to force her into an arranged marriage. We fell in love in silence, became sisters in the process and have kept in close contact ever since.
She’s come to meet me in Rishikesh, the self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world. Rishikesh is my other home base in India. Like so many past sojourns, I’ve come here directly from Goa. A drastic paradigm shift to go from a hedonistic beach scene to a holy temple town, but one that suits me. I’ve partied plenty. It’s time now to get serious about yoga.
Neha’s never done any yoga. Actually, that’s about as far from the truth as possible. Though she has little experience with asana, she’s a strong meditator and lives a sattvic lifestyle, attuned to the yogic values – ahimsa (non-violence), astaya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (moderation), aparigraha (generosity). She is yoga – full of grace and positive values. Committed to protecting forests, promoting opportunities for rural women, and in doing so, effectively shaping the future of this all too often male-dominated subcontinent. She’s a true child of nature – inspired more by Ganga’s green waters and fluttering butterflies than by temple bells and ritual. Her eyes widen as she takes it all in – the way the majestic river winds its way down the gorge. The full moon over forested hillsides. Ganga’s shimmery sand beaches and polished stone riverbanks.
We’ve got a week together to explore all that Rishikesh has to offer. There are so many ashrams and yoga shalas with drop-in classes, intensive short courses, and teacher training programs; it’s hard to know where to begin. We start off with a 90-minute classical hatha class at Rajendra Yoga & Wellness Center near my place in Tapovan.
Rajendra is a fantastic teacher, his cueing incredibly precise and mindful of correct alignment. It’s my preferred way to start each day; with focused attention on breath and slow movement. Under his guidance, I am able to find my way into asanas I often struggle with. He has a magical way of describing alternate modes of getting into the postures and gives hands-on adjustments. I’m thrilled to be practicing with him again, acutely aware of the progress I make from one day to the next. My body becomes more limber, my mind quieter, my breathing capacity increases.
It’s the antidote to western style vinyasa, focusing on perfecting a few key asanas by repeating them often with meticulous attention to form, rather than powering through. I always leave class uplifted and lighter.
Rajendra Yoga and Wellness Center
90 mins, 300 Rs mats and props provided. www.yogamaster.org
And eager for breakfast! We make our way down the steep winding stairs that lead to Laxman Jhula, the famed upper bridge that spans the narrow gorge. We navigate through the throngs of humans and cows, monkeys and langurs, scootys and motorcycles to German Bakery, perched high above the river on the Western bank. I order two cappuccinos and a yak cheese, avocado, vegetable sandwich on homemade brown bread. Neha’s suddenly out of her element, uncertain as to how to eat the giant sandwich. We share a laugh as I point out that this is precisely how most first time travelers to India feel when faced with the daunting feat of eating soupy dal (lentil soup) with one’s hands! Eventually, she finds a style that suits her, picking off the component pieces one by one. The yak cheese is delicious – salty and creamy. The bread slightly sour with thick crust and spongy interior. We finish with a piece of gluten-free brownie, dark and bitter, yet slightly sweetened by jaggery (unrefined sugarcane). It’s the perfect way to power up before walking innumerable kilometers (I’ve been averaging 8.2 and 25 flights of stairs daily!)
We make our way to Swarg Ashram Marg, the neighborhood along the Eastern flank of the river, alongside Ram Jhula. The main city, where most locals live, lies in the valley at the confluence of the Ganga and Chandrabhaga Rivers. The iconic tourist town is higher upvalley and clings to the hillsides. There are two suspension bridges (jhula), named for the brother deities Ram & Laxman, that span the river and connect the different neighborhoods.
Ram Jhula is the first stop for pilgrims making their way from Haridwar – where Ganga spills out of the mountains into the plains – towards Gangotri – the glacier at her source. It caters to more Indian travelers than Laxman Jhula, which although a typical traveler town, is becoming increasingly posh with new boutiques and hotels. The section of town where I stay, Tapovan, even higher up the hillside, used to be a small farming village with rice paddies and bullocks. It’s now been completely absorbed by the ever-growing area, with more and more multi-story buildings and fewer green spaces — evidence of India’s ever-expanding population, and the booming business of yoga.
Along the way from Laxman Jhula to Swarg Ashram Marg we pass dozens of shops selling all manner of things at bargain prices – brightly colored bags from Rajasthan, parachute pants and flowing dresses, starched white kurtas, woolen stoles from Kashmir, handmade paper journals, Ayurvedic potions and pills, spices and natural beauty products. It’s a shopper’s paradise, peppered amongst the temples and ashrams that line Ganga’s banks. We pass babas in their orange robes, begging for alms. Past hawkers vending chaat (snacks) ranging from popcorn to potato pancakes, roasted chickpeas, and papads, butter cookies hot out of the wood oven, and heaps of fruit vendors with ripe papayas, mangoes and musambie (a varietal of orange).
Along the way, pass shops selling brightly colored bags from Rajasthan, parachute pants and flowing dresses, starched white kurtas, woolen stoles from Kashmir, handmade paper journals, Ayurvedic potions and pills, spices and natural beauty products.
In Ram Jhula we stop by The Juice House for anar, fresh pomegranate juice. Cooling, rehydrating, and delicious. A small respite from the crowds and the midday sun. It costs twice as much as a similar cup from a street side vendor (150 Rs, about $2) but I love supporting this little spot, where the staff is always friendly, the stereo plays awesome Indian chart toppers and one can stare lovingly at the holy river.
As dusk falls, we go to the ghat (bathing steps) at Parmarth Niketan for aarti, nightly prayers for the river. Parmarth is probably the best-known ashram in town, site of the annual International Yoga Festival which brings in the heavy hitters from all over the globe. I’m too late this season to partake in the festival itself, but some of the key players are still around, and I’m tickled when I get to namaste one of my favorite American Kundalini teachers, Gurmukh, the grand dame herself. Aarti is amazing, as always. I love the kirtans (devotional songs) and the way the Brahmins (priests) use fire to make puja (prayers).
Afterwards, we backtrack to Laxman Jhula for dinner at Rahat, my favorite dhaba (local canteen). I order a thali, a traditional plate consisting of rice and daal, vegetables, curd, and pickle and served with roti, a crispy bread like a pita that comes straight out of the tandoor (wood fire oven). It’s Neha’s turn to laugh as I initially struggle to scoop the watery broth into my mouth with my fingers. But my muscle memory returns and by the end I’m making perfect little mouthfuls of rice and sauce, scooping adroitly without making too much of a mess. There’s something truly satisfying about eating with one’s hands. It encourages a slower pace of consumption. Rather than shoveling with a spoon, one must take time to mindfully assemble morsels of just the right consistency. I feel good about returning to local ways, tapping back into customs long since practiced. And I swear, it makes the food taste better!
The following day, after class with Rajendra, we make breakfast at home (curd with organic puffed amaranth from the Himalaya, local honey, and fruit) and prepare ourselves for the day. It’s a long way from my house at the top of Tapovan to the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram (better known as The Beatles Ashram) at the end of Ram Jhula. In 1968, the fab four spent an extended period of time at this ashram, practicing transcendental meditation, making music inspired by their experiences (Jai Guru Deva! Nothing’s gonna change my world…) and ultimately putting Rishikesh on the map. The ashram fell into disuse in the mid-1980s after the death of the Maharishi and a political fallout between his followers and the local government. For nearly 30 years the jungle took over. The derelict buildings, which once housed hundreds of devotees, became the domain of monkeys, elephants, and a few rogue babas.
When I first came to Rishikesh nine years ago, sneaking in to spend an afternoon exploring the ruins was the thing to do. The crumbling buildings were covered in graffiti, and the whole complex had the air of an old squat. In 2012, an American street artist, Pan Trinity Das (#pantrinitydas), began a series of Beatles inspired murals in what had once been the main meeting hall. Word got out, and more and more people began to find their way to the ashram, many tagging the walls. In the spring of 2016, I had the great privilege of providing art support to him, Kyrie Maezumi (#youonlyalways), and a muralist friend of mine, Miles Toland (@milestoland). For 10 days, the crew tirelessly painted an incredible amount of stunning art on the walls. Day after day I snuck past the guards (who had been installed to deal with the increasing number of people like me who were sneaking in) and brought food, water and supplies (ie: charras, hash. Though illegal, it has a sacred history in India and is associated with Lord Shiva) to the crew.
Today the ashram is officially part of Rajaji National Park, and there’s a steep entry fee for foreigners (600 Rs, about $9 US). But it’s well worth it. Though the walkways have been paved and there’s now a canteen, the place maintains its original mysterious charm. Part nature reserve, part historical ruins, part street art gallery. It radiates an inexplicable energy, tranquil yet full of dynamic creative potential. The architecture is amazing; many of the buildings were designed in the round, to have the effect of creating echo. Sound is a critical component of transcendental meditation, and it makes sense that the Beatles were so inspired while here. It’s an unparalleled experience to climb the outside of a conical structure perched on the roof of a five-story building, descend a ladder into a little hidden chamber at the top, and OM! One really gets a sense of how that sacred sound is at the root of creation; a resonant hum that vibrates into every fiber of our beings.
Neha and I spend the whole day wandering in and out of the rubble, climbing, clamoring, and playing like children. Afterwards, I take us to Dream Cafe in Laxman Jhula for a well-deserved meal. One wouldn’t necessarily expect fantastic Korean food in the midst of a bustling Indian town. Dream Cafe caters to travelers whose palates long either for familiar flavors from home, or something totally different. Their Kimchi soup is truly memorable – served with radish, pickled green beans, rice, and an optional fried egg. Super spicy, totally umami, and incredibly healthy with the natural probiotics one needs while traveling. Neha ordered veggie sushi and was remarkably adept at navigating the perfect little morsels into her mouth, whilst using chopsticks for the first time!
42. Laxman Jhula near the post office, Jonk, Pauri Garhwal Jhula, Rishikesh. 249302
No trip to Rishikesh would be complete without a visit to the Trayambakeshwar Temple and a dip in Ganga. The iconic temple stands at the entrance to the bridge, welcoming all to this pilgrim’s town. It’s one of my favorite personal traditions to climb up all the way to the top, ringing everyone of the 108 bells along the way. Going up, we encounter a Brahmin who smears red tilak powder on our foreheads and wraps red thread around our wrists to bless and protect us.
Going up, we encounter a Brahmin who smears red tilak powder on our foreheads and wraps red thread around our wrists to bless and protect us.
After, we walk north of town to a long time fave bathing spot, Goa Beach. It’s technically on private property, in the shadow of a massive temple which has been under construction for many years. We slip through an opening in the wall and descend to the sandy beach, shimmery with flecks of silver. Wrapping our dupattas (shawls) around ourselves out of modesty, we dunk ourselves into Ganga’s icy cold, green glacial waters. Jai Ganga Maa! We spend the remainder of the afternoon playing in the sand, scrambling over rocks and sunbathing.
For our evening meal, I decide to splurge (we were such good devotees today) and take us to A Tavola Con Te. Tucked in a little side alley in Tapovan, this well-loved institution makes exceptional Italian cuisine. Neha’s beside herself, oohing and aahing after every creamy cheesy bite of cannelloni. We devour a whole woodfire pizza with fresh basil as well and cap off the whole hedonistic gastronomy with chocolate mousse – deliciously creamy and slightly bitter. It’s an unbelievably spendy meal by Rishikesh standards (nearly 1000 rupees!) but a fraction of what a similar meal would cost in a comparable restaurant back home. And they take credit cards. Which means that by enjoying the sumptuous experience I am racking up points towards future travels!
In spite of our full bellies and tired legs we make our way back down into town to Royal Cafe. The Tantric Monkeys (who made an appearance in Goa – editor’s note) are in town, and I can’t resist going to hear them play. Their singer, Anthony reminds the crowd that it happens to be St Patrick’s Day. A totally apt way to celebrate, by enjoying the jigs of this beloved Irish group. I’m extra pleased when they sing the Arambol Anthem, and the whole crowd joins in. “Arambol I love your sunsets!” It’s the perfect way to cap off an amazing week.
On Neha’s last day, we go rafting. What was once a fairly unusual sport has become a big business with dozens of tour operators supplying ever-growing crowds. The guides recently formed a union, and now prices are standardized. For 1000 RS ($14 US), we are driven 7 km upstream to Shivpuri. The put-in has also recently been expanded, with a proper parking area, toilets, and vendors selling lemon sodas and snacks. The majority of the clientele are middle-class Indians on holiday.
Unfortunately, most don’t know how to swim and have never been on a boat. On our trip, I’m the only gringo and the only one who has any concept of what do with the paddle. The run lasts about two hours, with class 4 rapids along the way. In spite of the real dangers, and the fact that the guides and I are paddling hard to make up for 7 others, we are having a really good time. Neha’s face is beaming with joy. She’s fearless and even does a 15-foot cliff dive in her life jacket, in spite of not knowing how to swim. It’s an excellent way to experience the river and take in her natural beauty. We spot cormorants and hornbills; watch fish jump to the surface; enjoy the fresh air and cooling waters. And laugh a lot!
The day after Neha’s departure, I sleep in, exhausted from all our activities. After a leisurely morning beditating, I decide to try an 11am Kundalini class at World Peace yoga school. It’s in a new location this year, and though the offerings have expanded, my old teacher Amritji is not available, and sadly, the aerial studio I frequented hasn’t made the move. The class is taught instead by a local woman I recognize from past visits, but whose name escapes me. She’s well intended, but it’s clear she lacks experience, and I can barely hear her over the Ram Das track that repeats incessantly. The class is substandard – lacking any theme or direction with no explanations about the mudras or mantras, and little time to actually focus on one’s breath. Evidence that here in this yoga mecca, one must seek out quality instructors in the endless quantity of yoga schools. I’m glad it’s only an hour long as the room is also very hot, and I’m eager to get to the river.
On another occasion, I find myself at Sattva, a stone’s throw from Laxman Jhula bridge. I spotted a signboard for Himalayan Kundalini. Curious, I make my way up the five flights of stairs to a rooftop shala with epic views. The 90-minute class, taught by an Irish woman named Oonagh, is excellent. Similar to the Kundalini that I’m accustomed to, but with unique twists.
Firstly, there’s no need to wear white. The meditations are in Sanskrit, rather than Gurmukhi. And lastly, Oonagh explains, the class can be sequenced in any order rather than following the exact kriyas brought to the west by Yogi Bhajan. There’s still mantra and meditation using mudras; heavy emphasis on breath of fire and applying Mulhabhanda. Oonagh’s got a fluid way of explaining the kriyas, with soothing energy and inspiringly powerful breath. I emerge from class completely invigorated.
And decide to treat myself to a Super Protein Smoothie at Space Cafe, the restaurant at Sattva. I slurp the delightful blend of almond milk, protein powder, dates, chia, and bananas while gazing out at the masses crossing the gently swaying bridge and the bubbling waters of Ganga below. Taking it all in, as I contemplate my next move…