Rishikesh, India – The self-proclaimed “Yoga Capitol of the World,” Rishikesh attracts the kind of crowd one might expect…if it’s possible to expect anything in India. It’s a place where the ultra health conscious wander past homeless sadhus sleeping next to cows under bridges, where adrenaline junkies and meditation gurus cohabitate peacefully, where begging monkeys and unknowing tourists quarrel.
Rishikesh is a place where eating meat, drinking alcohol and any kind of drug is strictly prohibited. The locals here take the vegetarian diet so seriously; one would find it difficult even to buy eggs.
Rishikesh certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the yoga capital of the world. In fact, from the moment I landed at Delhi’s smoky airport, I wondered how such a peaceful practice had found its roots in this ever-busy and always dirty country. I assumed something must be different from what I’d seen so far, and I was most excited about my 10-day plan for a yoga retreat.
I had booked a place to stay with a locally based ayurvedic doctor via Couchsurfing.org, but when I arrived after a full day and night of miscommunication and unreliable transport, my host appeared to hate me. He was brisk, clearly thinking I’m some inconsiderate gypsy just trying to use him for a rent-free room, but I soon got him talking about yoga and his anger melted away.
I learned that Vivek, like most Indian men, is a man of many trades. Not only is he an ayurvedic doctor, a tour guide, yoga instructor and founder of several private schools around India, he’s a family man too with a wife and an 8-year-old daughter.
Vivek doesn’t live at what he calls his ashram (he has another house he shares with his family), a nice bi-level house with two guest rooms and a yoga studio. There’s also a kitchen and two bathrooms on the same floor. Above is the flat, unfurnished rooftop, and below is his office, filled with books about meditation and the practice of yoga.
I signed up for an afternoon class, and Vivek quickly asked me what I would like to work on.
“My face,” the first thing on my list of bodily problems, though I was half kidding. How could my acne-laden face (if you haven’t been following along, this was a result of an allergy to something in China) possibly be cured by yoga? But Vivek didn’t flinch.
“Breath is our God,” he said. “Without it we die.” Our 1.5-hour session turned into a lesson about the importance of breathing – a very different approach to yoga than what I had previously encountered in The States, but I learned some very interesting and scientifically backed (Vivek’s specialty) information.
Our brain releases toxins in four ways – urine, poop, sweat and breath. We perform only one all the time, which must mean it’s the most important, according to Vivek, so by focusing solely on outward breathing, we can aid our bodies in the cleansing process. An exercise where one breaths out through the nose continuously, without worrying about the natural inhale, has other benefits as well, such as reducing belly fat and helping pancreatic problems. It can also help with regulating blood circulation, which, according to Vivek, was a big cause of my acne.
“Our breath is our religion and it was given to us free!” He preached. “Why do we ignore the free things in life?”
We breathe through different parts of our nostrils at different times, not always in equal amounts. Breathing through our left nostril fuels our right brain, and the right nostril fuels our left. Those of us who are more creative tend to breathe more often through our left nostril, hence powering our right brain.
For the second exercise, Vivek told us to hold one nostril closed and breathe in slowly and deeply before releasing it through the opposite one. Then, do it even slower.
“Doing anything slow in life is difficult,” he explained. “If I tell you to come to me from where you are right now, you could be here in less than 5 seconds. But if I tell you to come to me from where you are and to stop and rest for 5 minutes in the middle, you would find it very difficult.”
The next morning’s session was a series of slow and repetitive postures, instead of pranayama (breathing). The postures were good, but I could tell the vast difference between western yoga practice and that in how it’s intended. It was meditative and relaxing, not quick and sweaty. I was already looking forward to the next, but I never got there.
I spent most of that night awake and either hurled over the toiled or perched on top, both in a miserable way. It seemed Delhi Belly had finally caught up to me and my fever raged through the following two days, making me unable to practice any more yoga.
On the third night, my fever broke. I awoke practically swimming in a pool of my own sweat. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. My pillow was soaked clear through. The thick blanket I was using to pad the hard bed could have been wrung out and hung to dry. I felt much better already (like Vivek said, sweat is one of the body’s releases) despite the fact I was now cold from lying in a pool of my own liquid.
Each day I was sick, Vivek’s cleaning lady and massage therapist, Rupa, cooked and cared for me. She applied a daily sandalwood mask to my face with a paintbrush to help aid the acne healing process, and always did so with a smile. On that third day, I was feeling well enough to get out of bed, but not to leave the house. My face had cleared up tremendously from letting my body rest, releasing toxins in a variety of ways, and Rupa’s special mask, though it would get worse again when I left. I was in the yoga studio, alone and writing with dried sandalwood covering my face, when Vivek approached me, ready to talk.
I quizzed him about reiki, and paunch karma, detox massage therapies and chakras. I learned that he devoted himself to his beliefs only five years ago, and that his family feels neglected by his selfish practices. He believes it is his duty to provide and care for his family, despite his wishes to completely fulfill his spirituality and become a baba.
To become a baba is to release all emotional and materialistic desires, which I think we can all agree is not an easy thing to do. And for Vivek, he knows he must follow through with the choices he’s already made, but he admittedly is not often present.
“I am like a lotus flower,” he said, holding out his palm flat. “The bottom half is attached to the water, the top half is detached, but it needs both to float.”
I understood his struggle, and his decision was probably not the most common one in this faithful country. I met many babas who did give up everything they had known – families, things, houses, previous lives – to pursue their spiritual goals. I admired him for doing what he believed was right, but I questioned how right it was if his family is suffering either way. Judging from his manner, he often had the same internal debate.
“Is there anything you can do about it?” I asked.
He looked at me with a puzzled look from his cross-legged perch on a yoga mat in front of me. “Breathe,” he said. “My breath is my God.” And so we sat on our respective yoga mats and breathed, slowly in and slower out, clearing our bodies of toxins and our minds of troubles.
*If you’re going to Rishikesh and you’d like to contact Vivek for any of his services, you can do so here. He comes highly recommended from me/MissAdventure Travel.
Do you like to practice yoga? What kind is your favorite? Do you have any unusual stories to tell?
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A Yoga Retreat in Rishikesh, India