India: Authentic Yoga Retreat for Stresses of Modern Life

Beth Duff Brown, Associated Press
Publication Date: 
Sat, 2004-04-03 03:00

RISHIKESH, India, 3 March 2004 — I stood yawning on a dusty platform in the dilapidated New Delhi railroad station, squinting as shadows took form with the slow rising sun.

Barefoot porters, their heads piled high with burlap bundles, tripped over my feet. The odors from street urchins who pick at debris along the tracks and the sacred cows who roam free forced me to cover my mouth like so many other impatient passengers around me.

Then, a sun-weathered man, his head wrapped in a crisp red turban, pulled a wooden rickshaw alongside me. I turned suddenly to face mounds of black cloves — the smell a reminder of Christmas and my faraway family — and a toothless smile with a nod of the head. My eyes filled with tears. It seemed like months since I’d stopped to simply smile at a stranger or acknowledge a wonderful smell or beautiful sound.

My morning began with that sweet smell of hot cloves; my night ended in the cool Himalayan hills, with chattering cicadas amid the rustling eucalyptus leaves.

My quest for rejuvenation was well under way. After a grueling stretch of juggling work, motherhood and nagging illnesses that come with eight years of Third World living, I was craving a break.

I determined that since I was in India — land of yoga gurus and mystical Hindus — I should combine my Western inclination toward self-pampering and the Eastern penchant for self-awareness.

“Life should start with us. If you are in peace, then you will exude peace, even if someone else has created fire,” a guru told me several days after I began my retreat. I’ve been taking yoga classes on and off for the three-and-a-half years we’ve lived in India, but never consistently enough to find that so-called third eye, or to tighten and tone like the yoga aficionado, Madonna.

Managing four Associated Press bureaus in South Asia is a dream journalism job which combines breaking news, funky features and fascinating people and places. But it’s demanding work and left me with little time for myself. I chose four days at Ananda In The Himalayas, a luxury health and yoga spa overlooking the River Ganges and Rishikesh, among Hindu’s holiest sites and the birthplace of yoga. Nestled in the isolated Sal Forest estate of the current Maharajah of Tehri-Garhwal, Ananda is not an easy destination. But getting there is part of the experience.

The train from New Delhi takes four hours to reach Haridwar, another sacred town in the northern state of Uttaranchal. Then comes another hour of slow driving through Rishikesh and up the steep, windy roads into the Sal Forest, mere miles from the borders of China and Nepal. Spider monkeys and warning signs to drive safely line the narrow, two-lane road.

The first thing you see when you reach Ananda is a princely palace, its 19th-century facades awash in pale yellow and mossy mildew. There are hundreds of these palaces in India, but the American in me never tires of such foreign, antiquated splendor.

The old wing of Ananda is housed in an annex built for a visit by the British viceroy in 1910. Visitors are welcomed by a duo sitting cross-legged on checkered tile, playing a traditional tabla drum and violin. A string of “rudraksh” seeds go around your neck. The round seeds are believed to stabilize blood pressure and ease anxiety.

The main focus of Ananda, which towers some 300 meters (1,000 feet) above sea level, is yoga, meditation and ayurvedic treatments, though there are plenty of Western-style beauty treatments, exercise classes and trekking.

The senior yoga instructor, Vinay Menon, met me at a white marble music pavilion, built in 1885, its columns topped by a ceiling painted royal blue and laced with metallic-gold leafing, surrounded by a reflecting pool and lush landscaping. The beauty is almost distracting.

Ananda’s instructors practice Hatha yoga, a combination of mind and body exercises some 5,000 years old. The yogis believed that to attain nirvana, a state of spiritual bliss, the body must first be dominated and controlled. They developed stretching, posture and breathing exercises to prepare the body for meditation. The better one is at yoga, the more deeply one can meditate.

I found Menon’s 90-minute sessions to be physically challenging, but not so strenuous that I was in pain the next day. His singsong “expand the body, expand the mind” was a bit irritating — but by the fifth session I found myself actually drifting into minutes of pure meditation even as my stubby legs were struggling. Menon also persuaded me to try a yoga remedy for sinus relief that I had resisted as just too disgusting. The altitude and pollen from the more than 50 species of trees that dot the 40 hectares (100 acres) of Ananda had given me a monster sinus headache and puffy, itchy eyes.

Yogis believe — and rightly so, I can now attest — that daily cleaning of the nasal passages with warm salt water prevents sinus infections, colds and allergies. Pouring the salted water from a little, long-nosed pot into one nostril and letting it drip out the other also helps one prepare for yoga and meditation. I woke up the next morning with a clear head and bright eyes.

One evening I visited Parmarth Niketan, where guru Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji presides over the dozens of young boys, many of them orphans, who live at the ashram. It was the highlight of my trip. I have covered ugly fundamentalist clashes, most memorably the anti-Muslim riots in western Gujarat state two years ago, in which more than 1,000 people died, most of them Muslim and many of them children burned alive by Hindu mobs. But this was an affirmation of the tolerance that I knew in my heart is the norm for Mahatma Gandhi’s India.

“Hindus by nature are very inclusive, they embrace everybody,” Swami Chidanand told me later, having been summoned to the ashram for a cross-legged chat. “By nature, Hindus are a very peace-loving people.”

The managing director of Ananda, Ashok Khanna, had invited me to pray with him at the ashram the night before. The businessman and the guru are working together to rejuvenate the spiritual tourism that once made Rishikesh a top destination among seekers.

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