Catherine Turner’s India
In the end, the decision had been easy to make. After nearly eight years as Beauty & Health Director on a glossy magazine, I’d handed in my notice and was about to trade my dream job for a dream trip to India. This was no out-of-the-blue decision. I’d discovered yoga 11 years earlier: it had rescued me from a rather bleak time when I had been made redundant.
My stressed and stiff desk bunny body gradually melted and transformed into something resembling fit, healthy and flexible. I admit it, I’d become a yoga bore – it was that life changing – so I decided to walk the talk which is how, out of all the things to do on a trip to India, I ended up on a teacher training course at an ashram on the banks of the river Ganges in the Himalayas. At the risk of lapsing into hippy dippy ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ territory, it was my own little spiritual journey and I’d advise anyone (into yoga or not) to go and soak it all up. It’s a mind blowing experience on many levels – you’ll never forget it.
First Stop Rishikesh
It’s a bit of a journey to get there, and I did it the easy way. I debated for ages as to whether to fly to Delhi and get the full local experience by jumping on the train to Rishikesh. A true hippy would have got the bus. In the end I decided to catch an internal flight from Delhi to Dehradun which is then a 40 minute cab ride in to Rishikesh, and managed to persuade one other girl heading for the ashram to do the same. I’m glad I did, as I was troubled by a few horror stories of scams at Delhi train station.
Still, my fellow yogis made it by train or road without any problems, so it confirms I’m a ‘better to be safe than sorry’ rather than a risk-taking traveller. Either way, arriving in Rishikesh is an all-singing, all-dancing intro to India. Hordes of people, chaos and cows. Sun going down, beaten up old cab, horns blaring, tuk-tuks overtaking, dusty road, monkeys hanging off every tree…..and the smell. So bad, yet so good with bursts of delicate jasmine hanging in the hot evening air.
My new ashram buddy Charlotte and I lugged our luggage up the aptly named High Bank to our hostel hilltopswisscottage.webs.com (the cab could go no further) Yes, I’d truly abandoned my glossy magazine lifestyle for backpacker travel. Most of the accommodation in the area is monastic, and there are lots of places to choose from. The room was cheap, it looked fine once I hung up my mosquito net, and we had a glorious sunset view from our balcony.
Our first walk out next morning had us jumping out of our skins. There are no pavements, and it seems, no driving schools. Walking along the road involves dancing with traffic. But amazingly you get used to it. We began to get into our stride and stumbled on Ram Jhula one of two big bridges which span the Ganges. We decided to cross, our feet sinking into the tarmac melting under the blistering heat as we dodged cows, motorbikes and people. Walking through the main drag is an assault on the senses. Colourful shawls, rainbow cotton harem pants, crazed eyed pilgrims, spiritual travellers, wafts of incense, blasts of spine tingling chanting, tongue burningly hot sweet chai tea.
As a relief from the craziness, we wandered into what turned out to be the Parmarth Niketan ashram parmath.com A haven of peace and shade from the heat and dust. We returned for Puja and Aarti (Hindu rituals, devotional songs, chanting and meditation) which take place there at sunset every evening, everyone welcome. Sat outdoors with hundreds of others around the fire, I closed my eyes and went into a blissfully deep meditation, clearing my mind for the next stage of the journey.
A Month in the Ashram
I’d been surprised at how much I loved Rishikesh – it wasn’t my main reason for going – rather a stop off before joining with two other girls to share a jeep on the 7 hour death defying mountain road (windier than any journey in the Alps I’ve experienced) to the ashram. I’d chosen the Sivananda yoga teacher training course because I always liked that particular form of Hatha yoga, renowned as a classic, plus my favourite teachers had all done it.
Out of all the Sivananda ashrams, it had to be this one in Uttarkashi. I was drawn to the fact that it’s on the road to Gormukh, the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas and a popular pilgramage route sivananda.org/uttarkashi/ Extra significance – it is the precise point on the banks of the river chosen by Swami Vishnu Devanada (directly taught by his guru Swami Sivananda) to set up his Kutir (hut) whilst in his spiritual training. Now its become a centre for yoga holidays and teacher training. My experience there would take a whole book to tell, and lived up to everything I’d hoped. Living the yogic lifestyle in an Indian ashram isn’t for everyone I know, so I’d highly recommend going to the Sivananda centre in Putney, London first if you’re considering it.
Rishikesh Part Two
After almost 30 days of chanting, doing headstands, sun salutations, studying and meditating, I was filled with light and energy. I was sad to leave the ashram, yet strangely drawn back to Rishikesh along with a few of my new friends. This time, we crossed Lakshman Jhula the other huge, bridge spanning the Ganges which when overloaded with people, motorbikes and cows seems alarmingly shaky, leaving you wondering if you might end up in the holy water with the white water rafters below.
Wandering around looking for breakfast one morning, we found The Green Cafe, run by two yogis who’d studied at Swami Sivananda’s still-going-strong original ashram, The Divine Life Centre in Rishikesh. Very sweet guys, now ‘civilians’ rather than robed monks, they basically open their own home to make delicious porridge with fruits and fresh teas sweetened with honey as well as cooking veggie evening meals to order. They also take yoga classes and we went with them high up to a temple in the hills to practice sun salutations at dawn. There is no website for the cafe and I have no address, but I hope you might be able to find it by asking. It’s that kind of place.
And it was a rather spooky experience, but we had to go there. In staggering heat on our last day, we trekked to the edge of the town to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram where The Beatles famously stayed in the 60s and learned Transcendental Meditation. It was state of the art then (electricity in the little dome shaped private rooms – we visited No 9, where John Lennon is supposed to have slept), now overgrown and owned by the Forestry Department. I love George Harrison and I’d love to have been there in its fashionable hippy heyday, but the light was fading and Sadhus (Hindu holy men) with ratted hair, orange robes, and painted faces were popping up out of nowhere and we decided we’d seen enough.
R&R in Dharamsala
The merry band of yogis was breaking up and I decided to head for the Dalai Lama’s home town of Macleod Ganj high up on the hill above Dharamsala. This turned out to be a 14 hour drive in a private taxi as again, I refused to be backpacker brave enough to take the bus. And it was quicker by car and not that expensive. I stayed at Zambala House zambalahouse.com at the time, newly opened, spick and span, finally a room of my own with a balcony and view, a proper bathroom and a wardrobe. These little things matter if you have just been staying in an ashram. I have only good things to say, great staff and lovely breakfast too (eggs!! I’d had none in the ashram). Wandering round the village is spiritual tourism gone mad (market stalls selling prayer beads and shawls, Dalai Lama souvenirs, touristy eateries and the like) but I discovered a little yoga haven vijaypoweryoga.com Vijay is a wiry, bendy 50 something, a glowing example of how yoga keeps you young, and he’s a great teacher. I went every day to class.
Although the Dalai Lama was away (in London, actually), it was great to see his beautifully tranquil temple. Everyone can visit and even join in the daily rituals if adhering to all the rules dalailama.com But I have to say, whilst my yoga and meditation practice was totally set as a permanent thing in my life, I just wanted to hang out, eat good food and drink coffee all of which is possible in Macleod Ganj. My favourites: Common Ground Cafe commongroundsproject.org and Moon Peak Cafe moonpeak.org both easy to find. And one of the loveliest things I did was take a walking tour of the area with a 19 year old student from Tibet who had just spent weeks trekking over the Himalayas from his village to freedom. Total inspiration.