Jun 25, 2014

    Unplugging in unofficial capital of yoga

    YOGA'S origins are debated, but many historians say it may have begun nestled amid the Himalayas, due north of New Delhi and along the historic Ganges, in Rishikesh.

    For centuries, it has been considered a holy place, drawing wayward spiritualists hoping to connect with the land, philosophies and the spirit.

    More recently, this town of about 100,000 gained fame as the place where the Beatles came in early 1968 and wrote much of The Beatles, commonly known as The White Album.

    Everyone - from Uma Thurman to Jeremy Piven, from Bollywood stars to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall - has swung through town.

    Before my departure, a yoga-teacher friend labelled Rishikesh "yoga heaven".

    An Indian friend countered: "That's where the annoying kids from my boarding school hung out."

    Curious and without shame, I joined their ranks: Was Rishikesh a morally bankrupt yoga Disneyland or still a special spiritual destination?

    After checking in and getting a power nap, I went to my first yoga class at Parmarth Niketan with Swami Yogananda, a man who claimed to be 105 years old. He attributes his astonishing achievement in age to both the yoga practice he is said to have begun in the 1920s and a grainless diet of fruit, milk and nuts.

    He rolled into the ashram's prayer hall one morning with a mobile phone tucked into a golden bucket, toothpick-thin legs emerging from a nest of orange cloth. Then, in broken English, he guided a small class through a series of heavy, nasal-breathing exercises.

    His signature move was holding his hands out as claws and leading the class in a chorus of loud roars. I felt ridiculous in my yoga pants imitating a lion, but if he was really 105, whatever Yogananda Ji was doing was clearly working. So, I roared.

    As I continued my big cat growls, I was struck by how far the chasm was between here and what I experienced in some North American forms of the practice, in which throngs of neurotic yet limber women wear US$100 (S$125) Lululemon pants while channelling their inner pretzel.

    While Rishikesh offers some hotel options, I wanted to stay at an ashram to immerse myself in the yogi life. That's easier now than ever, as many have websites and will take reservations via phone and e-mail.

    I had booked a room at Parmarth for 300 to 700 rupees (S$6 to S$15) a night.

    While electricity and heat in the rooms came and went during my stay, it felt luxurious by local standards.

    During my stay, I encountered gaggles of yoga teachers - young and old - as well as wealthy young Indians unpacking angst, Midwestern American mums also hoping to decompress, one man who had sold his Facebook stock, some befuddled recent college graduates, several recently divorced and miscellaneous heartbroken souls, some self-described "crusty hippies", a supermodel yogi, a Catholic priest turned Zen monk, a specialist in "laughter yoga", several people who had recently quit their jobs and at least one teacher who said he preferred to pair his yoga practice with hallucinogenic drugs.

    "What they're walking away with is much more than just more flexible hamstrings, slightly stronger and more well-defined triceps and some pictures," said Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, one of Parmarth's long-time spiritual leaders and the director of the ashram's yoga festival. "People, their lives, change here."

    Mornings start at the ashram with prayers and chanting at five o'clock, sometimes earlier. Meals are vegetarian - usually rice, lentils and some cooked vegetables - and are eaten in silence while you sit on a floor in a communal space.

    If alcohol and meat aren't officially banned in Rishikesh, they're certainly hard to come by. And many of the spandex uniforms of Manhattan studios clash with ashram dress codes, which ask for women to have shoulders and legs covered.

    Three days in, I was doing six to eight hours of yoga a day. When I told yogis and gurus of my tech sabbatical, their reactions reinforced my suspicion that mobile phones are something of a Buddhist nightmare, their sole purpose being to take you out of the present.

    So does worrying. My stress was beginning to dissipate and, as the hours rolled by in meditation and yoga classes, I realised that my mind was like one of the homes from Hoarders.

    As it happened, my travel dates partly overlapped with the annual International Yoga Festival, a collection of more than 600 yogis from 51 countries, centred at Parmarth. The US$500 suggested donation included lodging, food and classes.

    For the rest of my stay, an even broader array of yoga classes would be offered at the ashram, sometimes even four or five simultaneously.

    As I immersed myself in backbends and kundalini poses that included holding my arms up for 20 minutes at a time (yes, 20 minutes), the half-hour mediation sessions began to feel shorter, the leg poses more attainable.

    Not one of the instructors professed the virtues of slate tummies or trimmer thighs. Instead, the visiting Rishikesh yoga teachers, as diverse as their students, seemed more focused on the spiritual, rather than the pure fitness, side of yoga. None of the studios had mirrors, and much of each class took place with eyes closed.

    The idea that I (or anyone) could steal away to Rishikesh and come back Myself 2.0, exuding Beyonce-like confidence every moment, is a lovely one.

    But I knew the greatest test of the Rishikesh trip would be upon my return to an anxiety-filled New York.

    After leaving India, I flicked on my phone and felt an endorphin hit as the hundreds of e-mail messages rolled in and I began scrolling.

    As it turned out, I hadn't missed much.