I Left My Heart in Rishikesh
Despite my concerns that our difficult arrival into Rishikesh was a cosmic ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, our time at the Anand Prakash Ashram turned out to be a highpoint of our trip and definitely makes the list of my favorite experiences of all time.
Without realizing it we had booked our stay to coincide with the International Yoga Festival, which explained the booking confusions and our transfer to the Guru Residency. If (when) we return to Rishikesh we will be more careful in our planning to ensure we get to stay inside the Ashram walls. While we had an amazing time there were moments when we felt like we were missing out a little on the full experience.
More than any other part of our trip these 9 days flew by, which was unexpected. Going in I was concerned that the monotonous routine and limited sightseeing activities would make the time drag, but by the second day I knew that I could have stayed for a month. The daily schedule of the Ashram was pretty simple and for the most part we stuck to it, taking only the occasional break to try other activities in town.
A Day in Our Ashram Life
Every morning we woke up at 5:30am and made our way over to the main yoga hall. It was quite cold in the mornings, but there was something about the darkness that made me feel insulated by its silence. According to Ashram rules silence was to be maintained until after breakfast, so we exchanged silent Namaste’s with anyone we passed on the way to class. It was funny, even though we weren’t supposed to speak I found myself unable to resist the urge to whisper the greeting. I think a lot of that had to do with how happy the word makes me. It basically translates to mean “the light in me honors/acknowledges the light in you”…what a wonderful way to say hello!
As we entered the dark, candle lit, third floor hall we would locate empty spaces and set up our area with a mat, blanket, pillow, water and journal (just for me, Adam didn’t keep a journal :)). I always tried to be as far away from Adam as possible, since having him near distracted me from my practice. The room was always so still and the only sounds were the other students unrolling their mats and the occasional gust of wind against the old glass windows.
Once settled I’d sit, wrapped in my blanket, eyes closed, waiting for Yogi Vishvketu to begin class. Each morning I would worry that my sore muscles and limited energy would make the class impossible, but once we began I would almost immediately perk up and be grateful that I dragged my tired butt out of bed. One of my favorite parts of class was experiencing the sun rise. Throughout the class we had our eyes closed and every time we opened them the room was a little brighter. By the end, around 7:45am, the sun had fully risen, birds were chirping and I was energized and ready to start the day.
Since breakfast wasn’t until 8:30am we’d normally spend the next 45 minutes reading, journaling or just relaxing in silence in the Ashram’s sitting room. When the bell was rung, letting us know it was time to ‘come and get it’, we’d make our way to the dining hall – a simple room with burlap floor runners and rows of small tables. Everyone was given a metal plate, spoon, bowl and cup that was used for each meal. We silently sat on the floor as breakfast was served by the Ashram staff, although it was common for guests to help with the serving as well (I helped at most meals, Adam helped at two :)). Breakfasts, like all the meals, were always simple but delicious and often included apples, dates and tea. Our favorite dish was Uppama (sort of like thick cream of wheat made with semolina) that was sprinkled with peanuts. Once the serving was done everyone would raise they hands into the Namaste position and sing the morning prayer in Sanskrit. Luckily the English transliteration was painted on the wall so we could sing along. I’m not sure of the exact translation, but I just took the time to thank the universe for sending us to the Ashram and for the delicious food we were about to eat.
One of the best parts of the Ashram food, besides being delicious, was the fact that it was all “sattvic”. This is true for most Ashrams in India and, while it entails a number of rules, means that there is no garlic or onion. So, for 9 whole days, I didn’t have to worry if the food was going to make me sick…you have no idea what a relief that was!
Breakfast was typically done by 9am and we had free time until lunch at 1pm, so we spent our mornings exploring the town. With the exception of one or two days, we mostly enjoyed sunshine and by 10am it was gorgeous. We wandered the winding roads, relaxed in cafes overlooking the river and got lost in day dream conversations about what the rest of the year had in store for us. There was something about Rishikesh that made it easier to dream about the future without stressing about it, something I had never experienced before in my life.
In the afternoon we’d head back for lunch and then enjoy some more reading before afternoon yoga (4pm) and dinner (6pm). Needless to say, on most nights we were in bed by 8pm, exhausted by the day’s activities and the idea of doing it all again the next day. As our Yogi liked to say “Yoga parties are in the morning, night time is for sleeping”.
The Light of the Ashram – Yogi Vishvketu
Yogi Vishvketu, the man who ran the ashram, was the soul behind everything we experienced. He always had the most welcoming smile and when he spoke you could feel all of the tension leaving your body. He and his wife, along with their two beautiful kids, split their time between India and Canada, but clearly their hearts are always here. They have built the most welcoming ashram imaginable and also spend much of their time working on projects to support the local community.
During our stay we had the honor of attending the opening of a school they had built. It was amazing to see how beloved they were and how, through all the praise and thanks being showered on them, they remained humble and grateful for all of the support they had received. My favorite moment during the dedication ceremony was during the fire puja. Yogi Vishvketu had flower garlands to present to the community representatives, but each time he placed one around their necks they’d remove it and place it on him. This continued back and forth as everyone watched on laughing, enjoying this display of such selfless gratitude. Following the ceremony we were all treated to a delicious meal and tour of the school. It was amazing to watch the children run between the classrooms and enthusiastically pose for pictures with all the guests.
It was truly a magical day and just one more example of the many experiences that filled our hearts with light and happiness during our stay.
When in Rome…
Being that we were in the home of Yoga and Enlightenment we took this opportunity to try our hands, or rather heads, at meditation. Across the way from the ashram was an Osho Meditation studio run by the cutest/happiest old man I had ever seen. Think of the Balinese medicine man from Eat, Pray, Love but with much better English.
We tried a couple different types of meditations (gibberish talk being the strangest) and while I really enjoyed the experience I would have honestly just liked to sit with him and hear all of his thoughts on bliss, happiness and life. He had an energy that just filled the room with light and all I wanted to do was bottle him up and take him with us for the rest of our trip. He gave me some meditation cd’s so I could continue on my own as well as some recommendations for books, but I have a feeling they wont hold a candle to the joy I experienced in his presence.
When we weren’t in mountain pose, eating or sleeping, we had some great opportunities to get to know some amazing people. The variety that existed among the ashram’s guests was amazing – businessmen on 2 week holidays, yoga teachers in training, wanderlust travelers, spiritual seekers and those looking to change their lives by changing their perspective. No matter what their reasons for common to Rishikesh and Anand Prakash the one thing we all had in common was the desire to experience (and hopefully hold onto) true bliss. We were all trying to better ourselves through increased understanding and the energy of the town pulsed with that thirst for knowledge. There was no competition, jealousy, stress or fear, just a collection of people who understood, even if only on a subconscious level, that they were meant to be there and that if they allowed their hearts and minds to be open there was much to learn. Everyone had their stories, and we got to learn some of them, but the experience was more about living in the now and not allowing your mind to perpetually pull you into the past or future, so we focused on enjoying their company in the present. While we were grateful for everyone we had met we really connected with two fellow world travelers, Andy and Michelle. Even though we only got to spend a day with them, and despite the fact that they were Canadian (:)), we really clicked and it was fun to hear about their experiences through India (even from ‘Bitter Betty’ Andy).
I Left My Heart in Rishikesh
As I write this post, two weeks after leaving Rishikesh, I know that there will always be a part of me that is still there. I have never felt greater calmness than I did in that place and I will do my best to return whenever I can. Even if nothing else comes out of our ‘Around the World” adventure I will be grateful that it took us to Rishikesh, a place that allowed me to unload the sadness and fear I had been carrying around for a decade and make room in my heart for peace, love and acceptance. For those reasons, and so many more, my heart will always belong to Rishikesh.
(Side Note: If you are interested in doing some reading and feel like you are in a place in your life where you can be open to the idea of putting down fear and picking up bliss, I highly recommend ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘The Zahir’. They both had huge impacts on me and I would love to help even just one other person find them!)