Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas on the emerald banks of the Ganges river, Rishikesh is world-famous as the birthplace of yoga, and the nesting ground for the Beatles during their stay at the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram in 1968. In search of enlightenment through Transcendental Meditation, the Beatles found inspiration for what would become the chart-topping White Album, simultaneously putting Rishikesh on the map for all those spiritually inclined– along with an ever-increasing hodgepodge of hippies, wanderers, artists, soul-seekers, nomads, and vagabonds.
Rishikesh today, I have been assured, is barely a remnant of the way it was in the 60’s. Growing global fascination with India, combined with seemingly endless offerings for those who seek the path to Samadhi have called to pilgrims for decades, transforming the quiet village into a modern-day Disneyland for yogis and would-be-yogis.
At the time of my arrival in Rishikesh, I certainly fell under that second category. My journey to India sparked from a nagging desire for a sustainable spiritual path. One that I could apply to my (ultimately) unsustainable lifestyle: rejecting all forms of routine, infinite career paths and zip codes, growing investment into airline tickets that shuttled me back and forth across the globe. In my search for meaning, I had, at this point, sat through one ten day Vipassana mediation and was halfway through my second, when I realized the chances of me becoming a serious Vipassana meditator in “the outside world” were slim to none.
I broke the rules. All Vipassana meditators are asked to sign an agreement detailing the guidelines of the course before it begins. Namely, you will not break silence, you will not read or write, you will not leave the premises of the course. I (briefly) escaped from my Vipassana retreat in the Andes of Colombia, shimmying between the thick iron gates of the monastery and ran into town breathlessly in search of internet. There and then, I not only changed my flights home– allowing for an extra month of wandering around Colombia– but I started my research on India, specifically, yoga teacher training.
I needed a path that could fulfill all the facets of my self– known and unknown to my conscious mind– and had the distinct feeling that sitting in strong determination for hours on end would not, in fact, be the way to enlightenment for me. No, I needed something more versatile. And what better way to apply than to teach?
Weeks of research and planning, followed by days of travel brought me to the inevitable moment of waking in the taxi from New Delhi, to the excited chatter of my classmates announcing, “We’re here!” Here, in Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of yoga. Joining the hoards of tourists on their pilgrimage to the holy city on the banks of the holy Ganges.
“Do you have a reservation?” asked the kind-eyed receptionist at the two story, fuchsia flower-covered cottage, tucked behind dilapidated winding roads questionably used by vehicles larger than a scooter. They had not been expecting us. Releasing our initial feelings of shock and disappointment, we tried to make sense of the situation. It turned out we had arrived to the wrong location, and our school, presumably did not exist.
“That’s a dodgy place,” said the receptionist, when we showed him the Google-mapped coordinates of our yoga program. “But! Who am I to say– please forgive me, I spoke too soon– go, go and see for yourself, it may not be your experience,” he quickly added with a hasty smile.
Suspicious and somewhat defeated after seven and a half hours on the road, we hauled our 65+ liter backpacks back into the trunk of the taxi and went in search of what was to be our home for the next month: a temple of yoga, learning and evolution, introspection and blossoming.
No such fortune.
In less than 24 hours of our arrival, all six students– myself included– each from a different country and of a different age, came to the same conclusion: We have been scammed. What was meant to be our ashram, our safe haven, was in fact a number of rented hotel rooms in a run down resort (open to all paying guests), punctuated by a cell block for a “yoga hall” with cement floors and a single window to the outside, the view fragmented by bars.
The classes were no better, although we did not stick around past lunchtime for further speculation. After spending 40 minutes silently watching our teacher demonstrate belly breathing, glancing incredulously at each other in the yoga den of Arctic proportions, we made a pact over our meal of rice and dahl: we would leave the confines of the “resort” in search of other options.
And so, the Kaivalya Misfits were born. An unlikely group, joined by a shared intention powerful enough to send us packing into the night, cutting our loses with deposit fees, and brimming with hope of finding the educational pillars of our yogic paths.
Our tireless research spanned the next four days. From dawn to dusk we made phone calls, compiled lists of questions, went door to door and visited yoga halls, dining rooms, sleeping quarters.
We met yogis and teachers of many generations, some more ethically inclined than others– insisting they could not say which school is better, that it is our path to find the right one for ourselves.
On more frequent occasions, we would hear the words, “Best in all of Rishikesh… Most positively best in all of India.” After the fifth school to tout this celebrated reputation, we began to truly grasp the gravity of yoga’s evolution as a business, far from its roots as a spiritual, mental and physical discipline.
“Yoga is ruined here in Rishikesh,” a yogi with a voice like honey and the bone structure of a Greek god, told us. “It is not what it used to be. If you want real yoga, go to Kerala. There is a school there built by a Brahmin. There, you can experience yoga as it has been taught for 2500 years,” he said, shining his pearly teeth in a warm smile.
Entranced, we listened to his stories as he told us of the changes Rishikesh underwent since the Beatles came to visit. Nothing is the same as it used to be.
Amidst the commercialization and sheer magnitude of profit yoga brings to India– specifically Rishikesh– year after year, the purity of intention is lost.
“There is one other option, an old ashram here in Tapovan, but the course is most certainly full. Listen to your hearts, you will find your way.” Wishing us best of luck with a bow of the head and hands in Namaskar, he sent us on our way, though I am sure some of us were keen to stay and listen to more stories of wild tigers and elephants, yogis living in caves, and the magic of the holy Ganges river.