I'm a freelance writer and yogi living in Tepoztlan, Mexico where I'm running www.casadelcorazon.mx with my girlfriend. You can keep up with my other writing on www.bollocks2thewellingtons.com/
Published December 30th 2012
We don't worry, we don't stress, hanging out in Rishikesh
Rishikesh is a beautiful town around twelve hours by bus from Delhi in the North of India. It is famous as a place of worship, for practising yoga and meditation and because a little group from Liverpool once stayed here in the '60s.
It is now a backpacker hub as much as a spiritual hub and is home to pilgrims and stoners alike. Apart from the main town where there is a market and the usual Indian madness most people stay up along the river either on the North side in the more relaxed "High Bank" area or on the South in the more backpacker friendly Laxman Jhula or the more crazy and practice oriented Swarg Ashram. Where ever you choose to stay it is very easy to get around and you can do a loop of all three in just a couple of hours on foot so none of the activities on offer here are out of reach.
You can't move for yoga classes in Rishikesh. Really. Everybody is offering them from guesthouses and ashrams to any building that has a flat surface. Obviously it pays to shop around a bit and find out which teachers fit to your style and which are more highly rated. You can usually hear which classes are getting the buzz from the grapevine in some of the cafes around town but I'll mention some particularly recommended ones.
Surinder is based at the Raj Deep and Raj Moon hotels each morning and afternoon respectively and offers a challenging Hatha class which will have you stretching further than you thought possible to get his beautiful smile and thumbs up. His adjustments are legendary with just the smallest correction miraculously altering your posture. He would be my number one pick of teachers in town providing a great mix between the spiritual and the physical.
However there are other places that offer more structured courses, ashram settings and Teacher Training certificates which are understandably popular as well as Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow classes which will suit those more athletically minded. I did the one month First Level Intensive with Trika Yoga and that was a comprehensive introduction to yoga with a very slow and static style.
You can find all sorts of classes to suit your style and covering all sorts of bases from Laughter Yoga to cleansing practices such as Neti (where you pour water through your nostrils with a jug).
Following from physical yoga, meditation offers practitioners the connection with the divine and inner peace that comes with a realisation of interconnectedness. There are many places in town which offer different meditation techniques and most of the yoga studios and ashrams will include this as part of their schedule. If you already have a practice then going down to the holy ganga at sunset at a quiet spot can be a simply transcendental experience or you might choose to visit where Swami Shivananda meditated half way between the two bridges on the south side of the river.
Other options include the Kriya Yoga Ashram where you can get initiated into their practices or the Vasishta cave where an amazing energy accumulated from many great practitioners can help you enter deep states.
Music is also considered a way to enlightenment in India. Through playing Ragas or traditional Indian classical music which resonates at a particular vibrational level meditations can be helped and the musician is seen to enter different levels of conciousness. Even if you can't reach these great heights during your holiday it is possible to learn to play tabla, sitar, harmonium or a number of other traditional Indian instruments and then maybe perform in some of the beautiful Kirtan or devotional singing events that often take place.
Even if you don't like singing these call and response gatherings are so from the heart that chanting the names of Hindu Gods can be a very moving experience.
The holy river Ganga is the centre of Rishikesh in both geography and activity. The spiritual heart of so much of India the river cuts through the town not so far from its source meaning it is quite possible to swim in the water without worrying about contracting some disease or parasite. There are a series of beaches here that line the river and provide opportunities for sunbathers if you can avoid the gaze of the locals and swimmers if you can face the freezing temperatures. It is quite amazing how cold the river is here considering the outside temperatures but it is all ice melt so you are basically swimming in water fresh out of the glacier.
In the height of summer though, it is a great way to cool off.
There are opportunities for rafting down the river, more exciting in or around the rainy season, if this doesn't seem too disrespectful to Ma Ganga.
On top of this you can sit by the banks to watch a delightful sunset, meditate on the shore, check out the puja at Parnath Niketan ashram nightly and purify your soul with a meditative dip.
View of the river including the Laxman Jhula Bridge
There is an array of great food available in Rishikesh from local thalis and snacks on the street for next to nothing to a selection of fine backpacker hangouts all providing cuisines from around the world with Israeli being a particular favourite.
Laxman Jhula has the largest collection of these places often upstairs and overlooking the river and they vary a little in quality and price but are generally fairly similar. Some will have large groups enshrouded in smoke spending all day drinking Lemon Nanas and eating Hello to the Queen while others might be more about chai and cake. Bear in mind that there is no alcohol in Rishikesh and neither is there meat. In fact, even eggs are very difficult to come by so don't expect anything other than pure vegetarian along the banks of the river.
There are three places of note for me though, one in High Bank and two in Swarg Ashram.
Firstly Mama's guesthouse in High Bank is a friendly guesthouse run by classic enabler Mama who will sit you down around the communal table and serve you her homemade Thali consisting of rice, chapati, dhal, sabji and an amazing Pumpkin curry that is enough to make the walk up the hill in itself. Couple this with interesting banter and company, a fridge full of ilicit beer that will be thrust upon you with nary a request and then topped off with the best banoffee pie cut through with condensed milk for a sweet meltdown.
In Swarg Ashram, my favourite place is the Oasis Cafe, tucked away near the road up to Neelkanth and only for those really in the know. Dino is one of the nicest guys I met in India and serves with a polite interest without being overbearing - unusual for these parts.. The food is absolutely astonishing with sensational hummous, great kedgeree (you might need to request it) super breakfasts, nanas, shakes and the best Hello to the Queen you will find in town - no question.
Secondly there is The Office for the best chai and muesli in town.
Other honorable mentions go to the Ganga Beach View, the Pyramid cafe and Ramana's Garden.
One of the main activities for Indian tourists here is pilgrimages to the local holy sites which are scattered around the town and in the mountains around. One popular walk which can be done in a few hours from Swarg Ashram is up to Neelkanth Temple. Traditionally this should be done carrying water from the Ganga as an offering and many Indians will do this trip. Famously the Neelkanth Baba took a Tapas to partake this journey every day for many years carrying water to and fro barefoot. This is pretty impressive, after doing the journey once I don't have any plans to return although the walk is beautiful.
Famously the Beatles visited Rishikesh while writing the White Album and some members got particularly enamoured with the Trancendental Meditation techniques being taught here by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. TM is a form of meditation consisting mostly of repeating mantras and the ruined ashram here contains many "pods" where practitioners could sit for many hours. George and particularly John, stayed here for some time and the Number 9 hut was Lennon's abode in his stay.
Now you can sneak in through a steep climb or bribe the Forestry Commission guard on duty to enter the site which is in disrepair.
You can still make out and enter a lot of the buildings and last summer a group of artists took it upon themselves to paint pictures of various gurus and the Beatles in the Cathedral building which was used for large gatherings.
It is a beautiful place and has a sense of peace about it despite, or perhaps because of, the overgrown nature of the grounds.