When Total Yoga announced that the yoga retreat was in Rishikesh, I just knew I had to be there!
Rishikesh known as the yoga capital of India, really is the yoga capital of the world. Set at the base of the Himalayas, surrounded by the Shivalik hills and the holy river Ganga winding her way down from the great Himalayas, it is the perfect setting to find the spiritual, inner you. I guess that is why the Beatles chose it to experiment with their spiritual journey.
Our group was International and of various ages! There were people from Pune, Bangalore, Delhi, Dubai and even from China, some friends from previous retreats some new friends to make. The youngest energetic yogi was about 6 years and the oldest was about.. oh well we yogis never age!…
We all congregated at Dehradun airport where our exciting weekend began! Our first destination was lunch at Chotiwala restaurant for a truly authentic experience. The walk to find the restaurant, started out, by crossing the Laxman Jhoola bridge by foot. The narrow swing bridge, had crowds of peaceful smiling locals, tourists stopping to take selfies, two wheelers trying to honk their way past people and gentle doe eyed cows, stopping to nudge and ask us if we had a good journey in.
Meandering through the friendly lanes, crowded with funky pants, yoga mat bags, necklaces of rudraksh and semi precious stones, scarves with scribbles of shlokas we could turn into fashionable yogis in an instance! There were also lots of food stalls with samosa, chat, gol gappas, deepfried breads and lime water and soda that were too yummy to resist! The banks of the River Ganga, were all flanked by renowned ‘yoga shalas’ reminding us of the cultural abundance we were missing in the cities.
After lunch at Chotiwala we literally had to tear ourselves from the streets of Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula to make sure we got to our camp site during day light.
As we approached our Campsite, The Traveller Zone, Shivpuri, by road, we could see many other campsites, that looked large and commercialized. Hoping that ours was not the same, we started looking for our landmark, the road sign that said “4km to Bhaysa”. When we found it, everyone was a bit surprised by the steep down hill climb we had. But when we got to the shores of the holy river, to take our raft across, dipping our feet in the ice cold waters, with the silky soft sand, soothing our feet, it felt like we were about to check into the world’s most relaxing spa.
The Traveller Zone Campsite was perfectly set, not too commercial and adequately kitted out with all the amenities, clean toilets and tents. The owner of the Campsite, Amit, was there to greet us and make sure we settled in ok. Throughout the weekend he and his team were very helpful yet discrete hosts.
Being in the wilderness, having only the moonlight, peeping through grey clouds, worrying about the darkness, creepy crawlies, peeing the dark, quickly brought the realisation of how lucky we are to have all the basic amenities so easily available to us daily. How there are still so many people in the world who have to struggle for these basic needs! I decided to embrace this opportunity with an open heart. In reality, having this back to basics experience was sheer luxury! With no electricity and no wifi for the next 2 days, I was going to be well and truly ‘Unplugged’.
In the tent which was big enough for two beds and some fresh air, we setup for the weekend. I refused to shut the zipper of the tent in the night as I wanted the full 110% natural elements experience even when I was asleep. I was even tempted to sleep under the sky but as our luck would have it, we had a thunderstorm on our first night! Apart from feeling like we were in a wind tunnel our night passed out ok, though I know some others had their tents blown away in the wind.
View from our tent
The next morning my alarm clock went off, only instead of the dull tones of my iphone, it was the sound of chirping birds and river gurgling by. We did yoga by the river banks and said our namaskaras to Surya dev. After that, we did some cleansing kriyas, to lighten the load for our upcoming river rafting trip. Anyone going to Rishikesh, must, without fail, do the rapids! They are exhilarating, terrifying and exciting all at the same time! We did about 9 rapids in total starting from a grade 1 to a grade 3.5 The names of the rapids and other info are available on the internet in more detail but I seem to remember some interesting names like, Golf Course, Three Blind Mice, Rollercoaster, Return to sender and Hilton. Being in the water, clinging on to the paddle like it were a life line that would save me if I fell in, I saw, with immense jealousy, how very easily our guides, who were all local boys, were so very natural in the water. We gave them ample opportunity to jump into the water, after us, either to save paddles, people who fell in by mistake and even people who decided to jump in after their designer footwear! (oh we city folk!!) We rafted all the way down from our campsite to the Rishikesh town center and back to the enticement of the shops and hustle bustle of city life. After wasting the afternoon at an organic cafe we headed back in the dark to our camp. Everyone needed a good uneventful nights sleep and that is exactly what mother nature mercifully offered us.
The next day we started the morning with an energised yoga session and set off for a trek to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. The temple is situated at height of 1330 meters, is surrounded by forest and is about 32kms from Rishikesh. According to Hindu mythology, the place where the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple currently stands is the sacred location where Lord Shiva consumed the poison Halahala that originated from the sea when Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) churned the ocean in order to obtain Amrita (Nectar). This poison that emanated during the Samudramanthan (churning of ocean) made his throat blue in color. Thus, Lord Shiva is also known as Neelkanth, literally meaning The Blue Throated One.
The trek was challenging and sometimes debilitating one. It was a long and windy walk on a contrete road through the forest to find the entrance to the trek. The trek itself was 8km of an uphill climb through the forest and some steep rockface. A few of us just couldn’t bear the trek up due to injuries and health issues so we took a cab up to the temple, the others who braved the uphill climb were surely challenged. Our group leader and chief yoga guru, Manish, levitated up to the top, but some other mere mortals struggled through. There were some who swore, some who cried, some who laughed all the way up drinking the local cooling brew and one who carried his daughter on his shoulders all the way up with a smile on his face. It pushed people’s boundaries in every sense of the word, but they made it to the top! Getting the Maha yogi’s (Neelkanth) darshan and blessing, on the top must have felt like a massive accomplishment and as sweet as the Amrit the Gods were trying to get to. After a quick rest, everyone went back to the camp site for moonlight pranayama and meditation.
It was our last night and we had some special food and beverages all setup for us. However, the icing on the cake was the surprise that Manish and Amit had organised for us. Amit had invited the local crooners who called themselves ‘Prachand Band’ with lead singer Shanker Raga, Shuzay and Pankaj. The bonfire crackled, guitar strumming, soft sand under our feet, we danced and sang the night away to some lovely Bollywood tunes. I am sure the heady feeling that I had was not the can of ‘Godfather’ beer I had, but from the energy, vivacity and sparkle of the people around me!
Saying goodbye to Rishikesh and the friends made on the trip was hard I think I will come back and friends are forever! I am already looking forward to the next retreat, B-R-I-N-G it on!
Note: The Traveller Zone campsite, was one of the many that was washed away in the floods of June 2013. Amit and his team has had to reinvest and rebuild from scratch. Rishikesh itself, looks like it has recouped from the devastation and we could see a lot of investment being put in the infrastructure.
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Slavica Gokul is a certified Vinyasa, Hatha and Power yoga teacher through Total Yoga in Bangalore, India. She has been an aspiring yogi for more than 20 years. She dedicated herself to consistent practice 9 years ago and while residing in India from 2012-14 underwent teacher training.