The Ganges is shrouded in early-morning monsoon mist, spreading out like an ocean from my guesthouse balcony. I lean against the rail, looking at the temples and the stairways, or ghats, on the opposite bank. The orange, white, and yellow structures are barely visible through the river’s breath, but my yoga class is on this shore, up the hill behind me, in the Yoga Niketan Ashram.
I’m in Rishikesh, gateway to the Ganges River’s Himalayan source. This sacred “City of the Divine”, 150 miles northeast of New Delhi, has been drawing spirit-stretching Indian devotees for thousands of years. Today it also attracts yoga-thirsty Americans and other Western soul searchers. In fact, the union of mind and body is big business in Rishikesh. I discovered this on my first day in town, when I found myself overwhelmed by a multitude of options. I settled on Yoga Niketan for its location on the river, but planned on searching for something better—the idyllic retreat of my imagination—in between yoga classes and meditation sessions.
I walk through my room, out the door, and into the horn-honking, vendor-shouting mayhem, where I work my way through an orange-colored swarm of Kanwaria yatris, or pilgrims, here to offer prayers at Lord Shiva’s shrine and to retrieve holy river water in ornately decorated vessels. My own mission is more loosely defined: to practice in the yoga capital of the world, perhaps even to find a private instructor who will advance my practice and grant me a bit of Eastern Truth. After all, here I am at the source of it all—don’t I deserve at least that much after traveling so far?
How typically Western and un-Buddha-like, I admit to myself, as I dodge another smoke-spewing auto rickshaw, to be grasping for enlightenment. I pass through the ashram gates, then ascend a steep, moss-lined path under a canopy of trees filled with brazen monkeys. The yoga hall is dim and smells of stale sweat from yesterday’s asanas. The red carpet is damp and adorned with stained cotton mats. I take my seat on one, joining the long-term ashram residents (mostly Koreans and Europeans) who, apparently, don’t mind Niketan’s shabbiness.
The instructor is seated on a raised platform in a corner of the room. Clad in loose white cotton, he is young looking and has dark South Indian features. His name is Vikash. The next hour is pleasant, the postures traditional and simple, and the teacher’s singsong voice something new to me. Despite the musty odor, the session feels good; but my mind is elsewhere, wandering the streets of Rishikesh.
That afternoon I continue my search, winding among the multitudes, searching for clarity in this spiritual smorgasbord. As I follow one hotel manager to his swami’s ramshackle ashram on the bank of the river, I am told that “yoga is of God”. The next day, I meet another potential teacher who tells me the opposite: “Yoga is not about religion at all; it is purely about health.” Later, I visit an ascetic institution that would require me to refrain from “worldly talk, poultry, eggs, and garlic.” This becomes my routine: In between morning and afternoon classes, I look for that something better, wading through the cement clutter of so many tourist-trap temples and parking-lot ashrams.
On my final morning at Yoga Niketan, I am no closer to finding my omniscient guru, but I notice my body feels fantastic after a week of twice-daily stretching and sitting. Vikash’s focus on lengthening the spine, which I thought was so boring, has created new space in my lower back. As I appreciate this, my teacher enters the hall, spraying a sweet-smelling mist of rose water over our heads. He steps onto the platform, lights some incense, sits, and begins the class.
The entire week falls away, including my frantic search for some nonexistent nirvana. Because of my distracted mind and high expectations during the first few days, Vikash did not deliver me to enlightenment. He didn’t even teach me any new poses. But now I realize that his simple stances have clicked to form vinyasa sequences that I arrogantly thought I already knew. His voice is powerful and dynamic, rising and falling with the asanas, at once calming and encouraging. He walks among us, smiling and shouting as we stretch toward the ceiling. “Reach!” he yells, his voice pulling my fingers higher, lifting me onto the tips of my toes. Vikash has taught me more than I realized. As he walks up my row and passes near me, his smile is infectious. One more time, he sings out, “Reeeach!”