Rishikesh was my first destination in Northern India. From the second I stepped off the (small!) plane at the Dehradun airport, I could feel the clear contrast from the southern part of the country. Southern India felt like a blazing, bustling, vibrant tropical desert. The region was sprinkled with densely packed beach towns, busy cities, and sought-after spiritual sites. For a couple weeks in the south, I had felt as though I was on a bit of a treasure hunt as I searched to find these religious sites and satisfy my expectations of “spiritual India”. Early on in my journey (after leaving the Sivananda Ashram) I recognized that my preconceived notions of India had lead me to some moments of confusion and disappointment. However, these periods of struggle shook me into surrender as I vowed to allow the rest of my pilgrimage to unfold without the lens of expectation. My experiences in the south gave me exactly what I needed and prepared me for the next chapter of my journey up north.
Breathing in the cool, crisp air of the Himalayan region, I was bursting with excitement. I immediately sensed an ancient energy of deep reverence. I remembered that a friend in Hawaii had made a comment about his experience in Northern India, saying something along the lines of, “being up in the mountains of the Himalayas, you are so close... you can just wave to god”. I felt it.
Rishikesh has been called "the foot of the saints", a holy city nestled in the mountain range of the Himalayas, hugging the divine river Ma (mother) Ganges. It is one of the most (if not the most!) magical place I have ever been. A local guide said "you must have accumulated some good karma to have made it to Rishikesh". So grateful. This sacred place blew my mind. I found myself constantly wondering if I was dreaming... for the level of holy beauty was unbelievable. Not only was the nature glorious, but a constant echo of enchanting mantras could be heard anywhere and at any time of day. Yoga, meditation, and Sanghas (spiritual discussions with different gurus) were offered on every street corner (what seemed like every 10 steps!), the food was ultra enticing, and the focus on spirituality was supremely palpable.
I spent my first week (in Rishikesh) at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where I was a participant in the International Yoga Festival. This ashram is located on the Ganges river in the Ram Jhula section of Rishikesh. The ashram is HUGE with about 1,000 rooms. Their website reads,“ Parmarth Niketan is a true spiritual haven, laying on the holy banks of Mother Ganga in the lap of the Himalayas”... mmmm, heaven! There were over 1,200 participants from 101 countries in attendance at the annual festival. Daily classes began at 4am and continued throughout the day and into the night. My week was jam packed! I found myself most attracted to the Kundalini yoga classes. I took a few traditional Hatha yoga classes as well (with Indian teachers). I felt honored to practice Hatha yoga taught in a way that really respected the roots of the ancient practice. But it was the Kundalini classes that left me feeling completely elevated, expanded, and present. During one Kriya, we were instructed to hold our arms directly out at our sides for 4 minutes. The teacher (Kia Miller) offered the following affirmation, "I can. I will. I must." I loved this mantra! It kept me going through the burning sensation in my shoulders, but more importantly, it cut through the resistance of my mind. This aspect of perseverance attracts me to Kundalini yoga. These classes take students through intense physical challenge by repetitive movements and long holds. The mind/ego wants to escape immediately and limit the capabilities of the body. But it is in these minutes of intensity that real growth can occur; Not only through the physical body, but through igniting different layers of the being. If we can withstand a few minutes of deep discomfort (with awareness of safety for the body) on the mat, we can better navigate our way through challenges of daily life with more ease and less mental chatter! This is Tapas, the yogic guideline of discipline,Inner strength, perseverance, and fiery transformation. “If I can hold my trembling arms out for another minute, what else can I do!? What else am I capable of if I don't give up?”
Thinking back on the week at Parmarth Niketan, I can see that the theme of the festival was the expansion of the heart, the Anahata Chakra. There was a focus on moving away from the mental processes and into the realm of being and energy. Through the week, this focus sank into me as my heart became increasingly full and deeply joyous. My experience at the Sivananda Ashram in Southern India offered lessons on navigating the mind, whereas my experience at Parmarth centered around gentle nurturing and acceptance of the heart. Another theme that appeared for me was the yogic guideline of non-stealing; Asteya. I recognized this in the form of protecting my own energy and time. I noticed a big shift in my ability to discern and act. For most of my life, I have been a “people pleaser”, sacrificing my own wants & needs for what I assume others may need/want/expect. My travels in India truly empowered me and helped in shedding some of those layers of passivity. Through this concept of Asteya, I quickly started recognizing what was and was NOT serving me at the festival. When I didn't enjoy or feel that I was benefiting from a class/ workshop/ performance I just left! Without guilt! Without hesitation! This was so big for me. I had assumed that I would absolutely love every single yoga class in India, but I didn't. The act of forcing myself to endure any activity that doesn't feel right is not only an act of stealing my own time and energy, but it is also a form of energetic stealing from the teacher/presenter and the other participants. There is such a big difference between feeling freely present and engaged in an activity versus dropping out, being distracted, and feeling pressured to stay. This shift started in India and has stayed with me as a consistent spiritual practice. I am learning to honor myself through the freedom to make everyday choices (even simple, subtle ones) regarding the protection of my time and energy.
Here are a few more highlights from my three weeks in Rishikesh:
My daily walks included weaving through cows, horses, pigs, monkeys, chickens, and dogs!
It was in a satsang with Mooji that I truly reflected on my middle name (Faith) and how proud I was to be living it!I have always regarded my middle name as pretty, but I felt it in India. I fell in love with it. The strong current of Faith carried me through my travels.
I was walking on the dirt path between Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula one afternoon (sections of Rishikesh). As I crossed paths with an Indian man, we exchanged smiles and he asked, “do you practice pranayama?” I said yes. He responded with an even larger grin and a thumbs up!
Locals used “Namaste” & “Namaskar” in place of hello and thank you.