The Gift of Goa -Ashwem Beach, India

February 17-20, 2017

I arrived at the glorious Ashwem beach in North Goa late at night, and the very first thing that struck my senses was the sky. Far away from city lights, millions of stars hover overhead, shining bright against the pitch black backdrop of sky, and Venus, glowing bigger and brighter than I’ve ever seen her before, descends upon the horizon, nearing her collision with the ocean. There is a reason I fell in love with this particular patch of land-meets-sea last year, and I am elated to be back.

My humble hut
My humble hut

While none of my accommodations thus far have been particularly cumbersome, three weeks in India inevitably starts to produce a certain sort of wear and tear, particularly the in logistics of getting from place to place, and so the resort I chose (not by accident) is the exact dose of eco-chic I need at this juncture. Even the sweet little frogs that join me in my bathroom every night are a welcome reconnection to the natural flow of life away from the tourist hustle and bustle.

My roommate
My roommate
Reflecting on the situation
Reflecting on the situation

Before arriving, I had a small list of things I wanted to do and explore here in Goa, but by the end of my first day it became clear that what I really wanted was to just land. My body and soul, immediately resonating deeply with the sun and sand and sea, wanted get far away from doing, and revel in just being… and this beautiful beach was exactly the right place for such non-endeavor.

I only had three full days here, but right away I saw a meditative rhythm emerging. I greeted each morning with a powerful pranayama (breath) practice followed by a teapot of masala chai on the beach overlooking the early morning tide. While drinking tea may not seem like the most spiritual of activities, I found that the simplicity of being present with the ritual, intently listening to the sound of the ongoing wave breaks, and tuning into the breeze softly blowing against my skin to be as profound a meditation practice there is.

Ritual
Ritual
Yoga. Always.
Yoga. Always.

Tea has been followed each morning by a long and peaceful yoga practice in the resort’s delightfully cool yoga shala (a lovely reprieve, as the temperatures here climb quickly as soon as the morning sun crests the hillside behind the property) after which I’ve enjoyed a delightful breakfast in my own private, lush little garden area. I found myself wondering each day, without fail, how the hours so quietly slipped away.

I won’t lie and pretend that I didn’t fantasize for a brief minute about living out the rest of my days in blissful routine such as this, but I’ve come to realize that a large part of the pleasure in these kinds of affairs is learning how to remain fully present with the moment at hand while remaining cognizant of its impermanence. There is a certain experiential amplitude that happens when you surrender to being so in the moment that you automatically relinquish any future expectations from it… and that’s a practice worth cultivating.

Entrancing end of the day, every day.
Entrancing end of the day, every day.

My biggest pleasure so far has been the water. As a Northern California girl for the last 20 years, I enjoy one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and that’s something that I never, ever take for granted. But when I travel to tropical regions I realize the small void that exists by not being able to regularly and comfortably immerse myself into the vast and powerful oceanic waters that comprise the majority of this planet.

Here, in the warmth of the Arabian Sea, I submit to the womb-like lull of the all-encompassing salt water that pulls me into her rhythmic dance, and I feel a sense of freedom and connectivity to something so beautiful that it’s hard to put into words… and in large part, it is this luxury of the senses that keeps me tethered to this beach, forgoing any desire to explore beyond my immediate vicinity.

Afternoons here have varied, albeit not greatly. I had the pleasure of sharing some food and drinks with new friends I made on the plane ride here, and I spent several of the glorious dusk hours watching the sun set, cold drink in hand, amused by the canine turf wars that inevitably erupted on the beach every evening. Dinner choices have been plentiful and delicious, and afterwards, walking home on the darkened shore I found myself drawn to lay in the sand and ponder the sublime beauty of the same wondrous sky that greeted me upon my arrival. It is an undeniable moment of heaven on earth.

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February, the time when temperatures start to creep up uncomfortably high, marks the tail end of high season here. As such, the busy weekend beach activity has segued into a blissfully quiet Monday and I am grateful that my last full day here is filled with calm and quiet before I venture on to my next locale. Thank you Goa, for this beautiful gift.

Coming Home – Rishikesh, India

February 6-17, 2017

Rishikesh is one of the very few places in all my travels that I made a pointed decision to revisit. I fell in love with this small Himalayan town on the Ganges just over a year ago and I admit that as I planned this trip, I had a moment of wondering if her glow would shine as bright the second time around. But Rishikesh is one of those places so unique and engaging at its essence, that disappointment simply isn’t an option. Her beauty and wisdom stand unwavering, and upon my arrival she only reaffirmed her deep connection to my heart.

Children overlooking the river
Children overlooking the river
Misty dusk
Misty dusk

If you’ve been to India you understand that the culture has a deep juxtapositional element to it. Initially, India is course and abrasive, and yet hidden under the rough exterior are deep pockets of human kindness, beauty and goodwill. Rishikesh, while remaining authentic to India’s overall cultural identity, is an anomaly in and of itself. It is a warm, nurturing bubble of mystical, magical woo situated in some of the most beautiful landscape on the planet. It is everything you love about India and very, very little of all that disagrees.

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A swarm of pinks and purples engaging us to photograph them.
Living an exemplary life of impermanence
Living an exemplary life of impermanence

Ultimately, Rishikesh is today, and has been for centuries, a place for seekers. People come here searching for their own version of life’s meaning, and Rishikesh provides countless paths, both literal and metaphorical, for you to explore your individual quest. No matter what deep, esoteric questions you arrive with, you will no doubt find elements of your answer embedded here, facilitated by the purity of intention that surrounds you.

You will find meaning in the serious, etched faces of the baba’s and gurus who have lived their lives here in authentic surrender to the divine, and you will find it in the humor and charade of the ones who’ve diverged paths and chosen to get high every single day on both marijuana and life. You will find it in the diversity of every meditation sitting and yoga class you attend, and you will find it when you remember to witness your breath in the middle of cow/monkey/motorbike/pedestrian rush hour on the swaying bridge that connects the east and west sides of town. You will find it on the rocky banks of the mystical river amongst the pinkish-lavender colored rocks that have supported the weight of a million seekers footsteps before you, and you will find it flowing in the glittering aqua-marine color rushing by in the river itself. Rishikesh will recalibrate your inner wavelength to a frequency of happiness and joy… and you’ll surrender to it wholly because at some point it will occur to you: that’s what you’re looking for in the first place.

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Elation on the riverbank
The evening prayer ritual on the Ganges, known as aarti
The evening prayer ritual on the Ganges, known as aarti.

The first half of my two week stay here (which still wasn’t enough time as far as I’m concerned) was spent at an incredible Kundalini Yoga retreat led by Deepak Gupta at Braham Yoga, which I will post about separately and in greater detail on my professional website. Here, I will suffice to say that it was one of the most powerful retreats I have been on, which is not surprising given that kundalini yoga is one of the most powerful practices there is.

Our teacher, Deepak, profusely enjoying his new selfie stick!
Our teacher, Deepak, amusing us with his new selfie stick!
We've not quite reached the enlightened yogi status yet, but we are meditating in a cave in the Himalayas
We’ve not quite reached the enlightened yogi status yet, but we are meditating in a cave in the Himalayas.

The rest of my time was spent doing what most people here do when not involved in an organized endeavor… wandering and exploring, people watching and meeting, shopping for trinkets of devotion, hanging out at all the neo-hippy cafes, sampling the endless supply of delicious food and drinks including fresh fruit juices to die for, masala chai’s galore and an array of local tea concoctions. Outside of the food and social culture are the obvious and endless options for yoga and meditation. Held in yoga studios, ashrams or temples, you can find any style of practice you favor at any time of day, and you can (and will) discover classes and experiences you didn’t even know existed.

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Can you say Namaste?
How many people can you fit in a teeny-tiny tuk-tuk? Turns out, a lot. 11 to be exact
How many people can you fit in a teeny-tiny tuk-tuk? Turns out, a lot – 11 to be exact.

One of the most profound and heart-opening experiences I had was a cacao ceremony and ecstatic dance. While I didn’t know much about cacao in the ceremonial context other than the fact that it’s revered in different cultures around the world as a healing, medicinal substance, I have been to ecstatic dances in the US, which are generally fun, freeing events where by the magic ear of a DJ (if you get a good one) you can express yourself through free-form, anything-goes dance. If you can learn to let go of any self-consciousness and connect to your inner guide, a good time is pretty much guaranteed. Dance, after all, has always been considered one of the fastest ways to connect yourself to the divine.

This event, however, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Created and led by couple Drow and Sophia, known by their collaborative entity as Shunya’s Couch, this ceremonial dance is a magical medley of practices that become a powerful, cathartic and transformative event. Elements of ancient cacao ritual, kundalini kriyas (repetitive and somewhat strenuous movements meant to raise the powerful kundalini energy in the body) and pranayama (targeted breath-work) continuously weave around pour-your-heart-out dancing (think tribal beats meets Michael Jackson) and soul-stirring chants. The energy in the room and in your body builds and builds, and you get entirely lost in the strong current until at select moments you are asked to just stop and feel what’s happening inside of you… and it is absolutely glorious.

This goes on for what seems like a simultaneous eternity and blink of an eye until both exhaustion and elation are tightly intertwined before we are finally released into the most beautiful savasana ever (savasana is the laying down, final relaxation pose that comes at the end of every yoga practice.) Any simple savasana would have felt like heaven at this juncture, but the immersion into sound comprised of powerful, shimmering gong vibrations alongside Tibetan singing bowls and tinkering chimes was without question, a indelible taste of nirvana.

Reflections at sunset
Reflections – another epic Indian sunset

Perhaps it was simply the space I was in, having just come out of a 6-day internal-energy raising retreat, or perhaps it was being surrounded by an entire enclave of like-minded souls (both in the room and in the city), or perhaps it was the mastery with which this deeply connected and aware duo led us through this process… or most probably it was the convergence of all of the above… but I departed this three hour event a different woman than I entered it, and that transformative energy stays with me still. If you ever get the opportunity to experience what Drow and Sophia have to offer, please take it – it’s an experience not to be missed.

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One of the other incredibly transformative things I did while I was here, was the age-old Ayurvedic cleanse known as ‘panchkarma’ (panch, meaning five, karma meaning action… five actions toward healing.) Ayurvedic medicine is the ancient sister practice to yoga… a holistic means of addressing all the physical and energetic aspects of the body through food, herbal remedies and treatments in such a way that is in alignment with the science and philosophy of yoga which addresses the entire mind, body, spirit realm. Panchkarma is a (minimum) 7 day cleanse meant to detoxify the physical body and clear the energetic body, bringing your entire being into harmony.

I have to admit that despite my desire to undergo the cleanse (the timing was perfect in conjunction with the kundalini yoga retreat) I had a bit of fear around some of the specifics. But I’ve come to recognize fear for what it is… a clear sign that I’m moving in the direction I’m meant to go, and so I put myself into the healing hands of a lovely practitioner named Siroji and surrendered to seven days of varying (and very enjoyable) massage techniques, reflexology, herbal steam baths and oil treatments on the body and head, including an incredibly soothing 30 minute warm oil drip on the forehead/third eye… as well as some (not so enjoyable) colon cleansing treatments, herbal detoxification supplements and dietary restrictions.

Drinking in the purifying waters of the Great Mother Ganges
Drinking in the purifying waters of the Great Mother Ganges

There were some undoubtedly rough moments but in the end I felt (and still feel) an incredibly strong connection to previously untapped energy and a beautifully calm sense of well being along with a clear awareness of all the physical and metaphysical changes happening inside me. The more experiences I have in consciously connecting the mind, body and spirit, the easier it is to understand why these practices have been around for centuries and have withstood the test of time. The evolution of the soul through the practices of the body is very precious and very real.

~~~~~~~

I see with great clarity now, that India in general, but Rishikesh in particular, has much more to offer me. My first visit to this enlightened city gave me a strong sense of “arriving” some place I had meant to arrive, but didn’t quite know about yet, and this trip simply confirmed that it is a coming home of sorts. Rishikesh is a place of kindness and benevolence that patiently awaits your readiness to receive so she can bestow all the life-enriching, soul-awakening and awareness-inducing understanding you seek… perhaps even before you know you seek it.

And so, it is with an abundance of gratitude that I say goodbye to Rishikesh for now, knowing I will be back in her arms soon enough.

A poignant moment with a man named Devananda. I met him 15 months ago in a completely different part of the city and our encounter had touched me. I recognized him immediately, but was shocked that he too remembered me ( the woman from US California, yes?) Thank you universe, for crossing our paths again
A poignant moment with a man named Devananda. I met him 15 months ago in a completely different part of the city and our encounter had touched me deeply. Today, I recognized him immediately, but was shocked that he too remembered me (“the woman from US California, yes?”) Thank you universe, for crossing our paths again… it was incredibly special.
Morning ritual
Morning ritual
At the Beatles Ashram
At the Beatles Ashram

 

{{ For more on the Beatles Ashram… }}

Revisiting India, the Land of Beautiful Intensity

Just over a year ago, I spent a month by myself in India, traveling to different cities, meditating, and seeking as much cultural, historical and spiritual experience as possible. It was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult things I have ever done… being alone in a place of such diverse intensity. And yet, from the moment I got home I knew it was simply a matter of time before I would return.

And sure enough, here I am 15 months later, on my way back for another month.

Yoga is, of course, one of the main draws for me. But I must be clear in my definition of yoga here. The history and origins of yoga philosophy are so rich and full of depth and inspiration, and by definition looks nothing like what we know of yoga in the West. Today, yoga has morphed to meet our needs, which are admittedly very different than the needs of people thousands of years ago at the time of yoga’s birth. At least on the external level.

Evening Prayers on the Sacred Ganges River

Life today is over-complicated and we have, by and large, lost ourselves in the chaos. The roots of yoga are not about complicated postures, hot studios, cool playlists or cute yoga pants. They are about peeling back the layers of who we really are and what we are really made of underneath all the gloss and glam of modern day life… and that process is largely about cultivating awareness, finding inner stillness and a doing a whole lot of self inquiry.

The beautiful thing about yoga however, is that it will always “meet you where you are” and in relating modern day yoga to ancient yoga, this could not be closer to the truth. The yoga of today has met us in our busy, disconnected lives, and provides a path for us to look inward, same as it ever did. So while today’s path looks very different than it did thousands of years ago, the destination remains the same.

The more time I spend teaching and practicing, watching the years pass and the layers shed, I see this truth clearer than ever. The never-ending depth that yoga provides is something I find inspiring. No matter how much I learn, there is always more knowledge, understanding and inspiration waiting to be found. And yoga continues to meet me wherever I am…. over and over again.

This is what now draws me back to India. The deeper teachings and subtler understandings. This combined with the faith and devotion that is manifest everywhere. The diversity, the beauty and yes, even the intensity. My aim remains to experience as much as possible on every level and to take my understanding of yoga deeper still.

On this trip, I will be revisiting certain places as well as exploring new terrain. Waiting to depart, inspiration is already ignited… and I look forward to sharing the journey again this second time around!

 

Namaste, My Friend – Rishikesh Part 2 – India

October 26 & 27, 2015

Early morning, before all the street vendors have set up, I walk through the quiet village on my way to breakfast, pausing to sit on one of the stairwells leading down to the river, smelling the subtle incense that permeates the air. At this hour, the river is a surprising flurry of activity… clothes washing, bathing, the filling of water jugs, prayers and offerings.

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I watch, completely amazed at the proficiency with which the women are able to undress out of their wet sari’s and into dry ones, all the while maintaining their modesty. You understand at these moments, how life here revolves around this never-ending flow of sacred water.

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This morning starts out cold and overcast and I actually need some the warmer clothing I’ve been hauling around. Regardless of the clouds, the Ganges continues to shimmer it’s distinguishable turquoise-green. Enjoying breakfast at one of the many cafes along the river bank, I’m having what I now think is the best masala chai yet (I keep saying that, but they keep getting better.)

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These cafes are comfortable hangout spots, where the tables are low, soft cushions line the floors and ample bolsters are strewn about for you to recline against while hip, mellow music, a la Buddha Bar, plays softly in the background. All this, as you sip hot mint tea, chai or one of the many different fresh squeezed juices (I opted for pomegranate today) and watch the river slide by, dancing its endless dance. This, I would say, is a wonderful variation of heaven.

A place to take it all in.
A place to take it all in.

I could sit here for hours, as I did yesterday at another cafe downstream, but I am excited to get on the road, beckoned by something special that awaits me up in the hills.

After a 30 minute taxi ride, feeling queasy from the diesel exhaust and the tight, winding roads, we arrive at a nondescript gateway that leads down to a small ashram on the banks of the Ganges. From this vantage point, with almost no other people around, you would have no idea you were standing on some of the most holy ground in this sacred region.

I am at the Vashishta cave, the revered meditation spot for the great Hindu sage, Vashishta, believed to be the human son of the all-encompassing Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation.

There is a second, smaller cave close by, and legend, supported by some very old, very esoteric documentation has it that Jesus spent a long period of time here during his ‘lost years’. True or not is impossible to say, but as the focus in India is on Hinduism, the Arundhati cave and it’s Christian lore is not given much attention.

The path to Arundhati Cave
The path to Arundhati Cave

For me, I simply find great allure in the fact that so many devout souls, regardless of religion or specific teachings, have spent vast quantities of cumulative time in meditation and solitary contemplation at these caves throughout the centuries… and the energy I feel as I sit in either of them affirms this.

I first spend some time sitting in the little alcove cave that is Arundhati, looking out at the river, astounded that I have such a mystical place all to myself. It seems impossible.

The shoes: mine.
The shoes: mine.

After some quiet time, lost in the enormity of how uniquely special this is, I move on to Vashishta. There is an entrance built around this cave as part of the ashram, and finding your way inside once you’ve moved out of daylight is precarious, taking several long minutes for your eyes to adjust to the solitary candle light deep inside the darkness. As I feel my way in, guided by the cool, surprisingly smooth walls, I start to discern that there are about three other people inside, sitting in meditation, facing the dimly lit alter. Silence is the only sound and yet I already feel the strong vibrations in my ears.

A dark, beckoning into the earth.
A dark, beckoning into the earth.

I sit in this holy cave for approximately an hour and I do my best to meditate, as that is the main reason I have come. In the moments of quiet, the energy here is intensely palpable and it is almost too much to bear. But like the Ganges, people flow in and out, sometimes taking the silence with them. There were moments when groups of people made their way in, louder than appropriate, but these people came to make an offering at the alter, say a prayer and be on their way.

I know this because despite wanting to go inward and meditate, I keep opening my eyes… I cannot help myself. I am like an excited, wide-eyed child and I want to take in and fully experience every single moment, every glorious detail, every individual’s coming and going.

A small alter near the cave entrance. I do not know who the picture is of, but I suspect it is the swami that started the ashram here.
A small alter near the cave entrance. I do not know who the picture is of, but I suspect it is the swami that started the ashram here.

At one point with only one other person sitting here with me, three holy men enter, breaking the silence with their glorious chanting. After lighting more candles at the alter, the chanting gets louder and they begin ringing a duo of beautiful bells in accompaniment. The reverberations of this heavenly sound echoed incredibly and loudly against the cave walls and straight into the depth of my being. To say that it was an emotional moment would be entirely insufficient. It was beyond sight or sound and their presence and ritual inside this sacred piece of earth touched a sense inside of me that has no name. It was pure energy, a strong surge of never-ending vibration that transcended space and time, and this dark, ancient, enclosed space was overflowing with it.

Upon their exit and full of the deepest kind of gratitude for this experience, I close my eyes once more, committed to spending this last little while in meditation before they close the cave for afternoon prayers. After several minutes however, I open my eyes again because I realize I am now alone. Tears spring up uncontrollably now and I slowly get up from my seat and go kneel in front of the sublime, candle lit alter, making this space, for one moment in eternity, all mine.

When it is time to exit, I am not yet ready to get back into the car and re-enter civilization, so I walk the wide, rocky river bank and find a place to sit and watch the water, integrating the experience between mind, body and overwhelming emotion. The only sounds are that of the water gently flowing and the wind periodically rustling the trees, interspersed with an occasional outburst of monkeys screaming about whatever it is they scream about. Peaceful is not at an adjective here… it is something you simply become.

My homage to this sacred place.
My homage to this sacred place.

There are no other people around, although after some time I notice a monk of some sort off in the distance, sitting in the sand bar with a video camera and cameraman facing him, and I smile. This is the 21st century, after all, and while the energy of this place is certainly unchanged and the teachings may be primarily the same as they were eons ago, the dissemination of knowledge has carved some very different pathways.

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The afternoon was, well how can I say this… the universe works in magical ways. I had wanted to go to the south end of the city for aarti, the evening fire and prayer river ritual. This happens nightly all along the river, but this particular aarti happens at one of the larger ashrams and is supposed to be lovely, with music and fire dancing. But after a 30 minute, bone-jarring tuk-tuk ride to the other end of the city I realized I had mistimed it, giving myself far too much time to shop and look around this bustling, chaotic end of Rishikesh.

Mother is shopping, child has pressing issue. Some things are universal.
Mother is shopping, child has pressing issue. Some things are universal.

It was mid-afternoon and I was hours early for the river ritual and could not occupy enough time here since the south end of the city is not tourist friendly in the way the north end is.

He didn't speak much, but he consented to a photo. His dreads were admirably down to his knees.
Admirably, his dreads were down to his knees and he didn’t speak much, but he consented to a photo.

Somewhat disappointed, I started heading back up north, thinking I was fortunate to have had the morning I did, and that was more than enough. But of course when one door closes…

Once I got past the bustling city and back into the calmer countryside, I happened upon a very interesting soul. Sitting outside some small ashram or temple along one of the back roads, he waved me over. I’ve learned to take these opportunities here in Rishikesh, since frequently these people simply want to talk, or at worst, they will ask you to buy them food.

Raja Baba, as he introduced himself, wanted to show me his drawings and then have tea together. We spent a good hour talking… he, I, and the locals who lingered about the chai cart… and upon my leaving he gave me a picture he drew and a simple mala-bead necklace for good luck on my journey. He asked for nothing in return, happy only to make a new friend, and continued to call out “Namaste, my friend!” as I walked away. This kind of authentic simplicity holds a very special space in my heart.

The delightful Raja Baba.
The delightful Raja Baba.
Making friends over a glass of chai.
Making friends over a glass of chai.

Walking further upstream, contemplating the ritual of worshiping this great river, as so many did, I decided to give my own offering in gratitude of this amazing journey. Stopping at a large stairwell where people were gathered to swim, socialize and generally do what they do all day long, I bought an offering bowl filled with flowers from a stall run by a little girl.

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She was so ecstatic I chose to buy from her (and give her what must have been an excellent price, which amounted to about US $1) that she piled extra flowers on top, taking special care to decorate it perfectly for me.

For the goddess Ganges.
For the goddess Ganges.

Taking my shoes off to step into the river, I inadvertently christened myself (slipped and fell) soaking my skirt and losing some of the flowers to the river… which was ok considering that’s where they were going anyway. Unfortunately I also lost the little bits that sit on top of the flowers that are meant to be lit on fire (I am unable to tell what these bits are made of, but from observation it is something that will burn for awhile as the bowl floats down the river) but that did not detract from the beauty of it. My prayer of thanks went out into the universe all the same.

Gratitude, floating downstream.
Gratitude, floating downstream.

Back on the main road, close to home, hungry and exhausted from the long walk, I almost unwittingly passed by one of the most beautiful moments of the day. Something pulled me towards a small hidden path leading back down to the water, and I arrived here just in time to see the sun putting on an extraordinary show of setting. But even more extraordinary, there at the river were two men doing their own aarti… chanting, passing their hands over the fire, swirling incense through the air and tossing flowers into the water in time with their prayers… and upon seeing me, they immediately beckoned me to join them. The intimacy of this ritual was so touching and I knew instantly, that although seeing the big show at the ashram would have been wonderful, this was infinitely more special.

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Fire and water.
Fire and Water, Earth and Air.

~~~~~

Today I leave, and while I am compelled to feel sadness at wanting more time with Rishikesh, my overwhelming feelings of gratitude for all I have seen, and for the chance to meet and speak with some very special souls, over-rides everything else.

I attend morning meditation and then have breakfast at my favorite-chai cafe, saying my farewell to this magnificent river and all it has given birth to.

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Saying goodbye to a love like this is never easy, but I will take a piece of Rishikesh with me, and leave a part of my soul here in return. And so, until we meet again… Namaste, my friend.

 

Rishikesh, India
Rishikesh, India

 

Om Namaha Shiva – Rishikesh Part 1 – India

October 24 & 25, 2015

Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas and built along either side of the sacred Ganges river near its source, Rishikesh has a beautiful intensity that is entirely unlike every other place I’ve been so far. While still densely populated, the chaos is severely dialed down, letting the natural beauty of this place come to the forefront, and it’s easy to see why people have been making spiritual pilgrimages here for centuries.

I have arrived...
I have arrived…


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Getting inaugurated.
Getting inaugurated.

India, I believe, is intense by nature. With a population of over 1.25 billion (vs. 315 million here in the US) it cannot help itself, and that intensity has been difficult for me to embrace. But this city was love at first sight for me. Not the sexy, languid love like Goa gave me or the unsustainable sort of adoration I felt for the Ellora and Ajanta caves. No, Rishikesh is that deep soul connection you feel the moment you meet someone you know is going to change your life. She and I are very different on the outside, yes, but at our core, we are one and the same… we understand each another.

We are that... Awareness
We are that… Awareness
Astro Divine Remedies.
Astro Divine Remedies.

Perhaps it sounds cliché, but I think it’s no coincidence that the feel here reflects the fact that this city revolves around yoga, meditation and spiritual pursuits. Yes, people still need to make a living, and let’s face it, yoga, teacher trainings, retreats and ashrams are big business attracting a spirit-seeking type of tourism, and where there is tourism there will always be people trying to make a buck… but that desire for your tourist dollar is so much less oppressive here.

Staying current.
Staying current.

There are no scams, no tricky conversations, no baiting, no badgering… just simple, peaceful interactions, even when they are outright asking you for money or when you decline what they are selling. In a word, Rishikesh is polite.

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The hotel where I am staying is a little ways uphill from the center of the village, and I quickly learn my way through the tight maze of twisting, winding alleys that lead to the main path, occasionally encountering a scooter or another person, but more often, a wandering cow or stray dog. It is along one of these alleys that I pass a small ashram posting a notice about nightly meditation, and I bookmark that in my brain, hoping the timing works out for later that day.

One of my neighbors.
One of my neighbors.
One of the men I spoke with each morning. He came to Rishikesh eight years ago because his guru told him to study here, and in spiritual pursuit he relies on the kindness of others for food and shelter.
One of the men I spoke with each morning. He came to Rishikesh eight years ago because his guru told him to study here, and in spiritual pursuit he relies on the kindness of others for food and shelter.

 

The suspension bridges (there are two, one on either end of the city) are the only connection between the east and west banks of the river and subsequently, the east and west sides of the town, and during the day the four foot wide path is very tricky territory, giving a whole new dimension to the term ‘traffic jam’.

Scooters, cows, and what feels like a million people jam the flow of traffic, which has absolutely no rhyme or reason to it (how very India) as people stop to take selfies, group photos or throw offerings over the side… all the while, the bridge slightly sways. It can be a harrowing experience, but an unavoidable one if you want to see more than one side of town.

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Meandering through the crowded streets lined with vendors, I am thrilled that no one tries to aggressively pull me in or call at me, baiting for my attention, save for the occasional cart owner telling me they have the best chai. For the first time, I am actually free to peruse the shops and carts at my leisure without the hard sell hitting me over the head. In fact, the few times I actually purchased things I had to seek out assistance in order to pay, leading me to ponder, where am I again?

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People are incredibly friendly here, quick with their smiles and wanting to talk, and the diversity is much greater here as well. The locals and Indians who have traveled here are similar to that of the big cities, coming from all sorts of religious backgrounds, discernible by their style of dress and adornment, but there is a much stronger western presence here and for the first time I am not the only white person for miles.

There are many bohemian, hippy, spiritual seekers, both young and old, speaking in dialects from around the globe. It is a true weaving of human cloth with a strong common thread… that of opening oneself toward the pursuit of truth and inner peace, with each individual modality, belief or ritual for doing so, offered here and embraced. (I must add, in defense of the big cities, the cohabitation of religions and styles of worship is quite impressive and admirable there as well, perhaps even more so given the harshness of big city life.)

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Like-coated corn on the cob.
Lime-coated corn on the cob.

 

As a tourist (and a single woman tourist at that) there is still much interest and attention, yes, but it’s noticably gentler and entirely welcoming here.

Each time I go down to sit on the bank of the river, I am approached for photographs, but the dynamic is completely different, as exemplified by the woman I saw approaching me out of the corner of my eye one morning. I braced myself to decline whatever she was going to try and sell me, but to my surprise she warmly grabbed my hand, her smile as wide as the Ganges, and nodded toward my phone. She simply wanted me to take her photo. Are you kidding me?! Yes, of course!! She and her companion happily posed, but the second I started taking pictures, her entire group wanted to join in! How delightful this entire interaction was, highlighting the difference of intention behind the attention.

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This man asked me to take this photo, I swear!
This man asked me to take this photo, I swear!
And then suddenly there was a baby on my lap.
And then suddenly there was a baby on my lap.

 

Taking a long walk through the countryside, searching for the abandoned ashram made famous by the Beatles decades ago (and artfully graffiti-ed up in recent years) I fruitlessly stop to ask for directions several times.

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English becomes scarce once you’re outside the immediate tourist area and so I wouldn’t have guessed these two men sitting in their make-shift tent/storefront/home knew any English, but they called me over to see if I wanted some food and so I inquired if they knew the place I was looking for. Success!

But first they had to smoke (what, I’m not exactly sure, but there seems to be a lot of ganja (not to be confused with Ganga) smoked around these parts) and they even offered to share, which I politely declined… I’m just getting brave enough (and my stomach acclimated enough) to try street food, so better judgement tells me not to smoke any unknown substances while traveling alone in another country, although something tells me it could have been a crazily entertaining experience.

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And so, after a few minutes, when he was ready, instead of just pointing me in the right direction, the man on the right walked me all the way to my destination trying his best to converse with me in his limited English. Again, how delightful.

Arriving at the dilapidated, overgrown ashram I am greeted by a huge gate that says “No Entry” and I wonder for a quick second if I came all this way for nothing. But having learned a thing or two in the last three weeks I understand what this means… 100 rupees to the guard and I’m on my way inside.

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The old meditation hall has become an ode to the Beatles.
The old meditation hall is now full of art, much of it an ode to the Beatles.

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Back in town, the day begins to wind down with one of the best meals I’ve eaten yet in India… a mushroom mutter masala and the freshest cucumber raita I’ve ever had. Content from my days adventures, I realize I don’t even miss the fact that I’m not having a glass of wine with dinner, even though sitting outside on the patio, watching the river glisten in the moonlight would be the perfect place to have one. But in true devotional spirit, Rishikesh is not only an entirely vegetarian city, there is also no alcohol served here.

I finish dinner in time to make the 7pm meditation sitting at the ashram near my hotel, at once enamored and calmed by the serene beauty inside of sacred space, and it is the perfect end to a perfect day.

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Moonrise over Rishikesh.
Moonrise over Rishikesh.

Until tomorrow…

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