Following in The Beatles’ footsteps, Elizabeth O’Neill travelled to Rishikesh, India, for intense yoga teacher training — and found it is not for the faint-hearted.
The Himalayas mountains fold in on each other as the jade green river and the valley bend out of view.
The slender suspension bridge of Lakshman Jhula unites the banks of the Ganges and ferries pedestrians, moped drivers, orange-clad Sadhus, and wandering cows. Heat whitens the sky and obscures the view.
As first impressions go, my jaw very much hits the dusty ground.
There are beaches along the river where people swim, and further along aarti, or fire rituals, take place every night, the Sanskrit chants spilling from bad PA systems. Votives held in banana leaves are lit up and floated down the holy river to eschew the darkness and honour Shiva, Brahma, or Vishnu.
This is Rishikesh in northern India, self-appointed land of the yogis — a place pinpointed on the tourist map in 1968 when The Beatles and the Beach Boys visited to learn transcendental meditation and it’s a pop culture coincidence that Rishikesh has capitalised on.
There are said to be over 300 yoga schools here, and the signs for hatha, ashtanga, 200-hour teacher training, kundalini, laughter yoga, Ayurveda, Tibetan song bowl meditation, and reiki healing are plastered on nearly every building.
Some travellers believe it is over-Westernised but after a week at an ashram in nearby Haridwar, I’m relieved at the sight of coffee shops, incongruous German bakeries, and souvenir stalls.
The majority of tourists are white, female, and here to practise yoga or raft down the river. There are also aged hippies rooted to the spot, here since the ’60s blissfully fossilising while all around travellers are learning to bend and yield to life with asana (posture) practice and meditation.
That is why I’ve come here. I’ve signed up for two weeks of a four- week, 200-hour teacher training course at Anadi Yoga Centre. A relatively new school, Anadi was recommended to me. It’s run by the Gusain brothers who have taught at many of the bigger yoga schools in Rishikesh and around the world.
The centre is housed in a former hotel, and has private rooms and bathrooms, two yoga shalas, and a dining hall. The price of the tuition covers food (three vegetarian meals a day) and accommodation. Each course can accommodate 12 students.
I arrive with few expectations as this is an adventure far outside my comfort zone and the first surprise is that there are only three other students on the course. There will be nowhere to hide. My fellow yogis have different reasons for taking part. Ebony from Australia wants to use the practices in her job as a social worker.
Laura from the UK is hoping to change career from dancing to yoga teaching. I am dipping my toe in the water, and seeing how far my (older) body might go, if maybe I can become a teacher.
To condense 200 hours of training into four weeks involves maximising each day, so that it begins early, at 5.30am.
The routine consists of nasal cleansing, chanting, first asana (postures) practice, breakfast (8.30am), philosophy, adjustment and alignment, pranayama (breathing), anatomy, lunch (1.30pm), second asana practice, meditation, dinner (7.30pm), lights out (9.30pm).
In the afternoon, during time allotted for self-practice, we head to the nearby Nirvana café for a well-earned chai tea and vegan ice-cream.
There is a curfew that is strictly adhered to; however, by 8pm we can barely speak and as Rishikesh is a so- called ‘dry’ city, where alcohol is prohibited, going out isn’t an issue. There is one day off a week, and on our first day off we awake at 4am to witness a Himalayan sunrise. It is worth it.
This is not for the faint-hearted. While the practice starts off gently enough, it builds up daily until we reach a point of doing about 30 chaturangas per class.
The focus is not on advanced poses but building strength and breaking down the basics and relearning them with precision. For example, one class is dedicated to the ubiquitous downward dog, and as the day’s guinea pig, I have to hold the posture for 30 minutes as our teacher, Arvind, explains in minute detail the correct alignment.
After years of practice, it’s safe to say I have it about 50% right. Fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, spine, hips, legs, ankles, feet, toes, and even skin have places to be to make it feel and look effortless and avoid joint pain.
Yoga in India differs significantly from Western-style yoga where the emphasis is on the physical postures. Here, it’s an immersion into a comprehensive yoga lifestyle, where all eight limbs of Hatha Yoga are given equal weight.
From day one, we learn the correct term is Yog. We also learn that it means union, to bring the consciousness and divine or universal consciousness together. The aim of all the physical practice, breathing, and cleansing rituals is to be able to sit crossed-legged in meditation.
So the purpose of the movement is to become still, and in turn that stillness is aimed at quietening the mind.
Another major difference is the teaching ethos. Self-reliance, self-correction, and building a self-practice are encouraged; after all you’re going to be in charge of a class one day.
The teachers are patient and passionate, but there is no hand-holding or sugar-coating or assuring words that we are so used to and often need in a student-teacher dynamic.
Although a challenge, I enjoy all classes, even the end of the day asana practice which is often the hardest class helmed by 18-year-old Abi, one of the school’s apprentices and at that young age a better teacher than most I’ve encountered.
My favourite class is philosophy with Nalin, a Rishikesh guru who left his job as a Microsoft programmer in America to return home to focus on yoga philosophy. He brings a scientific gaze to the yoga sutra and in his class I realise the full extent of differences between the East and West.
The European Enlightenment helped cleave the soul from the body with the words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, giving birth to the myth of the individual. Ever since, we’ve been seeking ways to heal that rift whether by amassing wealth, seeking power, career fulfilment, religious indoctrination, or travelling to the East for mindfulness and meditation.
In India you do not die, you leave your body. In India there is no concept of god, there is just God or divinity. This is a creed for living, not a dogma. In India, everyone is made of the same material and part of the same world, not apart or different.
After my two weeks, yes my body hurts but more than anything my mind is more flexible. I’ll be returning to India in October to complete the course and continue my studies.
Practicalities of travel to and in northern India