The Ganga flows gently outside my window but I find Rishikesh anything but gentle. I’m not sure exactly what I expected Rishikesh to be but rather than feeling spiritual or drawing energy from this holy place, I find myself tired. There are huge ashrams by the riverside that offer cheap rooms to foreigners; the streets are lined with shops selling incense, mala beads, offering various yoga classes, therapies, and palm readings. There is construction going on everywhere and there are as many internet cafes as there are palm trees. Commercial spirituality is big business and it is for sale. This town has more cows, monkeys, and hippies in dreadlocks than anywhere else I’ve been in India. Everyone’s trying so hard and everyone is telling me feel the holiness of the Ganga. What I feel is the heat, the noise, the smells, and the incessant calls from the street vendors coming at me at every turn. It is India after all. Well, it’s all that and my intensively physical yoga course here in Rishikesh that’s drained me.
I spent four weeks at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram learning about the theory, application, philosophy, and practice of yoga, and two weeks more studying and meditating daily in Chennai. After being in my head so much and relaxing by the Bay of Bengal for a week, I thought it would be good for me to focus on the physical part of yoga (i.e. asana, what we in the West call yoga). I found a place in Rishikesh that offered an intensive Iyengar yoga course so I signed up to do the program. BKS Iyengar was a student of Krishnamacharya and I have studied with some wonderful Iyengar teachers in New York so I was looking forward to the course.
I arrived a day before the program started and was pleasantly surprised that my $7 a night room is not only clean but has a balcony with a full view of the Ganga. I was also happy to meet up with a dear friend, Lorena, with whom I studied at KYM and spent a few lovely days in Pondicherry and Auroville the week before. She was peacefully situated at a guesthouse up the hill, not too far away from where I was staying. We sat at a café perched on top of the Ganga and spent the afternoon drinking mango juice and catching up. My traveling from Delhi to Rishikesh was uneventful and easy by Indian standards (4½ hour train ride and 1 more hour on the road), and having seen a familiar face already in Rishikesh I felt ready to start my asana course.
Now a week later… I woke up this morning with the skin of my elbows peeled and the heels of my palms bruised. Even with 9 hours of sleep, my body felt weak and I was exhausted. There are just two days left in the program but I knew I wouldn’t be continuing the Iyengar course anymore. So I took my time getting up, did my own KYM practice for an hour, had a leisurely breakfast, and spent the entire day sitting at a café watching the Ganga flow and talking with fellow yogis. My friends from KYM and I have been sharing our experiences post KYM, and how our yoga practice has forever changed because of what we’ve learned. Even though Iyengar yoga is more mindful of alignment, and puts special emphasis on the anatomy and musculature of the human body, in the end it is still just physical. There is no connection with the breath and therefore with no connection with the mind.
For the past week a strict German woman told (yelled) at everyone in my class to lock our elbows and knees, and to open up our armpits for 4+ hours everyday. Yesterday she had us put buckles of yoga straps under the heels of our palms and go up in handstands because she wanted us to remember to press down on that part of the hand. I pressed down and I pressed down. This morning I saw that my palms were bruised and my right hand hurt. She then told us to balance on our elbows, “crush” the wooden blocks with our hands, and to kick our legs up. A little pain is not bad, she said. You have to continue, otherwise you don’t learn. I pressed down and I pressed down. This morning I saw that my elbows were raw.
There are close to 50 students in this course and I can see from most of them how dedicated they are to this tradition and how devoted they are to this teacher. Every word she says they believe and follow implicitly. I believe she has good intentions to teach and she wishes for her students to do well, but she is only teaching the physical postures. Then again, I knew that when I signed up for the course. I am happy that I was able to re-connect with my body and for my mind to be, for the first time in my life, focused on the inner heels of my feet or on the outer muscles of my calves. But with that awareness, I’m ready to sit still again and maybe now I can better appreciate the energy of the Ganga.