Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Yogi, Swami and Gurus (oh my)

As I write this I am looking out over the holy river Ganges, in the city of Rishikesh. This cafe literally is right over the water. Rishikesh is one of the most important holy cities in India. To India's Hindus this is a sacred river that is always pure. To bathe in the Ganges is to purify your body and wash away all sin. In addition, a sure way of reaching heaven is to be cremated on the riverbank and have your ashes thrown into the river. They bathe here, but do the cremation in another holy city, Varanasi. Rishikesh marks the point where the Ganges changes from a mountain stream to a river of the plains. It is quite wide, and is crossed by two long footbridges.

I took another long and exhausting bus ride from Mussoorie to Rishikesh two days ago. Back to the heat and humidity. I had a nice break in the hills, but now it is back to the real India.

To say that this city is strange is like saying that Minnesota is cold. So far, the Indians that I have met have been regular folks - earning some money, raising a family, trying to have some fun. It's been easy to get to know and relate to the people. But I left Kansas somewhere on the way to Rishikesh. For the first time I have had a feeling of culture shock. I will try to explain some of the images and sensations that constantly assault one's senses. After a while, I need to retreat back to the hotel and get back on solid ground.

Rishikesh has been described by Rick Steves as a spiritual Disneyland for Hindus. It certainly is a mix of the gaudy and devout. Many pilgrims come for a week or weekend and receive the blessings from the wandering holy men (sadhus) or from people that dress up like deities from the Hindu religion. Perhaps the strangest of these is Hanuman, the monkey god. I was approached by a man with long white hair covered from head to toe in bright orange paint and wearing a loincloth. All over his body were beads and decorations. His face was brightly painted with many colors. He follows you and tries to get some money, dancing and making strange noises if you ignore him.

The usual holy man that approaches you is a sadhu. They have given up all worldly possessions, including family, and wander the lands living solely on donations. They have an organized system with a leader, and I assume yearly conventions (that would be a sight). They either approach you or sit by the side of the street and beg. I have seen them lined up at the river for free food supplied by the temples. I have not spoken to any yet, but they are supposed to be quite fascinating to get to know. I suspect many of the ones that hang out exclusively in front of tourist hotels are more like glorified beggars than holy men. I think that I have found a town here with more "characters" in it than Prescott, AZ.

Besides all that, it is a much more chaotic, dirty, and lively city than any I have been in so far. At first I didn't like it, but it has slowly grown on me, and I will probably be here for a week. I walked for a couple hours today on paths by the river and into the hills. I can't imagine a more bizarre or fascinating place. Every minute something totally new and amazing goes by. Like I said, one can only take so much and then you have to relax for a bit.

There are many strange travelers here as well. All ages and types. Predominately young Israelis, oddly enough. Hebrew is spoken more than English in my hotel. At first the gringos seemed a bit snobbish (this usually happens when there is a large number of us in a town; the fewer tourists, the easier it is to meet people). However I met a young Israeli man the first night and had dinner and talked until late (he hates it here). There are also many 18-year-old runaways having the time of their life. Complete freedom is mighty exciting at that age. I actually feel a bit like an old man here. Some old hippie types and dropouts also.

This is the place where everyone comes to study yoga and meditation. To not do so would be like taking the family to Niagara Falls, but not actually visiting the falls. There are hundreds of ashrams (yoga study centers) and teachers (yogi). Most are geared to Hindus, but some specialize in foreigners. Where do I start? What I really need is an American who has been here for a while and knows the word on the street and can give me some good advice on yoga classes and the rest of the craziness here. I believe that things come to you when you need them and this time was no exception.

I met a Hawaiian named Jack at an Internet cafe and he invited me to have some chai at a nearby restaurant. He has only been here for a week, but has traveled here for many years and has been studying yoga for 20 years. He is in his 40s. We talked for many hours about the town and the yoga philosophy and where I should start if interested. He took me to a small guesthouse, where a yogi who is good with westerners teaches each morning. He seemed to know everyone. It was exactly what I was looking for. A really nice person, a total extrovert, and an impressive talker (all Americans love to talk. You can pick the American out of a room every time. Not very many here though).

I try to greet other travelers when they first arrive because I hate when you get to a hotel and there are lots of other people, but no one will talk to you. I befriended an Israeli couple who were here on vacation for one month. We had dinner together and talked all night. They also works with computers in Tel Aviv.

This morning I headed out at 6:45 to go to class. I wandered for about 30 minutes because I couldn't find the place, but eventually got there. The class is held on the rooftop with the Himalayan foothills for a backdrop. It was foggy and misty. A great place to start.

For a couple hours we did stretches and exercises, called asanas; this is generally what most Americans think of as yoga. It is more exhausting than it looks and I am thankful that I am in pretty good shape or I would have been hurting. The Yogi Chandra looks about 70 and is stronger and in far better shape than anyone I have ever seen. He is an excellent teacher and a nice person. He is very patient with us. I am probably the oldest student here.

Asanas are only the first step. Then comes breathing exercises to calm you and purify your body and mind. Then meditation. I am willing to try anything, but I was skeptical. But after meditating it for a while, I found it to be very relaxing and calming. One certainly has time to think about things that you ordinarily would not have time for.

I found the whole experience very pleasurable. The yogi's key points were 1) Be happy 2) Be honest 3) Be true 4) Do not judge 5) Do not blame, etc. Pretty basic and sound ideas that are not expressed by our modern guru, the television.

I have time here for only a brief introduction, but it is quite fascinating. Some come here for a week and stay months. I don't expect to go nuts with anything like this, but I think a daily program of stretches and exercise followed by meditation would be a positive thing to take back. Who knows? It is easy to get back into old habits at home. It is definitely eye opening.

I apologize for being so long winded this time. The Internet here is quite slow and constantly loses the connection, so I haven't been able to write for a few days. Let me know what you think and send questions! If I ramble on too much, let me know that too.

I will head for the deep mountains in Tibetan India to a town called Dharamsala next. I'll try to write in a couple days.

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