The mattress is a lumpy 2 inches of privation. Two cotton sheets and two pillows serve as my bedding (pink I’m pleased to say). I think the Ashram is luxurious by most standards. There is a shower (of sorts) and a toilet. It is clean and 2 fans blow the warm air around.  I am told, after being spotted furiously scratching my 9 mosquito bites that Hyderabad and much of India is currently experiencing a Dengue fever outbreak. Maybe blowing the air about will help.

With Vaibhav acting as coordinator and guide (also incarnating as Sherpa, mother, designer and teacher and babysitter), we arrive at Dehradun airport ready to catch the taxi to Rishikesh. Suitcases tied to the roof, I feel as though I’m in a British movie about India. Meditation and yoga, however seem a stellar distance away from the adrenaline thunderbolt effect of the chaotic, crazy taxi drive up into the mountains, swerving and miraculously avoiding cows and bicycles and old men using walkers. The forests are deep and the air is humid. Wild elephants roam the forests and have been known to create chaos in the villages. Colorful trucks plunge straight towards us, and, just when certain death seems like a pleasant respite from my overwhelming fear, swerve out of the way and scrape past. We are assured that these drivers are most skillful.

Arriving in the lively commotion of the yoga and meditation capital of the world, I am struck by the paradox of calm wrapped within chaos. Mindful meditation with the background accompaniment of traffic turmoil; Vibrant, dramatic hues of the women’s beautiful sari’s against the grey of the mighty Ganges; Deep spirituality and the abject poverty. We believe the Ashram we are staying in is exactly like the one represented in the book/movie: “Eat, Pray, Love”. It is called Omkarananda Ganga Sadan, a part of the Omakaranda Ashram, and is right next to the holy bank of  ‘Mother Ganga’.

08PMThe weekdays merge into each other as we learn, absorb and apply the various techniques and practices taught to us by Vaibhav and his guru Jayant. (the t in Indian names are pronounce th). Our group consists of myself, Marj, my beloved schoolfriend from London, Sonal (my soul sister) and gentle Somati (both attended my exec coach training with Vaibhav in Mumbai in feb), Vaibhav’s lovely wife Preeti, her sister Deepti and her mother-in-law Geeta - it seems in India that mother-in-laws are well loved!? This is a special, close and supportive family, which becomes my family for a few days.

19PMThe days settle into a gentle rhythm.  Waking up before 6 to go for a contemplative walk. I, of course, cannot resist the pull of a mountain road and manage to run many kilometers before the humidity settles and becomes unmanageable. We meet at 7 for an hour of Pranayam (Yogic breathing) and Kriya meditation. Breakfast is served in the Annapurna dining hall . I meekly confess to resorting to cornflakes and milk – not being the most adventurous gourmand in foreign climes, although in the last days I start to fancy some Alu-Paratha (Bread with mildly spiced potato stuffing –(read ‘mildly’ as ‘frantically spicy’, when applied to an unsophisticated western palate).

All meals are vegetarian. Lunch, called ‘Thali’ consists of - Daal (Lentil), Rice, Sabji (Vegetable curry) and Roti (Traditional Indian bread). The Indian tea is spicy, with ginger and masala – called chai and soon becomes my favorite. Most evening dinners are after 8, by which time my body clock has switched down and I retire to my room to munch on nuts and dried fruit and biscuits – washed down with water – from the Ganges - purified, I am assured.

After breakfast, a quick shower under the tap in my bathroom and then an hour of Smile Meditation. I am not describing each practice we learn here, but suffice it to say that Jayant (Sir) has a most delightful term that I treasure. 01PMHe calls it ‘Smile-ising’. You can ‘smile-ise’ your enemy, your sore back, your food, your next trip or your work. This means exactly what it says – so watch out – I may be smile-ising you from now on. Sir has the gentlest of demeanors, a peaceful smile always on his face and an aura of tranquility that bathes us in serenity and kindness.

We learn about Reiki and Energy and Chakras. We learn Kundalini philosophy and Vedic perspectives of self. We learn Karma Yoga and Visualisation and Affirmation and we chant mantras. Not for us the competitive yoga flaunted by the western ‘hippies’ who are drawn to Rishikesh. The practices that seemed daunting initially are soothing and healing. We spend about 4 or 5 hours a day in meditation. (Sometimes I fall asleep!).

12PMThe marble stairs beside the ashram lead to the boardwalk (called a Ghat) embracing the river. This is not the boardwalk of Hollywood romance. Cows walk unperturbed – sacred and languid. Donkeys carry grey sand from the river (illegally – in one of the most spiritual places in the world); Yoga, meditation; scrawny dogs scavenging. Small boys hold up bowls of bright orange marigolds with camphor and a box of matches for ten rupees only. We buy ours from a trio of impish, skinny little lads who then follow Marj and I whenever we venture down onto the Ghat. They call us ‘Didi’ – the name for older sister.

22PMOne of the times Sonal and I go for a run along the Ghat we see a ceremonial cleansing in the river at dawn – it a magnificently colorful and distinctive scene - the men in white and the women with their vibrant sari’s, lighting candles surrounded by flowers and sending them floating down the great Ganga. I wake up every morning to the sound of a flute playing Hindi music. Speakers broadcast Chanting and singing across the river from early till late.

18PMOne evening we catch a boat across the river to watch a light ceremony (Aarti) with musicians and singers and crowds celebrating and praying and ceremonial washing, sending little baskets of flowers and candles floating down the river. The next evening we are honored guests at the Aarti up at the temple and after tasting the lemon rice (oh, my – how delicious) we are treated to a private recital of traditional Indian sacred dancing by Somaji.
Somaji Kumari Somashekari is a simple, feminine woman who has become a monk and is an integral part of the operations of the Omkarananda temple. Born in Germany, she was drawn to Indian philosophy and 30 years ago was sent to the Ashram by her guru in Germany, Gurudev H.D Paramahamsa.
She left her parents, family and life to live in Rishikesh. She has never been back. We are twice granted an audience where she answers our questions about life and faith and trouble, and hopes.  
Shri Swami Vishveshwaranda seems to be in charge of the Ashram, although, as they are both such gentle, unassuming souls, it is a benevolent kind of leadership. They do, however have great influence. They support 75 schools in Northern India. Shri Swami is an elderly bearded man, who speaks with warmth and wisdom.

41PMAn unexpected and interesting dispensation to visit the school in Rishikesh that the Ashram supports is offered to us. A few weeks before, ‘jealous’ people had set fire to the school. Shri Swami had leapt on a scooter and raced down the steep road – his commitment to saving the children resulted in a broken foot and other injuries. We watch the children, from about age 7 to 14  chanting their lessons in the open-sided portico’s with a cool breeze stroking their white cotton clothes. They chant their science and social studies and geography. A remarkable way to learn. They are being trained as priests – a much desired and respected profession. Most of their education is learning Sanskrit texts and spiritual rituals.

50PMOur time is divided between learning Indian philosophy and traditional beliefs, practicing our meditation techniques and absorbing the colorful theatre that is the town of Rishikesh. We catch ‘auto rickshaws’ or a boat or walk the hanging bridge to indulge in a fair amount of shopping on both sides of the river. I pay a generous fee at the airport for being overweight with my treasure trove of prayer beads, Buddha statues and traditional clothing. I am given gifts - a pretty green and pink Sulwar Kurta from Vaibhav and Preeti, which relieves my anxiety at manifesting appropriate clothing for the temple. I am given the most beautiful pink sari from Sonal.  57PMShe and Somati and I have a fabulous ‘girl’ time as they drape the sari around me, do my hair and adorn me with dramatic jewelry and a red dot (Bindi) on my forehead. It is a long time since I have had such fun and I feel completely beautiful in the soft and feminine dress.

I struggled and breathed through the week in Rishikesh. Keeping awake in 98% humidity, absorbing the detailed historical and philosophical nuances of the meditations, seeing the poverty and disability and hardship juxtaposed by the gaudy sparkle and colors of the deities in the temple, the kindness of my friends and hosts, the fragrance and rhythm of the streets. The pervasive spiritual vibration and the pious devotion of the religious permeate my reflections on Rishikesh as I head back into the real world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

09PM

 Thank you Vaibhev for manifesting this lifetime experience.   Thank you Sir and my girlfriends Marj and Sonal and Somati. Thank you Preeti, Deepti and Geeta. Another memory that changed my life.

 18PM

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