I Went Back To The Motherland For A Yoga Retreat… Nothing Could Prepare Me For This

This desire to visit India wasn’t terribly original for me. I had watched the movie Eat, Pray, Love and read the book (twice). There is a scene where Julia Roberts’ character says to her friend (and I paraphrase): “I used to have a hunger for my life. And it’s just gone.”

It didn’t take much more than that to set me off on a quest to find that hunger again – lest I forget that I was hungry at all. At first I cried. A lot. And then I booked the very next flight I could, visa permitting, to Mumbai.

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Busy streets of Mumbai

But nothing can prepare you for India. No guidebook, no expert traveller advice, no hazmat suit, and definitely no cognitive processing. India is all about heart and being with your true feelings. We are readying for landing and the plane is circling the great city of Mumbai (or Bombay, if you’re with Salman Rushdie). The night is dark. The world is different here. It’s magical. I can’t touch it. I can’t describe it, but I can feel it.

I gather my small bag and hop into the nearest yellow-and-black rickshaw. Without a word, the driver takes off, dashing through the crowds of people, the dust and the life I have just uncovered. As we bounce over potholes, the Bollywood jingles amplify as the stereo underneath me vibrates. The gods are all with us – tiny statues of Ganesh (my elephant friend) and Hanuman (my monkey friend) stare at me from the dashboard. They’re crowned with flowers and shiny raffia, which creates some kind of talisman that will either make us drive faster or protect us from crashing. Perhaps both?

The next few days flash by as I immerse myself in the local culture. Roaming the streets of Mumbai, I feast at street carts frequented by the locals. I visit a movie house to see a new Bollywood dancing hit – we stand to the national anthem before the showing. I walk along the city’s beaches and promenades, and ride on Parmarth Niketan Ashram the back of strangers’ motorbikes in the organised chaos of the city. It’s humid, but the wind from the ocean finds you when you need it most.

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Parmarth Niketan Ashram, otherwise known as ‘The Pink Palace’

A quick flight to Dehradun airport, north of New Delhi, delivers the quiet mountain life. Stillness after the hustle and bustle of the city. I take a taxi to Rishikesh, to be found in an area called Swargashram, which means “heavenly abode”. Then the river, the great Mother Ganges, is what first comes into sight, its eternal movement evident, the giving of life obvious. I walk over the bridge cautiously, and follow the signs that read “Parmarth Niketan Ashram”.

Founded in 1942 by Pujya Swami Shukdevanandji Maharaj, the ashram attracts people from all over the world, but locals too. Everyone has a single goal, much like my own: the need to take stock of their lives.

The pink palace invites you in with a giant statue of Shiva (in male destroyer form), sitting up straight in the water, facing the ashram, as if always in meditation. I check into the ashram, as you would a hotel. I have a shower in my basic, clean, room. I attend a yoga class with a man that’s over 100 years old, doing gentle asanas. I sit cross-legged on the floor in a communal dining hall, eating dinner with my right hand. I dream of the gods.

Mornings start with a yoga class before light comes to the ashram. In the semi-darkness, I walk to the big halls with their cold floors, to set up yoga mats for the other students and my teacher. It’s about holding the position, and doing the ultimate mind work.

Shiva, sitting in grandeur

Meditation and chanting (in Hindi) are practised to learn to shut off the senses and go straight to the heart – the head needs to be absent. The hardest part of my day is right here, of course. Body and mind have been taken care of – nurtured, if you will. And therefore it’s time to rest the eyes, to allow the mind to process all of this newfound wisdom.

The days don’t vary much, and this is the point. Your day, without your phone or even a book, becomes a rhythm. Your body carries you. Eventually my heart starts to open, my mind is clear.

I spend a few weeks, enjoying my day-to-day existence and finding pleasures in small, almost menial things, such as my daily seva (cleaning as service to others) of washing yoga mats and sweeping. I feel a deep sense of peace. It doesn’t come cheap: silencing the monkey chatter of my mind has come at the price of early mornings, hard studying (which includes letting go of so many of my Western ideals), and endless yoga and breathing (pranayama) classes that aren’t easy.

I run into the ashram’s director one morning and beam as I share how content I feel and how happy I am. She smiles quietly at me. “Well,” she says. “It’s easy here at the ashram. What else are you going to do?”

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Entrance to the Pink Palace

At first I am stunned. “Easy? This?”

And then she adds: “When you leave next week and go back into the real world, that is when the work starts.” Off with my ego’s head.

She tells me to stand in the freezing-cold water of the Great Ganga that moves down the Himalayas at a rather rapid pace, until I let everything that ever held me back from my truth completely go.

Wearing just my underwear, I stand in the water meditating. I stand for a long time. A. Very. Long. Time. I lose myself, my ego, my religion, and every judgment I have ever had about myself. I watch with my mind’s eye as the water takes it all away. I emerge from the water next to the statue of Shiva (now my mirror). I am no longer the version of myself I held so dear. I am no longer the persona of myself. I emerge with a hunger for this life and I am finally a witness. A witness of myself.

Book accommodation and yoga programmes online at the ashram’s website: www.parmarth.com.

From Johannesburg and Cape Town, Turkish Airways flies – via Istanbul – to Delhi (with a quick hop to Dehradun). For more information and to book flights, try turkishairlines.com.