Westerners Flock to India’s Yoga Paradise

The Rishikesh Yoga Festival, one of the biggest annual yoga gatherings in the world, took place in the Northern Indian town of Rishikesh last week.  Participants from 36 countries traveled to the small Himalayan town to learn from renowned teachers by the banks of the sacred river Ganges. 

Attendants paid $600 to practice 60 hours of yoga classes taught by famous yogis from around the world.  The program also included meditation and discussions with Indian spiritual leaders, as well as vegetarian cooking classes.  Life happens at a decidedly non-Western pace in Rishikesh: classes start at 4am and finish at sunset, and, to protect residents and visitors’ “chakras,” the city is officially vegetarian and bans the use of alcohol and tobacco.

Apart from the festival, Rishikesh houses several yoga centers, including the Kailas Ashram Brahmavidyapeetham, the 120-year-old ashram where many of the famous yogis of the twentieth century studied.  Rishikesh is often called the yoga capital of the world, and, as such, attracts many foreign tourists.  In fact, it’s said that visiting the city, and, in particular, bathing in the Ganges River, will help aspiring yogis attain moksha, a kind of enlightenment.

Mainstream western interest in Rishikesh started in the late 1968s, when the Beatles famously traveled there to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  Since then, the presence of foreigners in the town has snowballed.  One US yoga teacher called Gurmukh Kaur Kalsa offered this explanation for why Rishikish had become so popular with foreigners:

“[There is an] absence of inner peace in the West.  In Western countries, we try to get a god education, to make a lot of money, we don’t find peace, we get sick.  But now priorities have changed: we now want to feel better, be closer to ourselves.  That’s what yoga is.”

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