India Part 2 – Rishikesh and Shimla and lots of yoga

He Says: To all our friends who have called TB and I liberal, tree-hugging, hemp and tie-dye wearing hippies – you’re gonna love this. It would be near blasphemy to travel to India without taking at least one yoga lesson, so a few weeks before arriving we signed up for a one week retreat in Rishikesh.

We originally planned to get there by train, but again we hadn’t booked in advance. Instead, our tour-guide in New Delhi hired a taxi to drive us the five hours north, which we tell ourselves had to be better than a train ride. The closer we got the more we could tell this would be a lot different than the mayhem in Mumbai and Delhi. Close to the northern border with Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, with the holy Ganges River splitting it in half, and where the Beatles wrote their “White” album, Rishikesh is prime real-estate to experience the birthplace of yoga. There was no smog blocking the blue sky or horns constantly blaring in our ears…well there were still a few horns, but not nearly as many. Instead of cars and buses there were cows roaming the alleys looking for food (typically cardboard and garbage), samosa stands, and old Sadhus begging, smoking and sleeping on the side of the roads.

Rishikesh

Cows eating the garbage.

Rishikesh is widely known as a yoga mecca. Some travelers, like TB and I, come for a few days to a week as a retreat. Others come on a pilgrimage for weeks, months, or move there permanently to totally immerse themselves and learn from the authentic gurus and yogis. Trust me when I say that TB and I aren’t nearly the liberal, tree-hugging, hemp and tie-dye wearing hippies some people think we are. 🙂

Our retreat hotel. The top wooden part was the yoga studio.

Our program consisted of a cleansing every morning (more on this shortly), tea, a morning yoga session, breakfast, sometimes a philosophy class, and an evening yoga session. It sounds like an innocuous schedule, but for beginners like us it was hell by the end of the week. Each morning we woke up around 6:30am and stumbled downstairs with our eyes half shut and our cleansing tools in hand.

Showing off some of our yoga skills 🙂

J and I with our yogi.

Before arriving to the retreat we researched several different programs in Rishikesh. All had some kind of cleansing practice, the purpose of which is detoxify your body, but the methods of doing so sounded ominous – nasal and sinus irrigation, purging, eye cleansing, enemas and colon cleansing…the list goes on and doesn’t get any better. Needless to say I was slightly terrified when we were handed our cleansing tools. They were small, white, plastic cups with a three inch mushroom-tipped spout protruding from their tops. The fact that they looked so clinical made it even worse for me. The spout was obviously supposed to be inserted in one of my orifices, I just wasn’t sure which one. TB assured me it wasn’t what I was thinking, but my fears were not allayed.

Our first morning we met our yogi who was waiting in the courtyard with his own cleansing tool. He began by filling it with water from a jug (still not reassuring for me), then showed us how we would insert it in one nostril with our head tilted, then tip it up allowing the water to run through our noses…nasal and sinus irrigation…whew. Could have been a lot worse.

So every morning we irrigated our noses then headed up to our rooftop yoga studio for our morning session. Some days we had lessons on the history and philosophy of yoga. These ranged from insightful to slightly loopy. The yogi went into some weird stuff at times – anecdotal accounts of ghosts and things of that sort. Though some of it was weird it was all interesting, and we had to appreciate his enthusiasm. In the afternoons we had our second session, after which we ate dinner then turned in for the night. One session of yoga per day would’ve been enough for us. Two seemed like it was bordering on unhealthy. By the second day our bodies were wracked, every muscle in our bodies was sore and tight and screaming. Repeated cobra poses left my back feeling like it had been run over by a steamroller forward and backward. But I was definitely more flexible, if that counts for anything.

Double downward dog!

We also had two Ayurvedic massages as part of the package. Those were interesting. We each had a masseuse of the same sex who would ask us to strip naked and then wrap a loin cloth around our genitalia. I use the singular form of cloth because we’re pretty sure they used the same one for all of us, us being at least four different people. Once in the proper attire we laid on the table, got lathered up with hot oil, then received an hour long full body massage. I’m pretty sure it was TB’s favorite part of the whole retreat.

(She Says:  I just wanted to comment that I had two, yes TWO women massaging me at the same time.  It was pretty amazing.  That is all.)

I think both of us enjoyed the meditation most of all. It was refreshing to slow down and focus and try to quiet our minds. It’s actually a lot harder than it sounds. We have thoughts constantly running through our brains about every little thing at every little moment. Being successful at pushing all those different thoughts out of your head takes more time and practice than we had in a week. But we’ll keep working on it and we’ll get better.

Although we had a great time and enjoyed it a lot I think the whole experience would’ve been a little better had it not been so cold. The temperature outside wasn’t actually that bad, but because our room was made mostly of tile the temperature felt lower inside. We had no indoor heating and almost no hot water. The hot water we did have came at night out of a faucet only two feet above the floor. So we couldn’t actually take a shower. Instead, we filled a bucket with hot water, which took about 30 minutes because there was no pressure, then used a separate smaller bucket to pour the water over ourselves. It was a pain but we weren’t complaining. We were just happy to pour something warm on our bodies. For bed, we wore almost every single article of clothing in our backpacks, including legwarmers and knit caps. Then, we cuddled up under two comforters just to stay reasonably warm at night.

Trying to keep warm in our room with a hot bucket of water and leg warmers.

Despite the cold, we both felt like we had gotten a little closer to our inner selves by the end of the week. We were much more flexible but also more focused from meditating, a part of yoga most people probably forget. TB definitely appreciated the breathing practices as she tends to have a hard time sitting still. 🙂

She Says: Even though I was the one who suggested the yoga retreat, I was pretty nervous about the entire thing.  Those who know me know that I don’t do yoga.  I tried it once a while ago and got so anxious just trying the class that I left after about 10 mins.  For some reason I have a difficult time sitting still and listening to my breath and the breath of those around me.  The anxiousness is compounded by the fact that I feel like the only one who is struggling to stay still.  Fortunately for me we did a class while in Laos that I seemed to do okay giving me the boost of confidence I needed for this retreat.

On our first morning we met our class.  It was our yogi, J and I and a young Austrian couple (Petra and Robert).  I was relieved by the small class number.  This meant more personal attention which I desperately needed.  The classes actually went pretty well to my surprise.  J usually did perform better than I, but I expected that.  I was proud of him but tried not to concentrate on what he could do that I couldn’t and more on what I could do..haha.  There were definitely a couple times after class that we would go back to our room and I would continue to attempt a pose I didn’t quite get in class.  I did really good at the yoga headstand.  Our yogi said he was very impressed because he had never see someone do it on their first try. I tried to explain to him that I had been doing them pretty much since I was 3 🙂

I did find the philosophy classes very interesting.  Yoga is almost a religion in a way.  Definitely more my style of religion than the traditional kind.  Although as J had explained, there were still some far off stories.

When we weren’t in class we were exploring the local towns.  One night we met up with Robert and Petra and went to a religious ceremony on the Holy Ganges River and then to get some Thali afterwards.  Thali is a staple Indian dish.  It’s sort of like a sampler plate.  It was one of my favorite Indian dishes.

Religious ceremony on the Ganges

It was a ritual to touch the fire with your fingers.

The mighty Hindu God Shiva. (Destroyer of the Ego and the Ultimate Yogi)

Visiting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram where The Beatles wrote their White Album. It is no longer in operation.

Other than the cold nights it was an overall great experience.  We met great people and definitely improved our yoga skills.  We will try and use what we learned to continue our practice back in the states.  We also look forward to hopefully meeting up with Robert and Petra when we visit Vienna.

Now onto Shimla.  Getting to Shimla was an experience.  We had to walk with all our gear about 1km across the Ganges to catch a taxi to the bus station.  The buses in India are pretty sporadic and have no real departure time.  We were hoping one would be leaving soon.  We arrived to the station and saw all very old buses.  I was weary of them considering Shimla is located high up in the Himalayas and people had warned us that the roads to get there may be impassable this time of year due to the snow.  So the sight of a very old bus with balding tires was not reassuring.  The staff at the bus station only spoke broken English.  When this occurs we just keep saying the name of our destination and hope for the best.  A guy ended up showing us to a bus.  We assumed this was the bus to Shimla so hopped on it and prepared for our 9 hour ride.

The bus. It made it the whole 9 hrs, don't ask me how.

I was worried it would be a frigid ride since I was positive this bus had no heat and the door wouldn’t close completely.  I could not believe this was happening.  There was a point where I almost told John to forget about it and we would find another way to get there or not go at all.  In this moment I did some of my meditation I had learned and found peace in my potential upcoming death.  I saw flashes of all the happy moments in my life.  My dad throwing me in the air when I was a little girl, running around my yard as a kid, my first kiss, my first… well you get the idea.  The engine started and we were off.  I gave John a kiss and told him I loved him just in case. 🙂

The ride was not nearly as bad as I had anticipated.  It wasn’t very cold, the driver seemed to be pretty cautious, and it didn’t smell.  At one of the rest stops we met a couple Nepalese boys who started up a conversation with us.  They had asked how much it costs to fly from America to India.  We had estimated around 40,000 rupees which is about 1,000 USD.  They seemed to think that didn’t seem to bad.  However, we came to find out that they come from Nepal to Shimla to pick cauliflower for 40,000 Rupees/yr!  Can you imagine??  He supports his entire family with $1,000/yr.  We were in disbelief.  Really puts things in perspective.

Rest stop on the way to Shimla

Shimla!

We finally arrived to Shimla around 8pm safe and sound 🙂  Pheww..  Although I had come to terms with dying I am glad I didn’t.  Shimla turned out to be a nice mountain retreat.  The town was clean, fresh, and clear.  No smog, trash, or bad smells.  We seemed to be the only tourists visiting but we didn’t care.  We actually have enjoyed travelling off season.  We seem to get room upgrades, more attention– plus we get tourist sites to explore all by ourselves.

Our daily morning visitor 🙂

We only did one trip away from Shimla while we were there.  We went to a small town further up in the mountains.  We wanted to go even further in the mountains but the roads were bad due to snow so we weren’t able to.  There really wasn’t much to do where we went other than play in the snow a little and snap a couple pics.  The half day tour ended up being about 1.5 hours.  I think we spent the rest of the day cuddled by our space heater writing our blog.

Day trip to Kufri.

Hanging out with the yaks!

Rishikesh and Shimla were definitely a good break from the chaotic cities of Delhi and Mumbai. Unfortunately, we had to leave Shimla and head back to Delhi, but thankfully our tour guide arranged for a driver to pick us up at the train station and immediately take us on our Rajasthan tour. This time, for our trip to Delhi, we actually reserved a seat earlier enough to get space on a train. We were pretty excited we wouldn’t be pressing our luck with another shady bus. It was only a small toy train but there was no way we could leave India without riding at least one train. Plus, this was supposed to be one of the most beautiful rides in the country. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect in Rajasthan, but at least we’d be back in warmer weather!

Ahh.. this is more like it.

View from the train.

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