On a sunny afternoon this winter, I set off from Delhi for the town of Rishikesh at the foothills of the Himalayas. Considered a holy destination by Hindus who come to bathe in the sacred Ganga River, it also attracts spiritual seekers from all over the world coming to practice yoga, live in an ashram or just smoke hash with Sadhus in the mountains.
The distance from Delhi to Rishikesh is only 130 miles, but the journey by car takes seven hours. The roads are rough and congested with traffic of ox-drawn carriages, tractors, rickshaws and motorcycles. Poverty and long stretches of farmland line the drive on the way.
I was going for no particular reason. I wasn’t enrolled in a yoga teacher training program, I wasn’t planning to stay in an ashram, and I knew no one there. I was travelling alone. Insomuch as I had come to India for a journey of self-exploration, it seemed as good a destination as any to visit.
My first morning I awoke and opened the curtains to expose a foggy view of the Ganga, a green snake winding its way through tree-covered mountains. I was staying in a quiet, secluded resort a few miles from the town center. From this perch, I had a serene and comfortable place for contemplation.
The main town of Rishikesh is huddled between two narrow suspension bridges that span the Ganga. Ashrams, guesthouses, and street vendors selling mala beads and God statues are clustered on both sides of the river. Hemp clothed Westerners with unwashed hair mill about, moving from café to café as lazily as the cows that roam the streets.
One afternoon I met a pretty Russian girl who was walking alone on the dirt path near an ashram for Sadhus, orange-clad monks who have renounced material possessions. She had quit her job working for Ritz Carlton in Moscow to come and take a 500-hour yoga teacher training. Already in Rishikesh for three months, she was planning to stay for still another three months, until her visa expired. Her days consisted of practicing yoga, meeting friends in cafés and gossiping with the Ayurvedic masseuse.
There were plenty of people like her – those who had left their jobs back home and set out to travel and get away. They were often in a transitional point in their lives, realizing their discontentment with the status quo but yet unsure how to deal with it. They came to India to disconnect and reset themselves.
Rishikesh has historically been a popular place for soul seekers. The Beatles came to study meditation with Maharishi in the 60’s, putting the town on the map for legions of spiritual tourists for decades to come. Its numerous ashrams welcome anyone to come and absorb Eastern wisdom in the form of yoga and spirituality.
Amid a picturesque landscape of the Himalayas and decrepit but beautiful temples, one feels transported to another world where the passing of time is barely registered. There are few distractions and because it is so cheap to stay, one can float in this reverie for as long as one’s visa is valid. Rooms in guesthouses can be had for as little as $4 a night and meals rarely cost more than $3. Free from financial stress and obligations, it’s a place that naturally inspires introspection.
The first few days I spent in Rishikesh, I believed that I had found the clarity that I had come looking for. Walking alongside the Ganga, the sun illuminating the river in a brilliant shade of emerald, I felt a peaceful contentment I hadn’t experienced in years. I was grateful to be here, witness to the beauty of this place. The foreignness of the experience made me more present, aware.
But quickly, my old self reappeared. While I had originally looked upon everything with the wonderment of fresh eyes, as soon as the novelty wore off, familiar patterns of thought began to reemerge. I found myself looking at my fellow travelers with judgment and contempt if I didn’t esteem them to be authentic. I clung to my comfort zone and didn’t want to practice yoga in a group, or take part in any group for that matter.
While I could escape all my familiar surroundings, I couldn’t escape my own mind. Consciousness follows wherever you are. I could enjoy the town, its cafés and mountain views, but I couldn’t expect to be any more enlightened there than in my home in Los Angeles.
Yes, there are more tools in Rishikesh: more classes for meditation, more opportunities to practice yoga, and more seekers but the real work can only be done within yourself. No amount of time in an ashram or getting stoned with a sadhu will automatically impart spiritual awareness.
These things can help break the cycle of your typical thinking, but it is only just the beginning then. You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to go inward; you just need quiet. You can find it in the desert of Arizona or the woods of California or any other place where you can be silent. Make the world your ashram.