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February 10th-24th: Rishikesh, India

How to find your guru in Rishikesh...or not!!

I've decided to take a break from cycling, returning to Rishikesh to begin a yoga course. Its not a plan I could have foreseen, but as I'm here now it seems the right thing to do.

David and I are now back in Mama G's guesthouse, tucked away on the hillside, an escape from the confusion of this sprawling town. Having cycled to Dharamsala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet, I'll resume my journey from there. Fiona and Lynda are here too and together we've begun an intensive one month yoga course with Swami Vivekenanda - 'Discovery through Realisation...'

Everyday, we stroll down the hill to Ramjhula, cross the suspension bridge over the Ganges, look up to the hills layered in hues of grey and blue in the early morning light, breath in the fresh air blustering through the valley and descend into a basement where our classes are held. We begin with a morning session of exercises - asanas - from 8am to 10.30am, with one new asana learnt each day. We break for lunch and resume class at 4.30 pm for sun salutations on the roof, a physical exercise that draws energy from the sun. Then it's a revision of asanas, before an evening lecture covering a huge range of topics - different forms of yoga, the chakras, cleansing, healing, ideas of non-violence, truth, reaching enlightenment and the such. An alternative video rounds up the long day - anything remotely related to spirituality, from Kundun to Aikido demonstrations to The Matrix! Clutching a handful of printout notes, we traipse back to our rooms ready to fall fast sleep.

Our Swami, clad in bright orange pyjamas, necklace and beaded hair (dreads?) is a one time scientist turned guru - his approach is painstakingly detailed, cross referenced to the sciences, world religions, philosophers... During the Question and Answers session he is rarely at a loss for a reply and is incredibly well read and eloquent. Of Rumanian birth, it seems he has rejected his communist background, and is setting up his own Ashram here in Rishikesh to further his ideas and philosophy of 'no-nonsense' teaching.

The class is packed, the pupils drawn from eclectic backgrounds; travellers by recommendation or curious about the mass advertising around town; newcomers and new-agers. It's interesting to notice their reactions: some seem only to willing to please and follow (blindly?!), others adopt a more sceptical attitude, giving a healthy balance to the group.

Yoga classes often rush through a series of asanas before their effects can really be fully felt. Here, given the luxury of so much time, each pose is held for an agonising length of time and its effects become much more apparent. The asanas are also closely tied to the chakras, or energy points, which they open. Like the Japanese 'Ki' and the Chinese 'Chi', yoga is all about 'Prana'. The course gives a rounded knowledge of yoga, from its links to ayuvedic healing and yoga hospitals that claim to be able to cure almost all known diseases, to the reasons Ghandi himself swore by it. Swami V places the physical exercises within a spiritual context, and the spiritualism is emphasised. Then it's a matter of drawing what you want for yourself; not everyone is aiming to reach enlightenment just yet!!

Much of this background knowledge I found fascinating, including related issues such as alternatives to Western medicine. At other times it seemed a little too esoteric, compounded by the amount of information given to us in such a relatively short time. I had to pinch myself: was this really me meditating to the soundtrack of '2001: A Space Odyssey' to open my manipura chakra...?!

Following the course for two weeks, I feel I gained enormously from the excellent teaching - both in strength and mind. It covers an incredible breadth of ideas and information. I've contemplated issues I never knew existed. Yet for me, these two weeks were very definitely enough. I had spent enough time in a dark basement, and I was tired of so many lectures. My brain had absorbed as much as it could for now, and I felt I was only staying not to miss out on something. Ultimately, I had to remind myself that this was outside knowledge, imparted excellently, but knowledge I could gain at any time. I have the confidence that my journey will take me the right way and when the time comes, I'll delve into the doors that have been opened.

Yet there was also something else that made me reconsider this intensive course. Was it the way some of Swami's V's views teetered on disquieting peculiarity? Much of his words made sense, but more than a few made me uneasy. Or it the way his assistants seemed to hang onto every word that he uttered? Without him they seemed quite lost...or perhaps it was the way one male assistant liked to stroke the girls' hair?!? Day in day out, the format of exercises remained exactly the same. It all seemed so mechanical and structured, there seemed to be so little room for expression. We were being introduced to the wonders of the East through the scientific mentality of the West - reason, unanimous proof and examples. I wanted more mystery...

Rishikesh has a reputation for charlatans. Travellers come here with an open mind, a willingness to learn and a receptiveness to new ideas - as the X Files's Mulder would say - 'I want to believe...' As such, total confidence and trust in your 'swami' is needed or you'll always be holding back. I was being overly paranoid and for this reason began lessons with Divanka, an Indian disciple of the internationally renowned Ayenda. His shorter classes followed a much more natural and straight forward approach.

'The essence of the coconut is the oil,' he remarked. 'The essence of life is prana! (breath)' He followed with a beaming smile. The classes flowed freely, like the breath of which we had become so aware. Divanka's enthusiasm rubbed off on me, the variety of the classes kept my interest, and the way he gently shared his knowledge seemed more sincere. Leaving his class at sunset, held in an Ashram away from the bustle of the main town, is one of the memories which will hold strongest from the month I have spent here.

Without doubt, I have seen that yoga is an incredible force that defies conventional Western thinking. But these last few weeks showed me not just how powerful but how personal yoga can be; the style you learn, the physiological benefits, the spiritual growth and the rapport with your teacher. I have seen two vastly different approaches to the teaching of yoga, and made the choice that suited me.

In the meantime, we dined on Mama G's delicious home cooking, basked in the sun of the increasingly warm days, worked our way through a series of 'cleansing diets' and enjoyed the feeling of being at home. The guesthouse was in the throws of construction - Mama G is extending her small business and creating an empire, while Papa G sits relaxes and counts the money!

Life in Rishikesh goes on - pilgrims cleanse their souls in the holy Ganges, filling their plastic bottles with sacred water for another day; sadhus - holy men who aren't always so holy - smoke their chillums and grow their dreads; monkeys swagger though the temples and Khrishna-ites gather in song at the banks of the Ganges with the setting of the sun...

From here, I'll be resuming my ride to Dharamsala, the Tibetan town that seems honest and simple in comparison. For sure, the complexities of the Hindu culture make Rishikesh a town layered in truths. To the western eye it may seem kitsch. But set to tannoys blaring out religious chanting and larger-than-life blue statues of Hindu deities, there's no doubt Rishikesh is alive with the ambiguity of India.



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