When you think of a wellness holiday, the first ideas that usually pop into your head involve pricey retreats in exotic locations, spas with an array of international therapies or health farms that closely monitor your diet and exercise regimen. But what if holistic wellness can be achieved without burning a hole in your wallet? What if a stay at an ashram can give you peace of mind (isn’t that what we’re all after?) and in turn nurture your body? Intrigued? Well then read on and find out how I recharged my batteries over the course of a week and learnt that wellness need not necessarily involve fancy accommodation, luxury treatments or specially prepared meals.

In 2016, I travelled to Rishikesh to cover the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Although I attended just three days of the week-long festival, I was hooked. I was determined to return the following year for all seven days. One year later I was back, with two friends in tow.

Set against the backdrop of a mountain and laid out amongst manicured lawns, fountains and shady, tall ashoka, eucalyptus and rudraksh trees, Parmarth Niketan is very welcoming. As cliché as it sounds, the sense of peace here is pervasive.

Shubham Mansingka
Verdant premises of Parmarth Niketan
Verdant premises of Parmarth Niketan

Founded in 1942 by Pujya Swami Shukdevanandji Maharaj (1901–65), the ashram welcomes all irrespective of nationality, gender and religious beliefs. One of its core values is to promote and offer religious and spiritual teachings for the development of spirtual values and character.

We arrived at the ashram after an hour’s drive through Rajaji National Park from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport. There was a flurry of activity wherever we looked – participants from all over the world were pulling up in taxis and unloading their luggage, rishikumars in bright saffron dhoti-kurtas were greeting everyone with welcoming smiles, festival organisers dressed in white were rushing around the grounds, busy overseeing final preparations. Adding to the melee were the resident monkeys, who are completely harmless as long as you don’t interfere with them. I recognised quite a few faces from the previous year’s festival as we made our way to the registration area, which was on one of the lawns. The registration went smoothly with separate counters for each step of the process. Once done we were given a goody bag containing a schedule of classes and events over the next week, a stainless steel cup and water bottle, a pen and pad, and our room keys. We were then free to do as we pleased until the festival officially began the next morning.

The sound of the Ganga flowing past the ashram will be a constant during your stay at Parmarth Niketan. The river here is untainted by the pollution prevalent further downriver, so you can take a dip without any worries. We rushed down the steps of the ghat to stand in the icy water, cooling our tired feet and watching the sights around us – men and women taking holy dips, friendly dogs playfully chasing each other around the area where the daily evening aarti takes place and the locals of Rishikesh going about their lives, oblivious to the biggest Yoga festival about to commence under their noses. Do remember to watch the sun set from the ghats while you’re here. It is strangely peaceful to gaze at the giant orange ball dip further down the horizon, while temples on the opposite banks light up and small earthen lamps float by on the river in small boats made from leaves. Personally, the best part of my evenings on the Parmarth ghat was getting to play with and pamper the friendly resident pack of street dogs. These 4–5 dogs amass new fans every year amongst the festival’s participants.

Shubham Mansingka
Scenes from the beautiful Ganga aarti, a daily ritual of thanksgiving by the river
Scenes from the beautiful Ganga aarti, a daily ritual of thanksgiving by the river

A massive rain storm lashed Rishikesh very early the next morning, causing concern amongst the organisers especially for the outdoor venues. But somehow despite the wet tents and chilly breeze, all the classes scheduled from 4.00am that morning carried on thanks to the positive attitude of teachers and students alike. That’s the beauty of such an event. Although I was tempted to snuggle under my quilt after realising it was raining, my friend didn’t let me laze around. Out of the various classes on offer at 6.30am, we’d decided on the traditional Hatha Yoga class. We hurriedly freshened up and made our way to the venue. Our teacher, Sadhvi Abha Saraswati, has been living at the ashram since 2003 and teaches Yogasana, Yoga Nidra, Nada Yoga and Vedic chanting. By the end of her class I was throughly warmed up and ready for the rest of the day. The effectiveness of the first asana class of the day was evident from the way everyone made a beeline for the food tents. The food served throughout the festival is simple and only mildly spiced, in keeping with sattvik traditions and also to cater to the many Western palates present.

I must mention here that the resident macaques, although never aggressive towards humans, get bolder during meal times. So it’s best not to leave your plate unattended if you’re sitting in the outdoor eating area. I had a jolly laugh one afternoon when a cheeky adolescent jumped up on a table and grabbed a packet of bread, then ran off into the trees with his loot while the owner of the bread had her back to the table, talking to other participants.

The rest of the day flew by with various asana classes and lectures. At 6.00pm we all gathered by the Ganga River, to attend the Ganga aarti, a beautiful ceremony to give thanks for the many blessings we overlook in our daily lives. The yellow and orange robes worn by the young rishikumars coupled with the bright lights at the ghat seem to bathe every person present in a warm glow. Prayers, singing and a brief sermon by Pujya Swamiji and sometimes by Sadhvi Bhagawati are the usual features of the daily Ganga aarti.

Courtesy Parmarth Niketan Ashram
Sadhvi Bhagawati with local children
Sadhvi Bhagawati with local children

While looking at the schedule one morning I noticed a couple of T’ai Chi classes, which were to be taught by renowned Yoga and martial arts guru Sandeep Desai. Apart from seeing people practise it in parks in Hollywood movies, I had next to no experience of this ancient Chinese martial art. Curiosity got the better of me and I attended the class. For one hour, our very calm and soft-spoken teacher led us through a series of slow movements, reminding us time and again to focus on our breathing and keeping our spines straight. Although initially developed as a method of self defence, T’ai Chi has developed a slower style, which, when practised faithfully, helps alleviate stress in practitioners.

One afternoon, while my two friends decided to go to a class together, I wandered around and found myself at the Yoga ghat where Tommy Rosen was just beginning his class. An experienced Kundalini and Hatha Yoga teacher, Tommy has used his knowledge of Yoga and recovery from drug abuse to create a holistic healing program for recovery from all kinds of addiction. While his class started off slowly, with a series of measured, deliberate cow-cat poses with a lot of concentration on breathing, we soon found ourselves seated in lotus pose, moving our arms up and down for 10–15 minutes accompanied by energetic music, with Tommy urging us not to listen to our protesting muscles. It got to a point where I was grinning like a nut, ignoring the pain in my shoulders, soaking in the amazing energy that seemed to be pushing us on. It is moments like this one that will keep drawing me back to Parmarth Niketan Ashram over the years to come.

On the last day all three of us made our way down to the Yoga ghat to attend Jules Febre’s class. Jule’s has been practising Jivamukti Yoga since he was six years old. He also spent time in Mysuru learning Ashtanga from Sri Pattabhi Jois. Over the course of his career he’s worked with homeless shelters and underpriviledged children. In order to work with the latter, he developed an asana class which incorporated hip-hop dance moves as a way to connect with youngsters. As he himself said, if he walked into a reform home and began singing bhajans, he’d be beaten up, his iPod would be taken away and the kids would load hip-hop music on it. While he kept us in splits over one and a half hours with his own brand of humour, he also made us work very hard, which made us forget the chilly morning breeze sweeping across the ghats.

Courtesy International Yoga Festival
A Yoga class in progress at the Yoga ghat during the International Yoga Festival
A Yoga class in progress at the Yoga ghat during the International Yoga Festival

The 2017 festival drew 1,750 partipants from 101 countries, the biggest till date. Each year as news of the festival spreads even more, the biggest challenge faced by the organisers is creating a schedule that doesn’t overwhelm participants with its offerings and variety but at the same time gives them the opportunity to experience many different schools of Yoga – ranging from Hatha and Ashtanga to Yin Yoga and Kundalini Yoga – and wellness/spirtual traditions such as T’ai Chi, Reiki and Aromatherapy as well as listening to lectures from persons renowed in their fields of study such as Dr Bruce Lipton and Rujuta Diwekar. Accommodating the ever increasing number of Yoga gurus from around the world, who want to teach at the event, and creating more venues where their classes can be held is another challenge. “Ultimately our goal is to have a festival of union – of cultures, colours and creeds; the real recognition that we’re all one,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati, President of the Divine Shakti Foundation at Parmarth Niketan. Sadhviji’s words couldn’t have rung more true when participants from Israel and Iran sat at the same table in the food tent, talking and sharing jokes with each other.

Other Activities

Although the International Yoga Festival has thrown the ashram under the spotlight for the last couple of decades, it does offer other practices such as meditation, sound healing, Chakra-dance, Panchkarma, Ayurvedic massage and therapy. Beginner and intensive Yoga courses and Yoga teacher trainings are also organised here on a regular basis. People can volunteer at the ashram, but have to put in a minimum of three months. They can contribute their skills to the many programmes Parmarth Niketan is actively involved in such as Project Hope, which provides ecologically sustainable relief and restoration in times of natural disaster, and the Divine Shakti Foundation, dedicated to the holistic well being of women and to Mother Nature and Mother Earth. Sevaks (volunteers) are encouraged to have their own personal sadhana (spiritual practice). Ahimsa (non-violence) and self-discipline are key values that all volunteers are expected to follow besides silence from the hours of 10.00pm to 6.00am. While we might not feel the immediate benefits of volunteering, giving back to the Universe as thanks for all that you have will only do you good in the long run.

Participants join hands during a meditation session
Participants join hands during a meditation session

Accommodation Options

Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Tel: 0135- 2434301-02; Tariff: ₹800–1,600) has around 1,000 clean and simple rooms, equipped with modern amenities. Most rooms have attached Western-style bathrooms with hot running water. Charges are waived in case of full-time volunteership.

Hotel The Great Ganga (Tel: 2442243, 2438252; Tariff: ₹4,000– 9,800) 1.5km from the Bus Stand, is right above the Badrinath Road in Muni-ki-Reti and offers panaromic views of the Ganga. Pure Inn (Delhi Tel: 011-22753151; Tariff: ₹3,500, with two meals), also in Muni-ki-Reti, is another good option.

GMVN has three large and comfortable guesthouses. Bharat Bhoomi Tourist Complex (Tel: 2433002, Cell: 09568006685; Tariff: ₹990–2,500, dorm bed ₹200) is close to the railway station. Rishilok Tourist Complex (Tel: 2430373; Tariff: ₹970– 2,090) at Muni-ki-Reti, has similar facilities. Ganga Resort Tourist Complex (Tel: 2438651, 2122098, Cell: 09568006683; Tariff: ₹3,200– 4,200, dorm bed ₹350), also at Muni-ki-Reti, has the best location, on the banks of the Ganga. Amongst the budget options is Green Hotel (Tel: 2431242, 2434948, 2440242, Cell: 08171077111; Tariff: ₹900–3,800) near Ram Jhula.

Meals at the Ashram and Around

During the International Yoga Festival participants can eat all three meals in the food tents within the ashram premises. At any other time the ashram canteen serves simple sattvic meals to visitors and volunteers.

The Chotiwala Restaurant serves traditional food. The German Bakery has a small open-air seating area and offers some interesting dishes such as yak cheese sandwiches and fruit pan-cakes. Try Madras Café for south Indian staples. Ramana’s Organic Cafe grows organic vegetables and fruit, which feature in their delicious salads and soups. They also bake mouthwatering cakes and pies.

FAST FACTS

When to go 1–7 March for the International Yoga Festival. Apart from that anytime of the year, but the town sees fewer crowds in the winter months.

Contact

Parmarth Niketan Ashram PO Swargashram Rishikesh, Tel: 0135-2434301/ 02, Email: info@internationalyogafestival.com, W parmarth.org W internationalyogafestival.org

How to book The best way to book your place at the festival is to register via the official festival website. For all other courses and activities check the ashram website.

Caution The ashram is not to be treated as a resort/ retreat. It is a place of spiritual healing, quiet contemplation and learning new philosophies. Please dress conservatively.

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Jolly Grant, Dehradun (30km/ 45mins) is connected to Delhi by daily flights by carriers such as Air India, Jet Airways and SpiceJet. Taxis to Rishikesh cost approx ₹1,600

Rail Rishikesh Station, connected to Jammu Tawi, Chakki, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Ambala, Saharanpur

and Haridwar by the daily Hemkunt Express. For other cities, Haridwar Junction is the nearest railhead (25km/ 1hr). Take a bus (1hr) or taxi (₹1,200–1,500) to Rishikesh

Road Rishikesh is connected to Delhi by NH334 via Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee and Haridwar Bus Uttarakhand Roadways (Tel: 011-22158641) has daily bus services between Delhi’s ISBT Anand Vihar and the Rishikesh stand (Tel: 0135- 2430076), and from Faridabad, Gurugram and Amritsar