Rishikesh – the yoga capital of the world?

When I flew to India for the first time, I was spoilt for choice: Yoga training in Goa or in Rishikesh. The formerly small town of Rishikesh is located on the edge of the Garhwal Mountains in the Himalayas, the source of the Ganges. The place is famous for old hippies, yoga and the Beatles, who spent several months there in the 1960s. I grew up in the Austrian Alps, therefore I finally decided to do the yoga teacher training in Goa. The desire to visit the yoga capital of the world remained unbroken. Two years later on my birthday (August – rainy season) Nipun and I went to the promising city on the Ganges.

Rishikesh – Yoga, peace and bliss?

We went from Delhi to Rishikesh by car. According to Google Maps that’s a six-hour drive – Google Maps doesn’t know India – in the end, it was nine hours. If you need a description of the route and the road conditions, you better ask a local for help. We were quite exhausted when we arrived in the supposed yoga capital of the world.  Immediately we were greeted with a slap in the face by our old friend the reality. Where were the inherent peace, the reserved modesty, and the praised untouched nature? I have visited many places in India (Himachal Pradesh, Goa, Punjab, Chandigarh and also tourist strongholds like Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra). But never have I ever seen such a neglected and run-down city like Rishikesh. My dream pictures of a spiritual capital at the holy river got unsightly spots.  

The magic is gone

Once yogis realized their self here through years of practice in the meditation caves, but now it seems that the 70,000 locals have jumped on the business train. Instead of the wonderful panorama, one sees only oversized posters advertising yoga teacher training, miracle healing, and gurus. Everybody wants a piece of the profit.  It feels like thousand of yoga schools and ashrams line up. Unfortunately, most of the yoga teachers from Rishikesh do not speak good English, so it is difficult to understand them during classes. A little outside the centre there are still schools that spread some authenticity. However, for the majority of Western yoga students, this is impractical. They would be too far away from the “German Bakery” with the chocolate cakes and the “Vegan Cafés” with the hip green smoothies. The city lost its magic to the greediness, the marketing of healing promises and the gullible tourists.

What does the yoga capital of the world have to offer?

Enlightenment can hardly be found here – but what then? The already mentioned cafés really offer very tasty vegetarian and vegan food. It’s a nice change to the spicy Indian food. Despite my long stay in India I never got used to the spiciness of the traditional dishes 😉 The forests and hills around Rishikesh, as well as the Ganges itself, are also worth seeing. The most intensive way to experience the river is on a guided rafting tour. Thanks to the crowds of business people from Delhi, who seem to come here only for this experience, you can even join such a tour in Hindi. The business people can translate. When I was there, there were no English-speaking rafting guides.  You can experience a breeze of spirituality in the evening on the riverbank when hundreds of pilgrims pray to Hanuman in candlelight.

Experience true Yoga

If you are looking for authentic yoga classes, you may want to find a school in a quieter and more peaceful place. India is a beautiful country with many magical places. I am sure you will find the right place in this colorful collage of an amazing subcontinent. In any case, the world’s yoga capital turns out to be a well-staged play for wanna-be yogis, far away from the primal thoughts of yoga. Rishikesh is definitely worth a short visit, but I would not hope for spiritual enlightenment here. You will find it far away from mass consumption and advertisers – just turn inward and ask the big questions!

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