Notes from the International Yoga Festival 2018

No one forces you to do anything, but you are always encouraged to try your best at the fest

March 07, 2018 03:04 pm | Updated 03:04 pm IST

Walking into Parmarth Niketan is a welcome respite from the narrow, crowded lanes around the area. Shops packed with trinkets and jewellery, cafés and spiritual bookshops jostle for space. Opposite the soaring white statue of Shiva on the ghats is a large arch welcoming visitors to the ashram. It is abuzz with activity — yellow-clad rishikumars (male students at the ashram) mix with sevaks in white kurtas and a riot of international visitors. A smattering of Mandarin floats from one corner; while another group chats in Portuguese; a blend of British, American, Australian, Italian, Indian and several other accents fills the air. This is the 29th International Yoga Festival, held annually in Rishikesh. Parmarth Niketan is the largest ashram in Rishikesh, and has played host to the festival since 1999, at its sprawling complex overlooking the Ganga. The event has grown from a handful of participants who stayed in neighbouring hotels to attend classes and programmes under a couple of yogacharyas , to approximately 2,000 attendees from over 100 countries, and over a dozen yogacharyas from around the globe.

For a first-timer, who has practised yoga as part of a fitness routine, with no particular understanding of the numerous forms of yoga, going for the festival with little idea of what to expect can be a good thing. Top knots, flowing skirts and trendy printed yoga pants, intersperse with serene-hued kurtas, tattooed forearms, and beaming and peaceful expressions. Your newcomer status may be betrayed by a knitted brow, fatigue from waking up for an early morning flight to travel here, and confusion in finding your way around the ashram. But checking into the basic and clean rooms, slipping into yoga pants, flip flops and tucking a mat under your arm helps set the mood.

A packed schedule details a list of sessions focusing on asanas , pranayama , meditation and philosophy, which begin at 4.30 am for the morning sadhana , and end at 5 pm. One can choose which classes to attend, and if you do not know your kundalini yoga from ashtanga , or aura cleansing from gong chanting, then just try out a few sessions and figure out what you enjoy the most. Or follow the hallway chatter and speak with a few other participants. There are no specific classes for different levels of expertise, no one forces you to do anything, but you are always encouraged to try your best and not just sit around if you are unable to grasp a particular asana or process being described.

The kundalini yoga classes are packed to the brim with popular yogacharyas like Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, and husband-wife duo Tommy Rosen and Kia Miller. Miller’s class does not have particularly difficult asanas , but what is challenging is the length of time spent on repetitions or holding each asana .

Jules Febre is a Jivamukti yogacharya and is also known for his hip hop asana classes, where he incorporates the popular dancing style with yoga. Though he did not do a hip hop asana class at the festival, a Jivamukti yoga session with him is a rigorous physical workout interspersed with chanting, music and Febre’s easy and humorous style.

There are several other notable sessions, like the Happy Hips class by Francesca Cassia that illustrates positions to help make the hips more flexible, working up to more advanced positions. Krishnamurthy Mohan Raj runs a yoga centre in China, speaks fluent Mandarin, and his early morning vinyasa yoga class was a buildup of asanas to get to the grand finale of hanumanasana , or the full split. The meditation session, like the one with Laura Plumb on learning to meditate like The Beatles, is interesting, but as challenging as the physical classes. Rujuta Diwekar’s session on nutrition is informative, and it’s no wonder that her approach to eating and lifestyle choices has everyone flocking to follow her advice.

The evening aarti at the ghats is held at sunset every day. It is a magnetic experience, sitting along the ghats with the Ganga flowing alongside, listening to the chanting and singing while the sun sets in the horizon. The post dinner schedule is filled with performances, including those by popular artists such as Kailash Kher and Sivamani; sacred music by a group of Japanese musicians; ecstatic Sufi whirling and meditation by Turkish yoga teacher Mert Güler; theatrical performances by the ashram’s rishikumars , and several other artistes.

With a flexible schedule, you can always choose to step out to sight-see or get a bite to eat. The popular Chotiwala restaurant is a short walk from the ashram, where you can get a photo with the ‘mascot’, replete with painted face and the signature choti; or cross over the Ram Jhula and indulge in a buffet breakfast at Aloha on the Ganges. This year is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles visiting Rishikesh, where they stayed at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for an advanced transcendental meditation course. It inspired some of their most iconic songs featured on Abbey Road and the White Album . The ashram has been abandoned for decades, but the Forest Department has cleaned up the area. There is a map detailing buildings like The Beatles bungalow, the Maharishi’s house and the exhibition area. The latter has a stunning collection of photographs by Paul Saltzman, documenting the band’s time here. The old preaching hall is one of the most visited areas, covered in graffiti and floor-to-ceiling murals of the Fab Four, completed recently by street art artist Artxpan.

Whether spending a few days or the entire week at the yoga festival, it is difficult to not be drawn in by the enthusiasm around, and understand why several of the participants come each year. You will also realise that yoga pants and flip flops are dangerously addictive, and possibly experience some withdrawal symptoms on your return.

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