The Practice of Yoga from its Roots at Parmarth Niketan
Rishikesh is the land of the Rishis (or seers). A beautiful town, located in the state of Uttarakhand, India. Most yogis from abroad interested in going to India have heard of Rishikesh and its many ashrams. I went there in December of last year during peak tourist season. Lots of foreigners were to be found roaming the shops and cafés in the cute market areas. Rishikesh’s slow pace is partially due to the lack of traffic. Not many vehicles drive on the streets other than scooters. Zero cars can fit on the Laxman Jula bridge to cross the holy Ganga river. When walking over the bridge, beware of the monkey’s as they will be waiting to swoop down and steal your fruit! It’s a long drive to get here from the train station in Haridwar, as it is located in the foothills of the Himalayas. This was my first visit to India. Going to live at a serene ashram provided a huge relief after our group was traveling around the crowded, and often overwhelming, large cities of Northern India. It was time to settle in and learn the meaning of Yoga.
Ashram Campus Life
This ashram, Parmarth Niketan, had a really big campus. I enjoyed a walk around the gardens, sitting quietly on a bench (silence is strongly encouraged), and looking at the displayed sculptures of various Hindu gods and goddesses. We were served hot food twice a day as part of our stay. The dorms were cold in the evening as the attached bathrooms had an open-air ceiling and we were visiting in the winter months. However, each of our double occupancy dorms included a western style toilet and a shower with a hot water heater. The mattresses on the single beds were not very thick, but this is not uncommon in India. For a stay at an ashram, I was expecting minimalism. The idea is that while staying there, you are not focused on material things or luxuries, instead, we are focused on inner awareness.
What is the Meaning of Yoga?
I found that Yoga means so much more than I had understood previous to going abroad. We traveled there with my yoga teacher from the United States and her class of fifteen other students. Our teacher joined us in learning from the ashram’s expansive knowledge of yoga. Daily classes included the study of yoga within the Bhagwad Gita (the world famous book that is part of a larger Hindu epic the Mahabharata and classic yoga text). We also were taught several Vedic mantras, asana, breathing or pranayama techniques, Yoga Nidra, and more. It is funny how someone can practice yoga for years and still ask: what is yoga? The website of the ashram defines yoga as a practice to remember our union with the divine. As I learned during a week at the ashram, there are many avenues and practices for this purpose of this realization. I had only just tasted the very beginning. At the ashram, students are asked to wear all white clothes to symbolize an innocent open mind, one who is ready for learning.
The Ashram’s Mother
Being at the base of the mountains, it was very cold in the mornings and evenings the moment the sun was down. My classmates and I went to the market to purchase tightly woven wool blankets. These were lifesavers when we woke up during pre-dawn to arrive in the hall for pranayama with Mataji. Her name means mother in Hindi, as she was seen as the mother to the Parmath Niketan ashram. We did morning yoga postures to wake up our bodies, followed by beautiful pranayama exercises. My favorite was the alternate nostril breathing technique where you hold one nostril closed and breathe from the other, then alternate. In Sanskrit this is called Nadi Shodan, it helps to balance the nervous system. Here’s a sample of our schedule:
6:00 am Prayers, Pranayama
7:30 am Loosening Practices, Surya Namaskar, Yoga Asana
8:00 Breakfast in Silence
10:00 Vedic Chanting
3:30 pm Yoga Asana
5:00 pm Aarti Ceremony
9:00 pm Gates closed
The other student’s and I were so inspired by Mataji’s gentle presence, deep wisdom, and intelligence. I don’t know her exact age, but it was very apparent that many years of ascetic life with an active yogic practice has served her well. Mataji’s supreme health and beauty are quite evident. Her student also did some teaching in the afternoons. Even with our full schedule at Parmath, we were able to do lots of exploring outside, as well as, attending the ceremony. Aarti is a daily ceremony of prayer and musical offering to Mother Ganga. The holy river was literally across the street from the gates of the ashram.
Aarti Ceremony on the Ganga
When arriving, be sure to take off your shoes before entering the temple space at the bank of the Ganga. Many people from the ashram, visitors, and locals gathered every evening as the sunset over the river for aarti. The young boarding school boys from the ashram participated in the facilitating of this ceremony, with song, prayer, and fire. Next to the aarti service, stood a very large statue of Hanuman the famous God who is half man and monkey. Stone carvings told his story, the Ramayana. I also got to see aarti at dawn in the holy city, Varanasi (Click Here to Watch). There was so much to learn as a new student and as a person who is open to learning about yoga’s roots within the context of Hinduism.
Leaving Rishikesh, India
On the last day before leaving the ashram, my friend came to me with tears in her eyes. My friend and her big heart were concerned about the stray dogs and cows who roam the streets and eat trash. Together we went to the office to see if there was someone we could console about this issue, we sat down next to one of the staff who told us about their animal rescue programs and cow sanctuaries the ashram was involved in. This was another example of Seva, meaning service. Each of us practiced Seva as part of our yoga, by sweeping the meditation hall. Overall I found this ashram to be a great place, one that gives back to the community in service. A school that teaches values and puts them into practice. It was a bit sad to say goodbye to the grounds, to the Ganga, and to our Mataji.
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