I do not arrive at Phool Chatti Ashram in Rishikesh, northern India, in a Zen state.
No, I arrive in the yoga capital of the world, this magnet for spiritual seekers where the Beatles famously found enlightenment in the ’60s, in floods of tears.
I’d taken an 18-hour overnight bus here, you see. It was old, cramped, overcrowded – I barely got one hour’s sleep. When I finally got to Rishikesh, my tuk-tuk driver promised to take me to the ashram, then dropped me in town instead. I’d lugged my swollen suitcase across the metre-wide Laxman Jhula bridge, crammed with beggars, motorbikes, cows and hordes of Indian tourists, in the 40-degree midday sun. I reached the other side only to be told I’d have to take a seven-minute taxi that would cost more than the entire overnight bus trip … And with that, the tears.
“Oooh no madam,” the young Indian who’d quoted the taxi price said. “Please do not cry madam.”
“I … can’t … help it! I feel like everyone is trying to rip me off!” I sobbed. “I’m tired, I’m hot, and I just want to get to the ashram!”
“Oooh madam,” said the man, wobbling his head. “It is good you are going to the ashram. It will be a great help for you.
This set me off even more, of course, because I knew he was right.
By the time I enter Phool Chatti Ashram my tears have, mercifully, dried up. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, the ashram is immediately soothing. Its simple white buildings are surrounded by big, shady trees. There’s a small garden of flowering pot plants in the central courtyard and cooing white doves roam the rooftops.
I’m ushered to my simple, slightly cell-like room then on to lunch, a tasty meal of dal, bean curry, chapattis and curd eaten in silence on the ashram rooftop overlooking the river. Next up, our induction in the yoga hall where we go around the room doing that cringe-worthy thing of introducing ourselves and saying why we’re here. The ashram director and our leader for the week goes first, an Indian woman in her late 30s with a long black plait and a rather forlorn expression on her face. She introduces herself as Lalita-ji and tells us she’s lived in this ashram for 21 years.
As we move around the happy pant-wearing, tousle-haired lot from the UK, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Denmark, I notice we’re all giving a version of the same answer: we’re here to get a little peace, and to find ourselves. We’re given a rundown of the ashram rules including strict curfews, no drinking alcohol or eating meat (both are banned within Rishikesh’s city limits), and silence from 9pm each night until after lunch the following day. There’s a collective moan at this rule but I’m thrilled. I haven’t come here to make friends – well not with anyone but myself – and I’m looking forward to not being constantly drawn into the drama of other people’s lives.
For the next 90 minutes we do gentle yoga, and at sunset we meet at the temple for the nightly ceremony. Bells toll, gongs gong, the central fire is lit and some Sanskrit chants are sung to appease the Hindu gods. An oil lamp is passed around the circle; we’re encouraged to pull the smoke over our heads and say a prayer. Peace, Lord Shiva, please give me a little peace, I beg of the Hindu god of destruction who I do not believe in.
Finally, the world’s longest day finishes with dinner and evening meditation. I’m so exhausted I keep my eyes wide open the entire session, trying desperately to remain conscious. I don’t even remember going to bed.
The next morning we’re gonged awake at 5.30am, and groggily make our way into the hall for meditation and Sanskrit mantra chanting. When we’re told that next we’ll be washing our noses out, I quickly snap awake.
We’re escorted down to a sandy courtyard near the river, handed a “neti pot” (like a tiny plastic teapot) filled with warm salty water, and shown how to shove the spout into our schnoz, letting the water make its way through to the other nostril before dribbling onto the ground. Most of the water ends up in my mouth and I instantly catastrophise about Delhi belly. “Clearing the nostrils means you will breathe better and be completely clear in the mind!” trills Lalita-ji. But I can barely hear her through my frenzied spitting.
What water did make it into my nose continues seeping out during the breathing exercises we do next, especially the “breath of fire” where we push short, rapid pulses of breath from our body using our abs. My nose keeps dripping through yoga, breakfast and “karma yoga” (aka “cleaning the ashram”).
Thankfully, by the time we take our two-hour meditative walk to a pebbly riverside beach it has dried up. There, surrounded by the densely forested Himalayas, we’re told to sit in silence and “Listen to what the river has to tell us.” Sadly, Mother Ganges isn’t speaking to me today, but goodness my mind is. Plans for the future, regrets from the past, to-do lists, ideas … noise, noise, noise, filling each and every moment.
And so the ashram week rolls on, each day a mirror of the one before, with slight variations in the topics of the afternoon spiritual discussions (from yogic principles to the meaning of life), the way we meditate (from using mala beads and our breath to sending out love) and the intensity of my annoyance at the other ashramites (one’s too chatty, another smiles too much). Yoga, chant, eat, meditate. Rinse and repeat.
It’s a strict regime, but as the week progresses I notice the anxiety and anger that accompanied me here start to melt away. Dips in the sacred river, touted to wash away sins and purify, feel like they actually work. As does the fire ritual we do towards the end of the week, where we burn pieces of paper penned with things that are no longer serving us. I’m sleeping better, my mind is getting quieter. And although I don’t feel as though I’ve reached nirvana just yet, I do think I’m becoming a slightly calmer, nicer person.
The ultimate test of whether this inner peace will follow me out of the ashram comes on the final day, when I have to head into town to get cash to pay for my stay.
With a deep breath I step out of the taxi and into the melee, forging my way past beeping bikes and dreadlocked, withered holy men draped in tangerine robes and prayer beads. Past shops selling crystals and spiritual books, and signs touting classes in yoga, drumming, tarot and astrology. Past temples and stray dogs and beggars. It’s hot, it’s noisy, everyone is trying to sell me some form of spiritual tat and I’m constantly followed by calls of, “Madam, madam!”
The first ATM I come across doesn’t work. Neither does the second.
“Where is the next ATM?”, I ask at a prayer bead shop. “Three kilometres, madam.”
It takes all the strength I have to breathe deeply, smile serenely, and schlep off in the 40-degree heat to find it. It sucks. But I take the opportunity to buy an ice-cream and some pretty brass rings along the way. I laugh at the monkeys swinging in the trees. In short, I continue consciously making an effort to not lose the plot.
After half a sweaty hour I arrive at the third ATM. Miraculously, it works. And next to it sits a taxi, empty and willing to take me – me who is now a bit better equipped in life to pause before lashing out, and to not be put off by the usual setbacks – back to the ashram.
Nina Karnikowski travelled at her own expense.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED ONLINE HERE AND IN PRINT
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi via Hong Kong from about $970 return. From Delhi, you can fly to Dehradun with SpiceJet for about $60 return; from there it’s about a 90-minute taxi ride in to Rishikesh.STAYING THERE
Phool Chatti ashram’s seven-day yoga and meditation program, which caters to all levels of experience and includes daily teachings, accommodation and three meals a day, is about $240 per person for a private room.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
1 GANGA AARTI
A nightly aarti, or fire ritual, is performed on the banks of the Ganges each evening at dusk. Hindu priests chant and offer fire lamps in praise of the sacred river, in a bewitching ceremony that’s an essential Rishikesh experience.
2 BEATLES ASHRAM
The derelict Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram, where the Beatles famously learnt meditation in the ’60s, isn’t officially open to the public. But ask around and you’ll find a way to explore the six-hectare jungle compound with its domed, pebble-encrusted caves, where the Beatles meditated and wrote most of the White Album.
3 NEER GARH WATERFALL
You’ll find this waterfall at the end of a 20-minute hike that starts two kilometres north of Lakshman Jhula, one of the two riverside hubs where most of Rishikesh’s ashrams, cafes, palm readers, meditation classes and travellers are found.
4 GANGES RAFTING
If you’re more into adrenalin than enlightenment, there are loads of companies offering river rafting and kayaking experiences along the rushing waters of the Ganges.
5 NEELKANTH MAHADEV TEMPLE TREK
Take a pilgrimage to this sacred Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, via the picturesque 14-kilometre (about two-hour) trek through the monkey-filled forest from Rishikesh town.