Where Are All the Indian Yoga Students?

I started with an Iyengar yoga class at the giant ashram down the road. The teacher was not a smiling bearded Indian yogi, but a tiny, angular, frowning American woman. Karin O’Bannon was all business. Rumor had it she was … Read More

By / May 1, 2007

I started with an Iyengar yoga class at the giant ashram down the road. The teacher was not a smiling bearded Indian yogi, but a tiny, angular, frowning American woman. Karin O’Bannon was all business. Rumor had it she was in her 70s but it was quite clear she could kick your ass. She was like the Debbie Allen of India. There was no fucking around in Karin’s class. “Someone tell her to spread her legs wider,” she barked, pointing at me. One of her assistants mimed to me to spread my legs. I was too scared to point out that I spoke English. Nearly all the other 50-odd students were yoga teachers. Even at my fancy LA yoga spa there were always a few slugs that were newer or fatter or just plain suckier than me. Not here. This would be a long two hours. In Iyengar yoga, the practice is all about getting one pose perfect and holding it for, like, an eternity. We would huddle around Karin as she showed a pose, and then scurry back to our mats to try it ourselves. Luckily the poses were so hard that only a few of the students could manage. Even the hottest and most flexible yoga teachers had pained expressions on their faces. I vowed not to return to Karin’s class. But then, upon waking at 4:30 the next morning, I changed my mind. Why was I in India if not for challenges? Besides, it was the only early morning class I knew of, and I’d been going to bed before 8 p.m. every night. I had no reason to sleep in. The next day I found a teacher I really liked. He was a Sikh named Surender Singh. Often he would stop the class midway to lecture on breath and the fine art of threading needles. While all the students were in a pose he would squint down each line like a drill sergeant, correcting even the mildest inaccuracy in a pose. He would instruct us to “get into the dog pose,” and then “press your heels towards the grounds,” which made me think we were doing yoga on the Will Rogers Park Polo Grounds instead of on very dirty yoga mats in the foothills of the Himalayas. Rishikesh is billed as a spiritual oasis, but it’s clear that this means different things to the visitors than to the locals. There are ashrams, yoga and meditation classes, and ayurvedic healing everywhere. But I only saw the foreigners in these shops. For starters, at 100 rupees (a touch over $2) the yoga classes are too expensive for ordinary Indians. The ayurvedic treatments cost more, I imagined. Only once did I take a yoga class with another Indian student, and I think he was there as some sort of favor from the teacher. He was remarkably good, like someone who was training to teach other yoga instructors, and kept moving out of the way to give foreigners a better place.
The entire town of Rishikesh had this apartheid. There were the places where the foreigners ate, and those where the Indians ate, the places the foreigners hung out and those where the Indians did. Maybe this is endemic to Third-World travel (although someone pointed out that India is now “Second World”), but on a quest for enlightenment, the division seems particularly distasteful. On one of my last nights, I went to a candlelight ceremony on the Ganges held by the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Floodlights blazed onto the shrine on the banks of the Ganges and a sound system amplified the singing of Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji. The orphans that live at the ashram were clad in orange robes and sang and swayed along with the prayers. All around the group were foreign revelers, some singing, some swaying, some taking pictures. Scanning the crowd for Indian faces, I spotted two, maybe three. Where were all the Indian Hindus? Earlier that evening as I walked to the riverbank, I passed a small dirty room with its doors open. Harsh fluorescent lights beamed onto the 30 revelers, who were on their knees with their arms outstretched. I had no idea what the place was—there was a restaurant on one side and a trinket shop on the other. But it seemed like there, in a cold, smelly, badly lit room, were real-life Hindus worshipping in their real-life way. This, in a nutshell, is why I couldn’t get on board in Rishikesh. The town was lovely and the people were kind for the most part. And who could argue with six hours of yoga a day? But so much of it seemed manufactured. Maybe you only find enlightenment when you’re not really looking Next: I accidentally get stoned out of my mind.

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