Here Comes the Sun

Rishikesh, India—famously visited by the Beatles—enlightens a yoga skeptic

From the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

High above the silvery flow of the Ganges River, on a swaying suspension bridge, I realize how far I’ve strayed from my quest. The metronome sound of a Royal Enfield motorcycle ticking beneath my legs is the giveaway. I had come to the remote town of Rishikesh, India—a gateway to the Himalaya—with a vision of deep silence and lots of focused yoga. Yet something, karmic vibrations perhaps, lured me astray.

Rishikesh is a shopping mall for spirituality straddling the Ganges northeast of New Delhi. For those seeking enlightenment or adventurous escape—hippies, spiritual tourists, religious pilgrims, river rats—the healing power of the Ganges is a strong magnet, attracting hundreds of thousands each year. As a result, Rishikesh and its neighboring big brother, Haridwar, are hot spots teeming with ashrams, yoga schools, white-water rafting companies, and vegan restaurants (by law, the region is vegetarian and alcohol free).

In 1968, the Beatles came to this corner of India to study transcendental meditation. Ringo left early, but John, Paul, and George stayed for weeks at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram—and wrote some 40 songs. Many of the songs found their way onto the 1968 White Album. I hadn’t come to write music, however, but to retune an ailing back.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in central Colorado, I forged some less than limber muscles loading hay bales—and competing in such local sports as ice hockey, ski racing, and mountain biking. My idea of stretching had involved a few toe touches. OK, shin touches, maybe. Sure, I’d attended my handful of power yoga, vinyasa flow, and even Bikram classes, where the room temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The American yoga scene offered a good workout—but, frankly, was too distracting. I was that sweaty guy in the back of the studio, struggling to keep up and often more focused on the figures in front of me than on my breath. The therapeutic value was limited.

My years of sports, paired now with the immutable milestones of aging, had resulted in a persistent, jarring pain in my lower spine. After I’d endured the cracks of chiropractors, the pricks of acupuncturists, even the painful kneading of Rolfers, an x-ray revealed what looked to be a photo of Jenga—that wooden-block tower game. Except my vertebrae were the blocks. And one vertebra stuck disturbingly more inward than the rest. According to my doctor, the condition is relatively common. But if I didn’t stabilize the area with core strength exercises and stretching, I would be forced to have my lower spine fused—surgery, metal rods. Yoga, I was told, could maybe help. Enter Rishikesh, world capital of yoga. I’d put my beef-eating and coffee- and wine-guzzling habits on hold to embrace the ashram lifestyle in its motherland. Prepared to contort body and mind, I set off to find my inner om. What did I have to lose? Back surgery, for starters.

THE DISTRACTING RUMBLE of a motorcycle was not part of the yoga retuning. However, I told myself, the siren song of a classic British bike (built in India) wouldn’t pull me entirely off my quest.

Motoring in second gear, I glide through dense traffic on the swaying suspension bridge. Pedestrians—some barefoot, others ornate with painted sandals and jeweled toes beneath softly swishing wraps—whisper as I weave past and around the wheeled and hoofed traffic of mopeds and sacred cows clattering across the span. There is such spatial awareness that cow horns and handlebars on vehicles coming from opposite directions occasionally touch yet avoid entanglement. Rhesus monkeys, hanging from steel cables above, study every move of every passerby, looking to snatch food and shiny objects.

After I cross the bridge, I head down an alley and turn into the back courtyard of Parmarth Niketan Ashram. I’ve been in residence here for three days and am in the groove—feeling squarely centered in the present moment. I’d chosen Parmarth because it is less strict than other ashrams, allowing guests to come and go. Just be back before curfew. I was also impressed by its mission to offer free medical care to those in dire need. In addition, Parmarth supports maybe 200 boys—some orphaned—called Rishikumar, providing housing, food, basic academic education, and spiritual teachings.

At 6:50 a.m. the next day I sit in a simple room with a wooden floor, white walls, a metal roof, and poster-size black-and-white photos of Pujya Swamiji smiling down on our group of students. Named 1991’s Hindu of the Year by Hinduism Today magazine, Pujya Swamiji left home at age eight to study in the Himalaya. Today he is the spiritual head of Parmarth, and though he doesn’t teach, he occasionally is on the scene in the evening. (I would have the honor of talking with him twice during my stay.)

As I listen to my yoga teacher, an American, I work on a breathing technique that involves inhaling and exhaling through one nostril at a time.

Patience. Breathe.

I move into the upright mountain pose and focus on absences. There are no New Age tunes pumping through hidden speakers, no distracting yoga outfits, no blinding heat, no incense, and no attitude. Just students and a teacher. Before I came here, I knew something about the cultural divide between Indian and American yoga—how some say that the Yankee infatuation with fitness has caused American yoga to stretch more in the direction of exercise. Others argue that the dichotomy is all part of yoga’s ongoing evolution. Either way, I tackle the postures wearing a down jacket and long pants. Throughout much of the year, Rishikesh is hot, at times scorching. But now, in December, the mornings are frigid. I miss the music initially but quickly become aware of the Himalayan rhythms all around us: the scurrying of monkeys on the roof and the clanking of the studio’s wooden shutters by glacial wind gusts.

After class, in the dining hall, I meet Ramya, one of two American yoga teachers at the ashram. She came here on a sabbatical after her children left the nest. When I ask her about yoga’s cultural divide, she smiles. “There is a saying: ‘Yoga came to change America, but America changed yoga.’ ” I digest the observation as I embrace my first off-the-mat yogi test—eating. With little choice, my appetite submits to the Vedic diet of alkaline foods: lentils, rice, cooked veggies, spices. I quickly grow fond of the code of silence during mealtime. The quiet is broken only by the symphony of utensils on metal plates and the recorded mantra chants played on a nine-volt radio next to the serving line.

The coffee withdrawal, at first, is cruel. The other staggering hurdle is eating cross-legged on a marble floor. My hips detest it. Small tables, maybe eight inches high, are a luxury offered mostly for Westerners. They provide little comfort.

During one meal, a regular ashram visitor from Brazil named Abrau points out how horridly fast I eat.

“I used to eat like you; fast as I could to get to something else.”

“I know, my tapeworm is quite active,” I say, smiling. He doesn’t laugh. “I’m kidding. Actually, I’m trying to finish my meal before my hip or knee dislocates from contorting to fit to this marble floor.”

He laughs. “Yes, just remember, your digestion is not in a hurry.”

“Noted. Thanks.” I felt an urge to remind Abrau about that code of silence at mealtime.

Patience. Breathe.

OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I drift through a pattern of waking to the ashram’s 5 a.m. meditative mantra chants, attending cold yoga classes before breakfast, and eating meals in silence (slightly more slowly). I also begin leaving the sprawling ashram on exploratory sorties around Rishikesh and neighboring Haridwar.

It’s beyond the ashram that I discover my secret meditation weapon: the Royal Enfield motorcycle. I’d connected with its source, a man named Madhav, via Facebook. Raised in an ashram himself, Madhav abandoned the austere path the day he arrived in Rishikesh. He claims that “the power of the Ganges was so high, I couldn’t depart.” Today, he does the logistical heavy lifting for large groups visiting the area. He also helps with random requests from visitors like me. After I repeatedly e-mailed him asking the best way to get from A to B, he finally asked, gently, “Peter, would a motorcycle work for you?”

When I meet Madhav, he is smiling next to my British-designed, Indian-built 500cc bike, a shimmering classic. I can’t decide which looks nicer, my motorized magic carpet or my new friend, the clean-shaven, big, smiling Madhav. I offer to pay for the rental in advance. Madhav gives a slight head wobble and responds, “No problem, Peter. You pay later.” It’s then I realize Madhav is one of those local folks you never want to lose, even after you have returned home.

ON MY FIRST OUTING, I explore the crumbling ashram where the Beatles lived. As I wander the ruins, I wonder where Lennon wrote “Dear Prudence.” The lyrics “won’t you come out to play” are said to be a plea to friend Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, to snap out of a reclusive state of meditation. I use Lennon’s words to validate my motorcycle venture.

During sunsets, I enjoy the singing at aarti—the Hindu “happy hour”—a daily ceremony on the banks of the Ganges. Scores of Indians and a sprinkling of curious travelers sing Hindu hymns and swirl lanterns to seal prayers before splashing Ganges water on their feet. Some offer their prayers via candles that they float downstream in miniature boats made of leaves as a white statue of Shiva, the all-powerful Hindu yogi deity, looks on.

Despite such blissful days, I found myself anxiously wondering if the yoga classes would become more challenging, if I would learn some spine-curing contortions and become more limber. Not once had I even broken a sweat in class, despite my down jacket. Was I missing something? My back ached.

Patience. Breathe.

When I bump into Madhav, who continues to help me navigate the area, steering me to the best cup of masala chai or the freshest belly-safe salad (Ramana’s Garden), I express my concerns about my therapy.

“Peter, remember, yoga is more about the mind than the body.” He pauses. “And don’t worry so much,” he says with an easy, toothy grin, his perfectly shaved head almost glowing as he smiles. “Remember, worry is praying for what you don’t want.”

After a week on the ashram routine, I leave camp and motor up the Ganges.

STAY LEFT, STAY LEFT quickly becomes my mantra as I wind past candy-striped buses and overstuffed rickshaws belching black clouds. Left-side driving is easy to adapt to—until you forget.

Madhav had said that the Ganges’s power strengthens farther upstream, an area where cave dwellings are not unusual. Snaking north, I pass bands of rhesus monkeys fearlessly sitting in the road, awaiting scraps. I dodge rockfalls and lean hard into turns, nearly scraping my toes. In sections the road shadows the Ganges; in others, the glacial green river water flows hundreds of feet below, churning under cliffs. I grin constantly.

Breathe. Relax. Stay left.

Cars and trucks pass three abreast, blaring trumpetlike horns that echo off the mountains. Despite many reckless passes and near misses, no one shakes a fist or seems to holler a Hindi word of road rage. If they do, I miss it in translation. The flow of chaotic karma keeps moving up this road. Signs written in cursive letters offer yogi-like reminders: “License to Drive, Not to Fly.”

As the sun expands into an orange ball on the horizon, I arrive at Vashista cave, thought to be the oldest meditative cave in the region. Some call it the birthplace of conscious thought. It’s also where I can catch a rowboat ferry across the Ganges to Anand Lok, a yoga and meditation retreat where I’ll stay for two days. First, though, I have to find somewhere to park my motorcycle.

With dusk gathering, I notice a man cloaked in the saffron-colored robes of a sadhu. I approach him and ask if he can help me with the bike. He opens his arms warmly and says, “Leave bike with me.” In my mind, a red flag shoots skyward. While saffron robes generally signify a “holy man” or one who has renounced the material world, rumors circulate that criminals use these same robes as a cover when in hiding. Flash decision time. I choose to stick with Madhav’s nonworry approach.

“OK, I’ll be back in a few days, and I’ll tip you nicely. Keep an eye on my baby.” My new Enfield minder smiles. I walk to the river and up the stone beach to the ferry.

Anand Lok overlooks the Ganges on the edge of Sirasu, a village with no roads. Only one pedestrian jula (bridge) and ferry service (except during the monsoon season) connect it to the modern world.

The warmest smile I’ve ever witnessed greets me on arrival. Jagdish, who is in charge of housekeeping and restaurant services, makes me feel welcome.

For the next couple of days, two fellow visitors from Parmarth—one Dutch, one Chilean—and I walk along the Ganges, drink chai to ward off the evening and early morning chill, and play with schoolchildren in the village. Throughout India, the poverty can be alarming, even overwhelming. Its bony hand reaches into every corner, including the village of Sirasu. However, the smiling faces of Jagdish and his neighbors offer testimony to the wealth of contentment in their world of little. Like many villagers, they are poor in rupees yet rich in spirit and appear remarkably happy.

I ask Jagdish if he does yoga.

“Yes, every day. Work is my yoga. My job keeps my body flowing.”

Motivated to keep my yoga flowing, I do sun salutations on a sandy Ganges beach one morning. A village teenager, who speaks little English, decides to drop his firewood chores and join me. As if on cue, this rippling, muscled teen closes his eyes and falls backward, folding into an arching backbend.

“Wow,” I say.

Given our language rift, we end up communicating with yoga poses and laughter. After a while, I point to the river and say, “Swim?” The boy answers with a head wobble—that ubiquitous Indian gesture that I loosely understand as “very good.”

Under clear, crisp blue skies we strip down to boxers and dash into the icy waters of the Ganges. The blast of cold immediately steals my air and pierces me awake. Swimming in the Ganges is believed to be purifying not just physically but also symbolically, washing away all prior sins. My new swimming companion and I let out whoops as we clamber back to shore. I can’t say if my sins have vanished, but I feel electrified.

“HELLO?” I SAY HESITANTLY as I enter total darkness. Rookie move. Clearly not the best way to enter an ancient meditation cave. No one answers.

I’d left my young swimming pal, Anand Lok, and Jagdish to recross the Ganges and get back on the road. I also wanted to spend time in Vashista cave. Shuffling through cool, sweet air, across grain-sack flooring, I stop near candlelight, sit down cross-legged, and try to relax. Eyes closed, I focus on my breathing. My mind quickly strays. Why am I here? Has the sadhu stolen my bike?

Relax. Just a rental. Breathe.

I return the focus to my lungs. A mental rhythm aligns with my breath. I open my eyes. Suddenly, I see the entire cave. I’m alone at the end of a long tunnel-like passageway. Tokens of worship sit near candles on a stone altar. The air tastes even sweeter, fresher now.

Back outside, I glance at the time. My internal clock tells me I have meditated for maybe 10 minutes. My watch says it has been over 50. Where did I go?

Parked just as I’d left it, the shiny Enfield sits up the hill, unharmed. My bike keeper magically appears.

“See, no problem,” he says. “Bike here. I’m sadhu. Money.”

I happily hand over a wad of rupees—about $5—to a man who is likely not a sadhu. He shuffles his saffron robe, quickly burying the notes in a fold, then says, “More. Hungry.” I peel off a few more notes, which he gingerly takes before disappearing toward the river. I tally the parking cost: $7.

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ON FIRST KICK, my bike rumbles to life. Feeling almost drugged from my Vashista time warp, I cruise, meditating on the road.

Stay left. Stay left. Stay left.

Riding now by instinct, feeling what I can’t help but call “biker Zen,” I swerve past cows, their calves, street vendors, sadhus, hippies, and healers. I continue meditating, maintaining a laser awareness of my surroundings and my existence at this exact time in space. This precious present moment. Although I’ve missed my friend Madhav and the ashram, I take one more quick side trip.

Hidden in the hills just north of Rishikesh, Ananda Spa—which originally was a palace of the maharaja of Tehri Garhwal—is considered one of the best spas in the world.

The treacherous road to Ananda comes with warning signs: “Sharpest Turns Ever”; “Road Is Hilly, Don’t Be Silly”; and “After Whiskey, Driving Risky.” I feel as if the Dalai Lama is whispering in my ear as I rumble skyward. The whiskey reference is odd in light of the local dry-district regulations, but I later learn that Ananda Spa sits just beyond the district line; thus booze is available.

When I roll past a security gate into the entrance area, with its manicured gardens, a helicopter pad, and a man playing bagpipes (a throwback to colonial times), I garner a few looks.

“Does the valet take motorcycles?” I ask casually.

“Of course. We love Enfields,” the manager says. He adds, “But you are the first to arrive by bike. Very unique.”

I spend only a night at luxurious Ananda. I eat well (staying true to my new diet) and experience an ayurvedic treatment. Two men karate-chop my back with herb-filled bags. The only herb that has an English translation is cumin. At the end of the treatment, my back is sore but looser.

Somewhat reluctant to leave the luxe bubble, I motor downhill to the chaotic vitality that defines India. I arrive at the start of the evening aarti. Pujya Swamiji walks by. His physical frame is small, yet his presence towers.

“You’re back, Peter.”

Slightly surprised, I mutter, “Yes. Nice to see you again, Swami.”

With long, flowing, salt-and-pepper hair and beard, he glides past me, his saffron robes swaying. “Welcome home,” he adds, glowing. I return my best head wobble.

Later that night I find Madhav. He is helping organize a large international party. The schedule is tight, and Madhav was hired to make sure everything clicks like clockwork—not easy in the Indian time zone. As I wait to chat with him, he is hounded with requests. Madhav answers each with grace and a friendly “can do” yogi cool.

IN THE FAMOUS EPIC Sanskrit poem Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna has a serious discussion about life and duty with his friend Krishna, who is driving their chariot before heading into battle. Toward the end of the trip, Prince Arjuna marvels as his friend reveals his true identity: Lord Krishna. This revelation propels Arjuna toward some important truths.

As I watch Madhav go about his work, it occurs to me that this quiet, ever smiling man standing in front me—my new friend, who has effortlessly guided me throughout my trip—is my symbolic charioteer (all right, motorcycle renter, travel adviser), helping me discover my inner om.

Sure, many of the lessons I’d experienced—stretch, breathe, eat slower and more healthfully (less coffee, even), relax—are simple. And, yes, replacing the stresses of too much work and too much TV and computer screen time with crisp swims in sacred waters followed by time warps in caves and motorcycle rides through Himalayan foothills could give most folks a greater peace of mind (unless, of course, you fear motorcycles). Yet Madhav, I realize, is the walking example of that knowing soul I aspired to be. Nothing, no matter the urgency or size, derails him. He doesn’t live in a cave, nor did he guide me through a single pretzel contortion. Yet he taught me, almost daily, not necessarily how to walk the “yogi path” but how to understand it better and, most important, to realize that my mind needs as much stretching as my annoying back.

After two weeks of almost daily yoga, I can now touch my toes and even sit cross-legged through a meal. My back? The persistent pain hasn’t entirely vanished. But it has subsided. Did my spine actually start to heal? I don’t know, but neither I nor my inner om worries about it.

Photographer and writer Peter McBride lives in Basalt, Colorado. He is the proud owner of a newly imported Royal Enfield motorcycle.

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