‘I’m in India to find myself’. It’s such a traveller cliché that I physically recoiled every time someone told me this was the motivation behind their trip. So nobody is more surprised than me that I wrote this month’s column from a picturesque Ashram in Rishikesh. When I told my friends I had gone a bit ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, they questioned how long I’d last in this car-free, alcohol-free and meat-free hippy hub. They worried I’d been smoking too many chillums or that all that Himalayan fresh air had gone to my head. I had always insisted I wasn’t coming to India to ‘find myself’ but here I am.
I confess that a tiny part of me is curious about this subculture of white, Western, healthfood-eating yogis who come to India to train as reiki teachers, subject themselves to vipassana (10 days of silent meditation) or seek spiritual enlightenment whilst living off a diet of raw protein balls. So with an open, albeit sceptical mind, I booked myself into an Ashram in the beautiful Himalayan foothills and decided to explore the world of wellbeing.
I felt like a fraud trying to blend in with my dreadlocked, yoga-pant wearing counterparts at the ashram. In truth, I was less excited about the prospect of group meditation and 6am yoga on the ganges and more attracted by the 400 rupee a night private en-suite rooms with panoramic river views. I could put up with the 10pm curfew and communal dining hall in exchange for a few days in this serene bubble of calm. And to my relief, the ashram had wifi!
As I strolled around Lakshman Jhula, the touristy part of the city, I felt like I’d stepped into a parallel universe. Once a holy place for devout pilgrims, Rishikesh is now a commercialised hub of spiritual-seekers. Everywhere you look are adverts for gurus and astrologists, laughing yoga classes and consultations with nutritionalists, colonic irrigation sessions and emotional blockage cleansing. In high season, the yoga training courses in Rishikesh can barely accommodate the demand from 20-something girls clad in lycra wanting to perfect their downward dog and fill their Instagram feed with selfies of them drinking green smoothies at sunset. I looked at these girls with envy, but quickly concluded I had neither the flexibility nor discipline to join their gang.
India’s wellness sector is having a real moment right now. Huffington Post recently reported that India is one of the fastest growing wellness travel destinations with a projected 22 percent annual growth rate. In comparison, the United States — the leading country for wellness travel — has an average annual growth rate of 5.8 percent.
Since the Beatles’ famous stay at Maharishi Mahesh Y
ogi ashram in the 60s, everyone from Steve Jobs to Oprah are booking themselves in for spiritual retreats. ‘Finding yourself’ is now big business in India. With this in mind, I booked myself in for palmistry and mediation, several styles of yoga and a wonderful aero-balance class on the beach, I took an aruyvedic massage course and even went vegan (which for a lifelong meat-lover, was quite the sacrifice).
I can see how people get a buzz out of this clean lifestyle, there’s a strange sense of smug satisfaction from the quest to nourish one’s body and soul. But whilst no-one can dispute the benefits of health eating and relaxing, I wonder how much of these treatments, therapies and retreats are relying on the placebo affect.
Whilst I enjoyed my time in Rishikesh immensely, particular the white water rafting, abundance of affordable yoga classes and sunrise hike to a waterfall, I giggled through reiki sessions and squirmed through my meditation classes, concluding it just wasn’t for me. I even reluctantly handed over 800 rupees to a palm reader but left feeling that many of these self-proclaimed gurus, holistic therapists and spiritual healers are capitalizing on people’s longing to be happier. Or maybe I’m just too cynical to become a fully-fledged hippie, too inflexible to become a yogi and too greedy to want to convert to veganism!
I can certainly see why the wellness and spiritual industry in India has so many devote followers but this will be my last almond milk smoothie and quinoa salad for a while…
TOP TIPS FOR RISHIKESH:
STAY at the Sant Sewa Ashram – 400 rupees (£4) for a clean, private, windowless ensuite or double for a river-racing room with balcony.
BOOK your tours through Shiv Shakti Hostel. The crowded dorms were was too chaotic for me and the crowd to young but they put on daily social events and tours that outsiders can also sign up for. I’d recommend the sunset hike, the half day rafting and the free walking tour to watch the evening ceremony on Ganga Aarti.
VISIT Hardiar one evening by tuk took for their own version of this devotional ceremony. Similar to the one at Parmarth Niketan Gha in Rishikesh but a lot more impressive. As in Varanassi, fire is used as an offering making it particularly atmospheric.
WAKE UP EARLY for yoga sessions and delicious omelettes and a glass of their homemade kombucha – a fermented, lightly effervescent tea with supposed health benefits (but I liked it because it tasted a bit like sparkling wine!)
EAT at my favourite place, the Babylon German Bakery, also known as Cafe Pumpernickel. The tofu, orange and fennel salad is insane.
MEET the famous chotiwala mascot at the Chotiwala Restaurant in Swargashram. It opened in 1958 and hasn’t changed much since, still serving it’s popular local cuisine (not a health juice or granola bowl in sight, a rarity in Rishikesh).
VISIT the beatles ashram and stop off to try yoga on the beach – there are often free dusk drop-in sessions where you can try acrobalance on the sand.