India //

Yoga, meditation and ashrams

The birthplace of yoga and the spiritual home of the world’s most famous meditation traditions, India offers unrivalled opportunities for spiritual nourishment, ranging from basic yoga and pranayama classes to extended residential meditation retreats.

Yoga is taught virtually everywhere in India and there are several internationally known centres where you can train to become a teacher. Meditation is similarly practised all over the country and specific courses are available in temples, meditation centres, monasteries and ashrams. Ashrams are communities where people work, live and study together, drawn by a common, usually spiritual, goal.

Most centres offer courses that you can enrol on at short notice, but many of the more popular ones,need to be booked well in advance.

Yoga

Yoga (meaning “to unite”) aims to help the practitioner unite his or her individual consciousness with the divine. This is achieved by raising awareness of one’s self through spiritual, mental and physical exercises and discipline. Hatha yoga, the most popular form of yoga in the West, is based on physical postures called asanas, which stretch, relax and tone the muscular system of the body and also massage the internal organs. Each asana has a beneficial effect on a particular muscle group or organ, and although they vary widely in difficulty, consistent practice will lead to improved suppleness and health benefits. For serious practitioners, however, hatha yoga is seen simply as the first step leading to more subtle stages of meditation which commence when the energies of the body have been awakened and sensitized by stretching and relaxing. Other forms of yoga include raja yoga, which includes moral discipline, and bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, which entails a commitment to one’s guru or teacher. Jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) is centred around the deep philosophies that underlie Hindu spiritual thinking.

Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand, is India’s yoga capital, with a bumper crop of ashrams offering all kinds of courses. The country’s most famous teachers, however, work from institutes further south. Iyengar yoga is one of the most famous approaches studied today, named after its founder, B.K.S Iyengar (a student of the great yoga teacher Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya), with its main centre, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, in Pune, Maharashtra (whttp://www.bksiyengar.com). Lyengar’s style is based upon precise physical alignment during each posture. With much practice, and the aid of props such as blocks, straps and chairs, the student can attain perfect physical balance and, the theory goes, perfect balance of mind will follow. Iyengar yoga has a strong therapeutic element and has been used successfully for treating a wide variety of structural and internal problems.

Ashtanga yoga is an approach developed by K Pattabhi Jois of Mysore (whttp://www.kpjayi.org), who also studied under Krishnamacharya. Unlike Iyengar yoga, which centres around a collection of separate asanas, Ashtanga links various postures into a series of flowing moves called vinyasa, with the aim of developing strength and agility. The perfect synchronization of movement with breath is a key objective throughout these sequences. Although a powerful form it can be frustrating for beginners as each move has to be perfected before moving on to the next one.

The son of Krishnamacharya, T.K.V. Desikachar, established a third major branch in modern yoga, emphasizing a more versatile and adaptive approach to teaching, focused on the situation of the individual practitioner. This style became known as Viniyoga, although Desikachar has long tried to distance himself from the term. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (whttp://www.kym.org), now a flagship institute in Chennai, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and, in 2006, an off-shoot now steered by his son Kausthub, called the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation (whttp://www.khyf.net).

The other most influential Indian yoga teacher of the modern era has been Swami Vishnu Devananda, an acolyte of the famous sage Swami Sivanda, who established the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center (whttp://www.sivananda.org), with more than twenty branches in India and abroad. Sivananda-style yoga tends to introduce elements in a different order from its counterparts – teaching practices regarded by others as advanced to relative beginners. This fast-forward approach has proved particularly popular with Westerners, who flock in their thousands to intensive introductory courses staged at centres all over India – the most renowned of them at Neyyar Dam, in the hills east of the Keralan capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

Meditation

Meditation is often practised after a session of yoga, when the energy of the body has been awakened, and is an essential part of both Hindu and Buddhist practice. In both religions, meditation is considered the most powerful tool for understanding the true nature of mind and self, an essential step on the path to enlightenment. In Vedanta, meditation’s aim is to realize the true self as non-dual Brahman or godhead – the foundation of all consciousness and life. Moksha (or liberation – the Nirvana of the Buddhists), achieved through disciplines of yoga and meditation, eventually helps believers release the soul from endless cycles of birth and rebirth.

Vipassana meditation is a technique, originally taught by the Buddha, whereby practitioners learn to become more aware of physical sensations and mental processes. Courses last for a minimum of ten days and are austere – involving 4am kick-offs, around ten hours of meditation a day, no solid food after noon, segregation of the sexes, and no talking for the duration (except with the leaders of the course). Courses are free for all first-time students, to allow everyone an opportunity to learn and benefit from the technique. Vipassana is taught in more than 25 centres throughout India including in Bodhgaya, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Jaipur.

Tibetan Buddhist meditation is attracting more and more followers around the world. With its four distinct schools, Tibetan Buddhism incorporates a huge variety of meditation practices, including Vipassana, known as shiné in Tibetan, and various visualization techniques involving the numerous deities that make up the complex and colourful Tibetan pantheon. India, with its large Tibetan diaspora, has become a major centre for those wanting to study Tibetan Buddhism and medicine. Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile, is the main centre for Tibetan studies, offering numerous opportunities for one-on-one study with the Tibetan monks and nuns who live there. Other major Tibetan diaspora centres in India include Darjeeling in West Bengal and Bylakuppe near Mysore in Karnataka.

Ashrams and centres

Ashrams can range in size from just a handful of people to several thousand, and their rules, regulations and restrictions vary enormously. Some offer on-site accommodation, others will require you to stay in the nearest town or village. Some charge Western prices, others local prices, and some operate on a donation basis. Many ashrams have set programmes each day, while others are less structured, teaching as and when requested. In addition to these traditional Indian places to learn yoga and meditation techniques, dozens of smaller centres open in the coastal resorts of Goa and Kerala during the winter, several of them staffed by internationally famous teachers. The more prominent of these are listed below.

Ashiyana Tropical Retreat Centre Junasa Waddo, Mandrem, Goa whttp://www.ashiyana-yoga-goa.com. If you like your yoga retreats to be drop-dead gorgeous, look no further than here. Perched on the banks of a river facing the sea, the centre offers world-class yoga, massage, meditation and satsang tuition – from resident and visiting teachers – with accommodation in beautifully designed Indonesian-style tree houses. Daily and weekly rates include workshops.

Astanga Yoga Nilayam 235 8th Cross, 3rd stage, Gokulam, Mysore 570002, Karnataka whttp://www.kpjayi.org. Run by students of Pattabhi Jois, one of the great innovators of yoga in India, and offering tuition in dynamic yoga, affiliated with martial arts. Courses last between one and six months and need to be booked in advance.

Brahmani Centre Grandpa’s Inn, Anjuna, Goa whttp://www.brahmaniyoga.com. Offers drop-in yoga classes – mainly ashtanga, with a few taster sessions in other styles, plus pranayama and bhajan devotional singing – by top-notch teachers. All levels of ability are catered for.

Divine Life Society PO Shivanandanagar, Muni ki Reti, Rishikesh, District Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand t0135/430040, whttp://www.sivanandadlshq.org. The original Sivananda ashram – well organized if institutional, with several retreats and courses on all aspects and forms of yoga.

Harmonic Healing & Eco Retreat Centre Patenem, Goa t9822/512814, whttp://www.harmonicingoa.com. Yoga, pilates, reiki initiations, energy balancing and Thai massages from internationally acclaimed teachers, along with lessons in Bollywood dance and classical Indian singing, all against one of the loveliest beach panoramas in Goa.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) 3c Albert Rd, Kolkata t033/247 3757; Bhaktivedanta Swami Marg, Raman Reti, Vrindavan t0565/442478, whttp://www.iskcon.com. Large and well-run international organization with major ashrams and temples in Mayapur, north of Kolkata in West Bengal, Vrindavan in west UP and centres in several major Indian cities and abroad. Promotes bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion) through good deeds, right living and chanting – a way of life rather than a short course.

Mata Amritanandamayi Math Amritapuri, Vallikkavu, Kerala whttp://www.amritapuri.org. The ashram of the famous “Hugging Saint”, Amma, visited annually by hundreds of thousands, who pass through for darshan and a hug from the smiley guru, whose charitable works have earned for her near-divine status in the south.

Osho Commune International 17 Koregaon Park, Pune, Maharashtra 411001 t 020/612 6655, whttp://www.osho.com. Established by the enigmatic Osho, who generated a huge following of both Western and Indian devotees, this “Meditation Resort” is set in 31 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and offers a variety of courses in personal therapy, healing and meditation.

Prasanthi Nilayam Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh t08555/87236, whttp://www.sathyasai.org. The ashram of Satya Sai Baba, one of India’s most revered and popular gurus, who has a worldwide following of millions, despite the deaths of four followers in mysterious circumstances in 2000. The ashram is four or five hours by bus from Bangalore. Visitors sometimes comment on the strict security staffing and rigid rules and regulations. Cheap accommodation is available in dormitories or “flats” for four people. There is no need to book in advance though you should phone to check availability; for more details see Shri Satya Sai Baba. Sai Baba also has a smaller ashram in Bangalore and one in Kodaikanal.

Purple Valley Centre Assagao, Goa whttp://www.yogagoa.com. Purple Valley has accommodation for up to 40 guests and what must be one of the most beautiful yoga shalas (practice areas) in India. Their teachers include Nancy Gilgoff and Sharath Rangaswamy, grandson of the illustrious Ashtanga Guru, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Root Institute for Wisdom Culture Bodhgaya, Bihar t0631/400714, whttp://www.rootinstitute.com. Regular seven- to ten-day courses on Tibetan Buddhism and meditation are held here from Oct to March, and there are facilities for individual retreats. Accommodation for longer stays should be booked well in advance.

Saccidananda Ashram Thanneepalli, Kullithalai, near Tiruchirapelli, Tamil Nadu t 04323/22260, whttp://www.bedegriffiths.com. Also known as Shantivanam (meaning Peace Forest in Sanskrit), it is situated on the banks of the sacred river Cauvery. Founded by Father Bede Griffiths, a visionary Benedictine monk, it presents a curious but sympathetic fusion of Christianity and Hinduism. Visitors can join in the services and rituals or just relax here. Accommodation is in simple huts dotted around the grounds and meals are communal. Very busy during the major Christian festivals.

Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala t0471/227 3093, whttp://www.sivananda.org. An offshoot of the original Divine Life Society, this yoga-based ashram focuses on asanas, breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation. They also run month-long yoga teacher-training programmes, but book well in advance. There are further branches in Madurai, Chennai, Delhi and Uttarkashi – see the website for details.

Tushita Meditation Centre McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala 176219, Himachal Pradesh t 01892/21866, whttp://www.tushita.info. Offers a range of Tibetan meditation courses. A ten-day course costs in the region of Rs3500; book well in advance.

Vipassana International Academy Runs a wide variety of 3- to 45-day courses in Vipassana meditation at around 25 centres across India. See whttp://www.dhamma.org for details.

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