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 (Sanskrit for “to unite” and root of the word “yoke”) 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 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), who died in 2014. Its main centre, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, is in Pune, Maharashtra, but there are many branches elsewhere. Iyengar’s style is based upon precise physical alignment during each posture. With much practise, 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 Mysuru, 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, now a flagship institute in Chennai.
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, with more than thirty 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 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 starts, 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 nearly 75 centres throughout India.
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 people 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. Other major Tibetan diaspora centres in India include Darjeeling in West Bengal and Bylakuppe near Mysuru in Karnataka. For further details of courses available locally, see the relevant Guide chapters.
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.