Booking yoga teacher training with Surinder Singh was the first challenge.
I was aware that organisation and email communication were not his strong points. Although he is an ex-engineer, when it comes to planning and organisation, he is more cave yogi than yogipreneur.
Booking yoga teacher training is no small thing and I was anxious to make sure I had a place. Over the course of a couple of weeks I bombarded him to no avail.
It turned out he’d been away teaching in Russia and couldn’t respond until he was back in India. His response to my request to study with him was a simple: ‘You’re most welcome ji’.
A deposit wasn’t necessary, nor was an application form – I just had to trust that an email saying ‘you’re most welcome ji’ was my official confimation of being booked on a one month long intensive teacher training course.
Arriving in Rishikesh a couple of days before the start of the course I felt my heart stirring with nostalgia for the place. The rickshaw driver dropped us by the Ram Juala bridge and we walked across the Ganges, the river running wide and clear through the foothills of the Himalayas. The narrow suspension bridge bounced gently as we walked. It was early morning and we could walk freely, without the usual accompanient of hoardes of people, cows and horn-blasting motorbikes.
We were arriving into the yoga capital of the world in peak season. It was the beginning of October, the start time for many yoga teacher training courses, and because we were out of email contact in flooded Kashmir when our room reservation was being confirmed, we had nowhere to stay.
We walked the streets of Swargashram being told that everywhere was full. We were sure that something would show up and eventually it did. We found a room at Ganga Usha, a place I had stayed during my last trip to Rishikesh. The room was overpriced but the area was perfect, just minutes from the yoga school and nestled in a quiet neighbourhood where cow ownership is more common than car ownership.
We would walk the narrow, cow-filled alleys to and from the yoga school many times over the next month or so, Indian life abounding. People sitting sleepily in the dawn light, milking cows, kids running and playing freely, women decorating washing lines with a kaleidoscope of saris and rolling out grain to dry on the rooftops, men sitting on their motorbikes, watching the world go by.
Weaving their way through this scene were the yoga students, clad in OM t-shirts and baggy pants, brandishing yoga mats. The streets were alive with this silent traffic of seekers, on a daily commute far removed from the sterile European business world.
Travellers come to stay in Rishikesh for months – sometimes years. Removing themselves from the sterility and functionality of their own countries they are pushed and proded awake by continual bombardment of the senses. The strangeness of Rishikesh wakes you up to the strangeness of life.
With the Ganges pouring through green hills, the mountains in the distance, it is an arresting scene. The sky is invariably blue and the sunsets misty, the streets suffused with golden light.
But added to this natural beauty is a whole complex mass of humanity. Rishikesh is a place of pilgrimage and Indians come from all over, travelling with their extended family and wanting every member to have a photo taken with you. You are hounded by the cry of ‘One snap!’. But one snap is never one snap. It is normally a lengthy photoshoot, sometimes with the photographer demanding certain poses, or that you smile more, or that you look more intimately acquainted with the family.
Wearing their best clothes, the women are beautiful with their fine saris, wrists full of bangles, foreheads dotted with bhindis and noses adorned with oversized studs. Their husbands push them forward to have a photo taken with you.
The streets are filled with beggars, some of them amputees, some of them children, many of them dressed like babas. With orange robes and weary eyes they get high on marijuana and beg for food. There are genuine babas too, their robes a little cleaner, their eyes a whole lot brighter, going quietly about their day, their practice.
If people aren’t embracing spiritual life or smoking life then they are selling something. Small stalls line the streets, specialising in mala beads, poppadoms, fruit, toys or chai, the Indian entrepreneurial spirit strongly in evidence. ‘Come madam, come madam, coffee, chai, masala madam’ says the spice man every time you come within 10 feet of him. Incense drifts up from their stands, mingling with the mist and enticing you over. The fruit and veg men have sticks to beat off the bold monkeys and the roaming cows occasionally succeed in snatching cauliflower, their large innocent eyes completely confident in their right to graze.
For all this life, there are pockets of calm too, particularly in the area of Swargashram, along the river from horn-blaring Laxman Juala. It has the feel of a village and no one lurks with intent to sell you a drum or put a bhindi on your forehead. The only roving salesperson is the ear cleaning man, who thankfully never managed to gain access to my ears.
Down by the ganga too, on the grey, glittering sands, it is possible to sit and meditate by the calming water. Sometimes you get lucky and get a moment to yourself (especially with eyes closed and earphones in) but even in this peaceful natural setting and sitting in a meditation posture people cannot suppress their desire to know where you are from and can quite happily come and stand right over you, bellowing ‘EXCUSE ME MADAM! WHAT IS YOUR COUNTRY?’ as if they are about to discover the meaning of life.
It’s this mix of crazy and calm that makes Rishikesh the perfect place for yoga teacher training. It’s removed enough from your own culture to escape the conditioning and expectations that keep you stuck. It’s calm enough to carve out some peace and space for reflection and it’s crazy enough to challenge you and keep you growing. In this setting we began 4 weeks of intensive yoga training with the wonderful Surinder Singh.