Arriving in Rishikesh feels like a coming home. The flowing Ganaga, the air hazed with incense smoke and flavoured with the smell of ceremony. The self-professed world capital of yoga has my heart, and it’ll take yours too.
After travelling to Rishikesh in Northern India for the first time in 2014, I’ve found myself back every year since. It’s a place for study in yoga and life, and for deep personal growth. Rishikesh is not a place for a relaxing holiday, but a place to put away distractions, surround yourself with positive people and get down to the dedicated work of yoga.
Even without the picturesque location, the yoga is worth the plane ride on its own. It’s everything that yoga used to be – slow, complex and challenging in new and unfamiliar ways (if you’re used to yoga in the west).
Although the teachers are incredible, they seldom have a functional website let alone any social media to research classes. The best way to find your teacher is through recommendations and conversations with people in the know.
Start with Surinder Singh at Swasti Yoga Shala, Rishikesh’s most universally adored teacher. His classes are old school Hatha based in both Iyengar and Kundalini. Don’t expect to move through an array of quick transitions. Rather, bask in the presence of someone who commands a class while barely saying a word. You will learn more about the science of life and depths of yoga from this man than the hundreds of teachers before him.
For those who want to deepen their understanding of alignment and action, find Ashish Sharma teaching at the Green Hotel. Although the location is left of centre, the information you’ll pick up about how to perform postures will revolutionise your practice after just a few classes. His style is based on the Iyengar method, making each class feel much like an alignment workshop – you’ll work really hard but in a different way to what you might at home. Imagine sweating yourself stupid while in Tadasana, or spending 40 minutes working on different ideas and actions within Down Dog. Yoga Nerd heaven!
You will either love or hate Usha Devi at Omkarananda Ganga Sadan Ashram. A long-time student of BKS Iyengar and someone who used yoga to recover from not one but two traumatic road accidents, Usha has tremendous knowledge of the Iyengar system and a reputation for a blunt, no-nonsense approach. His sold out classes and intensives are full of adoring students who hang off her every word, and the discipline and focus in the room is truly inspiring. You’ll work harder than you ever thought possible whilst in the most fundamental postures. It must be said that Usha’s classes aren’t for everyone, with some instantly turned off by what they see as aggression in the practice. But if you go in with an open mind and a focused attitude, a week with Usha will transform your practice forever.
Another local favourite is Yogi Dinesh at Om Shanti Om Yoga. His extensive travels have led him to work the more traditional Rishikesh Hatha style into a format that is more digestible. His Hatha Vinyasa classes work with mindfulness and long holds while incorporating the movement and flow that we are so used to in the west.
For those in need of an Ashtanga fix, Rishikesh won’t disappoint. Kamal Singh at Tattva Yoga is Rishikesh’s most well known Ashtangi. His classes and trainings are strong, hard and uncompromising, taking a traditional approach to the sequence, alignments and adjustments. It’s not uncommon to pick up a strain on sprain while practising Ashtanga in India so take it easy!
Agama Yoga is one of the world’s best-known Tantra yoga schools and has a popular space in Rishikesh. Although a bit out there for some, it offers a much deeper energetic experience than traditional Hatha. Be prepared for a class with just as much chanting as postures and techniques that might be completely foreign. Don’t worry – it’s not all about sexuality, but if you dive a little deeper and stay for some of the lectures you can learn all about that too.
Parmarth Niketen Ashram is one of the worlds biggest ashrams boasting over 1000 rooms. Here you can enjoy practising twice a day with well-rounded teachers, 3 meals and a basic room for just $6 a night. That could be cheaper than that fancy coffee you had this morning! The yoga is all Hatha based – a little different from what you might be used to but very rewarding and interesting. The ashram experience is an altogether different way of enjoying a place like Rishikesh. Although it’s all inclusive and very easy, it does take the freedom away from your experience. What’s often recommended is to spend some time at an ashram like this one at the beginning of your trip before venturing out and finding your own place to stay, food preferences and teachers.
The quantity of yoga in Rishikesh is vast, and there are always some unknown gems out there. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything interesting and remember there’s no harm in trying everything once.
The food choices in Rishikesh are vast and constantly improving, with choices from cheap, amazing and healthy food offered at ashrams, to gluttonous feasts available at a whim.
Pyramid is an adventure up a steep hill, but once you’re there it rewards with great food, atmosphere and music from the live in DJ Sleemy. A literal pyramid, this place has some seriously high vibes, and is well-established offering everything from home made kombucha to a Taxi service.
A favourite hang out for yoga students, Oasis is a simple, friendly and effective tourist restaurant right in the heart of Swag Ashram. The food is great, and the family who run it are generous and funny. It’s also a great place to meet fellow travellers.
At the Luxman Jula end of Rishikesh there is an abundance of great tourist restaurants like the German Bakery and Little Buddha. Both of these are a real treat with a plethora of Indian and fusion offerings and open views of the Ganaga River. Try the veggie burgers at either and you’ll be a happy hippie.
Away from the tourist areas, the locals eat at the aptly named Rajasthani Restaurant in Rishikesh town. This place has the most gluttonous and amazing food in true North India style. The food is cheap, filling and quick with the desert window filling your desire for something sweet. Not the healthiest choice, but by far the most authentic – and in my opinion, the most delicious.
The yoga tourist favourite is A Tavola Con Te, often referred to as the Italian Pizza Place. A little out of the way, this gem was opened by an Italian lady who trained her staff to cook proper Italian style Pizza. It’s a bit more expensive, but some of the best pizza you’ll ever eat.
Thali Ashram is a travellers’ favourite and boasts some of the best Thali you’ll ever eat, for less that $1.50. For the western touch head to Pure Soul – it could have been transported from hippy hubs Ubud or Byron Bay. It’s a little more expensive and little less generous with it’s portions but is the familiar, clean, organic food every yogi craves.
Getting around in Rishikesh is easy. Walk between popular spots if you have time or consider hiring a scooter to make these trips quick and exciting. Don’t forget to utilise shared rickshaws going from one bridge to the other (the biggest walk). Jump in with a group or with one that’s taking multiple passengers and pay only 10 to 20 cents per ride.
Teacher Training in Rishikesh
Choosing a teacher training to do in Rishikesh is challenging task. Rumour has it there is now over 122 to choose from with quality varying vastly!
Some tips to find the right one for you:
– Practice with a few different teachers and styles before signing up
– Pick a school with a lead teacher who runs the training – not a business that is cashing in on the yoga boom
– Talk to people there about their experience
The best way to do Rishikesh is to go, get your hands dirty and make some new friends. There are always amazing things happening below the surface that you’ll only find when you immerse yourself in the community.
Leaving Rishikesh is always bittersweet. For me, there’s a sense of relief as the sanity of the west lays on the horizon, as well as sadness as I leave the chaos of my yoga home. It’s a place people often come back to again and again to experience more of its offerings and that sense of community and (inner) calm. Coming back to Rishikesh is like coming home – and in fact for many of us, it is.
About the author:
Stefan Camilleri is a yoga teacher trainer with experience teaching specialist workshops, retreats, trainings and master classes around the world. Between facilitating trainings, Stefan travels the world in search of new adventure and inspiration, studying in the US and India in modern and classical Iyengar Yoga. www.stefancamilleriyoga.com