Yoga & Spiritual Retreats
As yoga continues to increase in popularity in the Western world for its physical benefits, so too do its spiritual advantages and the beliefs behind it. Many followers take their daily practice a step further by spending time in an Indian ashram, where they stay, practice yoga, meditate or follow different spiritual practices and instruction—or all of the aforementioned. These highly spiritual places are found throughout India, with holy cities such as Varanasi and Rishikesh being in particularly high demand. Still, it’s important that travelers determine what their goals are: to meditate and learn more about a type of Indian spirituality, follow a specific guru or focus on yoga.
Rishikesh, also made famous by the Beatles’ visit in 1968, lies on the foothills of the Himalayas and has the sacred Ganges flowing through it. The city is regarded as the “capital of yoga” for its many centers. It is said that meditating here brings one closer to attaining the liberation from worldly cycles and suffering. The largest ashram here is Parmarth Niketan, which welcomes thousands of pilgrims each year in roughly 1,000 simple rooms, most with their own bathrooms. Travelers can also engage in different types of soul-enriching experiences, including extended mountain treks, caring for cows, organic farming or tree planting. This ashram also offers courses in different types and levels of yoga.
In nearby Haridwar, visitors should not miss the Aarti ceremony, during which crowds gather by the riverbank with lit lamps and chanting to offer their respect to deities, holy people and the river.
In Kerala’s Western ghats, there’s Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram for those who follow or want to learn this particular type of yoga. There’s a daily schedule of instruction, chanting and meditation, along with training courses for those who want to become yoga instructors and Ayurveda specialists. Simple accommodations in the form of dormitories and shared rooms—even tent space for those who bring their own—welcome men and women from all walks of life amid 12 acres in Neyyar Dam. The ashram also has a cultural program during the holiday season with special events including music and dance performances, chats on Ayurveda and Vedic astrology and South Indian martial arts. There are also optional day trips to an elephant rehabilitation center, Meenmooti Falls and other nearby locations.
Travelers who prefer to have someone else coordinate their stay can also sign up for a yoga tour like those offered by Easy Tours of India, which puts together packages that combine plenty of “om” time with sightseeing. The company’s 14-day South Indian Yoga, for example, tours Mumbai and Cochin and adds daily yoga to the mix. Travelers then spend seven days at SwaSwara, a small retreat of 24 villas just outside the village of Gokarna where yoga is a way of life. Its daily activities are all focused around holistic well-being, finding inner peace and the simple pleasures found in nature. Yoga gurus are at hand to guide practitioners to a better state, combining their efforts with chanting, meditation, breathing exercises and Ayurveda. Swa-Swara also features artists in residence that welcome visitors to join them as they paint, mold or work with their particular medium and let loose their creativity.
There are also quite a few tour operators that specialize in spiritual tours to India—some designed for followers of Hinduism, some for those in the pursuit of inner peace and quietness. Network Tours has a long list of choice for both, including people of Indian origin—even a Kumbh Mela 2013 tour in the works for the 2013 Kumbh Mela that must be booked well in advance, as their 2001 offer took more than 100 devotees to India. Kumbh Mela, whose Purna version occurs every 12 years, is a mass Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges River where millions of people gather for ritual bathing throughout the course of a month. In 2013 it will take place in Allahabad, thought to be blessed because of the confluence of the Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna rivers. The tour spends three nights in Delhi with a day trip to the Taj Mahal; two nights in Varanasi with a boat ride on the Ganges and evening Artis and chanting, plus a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple; and two nights in Allahabad. Besides the bathing opportunities available during Kumbh Mela, participants will also enjoy various dates where religious leaders will offer discussions.
Enchanting-India lets travelers design their own trip to India or choose options such as the 10-day Himalayan Rejuvenation and Ayurveda, where they spend most of their time at Ananda Spa in Rishikesh. Ananda features a comprehensive spa and Ayurveda program, tailored to each guest according to their needs, plus yoga and meditation. Those who would rather head south also get a great option—Kerala Ayurveda and Relaxation, which has travelers spending seven nights at Somatheeram Ayurvedic Health Resort in India’s Malabar Coast. Here, well-equipped villas and cottages house guests in a tropical environment, with the beach just a short walk away. Somatheeram also provides individualized diet plans and a full array of daily Ayurvedic options and treatments, with doctors customizing choices for each guest and oils and medicines prepared by hand in-house. Also in store at the resort: evening cultural programs and daily yoga and meditation courses. Guests can explore their surroundings through day trips to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, or Kanyakumari, India’s southernmost point.
Easy Tours of India: (888) 597-9274; easytoursofindia.com
Enchanting-India: (888) 263-2574; enchanting-india.com
MediTravels: (877) 208-6770; meditravels.org
Network Tours: nettoursindia.com
Nilayoram Resorts: nilayoram.com
Parmarth Niketan: parmarth.com
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram: sivananda.org/neyyardam/