I WAITED MY ENTIRE LIFE to be where I stood, the Taj Mahal long acting as a sort of mecca in my long list of bucket-list experiences. I expected that moment to hit me with chills, but as I stared up at its grand and imposing façade, the sun-drenched pavement warming the soles of my bare feet, I was met instead with a surprising sense of empathy.
I listened intently as my personal guide from Intrepid Travel’s Urban Adventures explained how the Taj Mahal was built as a mausoleum for Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s third and favorite wife, with precious and semi-precious jewels adorning its white marble exterior. On the outside the palace appeared strong and full of life, a source of stability and strength in the chaotic world surrounding it, but inside it was all but empty.
Although this wasn’t my first time to India — work brought me to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and the sunny shores of Goa in previous years — this was my first time visiting the country for my own reasons. I was here to take part in yet another bucket-list experience with a weeklong yoga retreat in the yoga capital of the world at the Rishikul Yogshala ashram in Rishikesh.
A wise yoga instructor once told me you cannot pour from an empty cup, using the analogy that yoga is like putting the mask on yourself before helping others around you on an airplane. “You need to take care of yourself first so you can then pour into other people’s lives,” he said. Those words inspired my journey to India, where I would be nurturing my desires to attend a yoga retreat in Rishikesh and visit the Taj Mahal in one grand trip.
Unlike many of my travels where I arrive with an empty suitcase and a shopping list of souvenirs to collect for my loved ones back home, as I stood there staring at the beautiful but empty building in front of me, I realized I had arrived in India with nothing more than a yoga mat and an empty cup, ready to be filled with experiences and adventures both on the mat and off.
Yoga retreats have increased in frequency and popularity over the past few years, a demand created by the more than 36.7 million American adults who currently practice yoga, up from the 20.4 million practicing in 2012, according to findings from Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. While many retreats offer unique experiences that range from trendy wine and yoga weekends in Tuscany to off-the-grid silent retreats in Mexico, nothing can compare to the authenticity and legit immersion retreat-goers experience with a yoga experience in India.
Yoga was born in India, dating back nearly 5,000 years according to archaeological findings from the Indus Valley Civilization in the northern parts of the country. The tradition was passed down orally from teacher to student for centuries until Sage Patanjali published his Yoga Sutras nearly 2,000 years ago. Patanjali’s compilation of Indian aphorisms became the philosophical basis for yoga around the world. Today the practice consists of eight limbs that include yama (self-restraint), niyama (self-observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment).
All yoga retreats in India focus on these eight limbs, but the best retreat centers in the country offer a full immersion into the lifestyle and culture of yoga, delving into the realm of whole-body wellness through healthy eating, massage and personal coaching. I chose Rishikul Yogshala based on its reputation for seamlessly blending the physical and technical aspects of yoga with the more experiential sides of the practice.
The program is customized for each guest or group and lasts seven days, during which participants enjoy three Ayurvedic meals each day along with daily yoga practices in varying styles. Also included: Ayurvedic classes, private philosophy classes, massages and excursions to nearby areas (the Himalayas, the Ganges River, the Munni Baba Cave and more). The ashram is located within walking distance of the famous ashram where The Beatles wrote more than 30 of their songs while studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.
Although Rishikesh boasts one of the world’s largest clusters of ashrams, the country is rife with ashrams and retreat centers that cater to every specific sort of yogi. For luxury seekers, the Shreyas Yoga Retreat in Bangalore is second-to-none. The elegant sanctuary, set on 25 acres, accepts only 20 students per session to allow for one-on-one attention from the staff of teachers, therapists and gurus. Modern yogis love the fast WiFi, pure detox juices and stunning landscape of Goa’s Purple Valley Ashtanga Retreat, while yoga purists rave about attending a retreat at the world’s first and oldest center of yoga at The Yoga Institute of Mumbai, founded in 1918 by Shri Yogendraji.
The beauty of an Indian yoga retreat is that regardless of which one or which style you choose to attend, each offers the ultimate experience in wellness travel, combining healthy eating and physical wellness with the allure of visiting some of the world’s most remarkable landmarks and heritage sites. As I left the Rishikul Yogshala ashram, I looked back over my pictures from my visit to the Taj Mahal, this time with a sense of gratitude. My cup was now full, and I was eager to return home and begin pouring out some of what I had gained from my experience in India.
India Info to Go
Six main gateways service international flights into India, including Bengaluru (BLR), Chennai (MAA), Delhi (DEL), Hyderabad (HYD), Kolkata (COU), Mumbai (BOM) and Kerala (COK). The county’s national carrier, Air India, makes it easy to hop around domestically to locations like Goa, Kochi, Lucknow, Trivandrum, Kunnar and more. Many yoga retreats like Rishikul Yogshala offer a transportation option from the nearest major airport to the ashram for a small fee, but India’s train system, Indian Railways, offers another great option for navigating through the country.
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