A rollercoaster is probably the best way to describe my experience of Rishikesh. It was a love/hate relationship that had a greater impact on me than the rest of our time in India had put together. I struggled with a physical injury, with the mental pressure of being in one place for a prolonged period of time after so long on the move, and with being fed information that was not only out of date, but was at times factually incorrect. They do say however, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I definitely feel like that is true of my time in Rishikesh.
After our traumatic journey we didn’t feel up to much. We didn’t even cafe hop on the first day: instead we cafe sat, choosing to spend 6 hours in Little Buddha where we met Robert. He is a holistic healer, originally from Glasgow, who is genuinely one the most interesting people we’ve met on this trip so far. Not only was he very knowledgable about alternative medicine, he also introduced us to the concept of ‘Angel Numbers’ which have since become my favourite thing. A lot you reading this (including my own father) will roll your eyes at this concept but I think it’s great and it made me feel extremely positive and happy after such a crappy morning. Angel Numbers are number sequences that recur at certain points in your life and represent a message from your angels or the universe. For example, recently I had been waking up at exactly 6:15 every morning and the number combination 615 is a message from my angels. They were fully supportive of my life choices, especially with regards to my career and relationships, which I take to mean ‘you’ve got this and we [your angels] are fully behind you. This may sound crazy but given the number of friends and family who have questioned my most recent life choices it’s good to know the universe at least is on my side.
Our two days of relaxing were over and it was time to head out to Ram Juala, on the other side of Rishikesh from where we had been situated, and check into Rishikul Yogshala. This was to be our home for the next 4 weeks and the place where we would hopefully complete our 200 Hour Teacher Training qualification. To say these 4 weeks were intense is the understatement of the year: our day began at 5:30am and didn’t finish until 7:30pm. We undertook 3 hours of asanas each day, both Hatha and Ashtanga Vinyasa. Additionally we studied Yoga Philosophy, Anatomy, Adjustment and Alignment, Mantras, Mudras and how to teach, in addition to various Pranayama and Meditation techniques. If this was not intense enough, we also had to eat all our meals in silence, which for someone who cannot stand the sound of chewing was going to be a challenge. Is it any wonder by the end of the first week I wanted to bolt?!
Week 1: I’m Not a Yogi Please Get Me Out of Here
“Sweet Pain” is what our yoga teachers jokingly called the pain we would all be experiencing during our first week of training as our bodies slowly got used to the intensity of the course and the amount of exercise, combined with sitting still we were doing throughout the day. I can tell you however, there is nothing sweet about a knee injury that brings you to tears from merely sitting crossed legged for too long. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to be initiated.
Although I had absolutely no idea what was going on because the whole ceremony was conducted in Sanskrit (it reminded me a little of the wedding) I felt a sense of excitement if a little trepidation as I really had no idea what to expect over the next few weeks. Despite the overwhelming heat of the room, due to the number of people and the fire burning throughout, I was intrigued to see how the next few weeks would play out.
Despite our 5:30 start, the first Sunday was more theoretical than practical, although it was a little bit of a shock to find out we were actually expected to TEACH a class at the end of the month. Yes, I know I had signed up for a teacher training course and I knew there was a written exam, I never dreamed there’d be a practical exam as well! Having worked out that I had been to a maximum of 20 yoga classes in my life, and knowing very little about the deeper meaning of yoga as a way of life, it’s safe to say I was more than slightly bricking it.
When most people back home think of yoga they think of the asanas, the part of yoga which has been adopted by the West as a great way to keep fit. This is what we did for three hours a day: an hour and a half of Hatha in the morning and an hour and a half of Ashtanga Vinyasa in the afternoon. If you have never had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing Ashtanga for yourselves, go and check out the Primary Series- this is considered the easy one and we were lucky enough to do this five times a week in 35 degree heat. Why pay for hot yoga when that’s just the daily temperature?!
As well as the theory and the asanas we were also taught cleansing techniques, which actually do help with breathing. Only being able to breathe through the nose when it is blocked makes life quite challenging so cleaning out those passages is a useful past-time for any aspiring yogi. Unfortunately the processes are a little unpleasant, although as the weeks went on I did rather enjoy the Jala Nati (pouring warm salty water up one nostril for it to come out the other) but there was no way in HELL I would be putting a rubber tube up my nose and pulling it out of my throat!
As we reached halfway through the first week I began to feel more and more frustrated with my body, the teaching and the whole experience of school so far. I wasn’t enjoying it. In fact I’d go so far as to say I was hating it and that was upsetting me even more because not only had we invested a lot of money into this experience, it was also a substantial amount of time out of a trip I had so far loved.
Looking back I think I had perhaps subconsciously been hoping for a slightly more spiritual experience than Rishikul offers, mainly because of the type of Yoga they base their teachings upon. I’m definitely more of a Karma Yoga type gal- what you give out to the universe you get back, whereas Rishikul is based on Raj yoga, emphasising the importance of wisdom and meditation. My main issue with this is that the “wisdom” we were being supplied with was not only a little outdated, but some of it was just factually incorrect. It also didn’t help that our teacher, lovely as he was, did not have a strong enough grasp of English to convey such complex topics and make them not only understandable but relatable to a 21st Century lifestyle. From doing my own research there are plenty of concepts which I will try to incorporate into my daily life, but the way he spoke a lot of the time made me feel like I needed to give up everything and move to a cave in the mountains in order to ever reach enlightenment.
Don’t get me wrong there were some classes I enjoyed; mantra class was great because we actually got to understand the meanings behind the mantras we were expected to chant at the beginning and end of each class. Although the sessions where we chanted whilst walking around in a circle did make me feel as though I had joined a cult, it was good to actually be given an explanation of these Sanskrit verses.
It’s possible I would have been able to cope better with the theory had I not been in so much physical pain caused by my stupid knee injury I got from sitting. Turns out having ones legs crossed for half an hour when you already have bad knees isn’t the best idea. It also turns out that a lot of postures in Yoga, particularly Ashtanga Vinyasa require strong knees. After two days of really struggling and a particularly frustrating session where I felt as though I couldn’t do any of the postures without causing myself considerable pain, I broke down and spent a good 15 minutes lying on my yoga mat trying (and failing) not to cry. I was totally overwhelmed by the whole experience, I was in a lot of pain and at that point I would rather have been anywhere else in the world apart from that yoga hall. At this point it was looking extremely likely that I would pack the whole thing in and leave because there was no way I could carry on feeling like that for another 3 weeks…
Week 2: Another One Bites the Dust…
And it actually wasn’t me. Sadly, having already lost the lovely Julia in week one due to the pressure the course was putting on her back, we lost the equally lovely Heinrick, who had been mine and Milly’s first friend on the course. Unfortunately for him the course wasn’t what he expected and he decided it was better for him to bow out than push himself to a point of no return.
I am happy to report that after a chat with my parents, a day off with my lovely fellow students, a visit to the incredible Beatles Ashram and a Vegan Reese’s Ball from Pumpernickel Bakery I was feeling a lot more positive about the course and life in general. The Beatles Ashram is where the Beatles (obviously) spent time during the 1960s, studying the art of transcendental meditation and supposedly wrote part of The White Album. It’s such a beautiful place no wonder they felt their creative juices flowing!
We all agreed it was such a shame the place has been left to fall into disrepair as it would be an incredible place to practice yoga; the little beehive rooms are absolutely adorable. Plus the setting makes it the perfect spot for meditation. It was a little hot for this when we were there however, so we spent our time exploring the abandoned buildings, admiring the art work and murals as well as (of course) practicing some of those good old yoga poses.
On our return to Ram Jhula we ended up having dinner with Jade and Kiara and I think it was this conversation that turned my experience around. These two girls are not only fantastic at asanas, they are also wonderful people who helped me realise that I was not the only one who wasn’t having quite the experience I had expected. Obviously I realised the whole group wasn’t on an incredible spiritual journey but it was nice to talk to people and realised they were also finding it a little difficult to adapt their expectations to the reality of what was more like yoga boot camp than an enlightening experience.
I headed into the Monday with a new sense of positivity. I ignored the Dr’s advice and continued to practice Ashtanga, although I no longer felt bad about doing the modifications, knowing I shouldn’t really be doing it at all. Ibuprofen helped bring down the inflammation in my knee and the introduction of Adjustment and Alignment classes meant I was more confident in the modifications I should use to protect my dodgy joints and reduce the impact of my hyper-extension. It was obvious it would take more than three weeks to correct years of wrong practice but I had to start somewhere. When the pain lessened and I stopped worrying, everything just became more enjoyable and it was hard not to have a laugh when we were lucky enough to have such a great group of people all going through it together.
As well as Sundays we also got Wednesdays off but school would often organise a group excursion. During week 1 it was a visit to a Sikh temple, while week 2 was a sunrise trip to a temple of a mountain. When our alarm went off at 4:30am Mills really wasn’t feeling it and I wasn’t fussed enough to go without her so I enjoyed a couple of hours more in bed before a great self practice session where I had the entire yoga studio to myself. It also gave me time to mentally prepare myself for my Emotional Blockage Treatment, although the whole experience was so traumatic I don’t think any amount of yoga and meditation could have prepared me for it!
It was one of the weirdest things I have ever put my body through, but after the initial shock had worn off I genuinely think it has helped me. While it started off as rather a pleasant foot massage, the further up the legs he moved the more my hands started to tingle and by the time he reached my lower back I was totally unable to move them and I was screaming and crying. He physically had to turn me onto my back as I was unable to move and by the time he reached my chest half my face was paralysed and I had a tingling sensation in my stomach and legs. I was also still bawling my eyes out which is easier said than done when you can’t feel your face! It took me a good half an hour to regain feeling in my hands and the rest of the day to get back to normal, although the next day I felt fresh as a daisy and as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, which in a way it had. Apparently the pain in my hands was due to my habit of holding onto things and the pain intensified in my chest because my heart chakra is blocked. Whether you believe in this stuff or not it does make a lot of sense because I do have a habit of taking things personally and there is a reason why 2018 is the year of self love and friendship…
Week 3: Rafting Rafting We Went Rafting!
Although this was the week where everything started to get real; we were over halfway through, our practical and written exams were fast approaching and we were almost finished with our Pranayama and Hatha classes, this was probably my favourite week of the course. Being on top of my knee pain meant I was able to see the progression in my asanas, which in turn was allowing the parts of the theory I just couldn’t comprehend to wash over me.
The best news that week was finding out that we had one less lesson of Philosophy than normal because we had a session of Dance Yoga. This was a much needed break from the seriousness of lessons and although we totally butchered the dance we had a great time doing it. Our teacher was so elegant and made it look so graceful, a feat which none of us were really able to master but he did say the main point of it was to laugh and have fun and we certainly managed that.
Even Mr Ashtanga seemed to have noticed the 15 hours plus of asanas we were doing a week had taken its toll on our bodies and gave us a much needed restorative session. This was an absolute dream, even though he still felt the need to push me in directions my body was unwilling to go- he refused to accept until the bitter end that while my flexibility with my legs together may have improved dramatically, when they are apart it is a whole different story! In spite of this we all felt so much better after an hour and a half of stretching. We were lucky that our visit from the local wildlife came earlier on in the week because there is nothing relaxing about having a troop of monkeys invade your classroom! Thankfully they too responded to Mr Ashtanga’s authority and scarpered the minute he approached.
In terms of school, the highlight of the week was definitely Pranayama on the beach, with the breeze coming off the Ganga and the occasional dog running over to make everyone jump. It’s so much easier to breathe away from the stuffiness of the yoga school and I wish we’d gone down there more often because my poor blocked ears hurt a lot less being outside. Plus we got to have tea and biscuits with a Saddu in his cave, where he took selfies with us on his brand new smart phone…only in India!
While I found this week the most enjoyable I know for some of us it began to be a little stressful. A lot of people were sick, our bodies were run down and the schedule for teaching had been posted so people were beginning to worry a little about the upcoming assessments. That is why a day on the river, playing in the rapids was exactly what we all needed. I don’t think the rapids are particularly difficult in terms of grading but they were certain all scary enough to elicit constant screaming from our boat. We laughed, screamed and serenaded our guide with wonderful renditions of Rip Tide and some classic Spice Girls. I’m not sure how much he appreciated it but we had a great time and came away from the day feeling refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the week, if a little sore from all that paddling!
Week 4: It’s The Final Countdown
Teaching turned out to be a lot less stressful than I had anticipated. In no way am I saying my lesson went perfectly- there is so much I can improve on and I know I am a a long way off from calling myself a yoga teacher but I did find I really enjoyed it and everyone was very positive in their feedback and constructive criticism.
We had been split into two groups, so sadly I didn’t get to see Milly’s lesson but I was glad I was only the third person to go in our group because Celine and Ash set the bar high and the standard only got better as the classes went on. Everyone’s classes were so different: Ash did yoga rehab for people with knee injuries (result for me); Celine focused on Vata excess; Gabby did Ashtanga; Miranda and Marine did kids yoga which was amazing; Rosi did a lovely beginners class with an incredible meditation; Vivianne had some postures in there I am definitely going to steal and I focused on balance and stability. Everyone smashed it!
Getting through everyone meant we had to teach on Sunday but that also meant I had the whole day to celebrate being done (well almost but the written exam was a whole 3 days away). When you are staying in a town where alcohol is not readily available the best way to celebrate is with food. We started at the fruit salad place Marine had introduced us all to; it may not look like much from the outside but my God they do the BEST fruit salad smoothie breakfast bowls I have ever had! Plus you get to eat them sat by the Ganga watching the world go by whilst fending off the cows trying to sample your breakfast- what could be better!?
This was then followed by a hot yet hilarious cooking demonstration where Deepa told us stories about her brothers failed cooking attempts and made making chapatti look like a form of art! We made chickpea curry, poori and the flat rice with peanuts we all devour every time it is available for breakfast. Apparently it’s full of protein so all those second helpings were totally fine!
I spent the rest of the day without Milly (very stressful) because she stayed at school to practice her lesson, so Amber and I ate our way around Laxman Jhula before her Mili and my Milly joined us for dinner. It did mean we missed out on the full moon meditation but we had such a lovely evening enjoying the food, the view and the very attractive waiter at Cafe Royal before an interesting walk home. Apparently when the sun goes down Indian men think it’s socially acceptable to expose themselves at the side of the road. Not sure I agree with that and I was glad there were 4 of us making this return journey. We ended the day on the roof looking up at the full moon, enjoying being present and grateful for where we were in the world.
Being a shortened final week with a slightly different schedule the time absolutely flew by. Our final meditation took place on the beach during a lightening storm which was absolutely sunning! Yes I know I should have had my eyes closed as we were there for meditation but sat next to the Ganga under a purple sky, with forked lightening striking over the mountains having my eyes closed seemed like a waste.
After 4 weeks together we had all formed a really strong bond, perfectly encapsulated on the morning of Kristina’s birthday where we all gathered on our balcony to sing and munch on chocolate cake. We all went out for dinner that night which was lovely although I feel like the poor restaurant owner was slightly overwhelmed when the 16 of us descended on him clamouring to be fed.
Wednesday was exam day. The exam I had done very little prep for bar the 2 hours before the exam itself. Given this lack of preparation I was pleased with the amount I was able to retain and was able to answer the 20 questions required. No rest for the wicked though as 15 minutes after the exam we had our final Ashtanga Vinyasa class. Unlucky for us it was the day of the sandstorm which meant no electricity, leading to the sweatiest session yet! Despite this, I felt amazing once we were done and I was pleased to see at least some improvements- my sleeping turtle is coming on great. There are some postures I’m not sure I’ll EVER be able to do but as Celine said they would never have been invented had these people just had access to a TV!
Our hard work was rewarded with a party in the dining area, complete with disco lights and loud music. The staff really went for it and it was obvious from their moves this was their favourite night of the month! As fun as it was to let our hair down and celebrate being finished we were all so shattered we took the power failure at 9pm as a sign we should go to bed in preparation for our final beach yoga session in the morning. Reunited with our Hatha teacher (everyone’s favourite) we had a great time down by the Ganga surrounded by dogs and cows, who added to the challenge of performing the postures because there was always the chance you could trip over them!
Dressed all in white (not a flattering colour on anyone who doesn’t have a tan) we participated in the closing ceremony, which was just as long if nowhere near as hot as the opening one. The teachers all gave a little speech, which were very sweet and emphasised this course was simply the beginning of the journey and how there are no endings only transitions, without which we wouldn’t be able to grow. One by one we received our certificates, declaring us (technically) qualified yoga teachers. 4 weeks of blood, sweat, tears and chatarangas we were free to go our separate ways, taking what we had learned and begin to apply it to our everyday lives. As much as I struggled I definitely think this experience has made me stronger as a person and I’m so grateful for the amazing group we were fortunate enough to be with. They were what made this part of the trip and I coulnd’t have done it without them!
Final Days of Freedom
Having only 2 days off a week and normally being too tired to do much more than cafe hop we were excited to see what Rishikesh had to offer. While packing had revealed the amount of stuff we had managed to accumulate over the course of a month, our move to the hostel was less traumatic because there were 6 of us in a 6 bed dorm so it felt more like a sleepover than anything. Plus it meant we were safe, at least at night, from the creepy guy who seemed to think he’d met me in Pushkar and think it was a good idea to chat Amber up by discussing his erectile function. Not exactly the best start for her solo trip!
You’d think after a month we’d have had enough of yoga but we were all keen to try a few different, less traditional styles. We spent a morning in the mountains, on a rooftop learning the art of Kundlaini. Having never done this before I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be an amazing combination of asanas and pranayama, ending with the most amazing meditation which left us all feeling like we were floating for the next couple of hours. Unfortunately our Hatha yoga class wasn’t quite such a peaceful experience as it involved holding poses for prolonged periods, which was not pleasurable for my poor, sore body! The teacher was also extremely patronising, which wasn’t what I needed at all. Thankfully we followed this session with some Osho mediation which is dance meditation, where you close your eyes and move around to the music for almost an hour, ending with shavasana. At first it felt a little odd and I was a tad self conscious before I remembered everyone had their eyes closed and were all doing the same thing anyway.
For our final morning Milly and I decided to try something totally different: jewellery making. I don’t think we will ever make it in the silversmith profession but we had a really great time doing it. I think we frustrated our teacher a little with our incompetence but we had a giggle doing it and we got to play with fire.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye. It did feel as though we’d spent the past 4 days saying goodbye as everyone off the course had left at different times but this final farewell was the hardest of all. It was also bittersweet because as much as I would miss the people, I was ready to move on to our next adventure. Plus we had our third musketeer Amber joining us for the delightful bus ride back to our home away from home in Delhi. Madpackers, take 5.
TOP TIP FOR 200 HOUR TTC: A problem shared is a problem halved. The chances are the frustrations you have are the same as plenty of other people on the course. These guys are your family for the month so talk to them because they are the ones who make this experience.