Stressed? Try Trip to Indian Yoga Hot Spot

R I S H I K E S H, India, March 10, 2004 -- I stood yawning on a dusty platform inthe dilapidated New Delhi railroad station, squinting as shadowstook form with the slow rising sun.

Barefoot porters, their heads piled high with burlap bundles,tripped over my feet. The odors from street urchins who pick atdebris along the tracks and the sacred cows who roam free forced meto cover my mouth like so many other impatient passengers aroundme.

Then, a sun-weathered man, his head wrapped in a crisp redturban, pulled a wooden rickshaw alongside me. I turned suddenly toface mounds of black cloves — the smell a reminder of Christmas andmy faraway family — and a toothless smile with a nod of the head.

My eyes filled with tears. It seemed like months since I'dstopped to simply smile at a stranger or acknowledge a wonderfulsmell or beautiful sound.

Quest for Rejuvenation

My morning began with that sweet smell of hot cloves; my nightended in the cool Himalayan hills, with chattering cicadas amid therustling eucalyptus leaves.

My quest for rejuvenation was well under way.

Many working moms dream of having several days away from theoffice, and even their homes, just to gather their thoughts andcatch up with themselves.

After a grueling stretch of juggling work, motherhood andnagging illnesses that come with eight years of Third World living,I was craving a break.

I determined that since I was in India — land of yoga gurus andmystical Hindus — I should combine my Western inclination towardself-pampering and the Eastern penchant for self-awareness.

"Life should start with us. If you are in peace, then you willexude peace, even if someone else has created fire," a guru toldme several days after I began my Indian retreat.

I've been taking yoga classes on and off for the3 ½ years we've lived in India, but never consistentlyenough to find that so-called third eye, or to tighten and tonelike the yoga aficionado, Madonna.

Managing four Associated Press bureaus in South Asia is a dreamjournalism job which combines breaking news, funky features andfascinating people and places. But it's demanding work and left mewith little time for myself.

As our 6-year-old daughter, Caitlin, said: "You need to have alittle private time, right, Mama?"

Right, some private time.

I chose four days at Ananda In The Himalayas, a luxury healthand yoga spa overlooking the River Ganges and Rishikesh, amongHindu's holiest sites and the birthplace of yoga. Lord Brahma, theHindu god of creation, is said to have meditated in thesefoothills.

Journey Starts the Experience

Nestled in the isolated Sal Forest estate of the currentMaharajah of Tehri-Garhwal, Ananda is not an easy destination. Butgetting there is part of the experience.

The train from New Delhi takes four hours to reach Hardiwar,another sacred town in the northern state of Uttaranchal. Thencomes another hour of slow rambling through Rishikesh and up thesteep, windy roads into the Sal Forest, mere miles from the bordersof China and Nepal. Spider monkeys and warning signs to drivesafely ("Heaven doesn't want you yet") line the narrow, two-laneroad. The first thing you see when you reach Ananda is a princelypalace, its 19th-century facades awash in pale yellow and mossymildew. There are hundreds of these palaces in India, but theAmerican in me never tires of such foreign, antiquated splendor.

The old wing of Ananda is housed in an annex built for a visitby the British viceroy in 1910. Visitors are welcomed by a duositting cross-legged on checkered tile, playing a traditional tabladrum and violin. A string of "rudraksh" seeds go around yourneck. The round seeds, known as the tears of Lord Shiva and used inIndia and Nepal for thousands of years, are believed to stabilizeblood pressure and ease anxiety. The main focus of Ananda, which towers some 1,000 feet above sealevel, is yoga, meditation and ayurvedic treatments, though thereare plenty of Western-style beauty treatments, exercise classes andtrekking.

The senior yoga instructor, Vinay Menon, met me at a whitemarble music pavilion, built in 1885, its columns topped by aceiling painted royal blue and laced with metallic-gold leafing,surrounded by a reflecting pool and lush landscaping. The beauty isalmost distracting.

"The mind is like a monkey, jumping from tree to tree," saidMenon, as we sat in the classic lotus position and he attempted toget me to ignore the real monkeys bathing in the pool filled withlilies. "You have to rope it in and push away distractions."

Ananda's instructors practice Hatha yoga, a combination of mindand body exercises some 5,000 years old. The yogis believed that toattain nirvana, a state of spiritual bliss, the body must first bedominated and controlled. They developed stretching, posture andbreathing exercises to prepare the body for meditation. The betterone is at yoga, the more deeply one can meditate.

Depending on which package you pay for, you can get privatelessons or join complimentary hourlong classes in the morning withother guests.

I found Menon's 90-minute sessions to be physically challenging,but not so strenuous that I was in pain the next day. His singsong"expand the body, expand the mind" was a bit irritating — but bythe fifth session I found myself actually drifting into minutes ofpure meditation even as my stubby legs were struggling.

Spa Food, Evening Prayer

Menon also persuaded me to try a yoga remedy for sinus reliefthat I had resisted as just too disgusting. The altitude and pollenfrom the more than 50 species of trees that dot the 100 acres ofAnanda had given me a monster sinus headache and puffy, itchy eyes. Yogis believe — and rightly so, I can now attest — that dailycleaning of the nasal passages with warm salt water prevents sinusinfections, colds and allergies. Pouring the salted water from alittle, long-nosed pot into one nostril and letting it drip out theother also helps one prepare for yoga and meditation.

I woke up the next morning with a clear head and bright eyes.The better to read the healthy spa menu of Ananda's treetoprestaurant, which serves trendy continental and Indian dishes thatare all natural and low in fat. Even the yummy Kahlua mousse, madewith soya cream, only had 169 calories and 11 grams of fat.

Magical Mystery Tour

No trip to Rishikesh would be complete without attending eveningprayers along the banks of "Mother Ganga," a Beatles-stylemagical mystery tour led from East to West by a hometown boy, guruMaharishi Mahesh Yogi.

One evening I visited Parmarth Niketan, where guru SwamiChidanand Saraswatiji presides over the dozens of young boys, manyof them orphans, who live at the ashram. Dressed in bright saffronrobes, their foreheads smeared with ash from a sacred firealongside the rushing river — in which a huge, gaudy statue of ablue Krishna sits — the boys take part in a mad mix of holy rollerHare Krishna chants and choking incense that's heavy on humor andjoyful inclusion.

It was the highlight of my trip. I have covered uglyfundamentalist clashes, most memorably the anti-Muslim riots inwestern Gujarat state two years ago, in which more than 1,000people died, most of them Muslim and many of them children burnedalive by Hindu mobs. But this was an affirmation of the tolerancethat I knew in my heart is the norm for Mahatma Gandhi's India.

"Hindus by nature are very inclusive, they embrace everybody,"swami Chidanand told me later, having been summoned to the ashramfor a cross-legged chat. "By nature, Hindus are a verypeace-loving people."

The managing director of Ananda, Ashok Khanna, had invited me topray with him at the ashram the night before. The businessman andthe guru are working together to rejuvenate the spiritual tourismthat once made Rishikesh a top destination among seekers.

"Look at the beauty and dignity of this divine place, a placefor healing," said swami Chidanand, who every night invitesforeigners — from blond backpackers in Birkenstocks to theBollywood and Hollywood glitterati — for dinner at the ashram.

"At the spa, you can feel someone touching your back, massagingyour body. Here, it's a touch you can't see, but you are also beinghealed," he said.

If You Go …

GETTING THERE: Ananda is 160 miles north of New Delhi, afive-hour drive by car or four hours by train. COST: From $220 for single to $350 for double per night;includes spa meals, yoga consultations and various spa treatments. CONTACT: Ananda In The Himalayas. Telephone 91-11-2689-9999;www.anandaspa.com. Americans need visas and can apply for them atIndian consulates.

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