Indian Guru Jam: The International Yoga Festival Turns 16

Retreats are an absolutely critical part of every modern day Yoga practice. While today’s meaning of the word ashram is hermitage or retreat center, it is etymologically related to asramah in Sanskrit, the idea of effort or tolling. An ashram is not a beach getaway, but a place to work hard on yourself.

Typically in the West, vacation means running away, but in Yoga, to retreat is to regroup, gain new skills, and sink deeper into one’s Yoga practice. Rather than running away, we confront our problems head on by hauling ourselves out of the world and onto our mat, immersing ourselves within the dharma teachings of esteemed teachers.

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If you’re looking for a wide array of classes and ashrams steeped in the original Yoga setting, there’s absolutely no better place in the world to retreat than Rishikesh, India a.k.a. the Yoga Capital of the World. With ashrams, temples, and cultural experiences galore, this legendary mountain retreat has been an international magnet for spiritual seekers since the 1960s and a home for serious yogis since time immemorial.

It’s synonymous with the ancient rishis, sages who turned their back on society in search of something greater, something sweeter than the mundane, mind-numbing rituals of Brahmin life. They made a place of their own at Rishikesh, and it is consecrated to this day, ever-growing and expanding but always remaining true to its yogic roots.

Most ashrams in India operate on a meager basis, supporting a simple lifestyle for resident monks and nuns. Westerners are usually welcome, but may be shocked to discover there are no special programs for them. It takes time to build a relationship with the teacher, and is sometimes difficult to form a connection in a short-term setting. Yet other ashrams can be intimidating due to the community that residents have already built there; it’s easy to feel like an outsider.

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Until recently, there have been few opportunities for a Westerner to experience and learn deeply in an ashram setting without signing up for a teacher training or longer retreat. With the Internet, communication with far-flung spiritual communities has gotten easier, schedules and information are posted online, and there are many more opportunities to arrange for an extended retreat.

One such option is the International Yoga Festival, hosted by Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, now in its 16th year. Back in the 1960s, in the U.S. we used to have something called Guru Jams. Several gurus would get together and share teachings with hundreds of students at places like the Whole Earth Festival at UC, Davis. The festival at Niketan brings together gurus from several different lineages, not just “yoga teachers,” but also monks and nuns who are spiritually dedicated on a full-time basis.

What I find most intriguing about an event such as IYF is how dynamic the Yoga environment in India has become over the past few decades. It is easier than ever to deepen one’s practice in India, yet there has been such a proliferation of Yoga vacations in tropical or vacation settings that, instead of generating intense heat, pressure to improve or focus, “retreat” has today come to imply “pampered and adventurous.”

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Going strong for over a decade, the IYF festival seems like a better introduction to the idea of retreat from the world; it gathers together a veritable plethora of over 40 Indian gurus from 8 or 10 lineages, making it the perfect opportunity to experience the variety of “yogas” available, without the strangeness of plunging oneself into a stricter ashram setting. Plus, it would be incomprehensible to travel to numerous ashrams without a walkabout or year abroad.

There is truly an international flair to this festival, with Yoga practitioners from all over the world practicing with their mats laid out above the Ganges River. With ceremonies, dharma classes, and nightly prayers on the river, there is a decidedly Indian design about this event as well. In this context, we can as Western Yoga students, see India first-hand. Some have had experience in India for years, and some are just starting out. Though there are millions in the U.S. learning Yoga, I personally feel that anyone who is serious about Yoga should make it a priority to study in India.

While I am not one of those people who criticizes Modern Yoga for being watered down, I do believe there are cultural traits and practices that have not, in any great measure, translated to the U.S. context. The Indian gurus complete immersion and submission into Yoga in the local context is so utterly whole and absolute that it can scarcely be replicated by the training that teachers receive in the West.

Having said that, I am a firm believer in the guru kula system and would offer that there is more of Yoga that has been translated into the West than some Hindu purists (mostly in the West) would want us to believe. I raise the issue to make the case for getting out to India, to improve your practice–yes–but mostly to surround yourself in the yogic environment. Swami Vishnu used to call yoga in the U.S. “yoga in the land of bhoga,” referring to our relentless pursuit of indulgence and material enjoyment. And that was several decades before Lululemon, Gaiam, or Wanderlust Festival!

In India, there is no distinction between religious and secular life. It’s not a crime to think about life spiritually–far from it. And neither is dogma the norm. Debate is the only name of the game, and you are not truly practicing unless you are arguing some deep intellectual rift between spiritual philosophers or various schools of thought.

It seems to me that the International Yoga Festival is just the sort of thing that one wishes were out there, but doesn’t know exists. It certainly wasn’t around twenty years ago when I first went to India and was amazed by every sight, smell and sound. This festival is an incredible opportunity to study Yoga in India–grounded by a whole week of scheduled classes and evening dharma talks, and not too short, like festivals and conferences in the U.S., but also short enough that you could take a week off from work and still make it back in time.

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Another great note about the Parmarth Ashram is that they are at the forefront of Yoga literature and development projects in India. Two important projects are the Encyclopedia of Hinduism, a multi-volume English-language project over 7,000 pages and twenty years in the making, conceived of by Swami Chidanand Saraswati and oversaw by Parmarth Ashram. Secondly, the Parmarth Niketan Ashram has become very active in fundraising for several social justice issues, most notably cleanup of the Ganges River and serving the needy in a variety of capacities such as clothing, healthcare, and housing.

This year’s festival is coming up in less than six weeks, so it may be too late this time, but this is definitely one to add to the bucket list. It’s hard to imagine this kind of opportunity with so many teachers, in such a unique and beautiful setting, happening elsewhere.

It might make sense to take off by yourself for a real intense retreat or pick some good Yoga friends to travel with, build a trip around the festival, and then maybe an extended stay for the two-week intensive class, a yoga teacher training, or take up residence at one of the local ashrams. Hmmm, sounds like I’ve got this one dialed. Who’s up for a trip–er, I mean retreat–to Rishikesh?

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