On our way to Rishikesh, we stopped to meditate in a cave, said to have been  Vashishta’s. Vasistha is known as the first sage of Vedanta philosophy and had Lord Rama as his disciple. Yoga Vasistha, one of my favorite texts, is the discourse documented between Vasistha and Lord Rama. I read it 10 years ago and this was a reminder for me to go back and read this masterpiece again.

Located on the banks of Ganges and gateway to the Himalayas, Rishikesh is the unofficial yoga capital of the world. I loved it 10 years ago and I fell in love with it again. I felt safe, secure, and a sense of belonging 10 years ago and I felt exactly the same now. I’ve heard many times people talk about Rishikesh as “spiritual” and it’s twin sister Haridwar as “religious”. Surprisingly it feels exactly like that, I feel the heavy dogma at Haridwar and that’s exactly why I like Riskesh better. Rishikesh is light, Rishikesh flows, Rishikesh doesn’t care about your religion.

There is an ashram in every corner and the yoga classes and yoga teacher trainings mushroomed across the city. Beyond yoga, I was surprised how outdoor adventure activities like rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, even zip lining multiplied.  Now you come across a 4×4 trucks with rafts everywhere and lots of Westerners come here for outdoor sports. We visited Sivananda ashram every morning and had our morning meditation there.

Swami Sivananda came to Rishikesh in the 1930’s and popularized meditation and yoga. We visited his cottage on the river, the temple where “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” has been chanted non-stop since 1942.We had a very nice surprise at the Divine Life Society where the current president Swami Vimalananda has invited us to his daily discourse and even chanted  “Oh God Beautiful” for us. He is 84 years old and giving discourses every day!  It was unbelievable to sit at his foot, get his blessed food and listen to his satsang.

At sunset, there is one location to go in Rishikesh: Parmarth Niketan ashram. Founded by Swami Chidanand Saraswati, it’s the largest institution in Rishikesh.

I have fond memories from my previous trip. I especially owe gratitude to Swamiji because after reading his book, A drop of Nectar that he gave us during our satsang in 2005, I decided to quit eating meat. Also that book planted the seeds for environmental awareness and sustainability for me.

Parmarth Niketan holds a beautiful aarti ceremony every evening and is definitely a popular destination for tourists as well as locals. We participated the aarati right on the water and released our wishes to the river. My wish was, again, to let go of anything that is not in harmony with my true self, let go of any past karma and its manifestations in this life and past.

The next day, we visited and meditated in the beautiful domed Kriya Yoga Ashram. They kept the main meditation hall pitch dark, away from any sensual distraction, perfect to pull all attention, just like the caves we visited. One evening we were invited to the ashram of a modern spiritual teacher, Sri Vanamali Devi, and had a satsang together. She allowed us to see her meditation room, which I’m eternally grateful for. The energy was extraordinary.

For me, the highlight of our Rishikesh visit was our purification ceremony in Ganges. We went to a beach up the river which is way more quiet (and clean) than the banks in Rishikesh. As part of the purification ceremony, we wrote our wishes to leaves and released them to the river. My wish, as usual, was to release and to let go of any karma and its manifestations and anything that is not in harmony with my true self. In India, modesty is important. You cannot wear swim suits to swim in the river. We all had extra cloths to cover up. It was so much fun to hold hands with girl friends and dip ourselves into the refreshing waters of Ganges. As tradition, we dipped 3 times. If there was one moment in life where I felt totally pure, almost transparent, without any burden or identity, it was after the dip in Ganges. I literally felt the Ganges washed away all that is not needed, which I am eternally grateful for.

We also had free time for sightseeing and shopping. It’s hard to resist to buy books in India, it’s so cheap. Even though I was determined not to, I ended up buying few books, Babaji and 18 Siddha Kriya Traditions among them. I also visited the organic super store of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Now both Baba Ram Dev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are into organic /ayurvedic products in India. Times are changing! Guru’s are getting into business (for good reason though!!).

On our last day, we had free time in the morning and I visited Swami Dayananda’s ashram, the ashram we stayed in 10 years ago. To my sadness, I learned that Swami Dayananda had passed away 2 weeks prior. He was an incredible Vedanta teacher which I loved reading his books and commentaries in Vedanta. Swami was also the Guru of India’s current Prime minister Narendra Modi. Deep bow to Swamiji!

That same morning a couple people from our group went to visit a charity school founded by Shahla Ettefagh. Shahla is an incredible person who came to India as a tourist, stricken by the poverty she witnessed, started a non-profit school (Mother Miracle) for under privileged kids. She expanded her operations to empower girls and young women as well as to provide nutrition and vocational education to youth. Hats down to Shahla!  She helps me have hope for the future of humanity.

That same afternoon we took a 45 minute bus to Haridwar. Haridwar is also known as the town that hosts Kumbha Mela gathering in every 12 years. We’ll visited the ashram of Swami Keshabananda, which contains the ashes of Lahiri Mahasaya. Then we went  to the ashram of Anandamayee Ma, the “Joy-Permeated Mother.” Her ashes are kept here in a special shrine, and the house where she lived is preserved. It’s so easy to feel the love permeated from this lovely being. Her love is still palpable.

Lastly, this trip would not be possible without the selfless efforts, pure spiritual intentions and deep devotion of our Ananda tour leaders. They relentlessly worked for each one of us to get the most out of our experience and deepen our spiritual connections.

Deep bow to them all!