Omkarananda Ashram

»Iyengar yoga - straight forward from the guru to the disciple«

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The yoga space in Omkarananda Ganga Sadan Ashram offers the best Iyengar yoga outside of the great man’s own shala in Pune. This corner of the ashram with the impressive view is led by the guru’s own disciple Usha Devi. With a firm hand and soft heart, Devi guides her students through exacting postures that eke out perfection.

This is Omkarananda Ashram, devoted to all manner of good works. Schools, outreach programs, cultural classes and spiritual awareness of all kinds are maintained and operated by the ashram staff and guests. Here we are focusing on one small part of the ashram grounds – the Yoga Kendra, where Usha Devi passes on the wisdom of the yoga legend, her own guru, B.K.S. Iyengar.

There are only two types of yoga courses on offer at Yoga Kendra: general open classes that run most evenings and the nine-day Intensive Yoga Course that runs about four times a year. Only a simple registration is required for the open classes, with a regular Saturday sign-up securing a spot in the coming week's sessions. The open classes are 90 minutes of asanas (physical postures), with Usha leading each session. The Intensive Courses are primarily asana classes but also have philosophy, meditation and nutrition components. All asana classes incorporate the props first implemented and made famous by Iyengar himself. There is also a session devoted purely to breathing exercises as well as additional lectures and seminars from various guests. The main difference between the open classes and the intensive course is the progression of learning throughout the Intensive which move smoothly from one level to another. The feedback from attendees is that this is one of the best places in the world to get a taste of Iyengar yoga.

Usha Devi’s guru is one of yoga's great names. Although he is still living and runs his own Iyengar yoga school in Pune, it is almost impossible to study under him these days. However, Devi's teachings are not adapted or changed in any way. They come directly from Iyengar himself into the willing ears and bodies of Devi's students.

Simple items like chairs, ropes and towels are introduced to certain postures to help make them more achievable and to perfect them. The yoga philosophy is simple, and best in Devi's own words: Do less but do it with understanding. There's no race here to be the bendiest yogi in the studio – each at their own pace, for themselves.

Usha is a driving force behind most of the child-welfare programs run by the ashram. Thanks to her efforts (she would say thanks to the efforts of all) schools have been opened or sponsored. These enrich childrens' lives through education and gentle guidance in a Montessori-esque style. She has also developed a support program for children of mothers who are imprisoned for life and must be parted from their babies when the little ones turn five. Guests at the ashram are welcome to contribute their time and effort to any and all of the good works being done, or none at all if they wish.

With the laughing Usha Devi on hand to ease your body into the perfect poses demanded by this unique style, Omkamaranda Ashram is one of the best possible introductions to Iyengar yoga, and to India. This is Rishikesh after all, one of the biggest traveller’s destinations on the off-the-beaten-track itinerary. Around every corner is a new - and uniquely Indian - experience waiting to be discovered.

About the area: Rishikesh

Rishikesh is to yoga what Las Vegas is to partying: At every turn, seemingly on every corner, another yogic experience is waiting. However, some are a better quality than others. To understand what makes a truly good yoga experience, one must understand yoga in India. Rather than a twice-weekly class, yoga here is a way of living. Yogic practices permeate every aspect of the day. A guru is for life, with no mixing of styles or ‘teacher hopping.’ Knowledge takes many patient years to accumulate. This is at odds with the concepts of the 'celebrity guru' and two-day yoga courses or retreats that so many travellers visit Rishikesh to experience, and it is easy to see why traditionalists speak of this approach as something like McYoga.

Nonetheless, a student must start somewhere. What better place to begin than in The City of the Divine, Rishikesh, the world capital of yoga. The world capital tag is no overstatement: Purity is enshrined in law, with alcohol and meat consumption being outlawed within city limits. This is one of Hinduism's most holy cities, where the Beatles famously studied under their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and pilgrims are a common sight, often beginning their Four Shrines journey in Rishikesh. There are several yoga festivals held here each year, and simply wandering the streets is a great way to spend the day, as long as food is carefully protected from thieving wild monkeys who loiter, gang-like, on the bridges.

Rishikesh is also the gateway to the Himalayas, with the cool green foothills providing a welcome respite from the sometimes-suffocating Indian summer heat. There is still part of the Maharajah's palace open for viewing – a sweeping view from a green throne high above the city.

Image credit: Coni Hörler Photography

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