Parmarth Niketan

»An ashram on a sweeping scale «

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Parmarth Niketan is more like a small town than an ashram. From the celebrity status of the Swami to the evening ritual of chanting farewell to the sun as it dips into the river, Parmarth Niketan is a riot of sensation, color and experience. There's also some seriously good yoga to be had.

  • What we love
  • Impressive scale
  • Well-organised
  • In Rishikesh
  • Great guest teachers in different styles
  • What to know
  • Occasionally noisy
  • Better to book in advance
  • Modern approach to ashram living
  • Location of the annual International Yoga Festival
  • Why go
  • One of the oldest ashrams in the world capital of yoga
  • Colorful and vibrant atmosphere
  • Variety of yoga styles

Built right on the Ganges, this vibrant center is as striking and colourful as its guru Pujya Swamiji. Glitzy doesn't seem to be a fitting word to describe a yoga estate, but in this case it is. One of the oldest ashrams in Rishikesh, Parmarth Niketan has used the time wisely, refining the yoga experience for all its guests. Accommodation is in one of the 1000+ rooms in the apartment-style blocks. The food is well-made and extremely tasty. The grounds are very easy on the eye, with expanses of green lawns mixing prettily with tropical flowers and statues.

The sources of yoga knowledge at Parmarth Niketan are both eclectic and deeply valuable. Pujya Swamiji believes in being open to all yoga styles, and guest teachers are welcomed to share wisdom and conduct lessons. These teachers are not just any unknowns off the street. The list of past guests is a roll-call of some of modern yoga's best-known names.

Still, the heart of the yoga programs are the core teaching staff of Parmarth Niketan. This is a deeply devoted group of people, and no matter what the skill level of a student there is a guiding hand to fit. All pilgrims are welcome here: this means that a visitor must be a spiritual seeker, participating in the ashram rituals and yoga/meditation sessions. In other words, no free accommodation for mooching travelers.

There is no charge per se for accommodation and food, but donations are routine and expected of all. These can either be specifically nominated for a particular branch of Parmarth Niketan's good works (there are many) or left up to the ashram leaders to distribute as they see fit.

While there is a host of administration and other staff, the heart of the ashram is a team of Indian yoga teachers. They are the source of lessons in Vinyasa yoga, general Hatha yoga and Yoga Nidra, a deeply meditative yoga very different from the physically challenging yoga foreigners may be used to. Just for fun, although wonderfully therapeutic, Laughing yoga is also taught here. Perhaps this could be the light-hearted way to enlightenment, and as it is taught by a man who is over a hundred years old, it’s pretty clear that Laughing yoga is one way to good health in old age.

Parmarth Niketan is the site of the yearly International Yoga Festival. This is a world-famous event, full of workshops, discussions and displays of different yoga styles, as well as seminars by notable names from all over the yoga world. Held in conjunction with the support of the local tourist board, this is not only for yogis but for travellers of all kinds. Dates are variable, but tend to be in late February to early March.

Pujya Swamiji is the guru of the ashram and a drawcard to Parmarth Niketan all by himself. He is an expansive character and is unafraid of the spotlight, traveling all over the world to speak at conventions on yoga, interfaith harmony, ayurveda and related fields. In atypical yogic style, he has embraced technology and social media and Parmarth Niketan is easily reached via Facebook and Twitter. When he is on the ashram, it’s difficult to speak with him in person, being as popular as he is. Although open question-and-answer sessions are held after every Ganga Aarti, the evening sun ritual held on the banks of the Ganges, the Swami will generally disappear quickly afterwards.

For those intrigued by the vibrant color of India, the bustling and entertaining Parmarth Niketan is a perfect stop for a few days of restful yoga, contemplation, and people-watching. There is no locked-door policy here so guests are free to come and go as they please, a departure from more traditional approaches to ashram living. A typical day ends by wandering down the steps to the wide platform built onto the Ganges, quietly sipping a cup of Chai or chatting with new friends as the blazing sun is extinguished in the river. This is living.

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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