Rishikesh, India, is known as the “Unofficial Capital of Yoga.” // © 2014 Thinkstock
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John, Paul, George and Ringo may have been the first famous wellness travelers. The year was 1968, and the destination was Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India. The Beatles signed up to learn Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. There, overlooking the Ganges River, they grew beards, donned Indian-style cotton pajama pants and tunics, meditated in private caves and attended lectures and discussions on their meditations. Following years of extraordinary success and the sudden passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the Fab Four were seeking peace of mind. They were hoping to expand their minds as well.
“Oh, it was pretty exciting, you know,” said Ringo Starr in an interview for “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “We were in this really spiritual place, and we were meditating a lot, having seminars by Maharishi. It was pretty far out.”
Their time in Rishikesh turned out to be one of the most prolific periods of their career. They wrote most of the double album, “The Beatles” (more popularly referred to as “The White Album”), as well as songs that would later appear on “Abbey Road.” Many songs, such as “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and Monkey,” make direct references to what the band learned and saw while in India.
Like the Beatles, a growing segment of the traveling public is heading to locales where they can rest and rejuvenate and/or connect to something greater. According to SRI International, in conjunction with the Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS), wellness travel (vacations that jumpstart a personal path to health and wellness or ones that support a healthy lifestyle) are becoming mainstream. The organization estimated that last year alone, 586 million domestic and international wellness tourism trips were taken.
Better yet, wellness travel is a high-yield sector. It may account for only 6 percent of all global trips, but it represents more than 14 percent of global tourism expenditures. Wellness travelers are typically wealthier, more educated and spend more per trip. Internationally, a primary wellness tourist (defined by the GSWS as a tourist who considers wellness to be the primary reason for trip and destination choice) spends 59 percent more than an average tourist, and domestically, that number is 159 percent. Secondary wellness tourists — those who want to maintain their healthy lifestyles while traveling on any kind of trip — make up about 85 percent of wellness trips, suggesting that this is more than a travel trend. Indeed, the ever-growing wellness industry is currently estimated to be a $3.4 trillion industry, with wellness travel accounting for $494 billion.
Rishikesh Reigns On
Many destinations are now scrambling to market themselves as a wellness retreat, but Rishikesh has always been naturally gifted with the hallmarks of a true well-being destination. These include: a peaceful setting in nature, opportunities to be active in nature, connections to a mind/body practice via yoga and meditation and opportunities to learn about traditional wellness practices. While it’s true that there are destinations with admirable wellness qualities closer to home, Rishikesh is arguably the reigning guru among gurus. Oprah recently headed for Ananda in the Himalayas, a top destination spa located in the jungled hills above the city, to “practice what I preach.” And this year alone, journalists from The New York Times, SFGate, Houston Chronicle, CNN and others wrote articles specifically on Rishikesh as a destination for connecting with spirituality.
So what makes Rishikesh so special and so spiritual? Sitting where the Ganges River flows from the Himalayas, Rishikesh is one of India’s most aesthetically brilliant cities. Even the bustle in the city’s busier areas has a certain seductive energy about it. Then, there are the foothills themselves. Save for the rustle of monkeys jumping from treetops and cows treading gravel roads, this portion of the Himalayas may be one of the most serene settings on the entire subcontinent; not to mention, it is also the location of Ananda in the Himalayas as well as the ashram where the Beatles stayed.
But Rishikesh is not simply a pretty spot. One of the holiest cities for Hindus, Rishikesh is the launching point for a pilgrimage track that Hindus are supposed to complete in their lifetimes called Char Dham. In Rishikesh’s history as a spiritually charged destination, the arrival of a widespread physical yoga practice — as well as the psychedelic mythology of the Fab Four — is relatively new. In fact, the word Rishi even means “sage” or “saint” in Sanskrit.
“For thousands of years, holy men and sages have meditated in these hills,” said Nikhil Kahpur, general manager of Ananda in the Himalayas.
During my visit, I learned about the city’s holy roots after crossing the Lakshman Jhula, an iron suspension bridge named after the Hindu avatar Lakshman who is believed to have crossed the river here. A holy cow was splayed out on the bridge, seemingly meditating on the view and causing a bit of a traffic jam as motorcyclists, hippy backpackers, monkeys, yogis, sadhus (ascetic holy men), flocks of women in bright saris and other passersby maneuvered their way across. In the shade of one of Rishikesh’s riverside yoga studios, my guide, Ramesh Chawla, recounted the important Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, linking the text to the location in front of us and explaining that many Hindus come here to find purification.
To Hindus, Mother Ganga is a goddess, and entering the holy Ganges River is thought to remit sins. One reason to enter the Ganges from Rishikesh, versus, say Varanasi, is that the water is much cleaner here. Varanasi is where Hindus hope to die. Dead bodies and ash contribute to the pollution on that stretch of the Ganges, while Rishikesh’s water is a light greenish-blue, thanks to its proximity to the Himalayas and the fact that the nearby Parmarth Niketan Ashram actively works to stop pollution.
Rishikesh also offers many opportunities for immersion in nature, such as hiking in the Himalayas, rafting in the Ganges, kayaking and practicing yoga and meditation outdoors. Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “Unofficial Capital of Yoga,” and many foreign yogis have opened up shop here. Yoga studios and ashrams of varying styles, yoga teacher trainings, meditation centers and signs advertising some combination of these offerings are practically everywhere.
There are also plenty of spots to learn about Ayurveda, an ancient system of healing rooted in Hinduism that treats the body holistically. Getting an Ayurvedic-style massage is an enjoyable introduction to Ayurveda. But if you’re interested in learning how to eat healthfully for your body, consult with an Ayurvedic doctor who can suggest an ideal diet based on your unique dosha, the three energies that govern physiological activity.
Since most residents and visitors to Rishikesh are on a path to learn how to be better and connect to something deeper, it’s easy to feel open to new experiences.
For example, palm reading and astrology feel less like New Age hokey-pokey when done in Rishikesh. A shop overlooking the Ganges in the land of seers just feels more authentic than a hole-in-the-wall in the States. Unlike in the West, palmistry in India is linked to astrology, which has its roots in the Vedas, the original Sanskrit scriptures of Hindu teaching.
According to Chawla, many astrologers are also jewelers who use the information to advise you on what colors are good or bad for you energetically. My jeweler/astrologer/palm reader inspected my palms, entered my time and date of birth into a computer, analyzed the results and then told me all kinds of things. I learned what day is best for me for decision-making (Wednesday), what color is bad for my aura (black), what gems are good for my energy (red and white ones, if you want to buy me a gift) and even when I’ll get married (I’m keeping that a secret). I left happy with new insight into myself, as well as a new energy-balancing necklace. No one said you can’t shop a bit while pursuing a mind/body connection.
Whether or not you “buy it” is beside the point. If you don’t learn more about yourself in Rishikesh, you’re still bound to gain interesting insight into Indian culture and spirituality.
Come nightfall, Rishikesh’s Parmarth Niketan Ashram hosts a nightly Ganga aarti ceremony, a ritual to lull the river goddess to sleep. It involves lights, incense, dancing and chanting and is a beautiful act of devotion to behold.
For those guests who are serious about having their own ashram experience, consider Parmarth Niketan Ashram, which is perhaps the friendliest and most popular ashram choice for Westerners. Led by Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the ashram reserves hundreds of its 1,000-plus rooms for visitors; offers “Western comforts” such as beds, electricity, space heaters, hot water and Western-style toilets; and even references travel agents on its website. Parmarth also organizes the annual International Yoga Festival, which is set for March 1 to 7, 2015. But, be clear about what ashrams are: simple living with communal vegetarian meals, strict rules and a daily schedule of yoga and meditation. As for payment? Parmarth costs a suggested donation of $5 to $12 per night.
“Ashrams are a place for relaxation — not in worldly items, but in the spiritual and the divine,” said Chawla. “Ashram life is made up of devotional chanting, prayers, lectures, meditation, yoga, simple living and service.”
Ananda in the Himalayas
If you seek commission and your clients seek high-end luxury in their pursuit of wellness, look no further than Ananda in the Himalayas. A long roster of celebrities has stayed at the property, including Princes Charles and Camilla. Oprah called Ananda the “most authentic spa experience I ever had.”
But don’t just assume a long string of Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler Best Of awards will make for a happy client.
“Travel agents need to be very clear what concept of Ananda they are selling,” said Astuti Singh, former marketing and communication manager for Ananda. “A lot of guests think it’s just a place to relax and then, when they’re here, they say, ‘We were not aware you have yoga and Ayurveda.’ We are not just a spa — we’re a wellness center. We talk about lifestyle.”
Indeed, both Singh and general manager Nikhil Kapur stressed the importance of learning about the property and booking services in advance.
“It is important that agents engage with us to choose the right package for their guests,” said Kapur. “A very important aspect of the guest’s wellness program is the expected outcome from it.”
Understanding your client’s goals are important, as Ananda attracts all kinds of folks, from the health-conscious yoga lover seeking to take his or her yoga practice to the next level to the stressed-out and depressed professional seeking rest, rejuvenation and a new approach to self-care. There are many tools in Ananda’s arsenal, from Hatha yoga to Vedanta lectures. An Ayurvedic doctor consults with guests at the start of their stays, prescribing them an eating regimen based on their dosha. These Wellness Menus are distributed during meals, but guests can choose to indulge in Ananda’s excellent Western and international menus if they prefer. While non-vegetarian food and alcohol are forbidden in holy Rishikesh, these items are available at Ananda.
The U.S. is Ananda’s dominant market, with 20 percent of guests coming from all over the states. There’s an Active Package for those who might be tagging along but not interested in wellness. However, about 20 to 25 percent of Ananda’s visitors are single women, so it’s a perfect place to fly solo. Stress that clients stay for at least five to seven days to get the most out of their wellness package, of which there are several to choose. Again, it’s important to know what these packages offer, as this is not a typical “yoga retreat” that involves only yoga asanas (postures).
For example, the most popular package is a four-phase process that uses different Hatha Yogic cleansing techniques (calling shatkriya) to detox naturally. Some of the elements used in this seven-night Yogic Detox include pranayama, hatha yogic breathing techniques that can help activate the organs; jal neti, nasal cleansing as part of a comprehensive system cleansing; as well as trataka, candle meditation, and yoga nidra, psychic sleep, two techniques that can help establish balance, awareness and harmony.
The rates for this package start at $810 per night plus taxes for a Garden or Palace View room, the most basic category, but one that is still sure to please. Other packages can start at $400 per night, and travel agent commission is 10 percent. These rates are inclusive of treatments and all meals, as well as transfers to and from the airport or railway station.
“Ananda has one of the best spas, but I think yoga is our best feature because yoga is something you can take back home,” said Singh.
Working full-time with clients on one-on-one yoga and meditation appointments are five master teachers who all come from recognized schools in yoga. The new head of yoga, Kirit Thacker, comes from the Bihar School of Yoga and brings with him more than 30 years of teaching experience. Thacker plans to maintain Ananda’s excellent reputation for yoga, while sharpening delivery style to be more user-friendly to get both yogis and newbies motivated.
But nearly everyone I talked to at Ananda admitted that while its yoga and spa are great, what sets the experience apart is the location. According to Thacker, there’s a palpable positive energy in Rishikesh — something that Paul McCartney recalls feeling.
“I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had,” recounted McCartney in the biography “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles. “It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a ... warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very, very blissful feeling … And I thought, ‘Well, hell, that’s great, I couldn’t buy that anywhere.’ That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.”