Lounging by a cosy homestay cum café overlooking the snow-crowned mountains that ensconce Joshimath, I reminisce these last four weeks in Uttarakhand. All of last year, the pandemic took a toll on our health, the sluggish months but a blur of little mobility and erratic work schedules. So in February 2021, my husband Rahul and I took a whimsical decision to go on a Himalayan workation, a valiant attempt at regaining our work-health balance. Accompanying us were our twins Adweta and Aarna, for whom it was a case of school-from-anywhere, unprecedented but exciting.
‘Yog karmasu kausalam’ means ‘Excellence at work’. Yog (not yoga, mind you) also implies the union of the mind, body and consciousness, one that leads to a certain level of transcendence. As a family that hobbled through the lockdown with their distinct highs and lows, we wanted to embark upon our journey of healing through this yog. But this long-pending union or reconnection—call it what you will—first required us to focus on our overall wellness. Naturally, the destination that popped up on our wishlist was the pristine abode of Rishikesh. And yet, we did not want to run off to the typical, all-austere ashrams. We were looking for a more achievable balance, hopefully in the form of a comfortable, WiFi-enabled place that offered a yog camp and some serenity. That’s when we discovered Rishikesh Yogpeeth – Abhayaranya Yoga Ashram, hidden atop the Manikoot hill, one of the best-kept secrets of the place.
So four travel-deprived roadies loaded everything, from pin to printer, into their family sedan and hit the highway for a month-long workation slash healing retreat. After four days of road tripping, we arrived at the base of the Manikoot hill on Neelkanth Road, Rishikesh, where the mighty Ganga roars past in frothy rushes. We were greeted by two mules to help carry our luggage uphill, as we contemplated the path forward ourselves. The thirty-minute trek through a rocky terrain exacted its share of physical labour, no questions, but once we reached Yogpeeth, the inherent warmth of the place eroded our exhaustion. Plus, they had WiFi!
Sprawled across the lap of the Himlayas, Yogpeeth turned out to be an ashram-retreat for aspiring yog teachers as well as regular vacationers. Adorned with lush canopy, a havan-kund (place of ritual around consecrated fire), an Ayurvedic facility, and their idyllic stack of eco-cottages, the place proved well-equipped for our goals. What floored me was a lore narrated by co-founder, Digambar Nautiyal, which set the stage for our synchronisation with the space. He pointed out gently that these are the hills where our ancient rishi-munis (sages and saints) meditated, tucked away in unforgiving caverns—and with some faith, one can still feel the positive vibrations of their tapasya (meditation).
Over the next few weeks, we found ourselves smitten by the simple, yet comforting yogic lifestyle that started early with the 5 a.m. gong. The morning routine comprised sessions on asanas, Indian philosophy and Ayurveda. The biggest bonus for my soul was soaking in the morning sun among the twittering of the mynahs, parrots, and the occasional hornbill. The breakfast gong at 9:30 a.m. led us all to their large dining area, where we followed the traditional Indian way of communal-eating, sharing food from a paath (utensil). From fruit to sprouts, oats to the ghee-laden daliya or the weekend menu of chole puri, it was a saatvik or traditional yogic diet, with limited spices. Similarly, the other meals dabbled in non-tamasic flavours, with a Pahari touch. No wonder then that my jeans started loosening around the waist in just three weeks! True to the promise of (some degree of) austerity and discipline, after the meals, we washed our own dishes. Through the day, work calls, deadlines and the kids’ schoolwork kept me busy, yet a sense of immense peace prevailed. While I typed or talked away from their quaint café or by the flower-riddled lawns, the mountain wind rippled against my face with cool clarity, carrying clouds of stress away.
The following week, I devoted a couple of hours each day to learning asanas, a sincere bid to straighten my faulty posture, mixing it up some ‘breath-giving’ pranayam to reinfuse that lost energy. Meanwhile, the young teachers of the Yogpeeth shared some stunning insights to help achieve this work-health balance we crave for. For one, my pranayam teacher Himanshu Bahuguna suggested that no matter what the schedule, we set aside at least 10-15 minutes daily to focus just on breathing. Nadi shodhan pranayam like yogic breathing and brahmari can release tension and relax your mind, plus balance the heat in your body. When on the laptop, twist your upper body by means of the matsyendra aasana, and use neck rotation every thirty minutes to counter back issues. Alternatively, tie yog straps across your back to restrict slouching.
Gaurav Bahuguna, another dynamic Yog teacher, helped me with my restlessness and sleep issues with this handy tip: “As you try to fall asleep, rewind your entire day and tell your mind that you have completed the chores for today. The mind will then know, it’s time to relax.” A few sessions with the in-house Ayurvedic doctor, whom my kids now fondly call “Doctor Piyush Chachu”, helped me understand my body type. A regime called dincharya was thus identified, for a long, healthy life. Who knew that the best time to wake up is between 4-6 a.m.?
Surreal as it sounds, the past few weeks at Yogpeeth, thousands of kilometres away from the din of Mumbai, felt like being at a home away from home. The camaraderie, the Saturday bonfires and conversations with residents and teachers, culminated into something I had never imagined—an extended family for life. As strangers in the hills mingled over sports, trekking and ukulele, the bond (or should I say union?) lent a unique culture to our staycation. A culture that practised ‘yog’ in it’s true sense, that says ‘we all are one, a part of the collective consciousness”.
Charanjeet (CJ for us), our soft-spoken, young manager, summed it up well when he said, “This place chooses its people, the people do not choose to come here”. I think this year, Yogpeeth chose me and my family, making us a special part of itself. And after three soul-illuminating weeks there, we had to push ourselves out of this newfound happy place to head out to our next destination, the majestic hill stations of Auli and Joshimath.
A cool gust of air ruffles up my end-of-trip reverie. For now I sit in the embrace of the kingly Nanda Devi peak, where sleepy towns cuddle silver night skies. I find myself reflecting upon our time of growth and healing, and hoping that I wake up to realise—this is not a dream.
Payal Shah Karwa is a published author, travel aficionado and a content professional, who lives by the mantra "Love Life Kingsize". Intoxicated by the passion to travel, she loves to explore lesser known destinations and seek the secret stories behind them.