Legend tells of a magic carpet that would transport its Prince to places far and wide in the wink of an eye. Just close your eyes, imagine, and lo!, you’re there when the eyes open. No baggage fees, no shoes to remove for security, no in-flight food. Imagine, if you could imagine, where you would go if only you had that magic carpet! Some place exotic, surely?
But not us yogis. Yes, we’re into travel, but even in our imagination we head for the Himalayas! We’ve already made the down payment on a magic carpet — our yoga mats fly with us everywhere.
And so it was, that I found myself this April sitting on my yoga mat and heading towards the Himalayas, inside a train outbound from Delhi. (Still working on that teleportation thing with my magic mat). My destination was Shivpuri, just north of Rishikesh, where the holiest of rivers — the Ganga — steps out of the Himalayas and into the plains of northern India. We were going for a corporate offsite involving white-water rafting. My mat and I were going there for yoga by the Ganga. I had seen my share of yoga magazine models doing pretzel poses by a river. This was going to be my turn.
The rafting camps are pitched by the Ganga bank. There’s running water, of course everywhere, but no electricity and no plumbing. It’s not hard to imagine that this is exactly how the ancient seekers too would have found themselves here, completely exposed to the elements and disconnected from society. The river looks calm (see photo), but looks are deceptive. The water is frigid, and the currents are powerful. Big boulders line the river floor, and so any hope of swimming freely in the holy Ganga were dashed immediately upon arrival, when the camp guide warned against stepping into the river without life jackets and a safety rope.
This wasn’t a yoga camp, so any personal sadhana (practice) had to be done on my own time. Fortunately, jet lag was a trusted ally. Each of the three mornings of my stay there, I was up at brahma muhurta (auspicious time way before sunrise) without even trying. Rolling out of the camp bed was easy, just turn to the left side and pick yourself off the floor after the fall, but number one priorities first! The toilet tent was a brisk walk away, solar light in one hand and fighting off mosquitoes with the other. Business taken care of, a blissful asana set by the Ganga would surely be the next order of the day.
Sadly, no! Yoga magazine glossies hadn’t prepared me for the practical challenge of doing asanas by the Ganga. The yoga mat lay unevenly on the sand bank. Standing poses sank the mat where the weight rested. Inversions were difficult, but at least the landings were soft. Selfies were impossible because the cellphone discharged overnight. Holding poses was easy, but keeping the eyes open difficult, especially in evening sessions, when the wind blew sand into the eyes. It took grit to stay in the posture in the face of the grit blown into the face as I postured.
In retrospect, magazine photos are impractical and contrived. Sessions at home are far more relaxing. I soon gave up and instead spent a lot of time in the early mornings just sitting on a boulder, gazing at the Ganga, thinking nothing.
Then it sinks in. The river is powerful and unrelenting. Its strength is only apparent from the white water around the boulders and falls, and from the deafening roar it makes as it rushes past. Just looking at the river is meditation. Nothing stays in one place on this river, ever moving, never still. Dead branches appear to be alive, moving, dancing, waving, stopping for a moment as if to think, and then flowing along playfully. Thoughts are washed away in this flow. The silence that results is not an inert silence, a dead zone, but a silence that’s very active and alive with possibilities, like life itself. Existence takes a new meaning, a new freshness. This is holy ground! This is the place where great visions have been seen, where profound poetry was written, and where the deepest depths of existence were plumbed. Here, the sequence remains unbroken; those that stood here since the beginning of time, stand together with those that are here today, and those that ever may come. This is the river of time, and change is its nature.
This vision of the Whole is what makes this river holy. Postures are for posers.
Gaurav Rastogi is a yogi, author and executive. He teaches asanas every weekend at the Livermore Hindu Temple in the Bay Area. He plots a spiritual revolution.