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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Yoga Journal's Pilgrimage to India

Yoga Journal's Pilgrimage to India

How a trek to holy Gomukh, the source of the mystical waters of the Ganges, 
deepened one writer’s understanding of yoga’s teachings.

How a trek to holy Gomukh, the source of the mystical waters of the Ganges, deepened one writer’s understanding of yoga’s teachings.

We started up the steep, rocky path from the village of Gangotri to the headwaters of the holy river Ganges after a big breakfast of rice, beans, and Nutella on toast. A minute in, I regretted my decision to heap seconds of everything onto my tin plate. At 1o,ooo-plus feet, I’d felt winded simply walking to the trailhead. Now, stuffed and fighting for air, I was attempting a 28-mile trek that gained another 2,5oo feet of elevation in three days.
I glanced nervously at our guide, Sandesh Singh. The lithe 42-year-old shot me a wide smile that put me, an experienced hiker yet India first-timer, at ease. Singh is a native of Haridwar, considered one of the most sacred cities in India because it’s lodged where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas and starts flowing through the plains. He has walked this path with pilgrims from around the world nearly two dozen times, and his gratitude for getting to show it to tourists like us—six American yogis on a spiritual journey through North India—felt profound.
We walked silently, choosing to conserve our energy rather than expend it by chatting—except for Singh, who excitedly told us why so many Hindus make this pilgrimage.
“The Ganges isn’t just a river—she is a goddess, Ma Ganga,” said Singh, who went on to explain why she is the most revered and sacred river in Hindu lore. When Ma Ganga was asked to descend to Earth from the heavens, she was insulted, so she decided to sweep away everything in her path with her waters once she reached the terrestrial plain. In order to protect the Earth from Ma Ganga’s force, Lord Shiva sat in Gangotri and caught the powerful river in his hair, saving the Earth from cracking open. Thanks to Shiva, Ma Ganga’s purifying waters could then flow without being destructive, and for centuries the devout have traveled to her banks to wash away sins and find salvation. The water is considered so sacred, Hindus will have it sprinkled on their bodies if they can’t die on the banks of the Ganges. And the ultimate pilgrimage, for those who are able, is a journey to Gomukh, the Gangotri Glacier where Ma Ganga’s headwaters start flowing. “You can feel the energy there,” Singh said.
About a mile into the hike, we took a water break in a shady spot at the first of countless mini-peaks. “Oh, Shiva!” said a breathless Carol Dimopoulos, a yoga teacher and president of Learning Journeys at Perillo Tours, who had organized the trip. We laughed, and the phrase became a refrain when one or more of us was struggling.
It had been a year of “Oh, Shiva!” moments for me, big life changes that were as emotionally challenging as the physically demanding trail I was on: a bad breakup, a big move, a new job. This opportunity to trek to Gomukh and also see some of North India’s holiest cities and temples felt like an ideal way to take stock and start fresh.

Onward and Inward

The trail to Gomukh was surprisingly uncrowded given the hike’s spiritualsignificance. However, the 1o-hour drive from Rishikesh to Gangotri we’d made the day before explained why so few undertake the journey. Unlike the well-paved highways leading to the national parks in the United States, we encountered nothing but single-lane, pothole-filled mountain passes. The higher our van climbed, the more nailbiting—though majestic—the views. The roads were so narrow that our driver had no choice but to hug the abyss, a guardrail-free plunge into increasingly deeper ravines. The common experience of chaos in India that had struck me just a few days earlier in Delhi—the sea of rickshaws, three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis, and forlorn cows walking through it all—felt far away as I traveled into a somewhat more peaceful, inner chaos high in the Himalayas.
As we approached 11,ooo feet, the strong sun made the wild Himalayan roses lining our path glitter, yet it wilted our energy. Altitude sickness set in for a few members of the group, who slowed down due to headache and nausea. And none of us was immune to the surge in emotional rumblings as we walked along the quiet trail—something my friend Elizabeth, who’d gone on this pilgrimage herself when she lived in India years ago, mentioned might happen. “As much as India is about an outer pilgrimage, pay close attention to the invisible stirrings inside you, what seems familiar and what seems so amazingly sacred,” she wrote in an e-mail to me before my trip. “May you have the ability to be totally present with whatever arises and be able to surrender to the grace of what is.”
In a place where nothing seemed familiar—the language, the elaborate Sanskritlettering on boulders along the trail, the devotion woven into every interaction, and the imposing peaks on the horizon that made me feel like I was approaching the edge of the world—I felt a surprising sense of ease. My sadness and uncertainty about the turns my life had taken over the previous year were tempered by the happiness, gratitude, and trust I was feeling on this path in the high Himalayas.
I found myself leaning in to my emotions as they surfaced and staying present with them, experiencing what’s arguably the real purpose of yoga—a tradition that has deep spiritual roots in this place.
Just beyond the halfway mark for the day, I walked ahead of Singh and the others, though I still trailed far behind the Sherpas from neighboring Nepal whom Singh had hired to carry our bags, tents, and food. I felt content alone on the trail, and the only people I encountered were fellow pilgrims descending from Gomukh, mostly older Indian men wearing tattered lungis (traditional sarongs) and plastic sandals, and carrying jugs of silty, sacred Ganges water. I stuck out in my REI pants and trail-running shoes, but it didn’t seem to matter. Every person I passed greeted me with a friendly nod and said “Sita Ram,” the spiritual version of “Hi” or “Howdy.”
One barefoot man in a saffron lungi that symbolized he was a sadhu, an ascetic who’d chosen to live on the fringes of society to focus on his own spiritual practices, held my gaze as he approached.
“Sita Ram,” he said, and then stopped. “Sita Ram,” I replied, stopping as well.
Though he said something else in Hindi that I couldn’t understand, his raised eyebrows telegraphed a question: Why was I hiking to Gomukh?
When it was clear we wouldn’t be able to chat, we went our separate ways. As I hiked on, I considered the sadhu’s unspoken question, one I’m not sure I could’ve answered in that moment even if I were fluent in Hindi.
The path got rockier, and I wondered how the sadhu had traversed this ground without shoes. It reminded me of my Irish grandmother, who often told my sister and me the story of how she’d hiked Croagh Patrick—a Catholic pilgrimage up a 2,ooo-foot mountain in County Mayo—barefoot, which got dicey at a steep pitch near the top covered in loose shale. “We took three steps forward and 1o back, it was so slippery,” she’d say in her sweet Irish accent. “It’s like life itself: When you fall back, you try again. And you have faith that you will make it.”
Thoughts of my grandmother took my mind off my fatigue as I pushed up the final rocky hills to our campsite for the night. We’d pause here to sleep and refuel before the final four-mile push to Gomukh the following day.

Tapping the Source

The Sherpas had arrived hours before us to set up our tents and cook a vegetarianfeast: vegetable biryani, saag paneer, and aloo gobi, with stacks of freshly made chapati—pan-fried, unleavened flatbread we used to sop up every last bit of sauce on our plates and in the serving dishes. After sipping masala tea, we wandered around the campsite and into a cave where a baba (considered even holier than a sadhu for his commitment to a life of meditation and living in a state of samadhi, or bliss) was playing his harmonium. We sat cross-legged in a circle around him and chanted Hare Krishna in a call-and-response—a scene that’s remarkably normal on this pilgrimage.
The next day, I woke up early and wandered back to the cave, where the baba hosts a daily morning meditation. I settled onto a stack of blankets and closed my eyes, and before I knew it, almost an hour had passed and it was time to head back to camp for breakfast. If only meditating always felt so lovely at home, I thought, before remembering the energy Singh had told us we’d feel near the source.
Bellies full—though not too full, having learned from the previous morning’s mistake—we set out for our final destination. While still uphill, the last leg of the trek was considerably easier than the ground we’d covered the day before, giving my mind the chance to wander. And there in the high Himalayas, after sharing the trail with sadhus and chanting and meditating in a cave with a baba, my thoughts returned again to my Irish-Catholic grandmother. What would she have thought of my Indian pilgrimage? Would she have balked at the Hindu mythology, or urged me to say a few Hail Marys at the summit? And what I most wanted to know: What invisible stirrings had my grandmother faced as she walked barefoot up Croagh Patrick, and were they similar to my own as I made my way toward Gomukh? My grandmother died 1o years ago, so I’ll never know the answers to my questions. But I do know that shortly after she made her own pilgrimage, she left her family and all that she knew in her tiny village in Ireland and emigrated to New York.
At the top of Croagh Patrick, there is a little white church where pilgrims say their prayers before heading back down the mountain. I imagined my young grandmother walking into that church and lighting a candle, praying for strength as she prepared to leave her homeland and asking for blessings in the unknown future she’d have in America.
At Gomukh, there is a small stone temple nestled among mountain peaks that seem to protect the big ice cave from which the river flows. When I got there, I slipped off my shoes, knelt before a statue of Lord Shiva, and held my hands at my heart. Then I walked over to the bank of Ma Ganga mere feet from where she starts flowing and bowed, silently wishing for clarity and comfort as I moved on from the heartache and lessons of my past and toward my own unknown future. The few people around me seemed to be just as reflective as I was, basking in the peaceful, comforting energy that crystallized—both around and within us—here at the source.
As I cupped my hands in the icy river and drank from it, I held the feelings of loss and hope my grandmother surely experienced as a young woman about to leave Ireland, as well as my own past hurt and optimism for what’s to come. And then I opened my palms and let it all go, watching the clear droplets merge with the flow. This, I thought, is why people of all faiths go on pilgrimages, and why I was on this one now. These journeys are like life itself, filled with setbacks and struggles as well as victories and beauty, just as my grandmother had told me. And no matter what you believe in—a whole posse of Hindu gods like the sadhus and babas worship, the holy Trinity like my grandmother did, or no higher being at all—the journey serves as a reminder that we’re all on our own path, facing our fears, feeling our sadness, and trusting in the unknowable gifts of the future.
Want to go on a retreat in India or lead one for your students? Visit to find out how.
Meghan Rabbit in India, Elephant

2 Weeks in North India

Most experts recommend spending at least 14 days to see some of the holiest cities and temples in North India. To make the most of your time, here’s a suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Delhi and take in the bustling metropolis on a bicycle rickshaw; attend an aarti ceremony (a spiritual ritual) at ISKCON temple.
Day 2: Travel to Agra (a 2-hour train ride from Delhi) to visit the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Day 3: From Delhi, take the train to Haridwar (a 6-hour journey). The city’s name means “Gateway to God,” and it is one of the most accessible pilgrimage sites in India. Attend the aarti ceremony at Har-ki-Pauri and visit the Jain Temple.
Day 4: Drive to Rishikesh, commonly referred to as the birthplace of yoga. Visit the “Beatles Ashram,” where the band reportedly wrote 40 songs while learning meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968; shop in the open-air markets; and attend the Maha Aarti ceremony at Triveni Ghat, where the purifying waters from three holy rivers come together and you can drop an offering into Ma Ganga and make a wish.
Day 5: Drive to Uttarkashi (approximately 6 hours from Rishikesh) and stay overnight en route to Gangotri.
Day 6: Drive to Gangotri (approximately 4 hours from Uttarkashi), stopping at Gangnani for a dip in the village’s hot sulphur springs. Visit Gangotri Temple for evening prayer dedicated to Ma Ganga, and participate in a puja ceremony, a ritual performed by Gangotri Temple’s priest to keep those hiking to Gomukh safe on their journey.
Day 7: Begin hiking to Gomukh and stay the night at the campsite in Bhojwasa.
Day 8: Walk to Gomukh and spend time on the banks of Ma Ganga. Fill a vessel with the holy water to take home with you. Walk back to Bhojwasa for another night at camp.
Day 9: Return to Gangotri, then drive to Uttarkashi.
Day 10: From Uttarkashi, drive to Rudarparyag (approximately 7 hours) for an overnight respite en route to Badrinath, one of the most sacred and respected shrines in India and one of the four pilgrimage sites collectively called Char Dham (the “four abodes/seats”), which every Hindu is supposed to visit to attain salvation.
Day 11: Drive from Rudarparyag to Badrinath (approximately 7 hours) to visit the Badrinath Temple, take a bath in the thermal hot springs (where pilgrims bathe before entering the temple), and visit Mana, India’s last civilian village before the
Tibet/Indo-China border.
Day 12 and 13: From Badrinath, drive back to Rishikesh (approximately 9 hours) for a 2-day stay at NaturOvillé Ayurvedic Spa.
Day 14: Drive to Haridwar (approximately 1 hour) and take the train back to Delhi.

Yin Yoga 101: 7 Common Myths About Yin Yoga

Yin Yoga 101: 7 Common Myths About Yin Yoga

Straight talk about Yin Yoga and clear and safe instructions on how to practice it are part of our new Yin Yoga 101 course. In the meantime, here are seven of the biggest misconceptions out there about this yoga style.

Want to learn a style of yoga that's focused on bringing balance—physically, energetically, and mentally? Join Josh Summers, founder of the Summers School of Yin Yoga, for our new online course Yin Yoga 101—a six-week journey through the foundations and principles of Yin Yoga, along with weekly asana and meditation practices. If you're new to Yin, you'll finally have the expert guidance you need to use this transformational yoga style to explore new dimensions of your body, energy, and mind. And if you're already a Yin fan, Josh's course will refine your knowledge and give you the tools to deepen your practice. Learn more and sign up today!

Sorting through yoga styles can be tough. There are dozens, and they aren't always well-defined. Plus, just looking at some can mislead you—Yin Yoga is one of them. In order to understand what Yin Yoga is about, it helps to directly address what it's not about. Straight talk about Yin Yoga and clear and safe instructions on how to practice it are part of my new Yoga Journal course, Yin Yoga 101. In the meantime, here are seven of the biggest misconceptions out there:

Myth 1: Yin Yoga is about dimming the lights, lying over a bolster, and blissing out.

Yin Yoga might look like a stylized version of restorative yoga, but the internal experience is quite different. We might strategically use props in Yin, but in this practice props aren't meant to eliminate discomfort. Instead, we use them to bring an appropriate degree of stress to our body—either by increasing or decreasing sensation—so that our tissues benefit from the exercise. While we let our bodies steep at the edge of mild and moderate stress, sensations can become slightly bitter and achy, and our chattering minds often proliferate a lot of unbidden thoughts. That’s when the magic of Yin Yoga happens: By acknowledging and softening around these experiences, we're able to reset our default mode of being, so that rather than reacting to our feelings, we can cultivate an internal awareness and spaciousness to engage with our inner worlds from a place greater freedom and understanding.

Myth 2: Yin Yoga overstretches ligaments and destabilizes joints.

When people hear about the idea of stressing joints, their hackles go up. They worry about overstretching dense connective tissues and ligaments. I've noticed that this fear often comes from confusing “stress” with “stretch.” Stress is force applied to something, in this case our joint tissue. Stretch is the subsequent lengthening that occurs due to the stress placed on that tissue. But not all stress causes stretch. And in Yin Yoga, the intention is to safely, moderately stress our joints to promote the health of the tissues in and around our joints—not to overly lengthen these tissues. In Yin, great care is given to observing the kinds of sensations one experiences, emphasizing the mild end of the sensation spectrum—not pushing, pulling, or striving to go deeper, and always avoiding any signal of pain. Practiced intelligently, Yin is a tissue-specific exercise, and shouldn't be approached with the mindset of “more is better.” Of course, as with any yoga style, people might override the alarm signals of pain and end up injured. Intention and awareness are key to safe practice, no matter the style.

Myth 3: Yin Yoga encourages "dumping" into joints.

All yoga applies various forces to our bodies. Those forces are described as tensile forces, compressive forces, and sheering forces. I've found that people tend to think of “compression” (compressive forces) as flat-out bad. Yoga teachers of many styles might even say, “Don’t compress your lower back” or “Don’t hang in your lower back” or “Don’t dump into your joint.” But to maintain their health, all tissues require stress. Without stress or exercise, tissues atrophy. Yin Yoga encourages a positive stress on tissue, which is sometimes compressive. For example, in passive Yin Yoga backbends we exercise our spines by gently compressing the lumbar vertebrae.

Myth 4: Yin Yoga doesn’t care about alignment.

Yin Yoga teachers don’t shower students with absolute rules of precise alignment, so people might think that alignment doesn’t matter to Yin practice. But in Yin, alignment absolutely matters—there’s just no one absolute alignment that works for everyone. Yin acknowledges the fact that everyone’s body is unique, especially on the skeletal level. Because of skeletal variations (differences in shapes, lengths, orientations, angles, and curvatures of bones), between bodies and within bodies, Yin encourage students to modify poses to suit their bodies, explore their experiences, and find an alignment that aligns them with the intention of each posture. Modifications aren’t the exception; they’re the norm.

Myth 5: Yin Yoga is for lazy people.

People often think that being into Yin Yoga means you’re too lazy to do a flow class or that you’re fooling yourself that it’s “exercise.” First, Yin is not a standalone, complete practice unto itself; it’s a supplemental practice to active forms of exercise. No one should practice only Yin as their form of exercise. Many Ashtangis love to do Yin in the evening before bed to balance their active practice. They also have more grace in the Mysore room thanks to it. Cross-Fitters even have their own version of Yin Yoga called ROM-WOD (Range of Motion Workout of the Day), and they find their bodies recover faster and are less inflamed because of incorporating the principles of Yin Yoga. Avid runners love Yin Yoga for similar reasons.

Myth 6: You need to be “all-zen” to practice Yin Yoga.

Because Yin Yoga tends to be quiet and still, students think they have to already be quiet and still to practice. Not true. If anything, Yin Yoga is a practice within which we can explore a new relationship toward our scattered, restless selves. Through the gentle act of intending to be present, intending to be mindful, and intending to be compassionate, we can start softening the fidgety patterns of the mind and gradually cultivate habits of calm and stillness.

Myth 7: You shouldn't practice Yin Yoga if you're pregnant.

During pregnancy, the hormone relaxin is produced, relaxing ligaments to prepare the birth canal for delivery. In turn, pregnant women often think that doing Yin Yoga during pregnancy will overstretch their ligaments. But this concern could apply to all types of yoga during pregnancy. In Yin Yoga, we cue mothers-to-be not to go past their normal ranges of motion, to not try to increase their ranges of motion. Yin Yoga also offers various modifications to accommodate a growing baby. For example: no deep twisting or compression on the abdomen. All told, many expectant mothers find the gentle stimulation of Yin releases aches and tensions, and smooths their energy flow.

Why You Should Consider Going Gluten-Free (and 3 Ways to Make It Easier & Delicious)

Why You Should Consider Going Gluten-Free (and 3 Ways to Make It Easier & Delicious)

Interested in trying a gluten-free diet, and seeing if it makes a difference in your well-being? Here are 3 ways to make the transition easier (and more delicious).
This article was written in paid partnership with Sundown Naturals.
Sure, you have a regular yoga practice, but a big part of a balanced yoga lifestyle is making mindful choices about everything you put in your body. Which is why so many yogis are choosing to go gluten-free.
Gluten-free diets are associated with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by a reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat and other grains. But even those who don’t have Celiac can be sensitive to gluten; some experience a stuffed-up, foggy feeling, others suffer from ailments like chronic abdominal pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue, migraine attacks, and sinus infections, according to Karen Kelly’s 2009 Yoga Journal article. In fact, gluten sensitivity/intolerance is on the rise, and some simply feel that cutting gluten can make them feel better. Stephen Wangen, director of the IBS Treatment Center and the Center for Food Allergies in Seattle and the author of Healthier Without Wheat, estimates that 10 percent of the U.S. population (30 million people) are intolerant, and most don't know it, Kelly reports. 

3 Ways to Go Gluten-Free

Interested in trying a gluten-free diet, and seeing if it makes a difference in your well-being? Here are 3 ways to make the transition easier (and more delicious).