Click here to see a slide show. My first afternoon in Rishikesh, India, I have tea with an Australian girl who has made these Himalayan foothills her home for the past 11 months. When I ask what she does here, she looks at me in bafflement. “What do you mean, what do I do here?” she asks after a lengthy pause. Then, as if addressing a slow kindergartener: “I do yoga.”
A sensible enough response. Unless you’re among Rishikesh’s population of sadhus—Hindu ascetics who subsist on prayer and begging—yoga is about the only thing you can do in this sacred temple town on the banks of the Ganges. There’s really no other reason to come.
After two weeks of bumping along the back roads of Uttar Pradesh in an SUV without shock absorbers, I’m here because I’m again enslaved to my mangled right shoulder. The pain has become so wrenching that I’ve taken to wearing a neck brace.Rishikesh is only a five-hour train ride from my base in Delhi, and obscenely cheap. The yoga retreats I saw advertised in New York—luxurious getaways to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Mallorca, Spain, and Fiji—cost between $1,000 and $3,000 a week. In Rishikesh, I could enjoy a stripped-down version of the same experience for about $8 a day—fleabag hotel and turmeric-accented pizza included.
The streets of Rishikesh teem with earnest foreigners like Belinda, independently financed South Asia-lovers from France, Italy, Israel, Japan, and all corners of the British Commonwealth—just about everywhere except America, in fact. They sit with erect spines inside the town’s pizzerias and rhapsodically compare medicinal baths in heavily accented English, the common tongue. The town’s real activity takes place inside the ashrams and yoga centers that offer around-the-clock yoga instruction. A good thing, too, for in Rishikesh, you can’t pass the evenings boozing over a plate of barbecue: As at all Hindu holy sites, it’s illegal to serve alcohol or meat. Oddly, rather than dim the effete backpacker’s devotion to the place, these municipal bans—with their attendant whiff of spiritual rigor—have only added to the town’s popularity. Since 1968, when the Beatles made a pilgrimage here to study transcendental meditation at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, foreigners have come to Rishikesh to relax, to center themselves, and perhaps even to dabble in a little riverside polytheism.
Me, I just came to work out the kinks in my shoulder before the long-ass flight home. I no longer expected yoga to heal my injury; I’ve shelled out for enough classes over the past year to know that it provides only temporary relief. Then again, had I ever really given yoga a proper chance? Because classes in New York cost $15 a session, I could seldom justify attending more than two or three a week. If, as I planned to do in Rishikesh, I practiced yoga every day—even, insanely, twice a day—perhaps I might actually stretch to the source of my injury.
My first morning in town, I head down to the basement of my hotel for what turns out to be a private class. The teacher, Prakash, is a devout Hindu who dedicates each pose to a different deity and exhibits an uneven command of English. While he expertly throws around terms like “ulcerative colitis” and “anal lock,” he often confounds basic verbs like “listen” and “hear,” as in, “You ever listen of Lord Hanuman?”
Still, I like his brand of yoga. Kriya—Hindi for “action,” he tells me—is principally a sit-down affair, ideal for early morning, with none of the frantic leaping and twirling that characterizes yoga in the West. You begin by scrunching up your toes, then rotating your ankles, and very incrementally progress toward headstands and backbends. Punctuating the postures are forms of pranayama breathing, or “victorious breath,” a rudiment of most yoga practices.
Every day after class, Prakash guarantees my attendance the next morning with grand claims about his discipline, equating Kriya yoga with perfect everlasting good health. “You do Kriya yoga every day,” he tells me, “you have no problem.”
“And if I already have a problem?” I once venture to inquire. “Like a neck or shoulder injury? Will yoga fix it?”
Though I remain his only student, Prakash has displayed no great interest in my personal needs. Or maybe my sentences are too ornate, for instead of answering, he repeats his original claim: “Yoga every day, no problem. No sciatica, no tendonitis, no insomnia, no glandular problem, no sexual problem. You understand? No problem.”
A few days later, I pose the same question to an Israeli Iyengar teacher on the opposite bank of the Ganges. If I spend the next year in downward-facing dog, will the bulging disks in my neck vanish? Will I one day be able to ride in a car or type an e-mail without agony?
“I seriously doubt it,” he said. “With lower-back problems, slipped discs and that sort of thing, I’ve seen miracles, but the neck is trickier. If you’re not extremely careful, you can make the problem worse.”
The stern scientific practicality of this answer appeals to me, as do most aspects of the Iyengar tradition. Iyengar classes do without the alienating flourishes of so many other yoga styles: the invocations to our inner warrior, the Sanskrit chanting about peace and freedom, the sitar-and-seagulls CDs.
On the other hand—uh-oh. At the time of this conversation, I’m five days and some seven yoga classes into my Rishikesh sojourn. At a Vinyasa class at the Sant Sewa ashram, I flubbed the crow pose so many times that the concerned instructor asked me, very slowly, if I understood English. But never fear, I soon recovered from this indignity, and at Belinda’s favorite women-only class at the Sivananda Divine Life Society, I did my first-ever unspotted, middle-of-the-room headstand. And despite my strong genetic preference for sleep over athletic exertion, I feel fantastic—loose-limbed, flat-bellied, approaching bionic. But there’s a catch: Even in my most optimistic moments, I must admit that my shoulder still hurts. My vigorous regimen has failed to dull the familiar pain.
What if the teacher’s right—what if these time-consuming labors aren’t improving, but rather imperiling, my skeletal system? Unwilling to take such a risk, I change from my yoga clothes and hail an auto-rickshaw, which takes me 20 kilometers to the Midway Restaurant, so named for its strategic position between Rishikesh and Haridwar, another holy city. Exempt from its neighbors’ strictures on meat and alcohol, the Midway lures claustrophobic heretics like me with chicken and flat beer.
Talk about the best idea ever. I have never enjoyed a dish more than the (entire) tandoori chicken I consume at the Midway. Back in Rishikesh, I abandon the demented effort to do multiple classes in a day and attempt only the gentler, more meditative postures. At the end of the week, I find my views of yoga pretty much unchanged. It’s an unusually pleasant form of daily exercise, and it probably does more long-term good than, say, running or weightlifting. But it’ll never replace good old-fashioned surgery.
If it’s true that, on the jerky ride back to Delhi, I scarcely fret about my shoulder, I’m afraid this has little to do with yoga. Along with memories of stretching along the Ganges, I am taking another, more concrete souvenir from Rishikesh: a fascinatingly repulsive patch of boils that has erupted along my right underarm. Yes, that’s right—boils. A month later, after three knock-out cycles of antibiotics, my skin still resembles a graphic supplement to The Book of Job. Even worse, my doctor says I might need surgery to correct the problem. From this, I can only conclude the obvious: Perhaps far-flung travel isn’t always the solution for what ails me. A short subway ride to the Columbia Medical Center may be in order.