World ? Asia ? India

India: Spirituality

However you choose to spend your time in India, you are unlikely to return home unaffected by your sojourn here. Indeed, you are likely to find a moment of enlightenment in the most unexpected places, whether you're engaged in conversation with a shopkeeper over a cup of chai or people-watching on a suffocatingly crowded city street. But for generations visitors have come to India specifically seeking some sort of spiritual transformation, and the increasing plethora of first-rate accommodations and Western-style food options are making it easier than ever -- and in some ways more difficult, by cocooning travelers from unvarnished India.

Basic yoga classes are conducted in many places all over the country, as are the various techniques and methods of meditation. But the best way to experience and improve your skills in either or both of these disciplines -- and possibly find true bliss or meaning in life through a spiritual leader -- is to spend time at an ashram, where philosophical (or religious, depending on where you go) discourse accompanies a meditation and/or yoga program. There are innumerable ashrams all over the country, some the domain of a dynamic guru (the teacher whose role it is to assist the spiritual awakening of devotees); while others (like the Vipassana centers) are not driven by a single personality. In the following paragraphs we discuss where you can go to study and practice classic spiritual disciplines during your trip to India.

Meditation -- One of India's most ancient meditation techniques is Vipassana, which translates as "seeing things as they really are." Taught at 10-day residential courses at many centers around the country, this program is not for the fickle -- during the course of the program you must adhere to a strict code of conduct, such as consuming nothing after midday. For many, however, the hardest part of the course is the rule of absolute silence, in which you're not allowed to speak (or read) a word for the first 9 days. The lack of any form of entertainment or sensory stimulation as well is meant to assist true inner awakening. This is certainly one of the most authentic meditation programs you will find anywhere, and one not based on devotion to a single guru or charismatic personality. The course is also absolutely free with no charges for food and board. Check out for more details.

For meditation in the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition, Tushita Meditation Centre (, a few kilometers north of Mcleodganj, offers short- and long-term programs for beginners as well as the experienced. Unlike Vipassana courses, which are more or less secular and nonsectarian, Tushita courses include teaching of Buddhist philosophy and religion as well as different meditation techniques.

If all this sounds too committed, Sudarshan Kriya, the revered Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's highly acclaimed breathing and meditation technique, can be learned through courses conducted by The Art of Living Foundation throughout India. For details, visit

Yoga -- For seriously dedicated yoga students willing to make a commitment of at least a month, the country has several well-known centers. Be aware, however, that at most of these places, room facilities are rather basic. The Bihar School of Yoga has an ashram on the banks of the Ganga in Munger, Bihar, where students come from around the world, usually for at least 4 months ( Requiring at least 1 month of dedicated practice is the hugely popular (and highly regarded) Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam in Mysore, where the fee of Rs 27,530 ($670/ţ334) for the first month (less for subsequent months) is heftier than most, and does not include room and board (visit For yoga in the tradition of that most famous of Indian yoga gurus, BKS Iyengar, you can contact the regional center in Mumbai. The courses at the Pune headquarters are only for long-term yoga experts and are booked up to 2 years in advance ( Less intensive, and more flexible for the traveler, is the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre (, located near Dharamsala (near Dharamkot). This visitor-friendly organization has retreats in two locations: in Goa right on the sand dunes at Arambol Beach, and in Dharamsala, an hour's drive from the center.

Ashrams -- For those travelers intent on working on their dharma and karma, destinations like Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Bodhgaya (Bihar), Rishikesh, and Haridwar (both in Uttarakhand) have numerous centers, each providing some direction to an individuals' spiritual quest. In Rishikesh, The Divine Life Society welcomes daily visitors to its ashram on the banks of the Ganga; it professes to embrace the essential truth found in all the religions of the world. Chanting continues 24 hours a day (check the website for details). In Bodhgaya, the Root Institute ( runs 6- to 12-day courses and retreats in Buddhist philosophy and spiritual awakening meant to bring peace and happiness to daily life. You can also attend 1-day workshops and take short courses on topics such as how to meditate, peaceful living and dying, and transforming problems into happiness. Accommodations are available at the institute.

You can also find programs offered by more well-known groups, such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna;, Ramakrishna Mission (, and Aurobindo Ashram ( in Pondicherry, as well as gurus with large, worldwide followings such as Amritanandamayi of Kerala (

Arguably the most upmarket ashram in India is Osho International Resort in the city of Pune (near Mumbai; It's aimed at those who simply won't find their spirit unless they are surrounded by plenty of attentive red-robed staff and stylish design (with the requisite Barcelona chairs and 20 hectares/50 acres styled on the Japanese water garden concept, with "Zennis" courts, so pack a racket). At Rs 3,800 ($93/ţ47) per day, you can stay in the ashram at the Osho guesthouse, or you're welcome to find cheaper accommodations outside and attend the ashram activities throughout the day.

For a deeper, more authentic experience -- spiritually and culturally -- Sri Ramanasramam is 3 hours west of Chennai, in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu ( Rooms are small, basic, and cheap, but you will have to book 1 month in advance. Another fairly upmarket ashram, one with a strong following among Westerners, is run by the Siddha Yoga foundation at Ganeshpuri, also near Mumbai ( Note that this ashram does not encourage casual tourists dropping in; you have to be in touch with their programs to be allowed onto the beautiful walled estate.

A note of caution: Although all the yoga and meditation centers listed here are legitimate, care should be taken before embarking on any spiritual journey in India. (If you don't believe us, read Gita Mehta's Karma Cola [Vintage Books], an acerbic and witty investigation into the way in which unscrupulous gurus market Indian spirituality to credulous Westerners in search of something more "enlightened.") There are some who feel that spiritual teaching should come free, while others argue that spiritualism is being packaged for Westerners in a way they can relate to, and performs basically the same function as a psychotherapist might in the West. Most important: Be aware that literally thousands of gurus and ashrams, "pseudo" or "real," are spread all over the country, some of whose principal aim is to part you from your money or, in worst-case scenarios, to sexually exploit you. Principally, be suspicious of two things: gurus who claim to have supernatural or magical "powers" or are "miracle workers," and those who ask for hefty donations. Check credentials and make your choice wisely.

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