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PNA Yoga

Today the Maharishi Ashram on the fringes of the characterful, north Indian town of Rishikesh lies abandoned, rapidly being reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Venture there at dusk to spend an hour or so poking around its deserted buildings and meditation cells ; clusters of bizarre, pebble-dashed, pod-like structures and it wont take long before you freak yourself out. Freak being the operative word, for it was here in 1968 that The Beatles - still in the full flush of fame, chose to hang with the Maharishi , soak up the spiritual vibe and duck out of the spotlight. But they only lasted a month and although the reasons behind their premature exit have never been conclusively established, it is generally accepted that the Maharishi’s devotion to the errrr ‘opening up’ of the female members of their party proved an obstacle that they didn’t have the sufficient mental discipline to overcome.

But the Fab 4’s visit, however brief, did have the effect of establishing Rishikesh as one of the Hippy Trail’s must sees – in other words Freak central. Figuring prominently in Hindu scriptures on account of its auspicious location Rishikesh has however held a special place in the hearts of Hindu India for over a thousand years. This being so, it is known throughout the sub-continent as the ‘valley of the saints’ having played host to many a distinguished Hindu pilgrim of which are own equivalents, celebrities, are but the palest imitation.

In recent years this region, like everywhere else in the country has been gripped by development fever. The state of Uttarakhand in which Rishikesh is situated for instance is itself newly minted. In 2000 it was carved out of the north easterly section of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. And dinghy loads of [mainly] Indian white-water rafter ‘thrill-seekers’ now daily ply the holy waters of the Ganges alongside which the town flanks. Inspite of this the government remains committed to its more spiritually inclined tourists and keeping that aspect of the town and the outlying regions identity alive. Uttarakhands part sponsorship of this years International Yoga Festival, the biggest of its kind in the world, hosted in the towns largest and well regarded ashram Parmeth Niketan, is a case in point.

Yoga you see in this part of the world is less about the obtaining the perfect bod – though thankfully these are not in short supply, than the toning up of mind and soul. Or that at the least was the prevailing view of the teachers and staff behind this years event, attitudes which were one facet of an event that far surpassed your average yoga holiday. Not that I have any idea of what exactly that would constitute.

Location wise, the ashram is literally blessed, nestling as it does on the banks of the Ganges [the ‘Mother Ganga’] Hindu India’s holiest of holy rivers with the foothills of the Himalaya’s – the rivers ultimate source, providing a magnificent backdrop. But what really sets PKN apart is it’s spiritual leader Swamiji. Not your typical ascetic, inspite of his seven years of contemplative wandering in the forests of north India which earned him the sobriquet of ‘living saint’ Swamiji has demonstrated great verve in managing to preserve PNA’s core traditional values whilst rooting it firmly in the present through the establishment of a school and a number of projects aimed at tackling some of India’s most pressing socio-economic and environmental issues.

Officially billed as the 9th International Yoga Festival, in actual fact the festival has been in existence in some shape or form for about 20 years or so. A decision was made however when Uttar Pradesh split in 2000 to reset the counter and move it to to PNA. A move that makes it unrecognisable from its original form of one teacher and 25 participants holed up in a local hotel. Notwithstanding this years Mumbai attacks which did reduce last years attendance of 450 down by about a third the festival has steadily grown and as the scarily competent Sadhvi Bhagawati assistant to Swamiji remarks, ‘without any marketing efforts on our part’ formerly from LA the 37 year old Sadhvi puts this growth down to the fact that ‘people in the West are thirsty, they’re looking for something more [than material prosperity], and I think the current economic crisis has only served to underline that ’ - a penchant for the blood of city types might also figure prominently I think to myself.

‘In a society where fewer and fewer people are affiliated to any organized religion’ SB continues ‘going to a yoga class can open a door into a whole new realm and make them realize that there’s so much more to it than devoting yourself to the asana’s’ [yoga postures].

That said, many of the major schools of yoga and their associated exercises, were represented at the festival by some of the world's leading teachers. And there was a good balance of contemporary modish Western practises with the more traditional, less athletic Indian kinds. For many delegates the opportunity to sample these different varieties of yoga at the hands of these masters was a major pull factor. The yogis however, enjoined delegates to focus on the underlying unity of all yogas and to shift the emphasis onto the development of the spirit and the heart and away from the physical.

'It’s one of the main intentions of the festival' Bhagvati took great pains to point out ‘to bring all the different forms of yoga together under one umbrella, to create an awareness of the union’ and though that to fulfill the main intention of the festival as declared by Swamiji 'to manifest peace inside our hearts so we can spread it across the rest of the world.’

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What better indication of the festival's quality than the fact that a majority of the teachers are repeat offenders. Many put this down to the fact that it offered them unprecedented opportunities for personal as much as professional growth. Gurmukh, a prominent Kundalini yogi who founded the Golden Bridge centre in LA [ Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow are fans] is a case in point. Distinctive both in terms of appearance – bedecked from head to toe in a white, Sikh inspired ensemble her annual visit to the festival has led to her increasing awareness about the challenges facing the local community and support for those whose residents who are taking steps to address them. A development that is echoed by PNA's focus firmly outside the ashram walls.

One such figure Praba Ramana and her efforts to establish a primary school and children's home in the nearby hamlet of Laxman Jula seems to have a special place in the heart of Kundalini's first lady. A one time Hollywood starlet , Praba Ramana has devoted the latter part of her life to the establishment of a nursery, primary school and children's refuge for local village children when she saw what a poor job of it the state were making something you could say is an Indian wide problem but especially so in the rural areas.

The story of the schools establishment and the opposition she has come up against in the you could ironically enough sell the rights to. Gurmukh was so impressed by Ramana's fortitude that she pledged to make a substantial regular donation to the school. The net result of which some 20000USD later was the construction of a yoga studio that was completed late last year.

I was lucky enough to accompany Gurmukh on her first visit to the school since the studio's completion. Naturally enoughm, her inaugural visit was marked by her putting the kids through their Kundalini paces [only the smallest children were exempt].

‘For many of you this may turn out to be the most important day of your lives’ was how Ramana introduced the session with Kundalini’s Grand Dame – her reaction being to modestly lower her head and allow a discreet , sagely grin to play across her preternaturally youthful features. The kids were amazing; extremely attentive and very good at moves that would’ve defeated most grown ups . It was an oddly moving occasion and made me reflect on just how screwy my own society is about adult-child relationships which would’ve no doubt frowned on the sight of 100 or so kids all jammed up next to each other, eyes closed, arms raised as somehow suspect.

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And that as an ingénue to the world of yoga was my initial reaction to the event as a whole - a gently mocking metropolitan cynicism , hopefully undetected. Similarly, since my return reactions to the pictures - particularly from my professional contacts, have revolved around the idea that this was some kind of cultists' away day. And if I’m frank about it, the events ‘freaky’ potential was indeed apart of it’s initial appeal to a certain part of me - the sensationalistic press photographer. But I had to admit that as I bade farewell to PNA it wasn’t only the tummy bug that lingered but the very special atmosphere that seemed to prevail.

Peter from Herts - a former ‘project manager of the year’ no less, described something similar in terms of the Buddhist concepts that he finds himself increasingly drawing on - ‘It's like a turning in the seed of consciousness a shifting deep inside you, difficult to discern but no less significant for that' and then 'of course' he continued - his voice trailing off wistfully, ‘there's always the chance you might meet a nice like-minded lady along the way...’

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