Yoga has been a part of India’s ethos and daily practice for over 5,000 years. But it is only recently that the mind-, body-, and soul-enhancing benefits of yoga have made it a global phenomenon. As yoga’s popularity rises in the U.S. and other Western countries, travelers increasingly are making their way to the land of its birth. In India, yoga has grown in sophistication, and yoga retreats have mushroomed across the country. They range from top-end luxury spas to small hotels in religious centers such as Uttarkashi in the north and Thiruvananthapuram in the south.
Yoga tourists in India can also choose to study with neighborhood housewives who teach yoga in their living rooms or at trendy studios begun by socialites. Fortunately for the purists, there are several yoga schools run by grand masters who still teach the practice in the time-tested way, steeped in ancient traditions and philosophy. For them, yoga isn’t instant nirvana; indeed, it is mastered only after years of rigorous practice
Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute – Pune
A must-visit place for any serious yoga practitioner, the institute is run by the indefatigable, 90-year-old grand old man of Indian yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, and his children. The Iyengar school emphasizes in-depth study of asanas (anatomically correct postures) and pranayama (breathing). It teaches students to adapt and modify their exercise routine depending on the environment.
Situated in Pune, 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Mumbai, the institute caters to advanced students of yoga. So before packing your mat and heading for India, learn the basics from a certified Iyengar teacher in your country. Admission for a monthlong $450 course is selective, and you can spend up to 18 months on a wait list. Those who make the cut have to make their own arrangements for boarding and lodging in Pune. Iyengar, called Guruji, or master, counts global celebrities such as Annette Bening among his students. Pune has many decent hotels and eateries. The city is also home to the Osho ashram, set up by one of India’s best-known godmen.
Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore
This institute in Mysore, a city of palaces and fountains near Bangalore, is much sought-after by foreigners serious about yoga. It was established by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, 93, a contemporary of B.K.S. Iyengar. Both were disciples of famous yoga exponent T. Krishnamacharya. Jois propagated the ashtanga vinyasa brand of yoga, which is the fast-paced synchronization of breath and movement throughout the routine. The courses range from one month to six months. Students can also take classes in Sanskrit, in which the ancient yogic texts are written. The program costs $675 in the first month (the amount includes registration fees) and then falls to $400 per subsequent month. The package does not include board and lodging. Jois retired last year, and the institute is run by his daughter Saraswati and grandson Sharath, an electronics engineer. But Jois is always on campus for those who want to consult him.
Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai
Based in Chennai, south India, this institute teaches the viniyoga brand of gentle yoga. The guru is T. K. V. Desikachar, an engineer turned disciple of his father T. Krishnamacharya, a practitioner of holistic yoga. The course has five elements of yoga including exercise, therapy, breathing, and meditation. A four-week program is held twice a year—in February and September—and costs $1,200 per person, minus boarding or lodging, which must be independently arranged. There’s also a $900, two-week intensive course in March specializing in any of the various aspects of yoga such as healing or a specific meditation. The courses are popular, so book well in advance. Bookings for September are already closed; better luck for 2009.
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Trivandrum
Situated in the sylvan surroundings of the Neyyar dam and forests just outside Kerala’s capital city, Trivandrum, is the 12-acre Sivananda yoga ashram. “Our approach is more holistic, offering yoga, devotion, and philosophy,” says Swami Sivaswaroopananda, the 46-year-old Italian doctor who came to India “for a more meaningful life” more than a decade ago and is now its director. The school, set up in 1977 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, offers structured yoga “vacations.” There are two two-week-long vacations a month. Peak season is November to April, and tariffs range from $12.50 to $15 per head for a twin room, $8.75 to $11.25 per head for dormitory or tent-style lodging. During the Christmas-New Year period, there’s a special culture, philosophy, and fitness camp offering a mix of ayurveda and yoga ranging from $13.75 to $18.75 a day.
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh
Nestling in the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges is Parmarth Niketan. The institute has long catered to Indian travelers to the holy city of Rishikesh, which has more yoga camps than eateries. The influx of foreigners heading to Rishikesh on a spiritual path encouraged Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the president of Parmarth Niketan, to offer yoga courses in English. Parmarth offers all the yoga ingredients “in a spiritual ambience,” according to Sadhvi Bhagwati, an American scientist who visited India 11 years ago and stayed at Parmarth “after an amazing spiritual experience.” The ashram has 1,000 rooms on its eight-acre campus. Room rates depend on the view—facing the Ganges will cost more—but generally run from $7.50 for single occupancy and $20 for double occupancy. Meals are vegetarian. The big event at Parmarth is the weeklong International Yoga Festival every March. It typically gathers 550 participants from 32 countries with the objective of bringing together different streams of yoga and healing arts including Reiki, Shinto yoga, and power yoga..