The Beatles moved on, but Rishikesh flourished, as other Westerners began to take a deeper and longer-term interest in Indian religion and its practice, concentrating not just on meditation as a path to spiritual enlightenment, but also on the related physical training of yoga. Rishikesh, the town fleetingly made world-famous by the Beatles, has become known as the Yoga Capital of the World. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the banks of the sacred river, the Ganges, it’s just a 6-hour bus drive from Delhi. There are temples, and a whole series of ashrams where yoga classes are held, and there’s an International Yoga Festival every year in the first week of February.
In its broadest sense, yoga refers to the principles and practice of self-training that are common to all Indian philosophical traditions, and the aim is a sense of release and liberation from the material world. The methods used include both physical exercises and meditation. Hindu yoga is often more physical than the more contemplative Buddhist yoga.
The history of yoga goes right back to those early sacred texts, the Vedas and to sacred writings like the Bhagavad-Gita. The aim of yoga is the evolution of the soul, and this is achieved both by purifying the mind, and also purifying the body, through different practices. Different schools and eras of yoga have put different emphasis on meditation and physical exercise, and the yoga that has become fashionable in the West is Hatha-Yoga, which involves physical exercises to bring peace and insight.
Students of Hatha-Yoga believe that the body has to be kept in proper shape if the mind is to function well. This is done both by breathing techniques, and by learning certain meditative postures, or ‘asanas’, that were designed by the ancient sages.
The best-known is Padmasana, or the Lotus Position. Others include Siddhasana, the Pose of the Adept, or Bhujangasana, the Snake Pose. Such poses are said to bring health and strength, and should be practiced in the early morning or evening. Students are advised to practice each pose for just a few seconds, to start with, then gradually increase the period to 15 minutes or more. The ancient sages could sit in the same pose for hours.
Modern yoga arrived in the United States in the late Nineteenth century, with the arrival of such gurus as Swami Vivekanda, who was commissioned by his teacher Ramakrishna to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. He was well received, and later toured the US teaching yoga. A whole series of other gurus followed, including Swami Paramashansa Yogananda, who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, and Swami Sivananda, who opened schools in the America and Europe in the Sixties and Seventies. It was one of his disciples, Swami Satchitananda who introduced chanting and yoga to Woodstock.
Today, Yoga is more popular than ever. The leading yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, estimates that more than 15 million US residents practiced yoga in 2003, up almost 30% from the year before. The magazine’s own circulation has grown at the same time, from just 90,000 subscribers in 1998 to 310,000 six years later.
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