All eyes were on India last week for the fourth annual iteration of the International Day of Yoga, with events held to mark the day taking place throughout the country – hailed as the birthplace of the hallowed practice. For Incredible India and Skyway Tours, the celebration also provided the opportunity to give a group of international journalists a closer look at the myriad appeals of the country for travellers, whether enthusiastic yogi or simply visitors seeking to experience the mystery and beauty of the ancient land.
An epic six-day itinerary showcased some of the stunning variety of India’s vast terrain, from the teeming urban sprawls of Delhi and Mumbai to Lonavala’s rolling, plunging hills and the rain-soaked majesty of Pune during its monsoon season. Yoga, of course, would play a central role throughout the trip, with the group visiting a number of ashrams and gaining a riveting insight into the practice’s venerated status in India through discussions and sessions with leading yogi.
The centrepiece of the visit was undoubtedly the International Day of Yoga (Thursday 21st June), when Qutub Minar’s iconic minaret in New Delhi provided a distinctive backdrop for an early-morning yoga session in the company of scores of fellow practitioners and experts. The group had gotten its introduction to the scorching heat of Delhi after landing the previous day, making its way through the constant blare of traffic to the imperious India Gate – a World War I memorial that recalls Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. It was one of many examples of Delhi’s rich architectural identity, with the group also delving into its immense historical significance during a visit to Humayun’s Tomb, a majestic sandstone structure harking back to the 16th century that serves as the resting place of the Mughal Emperor.
The group was due to leave Delhi’s sweltering temperatures for Pune following their yoga exertions, but there was still time for one final stop before setting off for the airport: Raj Ghat, a memorial built at the spot of cremation of the ‘Father of the Nation’, Mahatma Gandhi. Marble slabs bearing some of the Indian icon’s many words of wisdom line the path to the platform, an unmissable monument to a figure whose ideals still resonate across the world today.
Light rain and cooler climes greeted the group upon arrival in Pune, a city located two hours by plane from Delhi that’s popularly known as the ‘Oxford of the East’ for its status as a young, student-heavy metropolis. The weather was nonetheless pleasant and sunny as we toured the renowned Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute – dedicated to the teachings of influential yogi B.K.S. Iyengar – whose main yoga floor was filled with practitioners during our visit.
It was the first in a host of experiences throughout the region that demonstrated the many yogic philosophies and schools of thought that abound in India, with our next stop – the Nisargopchar Ashram, founded by Gandhi in 1946 – highlighting the role that yoga plays in its holistic approach to preventing illness. Here, the group was also treated to a savoury traditional lunch dish of vegetables, local broth and naan bread.
The Hotel Atmantan, a health and wellness resort cocooned in the hills high above Pune, served as the group’s base for the final two days of the trip. Signs around the resort remind guests of the property’s commitment to ‘digital detoxing’ through its no-phone zones, although visitors will find it difficult to resist the urge to snap a few photos of the early-morning mist that shrouds the surrounding mountains. Although relatively isolated (it takes around an hour to reach the foot of the hills by bus), the property offers a serenity and calmness that mark a vivid contrast to the noise and bustle of Delhi and Mumbai.
One of the most striking aspects of India’s yoga culture was the variety of different approaches to the practice that prevail throughout the country. Lonavala’s Keivalayadhama Ashram, for instance, espouses a philosophy that blends classical yoga theories with scientific ones, and bills itself as a place ‘where yoga tradition and science meet’. One of its most prominent figures, Anukool Deval, told the group that this outlook was particularly notable because of the fact that not all types of modern yoga are scientifically-based; nor do all adhere to the traditional form.
With the trip also emphasising wellness, contemplation and reflection, the scenic Vedanta Academy in Lonavala offered one of its most intriguing facets – an organisation whose members live in its leafy grounds during study programmes encouraging the spread of its Vedanta philosophy. It was an experience that certainly provided plenty of food for thought during the scenic drive to Mumbai to begin the long journey home the following day.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attending a separate event on the International Day of Yoga in Dehradun, touted yoga as a ‘unifying force of the world’, and the blend of nationalities that made up the group of visiting journalists was a clear testament to this: from Sri Lanka to France and Bhutan to Canada, the diversity of foreign representatives demonstrated both the indelible imprint that yoga has left upon the world and its growing international popularity. There could have been no more apt a setting for such a convocation than the cradle of yoga itself.