It’s 4am, and a cold wind is blowing in my face. I wrap a blanket tightly around me as I bend and pranam to the Holy Ganges River (Ma Ganga). I offer a prayer of love and gratitude, scoop up a handful of water, anoint my head, and sit to meditate.
As I position myself on a yoga mat, I reflect on the great saints and sages who for thousands of years have reached enlightenment by practicing yoga and meditation along the banks of Ma Ganga and in the surrounding Himalayan caves. The Beatles also were drawn to this area 50 years ago to practice the ancient sciences of yoga and meditation. Their visit in 1968 popularized Eastern spirituality and meditation around the world.
The passing thoughts of those who have gone before me increase my gratitude for the opportunity to be meditating in this sacred environment. As I start a Kriya Yoga meditation practice, time seems to disappear and I enter a stillness amidst the sound of Ma Ganga’s flowing waters.
For the past four years, my colleagues and I have made annual pilgrimages to Rishikesh, India, to explore the deeper essence of yoga and its growing impact around the world.
The impetus for these trips can be traced back to when Prime Minister Modi introduced a resolution to the United Nations calling for an International Day of Yoga. The UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution in December 2014.
To celebrate the creation of the International Day of Yoga, my colleagues and I at The Shift Network, together with friends at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, UPLIFT, and numerous other organizations, created the Yoga Day Summit — a free annual online event taking place every June 21.
While the Yoga Day Summit showcases yoga teachers and activities from around the world, we anchor the online event with numerous interviews we conducted in the Rishikesh area, primarily at the annual International Yoga Festival held at Parmarth Niketan Ashram every March 1-7.
We wanted the Yoga Day Summit to offer insights on the ancient roots and deeper essence of yoga while also demonstrating its role in the modern transformation of individuals and society. Rishikesh and its surrounding areas are considered the birthplace of yoga, making it an ideal setting for tapping into the ancient roots of yoga. The annual International Yoga Festival attracts over 2,000 people from nearly 100 countries.
A global community congregating in the birthplace of yoga to celebrate and practice yoga — all on the banks of the Holy Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas — is a stunning and vibrant living testament to the roots and worldwide appeal of yoga.
Over the past several years, my colleague Sandra de Castro Buffington, Founder and former Director of the Global Media Center for Social Impact and longtime Kriya Yoga practitioner, and I have interviewed a wide range of spiritual leaders, yoga teachers, scientists, musicians, and social entrepreneurs in Rishikesh. Our beloved interviewees include H.H. Pujya Shankaracharya Swami Divyanand Teerthji, Pujya Swami Chididand Saraswatiji, Pujya Radhanath Swami, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji, Dr. Bruce Lipton, Anand Mehrotra, Kia Miller, Tommy Rosen, and many more.
Some of the insights from Rishikesh that Sandra and I have shared in the Yoga Day Summit interviews include:
Yoga is a science:
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan has a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University, but left academia to join the monastic order. Sadhviji, along with other teachers, talks extensively about the scientific aspect of yoga. In other words, there are methods and techniques that lead to specific results, with the ultimate goal being Samadhi, or oneness with God/Cosmic Consciousness. Sadhviji affirms that yoga is free of dogma, and that people of any religion or culture can and do practice yoga and directly experience its benefits.
Modern science is validating the benefits of yoga:
One of the most popular speakers at the International Yoga Festival and in the Yoga Day Summit is Dr. Bruce Lipton, an internationally recognized leader in bridging science and spirit. Bruce goes into passionate detail about how we can change our brains — and even our DNA — through the practice of yoga and other consciousness-raising methods. Indeed, Paramahansa Yogananda and other great yoga masters had talked about reprogramming the wiring of the brain and mind decades before scientists began discussing neuroplasticity.
Modern life is driving people to ancient yoga:
We heard numerous yoga practitioners from the U.S, China, Kazakhstan, Uruguay, Mexico, and many other countries say they started doing yoga to find relief from the stress of modern life and/or physical ailments. The “pursuit of happiness” through consumerism (known in psychology as the hedonic treadmill) leaves many people feeling isolated, disconnected, and stressed out.
You do yoga, yoga does you:
Several yoga teachers and students talked about the transformation they experienced by practicing yoga. Over time, people found that their entire way of being began to shift as they tapped into a deeper part of themselves. Swamis call this deeper essence our true Self, our soul, which is part of a larger universal consciousness.
Yoga can help clarify your life purpose:
Many people said yoga helped them clarify their life purpose. Instead of identifying with a title or role, they identified more with a deeper essence and then looked at how they could serve those around them. One of the most unusual and inspiring stories we heard in Rishikesh was from Krzysztof Stec, who was born in communist Poland. Krzysztof was introduced to yoga at the age of 15 by his uncle, a Benedictine monk in a remote monastery. He soon found himself being led to people who were doing research on the scientific benefits of yoga, which motivated him to earn advanced degrees in physical education, which he combined with yoga practice.
Yoga goes far beyond the mat; yoga is a way of life:
Hatha yoga (the physical asanas) offers the doorway for many people into yoga. The deeper practices of yoga go far beyond the mat.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, a leading scientist and social entrepreneur whom we talked to in India, confirmed that yoga should not be confined to the mat because yoga is a way of life. She said that when we practice true yoga, we know we are connected with everything. We can then relate to the environment, our food, and other people with compassion and care, for we know that they are part of our Selves.
Yoga is a catalyst for change:
We met a number of people who use yoga in schools, prisons, and a wide range of social settings to help alleviate suffering. One inspiring person we interviewed was Zena el Khalil, a visual artist, writer, and Nāda yoga instructor based in Beirut, Lebanon. Zena was filled with joy as she described using visual arts, performances, and mantra to help transform areas that once experienced deadly violence. Her goal is to create a culture of peace through love, compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. Zena has been recognized internationally for her peace efforts.
Yoga and Natural Intelligence: Foundation for Inner and Collective Transformation
World-renowned yoga teacher Kia Miller believes that in this time of political polarization, it’s essential to let go of blame and to stop attacking “the other.” It’s important for each of us to take responsibility for our own healing so we can act from a place of “natural intelligence.” Kia believes the science of yoga can serve as a foundation for inner transformation while contributing to the evolution of collective consciousness.
Yoga is relevant to modern times
Anand Mehrotra speaks passionately about how natural intelligence is making the ancient science of yoga more widely accessible through the Internet and other breakthrough technologies. He says that the real invitation of yoga is to transcend and evolve beyond form and poses, explaining that “Yoga is not about escaping — as you go deeper into your own true essence, you’ll stay relevant to the flow of modern life.”
Yoga: Stillness and peace amidst motion
Modern life can be busy, even for Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji, who oversees numerous service projects at Parmarth Niketan Ashram that help the most marginalized in her community. Sadhviji learned from the Holy Ganges River how to anchor her attention into essence instead of form in order to experience stillness and peace amidst motion.
It was Sadhviji who encouraged Sandra, me, and our colleagues to spend time meditating by Ma Ganga. We are pleased and excited that the Yoga Day Summit will once again share timeless wisdom and spiritual transmissions from the banks of Ma Ganga.
The Yoga Day Summit 2018 will air on June 21, 2018 - www.yogadaysummit.com
Philip M. Hellmich serves as the Director of Peace at The Shift Network and he is the author of God and Conflict: A Search for Peace in a Time of Crisis. Philip is a longtime Kriya Yoga practitioner.