Achieving inner peace can be a stressful business
Author Hannah Stuart-Leach Illustration Peter Oumanski
INDIA – Swami Atma is so chilled-out he seems more reggae singer than spiritual guru. Dressed in golden robes, with long curly hair and heavy-lidded eyes, he imparts the teachings of the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, wisps of sandalwood incense rolling across his wood-paneled studio: “As a flame does not flicker in a windless place, so is the disciplined mind of the yogi practicing meditation.”
The students—who range from bronzed, athletic Americans to middle-class Euro hippies—sit in a semicircle, straight-backed and cross-legged, attempting to absorb 2,200 years of wisdom. “Re-laax!” the swami says in deep, soothing tones. “Easy, no?”
The students don’t look very relaxed. “Ugh,” says one young guy, twisting his back in the cloying heat.
The one-month yoga course is taking place in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred place to Hindus and a big draw for Westerners seeking spiritual improvement. But a lot has changed here since the Beatles rolled into town to bone up on their Transcendental Meditation techniques, back in 1968. Today, Rishikesh is a swarm of time-poor, cash-rich tourists looking to buy inner peace with matching devotional paraphernalia. The city has also seen a proliferation of classes offering fast-track physical and spiritual well-being.
Before an open window overlooking the foothills of the Himalayas, Swami Atma maps out the path to enlightenment, his smooth cadences and the slanting light providing a brief glimpse into the realm of inner peace. Then, abruptly, a young German woman breaks the spell. “Wait!” she says upon hearing that we are all different but connected. “Will we need to know this for the exam?”