5 Places to Learn Yoga, Meet Gurus and Visit Ashrams in India

If you’re going to India on a spiritual journey, you may have an idea of what being “spiritual” means. You’ll float around in white robes in beautiful and exotic surroundings, at peace with yourself and the world. But India will challenge all that.

Instead, you might end up sitting for hours on a stone floor in a giant hall with thousands of others in 40 degrees heat, crammed in so tight that you can’t stretch your legs or move your arms. All just to see a glimpse of a guru with a black afro somewhere far away, while your neighbour constantly elbows you in the ribs. Ashrams in India can be shockingly lively, colourful and noisy to a Western visitor looking for peace and quiet, but it is of course the inner peace that counts.

Here are a few ashrams, holy cities and yoga centres in India that are popular with Westerners and accept Western visitors and students. Note that most ashrams in India have fairly strict rules regarding dress code, food is generally vegetarian and alcohol and tobacco are banned.

Sai Baba Ashram in Puttaparthi

Sri Sathya Sai Baba is one of the most famous gurus in India alive today, and his ashram attracts millions of visitors every year. Both Indian and foreign devotees flock to Prasanthi Nilayam (the Abode of Supreme Peace) in Puttaparthi in the state of Andhra Pradesh, around 120 km of Bangalore.

There are two daily darshans, or meetings with the guru. These events get very crowded and you’re likely to see Sai from far away from the back of the darshan hall, but it’s all part of life in the ashram.

Prasanthi Nilayam ashram is well organized. Accommodation is in single-sex dormitories and is very affordable and cheap food is available in several canteens. Visitors can help out in the kitchen (SEVA, or service, is big here). Check the ashram website for timings. Sai sometimes travels to his other ashrams in Kodaikanal or to Whitefield near Bangalore. There are frequent buses from Bangalore to Puttaparthi (the bus station is right next to the ashram) and trains to the Sri Sathya Sai Prasanthi Nilayam station.

Amma Ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala

Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or Amma, is incredibly popular with Westerners. Famous for hugging her devotees in darshans that can last for hours, Amma welcomes Western visitors and devotees to her ashram in Amritapuri, in South India’s Kerala. The ashram’s website has lots of tips for visiting and foreigners planning to go to the ashram should register online.

The nearest airports are in Cochin and in Trivandrum but to get from these cities to the ashram you’ll still have to travel some distance by train or a bus, or hire a car. The Alapuzzha-Kollam backwater boat used to stop at the ashram so it’s worth enquiring if you’re taking the backwater trip.

The Sivananda Ashram in Kerala

If you’re looking for a yoga holiday in India or an intensive yoga course, the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala is very popular with Westerners and offers lots of courses. Located in Neyyar Dam, in a large compound in the lush Keralan countryside, the ashram teaches yoga in the tradition of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda. The ashram offers short yoga holidays, month-long courses and also teaches courses the traditional Indian medical system, Ayurveda. For many courses you don’t need any previous experience in yoga.

Rishikesh, India’s Old Yoga Capital

Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas and by the holy river Ganges, is a centre for yoga studies, ashrams, meditation courses, and very popular with Westerners. It used to be called India’s yoga capital until Mysore in South India took over. If you’re planning to study yoga or meditation in Rishikesh or visit an ashram, do some research before committing to a course and ask around. Like in many other places in India, a whole industry has developed around “spirituality” and there are some fake gurus around.

Mysore, India’s New Yoga Capital

When I first arrived in Mysore in 2005 in the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, it was already very popular with yoga students. In the following years it became madly popular, so much so that newspapers and magazines labelled Mysore India’s new yoga capital (Rishikesh being the old one). I’ve heard there are around 50 yoga schools in Mysore now.

I know that some of them have only opened in the last couple of years as a result of the Westerner influx. If you are planning to study yoga in Mysore, plan your studies well. Some schools don’t accept students on a tourist visa and request a student visa instead. Some may ask you to apply well in advance, and the KPJAYI is often fully booked for months ahead.
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