When I first decided to spend my maternity leave in Rishikesh at Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram with my first-born daughter, Uma, I must say I was concerned. What if she got sick? How would we fill the days together? I wondered if I’d meet other mothers who were trying to live and do yoga in India with young children. We say that motherhood is very Zen in that the days are long and the years are short. I would say that living in Rishikesh by the swift yet stilling Ganges River enhanced my experience of living in the moment and being present for the multiple micro-experiences of the day with an infant or toddler. In fact, I gained a lot of parenting and yoga insights by travelling to Rishikesh with kids.
Safety and Food
As a breast-feeding mom, actually it turned out to be one of the safest times to be in India with my child. As she was drinking only my own milk, she did not need any water and so was not exposed to any bacteria or amoebas. And in winter in India, I was able to get nutritious fresh picked fruit for her first foods. All I had to do was make sure to peel the fruit (like bananas) or wash and peel (apples). I had a small plug-in pot style kettle to make her fresh apple sauce. I also mushed bananas and chikku (a soft peel-able fruit that tastes like brown sugar and is rich in iron) and mixed them with powdered oatmeal I had brought that was specifically for infants.
Time to Just Be Together
In India, I found there was time for my baby and I to just be together and yet not be alone or cooped up at home as is often the experience of first time mothers, in particular in winter, in Western countries. I could be out in the open air and just sitting looking at the mountains or walking by the Ganges with Uma in my Ergo backpack, surrounded by others who were also just walking, enjoying nature and or sitting enjoying time not doing anything. As a new mom in Canada, I noticed that everyone else in the society was busily doing something. It felt like I was on my own in this infant-mother experience of just being, walking with a baby in the sling, sitting in a café breastfeeding for long periods or watching the baby sleep. In Rishikesh, just being by the river or in the laneways surrounding the Ashrams is a normal way of life. Being on retreat means learning to be happy without being constantly occupied. The same learning curve of the new mom. I was in good company.
Family Friendly Spaces
India is kid-friendly, to say the least! In fact, it revolves around children and my daughter was often handed from woman to woman while I ate or showered. There were always helping hands around. And I found I could take my daughter to satsang and or lead kirtan with my daughter in my arms! In those days, I went at 10AM to a discourse on yoga as is common in Rishikesh. I wondered if my baby would disturb the quiet of the meditation or cry and prevent people from hearing the talk. But, in calm yoga spaces, babies often just drop into the ethos of the room. Also, there are usually mats put down either at the front or the back of the hall for children and so you can lay the baby down with a toy and be in the meditative space where children are welcomed! I cherished those moments that I was able to nourish myself with inspirational wisdom while Uma puttered with a rattle and no one batted an eye when I popped my top and gave her a nip of milk.
Being Alone, Together
One the memories that stands out in my mind is an afternoon we spent on the white sand beach between the two bridges in Rishikesh. There is a quiet place you can get to by clambering over the rocks at the river’s bend. After taking my time to stroll there with the increasing weight of a toddler on my back, now in my second winter in India, we flopped down and just watched the Ganges go by. We were alone on the beach except for another man I knew to have lived in town for several years. He lay on the beach in a sarong and every half hour or so, he walked into the river holding the sarong above his head. His movements were graceful and fluid as he unfurled the cloth and walked steadily into the current. After some time, as the water is glacial, he would come out and re-wrap the cloth and lay again on the beach. We did not speak much, but I felt that we were sharing the space and that moment with someone else in the timelessness and stillness of the landscape of rural India.
Another wonderful thing about being in Rishikesh with kids is all of the animals. Cows wander around the streets with their fluffy calves. Lunger monkeys jump through the trees, their long tails and graceful limbs making them seem almost to float between the branches. Peacocks call out in the early morning mist. Ponies trot through the alleys carrying sand to building sites. Not to mention the man who dresses as Hanuman near Laxman Jhoola circle offering to put a red tilak on your forehead for a small fee. There is always something for kids to look at and engage with.
Ritual is Real for Children
Time in India is often spaced by the practice of daily rituals. This is also the way with days with young children in terms of regular meals and snacks and the rituals of story time and bath time and walks. In India, there is the added aspect of rituals that are interesting for children and often meaningful for aspiring yogis. Every morning at Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram we perform fire puja or Agni Hotra before breakfast. I wanted to attend fire puja and to expose my child to the sound of the chants and the ways of honouring the elements. But I was not sure how it would work out. My daughter delighted in taking the offering herbs in her fingers and throwing them into the flames, simply copying the repeated movements of the circle of participants. She even learned to anticipate the timing of the herb offering with the intoned ‘swaha’ or ‘let it be so’. Seeing her at this elemental ritual reminded me of how children play with sticks in the dirt, it was a very organic, tactile and experiential spiritual practice that was absolutely translatable and enjoyable for even a very young child. As soon as she could talk, my daughter was repeating the Gayatri mantra which was chanted several times during the puja.
She also learned to bang the drums and sing at kirtan, the evening gathering. Young children, unlike school-aged kids, often stay up late since they nap, and have a last feeding around 10PM. So, I had thought I would not be able to participate in the evening melodies. But, I was wrong! Kiirtan was a great place for children as it is loud and celebratory and there are lots of different instruments that are not delicate, such as rattles and cymbals. I remember my daughter drifting off towards the more lyrical, ballads at the end of the evenings, nestled in my crossed legs.
And so, although I often did not attend yoga posture class in those days after sleepless nights of multiple feedings, I felt that the rituals, song and practice of presence I experienced with both an infant and a toddler in Rishikesh was a very profound teaching of adapting the practice for motherhood and dropping into the yoga of beingness.
If you are considering travelling to Rishikesh with kids, I’d be happy to chat with you about it. You can connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.