In the book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert goes on a culinary delight in Italy, then finds spirituality and self-realization in India, before finding the man of her dreams in Bali.
Truth or fiction, you can have it all, in India.
1) Eat. India is a gastronomical dream. The land of spices.
2) Pray. India is a center for spirituality. Land of the Buddha, and many other gods.
3) Love. Love is central to Indian spiritual teachings. Love of self, family, friends, living creatures, and the universe.
So why not soak up the treasures of India as you eat, pray, and love alongside others interested in the same experiences. Why not find a guide that is well-traveled and educated in India and its traditions. A guide that’s a cross between a guru, coach, friend, and entertainer to expose you to the scriptures, festivals, rituals, and the multiple branches of yoga.
There are many spiritual tours of India. The following are just four that do not live within the travel industry. They breathe the spirit of India and walk the talk of the ancient scriptures, daily.
Jogi Bhagat is a yoga instructor and therapist who has studied with world-renowned masters. He also has a passion for travel. He’s visited 20 countries, but his homeland is still one of his favorites.
“Organizing India trips is not work for me, it is a very rewarding process,” Bhagat says. “It is a real joy to take my yoga students and friends from U.S. to India. It just happened without much planning as some of them just asked me, ‘Why don’t you take us to India?’”
Bhagat has been leading small groups since 2012. Many are repeat tour participants, and he builds a sense of community among them, before, during, and after the departure and return dates. His tours offer much more than one yoga class a day. This October and November, he’s doing back-to-back trips to Southern and Northern India.
There are a lot of personal touches that travelers experience with Bhagat. He has taken them to the spot in Rishikesh where his son’s first haircut took place. His participants have been treated like family at his nephew’s wedding. Another memorable personal touch is celebrating Diwali (festival of lights), at the home of Bhagat’s sister. “This gives people an opportunity to experience the warm hospitality of Indians. The guests are worshiped/greeted with lamp, flowers, and Tilak (head/body painting chalk) at the entrance of the home to experience ancient Indian saying in Sankrit – Atithi Devo Bhav (Guest is God).”
Bhagat serves the eat part of the trifecta on a big platter (thali).
“There is a lot of variety as far as Indian dishes are concerned,” he explains. “Almost every state of India has its own special dishes. We make sure to visit Chokhi Dhani in Jaipur, the Pink City in Rajasthan. While enjoying your favorite food here, you are entertained by typical Rajasthani music.”
Beyond restaurants, meals are served at ashrams and at Bhagat’s families’ homes. On their way to visit the Taj Mahal, they stop at his brother’s home to eat, which Bhagat says has turned some of the guests on to cooking Indian food.
Whether the belly is empty or full, there’s always room to pray. Bhagat guides his cohorts through sacred prayer places for the Sikhs, the Bahai, and Hindus. They chant in Delhi and in Rishikesh and experience fire ceremonies.
“While visiting places of faith, the participants always feel pleasantly surprised when they are encouraged to participate in religious ceremonies whether it is aarati or chanting. They feel impressed with this inclusiveness of Indian places of faith. A number of them found attending Sabad Kirtan at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara very meditative. This Gurudwara has made special arrangements for foreigners and it makes them feel very welcome.”
Bhagat likes to see the love unfold through Karma Yoga (selflessness) which is one of the eight branches of yoga. Participants volunteer at the Ashrams where they stay. As part of a two-day retreat with a yoga master in Delhi, they delve into topics such as the Purpose of Life which also gives them a deeper appreciation of love, in its broadest sense.
Vish and Kish, as their fans know them, live in a spiritual community not far from the University of Florida. The spiritual brothers lead the energetic kirtan (devotional music) band known as the Mayapuris (www.Mayapuris.com). Vish and Kish travel all over the U.S. with their drums to play to audiences of up to several thousand people.
February 8-19, the Mayapuris are leading a Heart of Yoga Retreat to South India and Mayapur, the band’s namesake. On their tour, they guide guests through ancient temples, stop at beaches, savor the finest in South Indian cuisine, chant, and learn to play the traditional Indian clay drum and hand cymbals. Among the many sacred sites on their itinerary, retreat goers can bathe in the Ganges. The retreat also includes daily yoga classes taught by a popular New York City-based instructor.
There will be time for shopping, enjoying the beaches, experiencing Ayurvedic treatments, attending workshops before they visit Mayapur, the holy city where both Vish and Kish spent part of their formative years at a Gurukula (Krishna learning center).
“This retreat is friendly to all. First-timers to India and to Bhaktas (devotees),” says Kish. “We make sure that our retreats have a good balance of spirituality and relaxation. We give the best touristic experience that we are able to give. Everything is explained in a way that is understandable and our agenda is for everybody to have an enjoyable time.”
Since the Mayapuris are best known for their music, participants will savor live music during the daily yoga classes, and the band will give them hands-on workshops. “We teach how to play kartals (cymbals), mridanga (drum), and vocal lessons,” says Kish.
When it comes to eating, praying, and loving, that’s pretty much infused in everything they do. In fact, one of the translations of the word bhakta can refer to love. Love of the creator. Love of one another. Love of all living things.
“We encourage all to love the scenery, love the exotic and ancient places, love yourself by treating yourself to Ayurvedic treatments, love the Ganges river we will swim in, love the beautiful deities you will see, love one another on the tour, and love that you’re ready for an unforgettable adventure.”
In many parts of India, the love for all living things mean vegetarian food. Since cows are sacred in India, part of the tour includes an eco-farm where the participants can learn how to milk protected cows.
“We eat traditional food of South India and West Bengal and also throw in continental meals to balance it out. We all love our toast, tea, and cereals,” says Kish who straddles life in India with that of the U.S. and Latin America.
On the prayer side, participants will be introduced to different forms of prayer. “We do collective prayers in the form of Kirtan (chanting) and in individual prayer with Japa (meditation beads). We will have some Japa workshops and encourage all to chant every day. Happy faces make it easier for all of us to Chant and be Happy.”
“We try to make dancing in Kirtan as mandatory as possible,” jokes Kish.
It’s hard not to dance to the music of the Mayapuris. Their rhythms are almost hypnotic. Some have a reggae beat. Others are more traditional Indian style. Overall, their music is reflective of the cross-cultural essence of the young people that form the Mayapuris.
Immediately prior, Vish is partnering with another kirtan musician, Gaura Vani, to take people on a pilgrimage with one of India’s spiritual leaders, who happens to be a native Chicagoan. Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Home. The humble man, with a good sense of humor, has won numerous humanitarian awards, and just last week, was one of the religious dignitaries that met with the Pope in New York City. One of his visions was to build a 70-acre sustainable farming community and retreat center, north of Mumbai. Today, Govardhan Eco Village is an award-winning eco-community where the technology of modern science combines with Vedic wisdom.
The eco-community is the site of the first five days of this pilgrimage. “Next, we head to Mumbai for the epic Flower Festival where the dancing crowds are showered with two tons of flower petals. The week after that will be spent visiting the sacred sites of Maharashtra,” explains Gaura Vani.
“One of the special things about this year’s trip is it’s focused almost entirely on sacred music. This is the first time we’ve been able to do this.”
A Vedic healer, Ayurvedic practitioner, and yoga teacher, Laura Plumb is co-founder of the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. Having been to India eight times, she considers it her home — a place that she was drawn to all her life.
She offers two back-to-back retreats to Northern and Southern India. The first week is an introduction to Ayurveda, that includes lectures, practices, and treatments at an Ayurvedic Eco-village. The Southern India retreat also exposes participants to many of the great sages and their teachings.
Those who join her will embrace and experience the spiritual sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda from a deep Vedic perspective. A graduate of the Kerala Ayurveda Academy and American Institute of Vedic Studies, Plumb has devoted her life to these teachings.
“Our intention for this trip is to deeply experience Ayurveda and Spiritual Yoga from its source and dive into the incredible wisdom and light that India has to offer the Soul,” says Plumb.
To deepen one’s level of prayer and love, there will be plenty of bhakti, temple visits, and soul searching.
“We sing and chant as we travel,” says Plumb whose vocals are featured on her husband Bhava Ram’s CD. “We will be visiting temples of devotion everywhere we go. I teach the bhakti and will envelop each day with it… but most specifically, that occurs in Rishikesh where we have aarati (prayer) every evening and sing beautiful bhajans for one hour on the banks of ma Ganga (river), with the dipas and the homa and all that bliss.”
This trip is designed to help one go deeper in their practices. They will be immersed in meditation, awareness, Vedic history, and culture, along with plenty of silence.
“If you are open and present to it, transformation is inevitable for all that with be joining us. The unfoldment of this transformation will be unique to the individual depending on their intention, desire, and willingness to embrace the internal shifts as they occur through their the journey,” Plumb explains. “We hope to facilitate that evolution in YOU, including self-growth and awareness, personal liberation, and clarity of life purpose.”