Foreigners flock to India's world yoga capital

Posted at 03/04/2011 10:19 AM | Updated as of 03/04/2011 10:19 AM

RISHIKESH - The Himalayan town of Rishikesh in northern India is welcoming hundreds of foreign tourists for its annual yoga festival, with visitors keen to learn the ancient art by the sacred River Ganges.

"Yoga doesn't flow in our veins like it does in Indians so I came here to go back to basics," said French yoga teacher Juliette Allard, 38, who lives in Barcelona and has been coming to the festival for the last three years.

"Rishikesh is yoga paradise," she told AFP.

Visitors from 36 countries have brought their yoga mats to learn about breathing, posture, chanting and nutrition from experts in all types of yoga in classes that start at 4:00 am and continue until sunset.

Alcohol and smoking are banned in cafes and restaurants throughout the town, as is meat, so as not to disturb the participants' "chakras" -- the seven major centers of spiritual energy in the body according to yoga philosophy.

"It's so inspiring to come here where yoga has its roots," said Daniela Lobeira, a 41-year-old from Mexico who works in animal protection.

The festival, which began on Tuesday, is now in its 12th year with tourists paying $600 to attend.

The Beatles visited Rishikesh in 1968 to learn about transcendental meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, helping to popularize ideas about Indian spirituality.

One US yoga teacher wearing a turban and calling herself Gurmukh Kaur Kalsa, attributed the presence of so many foreigners not just to yoga's increasing popularity abroad but also to "the absence of inner peace in the West".

"In Western countries, we try to get a good education, to make a lot of money, we don't find peace, we get sick," said Kalsa, who runs two yoga centers in New York and Los Angeles.

"But today priorities have changed: we now want to feel better, be closer to ourself. That's what yoga is."