Indian yoga capital Rishikesh hit hard by Covid-19 closures

NEW DELHI – As yoga has grown in popularity in recent years, foreign visitors have flocked to the northern Indian city of Rishikesh, which bills itself as the yoga capital of the world.

But the pandemic has hit the city of 100,000 on the banks of the Ganges, with international tourists unable to make it, and many of its yoga schools have been forced to close for much of the past year.

Kalpana Mishra, 45, mother of two, had to give up teaching yoga and meditation and finding a job at a lower paying local hotel. She drew on her savings to get by.

The pandemic has heightened the relevance of yoga in some ways, as many have turned to it not only for its physical benefits, but to combat the effects of social isolation and depression, according to the United Nations, which marks the June 21 as the International Yoga Day. The UN created the day in 2014, following a proposal from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Today, as the whole world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, yoga has become a beacon of hope,” Modi said on Monday.

Rishikesh, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas, attracted thousands of international tourists to its yoga schools each year before the pandemic.

Rishikesh has over 200 yoga schools within a few square kilometers of the city center.

Yoga practices originated in India over 2,500 years ago and have spread to the West over the past century. Located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, Rishikesh has served as a place for Hindu sages and pilgrims to meditate, pray, or stop over on their journey to the mountains. His spiritual bond has long drawn international visitors, including the Beatles in 1968, and later Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

Rishikesh has long attracted international visitors, including the Beatles in 1968.


Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The international popularity of yoga has given rise to a cottage industry in Rishikesh, training instructors. The city has more than 200 yoga schools within a few square kilometers of the city center.

Schools had to close abruptly when India announced a nationwide lockdown at the end of March 2020. Although schools were allowed to open after a few months last year, India did not allow resumption. international tourism, crushing the main source of income for most schools. .

Kalpana Mishra, a local yoga teacher, gave up teaching yoga and meditation for a lower paying hotel job.

“Until international flights resume, the future of yoga will remain bleak” in Rishikesh, Ms. Mishra said.

Shaleen Lawrence, a longtime yoga practitioner from Washington, DC, first came to Rishikesh in 2013 and has been there almost every year since. She was unable to visit this year and last year she was stranded in the city for more than two months after the national lockdown went into effect. Her flight back to the United States has been canceled several times and turned out to be very expensive, she said. Despite this experience, Ms Lawrence said she waited to return as soon as international flights to India restart.

“Rishikesh is a place that will always be in my heart and soul,” she said. “I’m just waiting for this madness to stop.”

The foreclosure created financial stress in Rishikesh. An empty guesthouse.


Sumit Dayal for the Wall Street Journal

Due to a statewide curfew amid Covid-19, the few visitors to Rishikesh today are Indians.

The city’s yoga centers were closed again in April, as one of the world’s worst waves of coronavirus swept the country and overwhelmed the healthcare system. Cases have also increased rapidly in Rishikesh.

Usha Devi, a 67-year-old teacher and director of Patanjala Yoga Kendra, said she and a member of her staff contracted the virus in April. A few weeks ago, there were days when 10 to 15 bodies were cremated on the banks of the Ganges. “It was really bad,” she said.

In a month to mid-May, more than 1,400 people have died from Covid-19 in Dehradun district, which includes Rishikesh, according to government data.

Covid-19 cases have declined in recent days, but centers are still closed due to a statewide curfew. The lockdown has created financial stress even for well-established schools like Patanjala Yoga Kendra, which have had no income for the past two months.

The Covid-19 crisis in India has resulted in a record number of cases and deaths. The WSJ breaks down the chain of events that led to the fastest growing wave of infection since the start of the pandemic, and what that means for the world. Photo: Samuel Rajkumar / Reuters

Ms. Devi’s center is somewhat sheltered as the school does not have to pay rent as part of an ashram, a religious abode for ascetics, spiritual seekers or Hindu pilgrims.

But most of the relatively new yoga schools are run in rented buildings and welcome international students to come for yoga teacher training. School teachers usually receive a portion of the money earned per group of students.

In 2018, Rishikesh received around 6,000 international visitors, according to government data.

Business has stalled at Yoganandham School, where 90% of the students were foreigners, said Manish Arora, a yoga teacher who founded it. Mr Arora, 35, said that last summer the school had to fire its seven yoga teachers, who had earned part of the school’s income as wages. The center reopened in March, just before closing again due to the recent wave.

Yashpal Rautela and other teachers offer yoga classes online, but few students have signed up.

Mr Rautela, left, leads an online course in a space normally filled with international students.

Teachers try different strategies to stay afloat. This month, teachers at Rishikesh Vinyasa School of Yoga started their first online teacher training course. Classes take place in the evening, to welcome students in Europe and the United States. Only six students registered for the last course offered. The income was just enough to help pay for the expenses, said Yashpal Rautela, one of the teachers, and no students have signed up for the course next month.

To cater to an Indian clientele, Rishikesh Yogpeeth, an upscale school, is offering new programs such as weight loss and digital detox. The school is also considering putting air conditioners in its bedrooms because “Indians are asking for it,” said Dhiraj Sharma, the school’s marketing manager.

Rishikesh Yogpeeth, an upscale yoga school nestled in the forest, offers alternative survival programs like weight loss.

For many young people in Rishikesh, yoga had provided an opportunity to advance into the middle class, but the pandemic blocked those dreams.

Vivek Rawat, 26, started teaching yoga in 2018. In some months, he was able to earn up to 55,000 rupees ($ 750), which is 10 times what his father made in his job at a local hotel, has he declared. Mr Rawat lives with his parents and younger sister and in 2019 bought the family vehicle, a two-wheeler. Mr. Rawat had dreamed of traveling abroad, inspired by the stories of the people of Rishikesh who had landed yoga teaching jobs in China and elsewhere.

Vivek Rawat’s dreams of traveling abroad are on hold for now.

In March, Mr. Rawat was brutally removed from his post at a local yoga school, and his father’s small hotel was also closed after the lockdown, decimating family income. Mr Rawat said he had put a few students online intermittently, which was barely enough to pay the rent and loan payments for the two-wheeler.

“It’s just a fight,” he said.

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