Meditations on the global economic crisis

RISIKESH, India — In between daily meditations and watching dramatic reenactments of
Hindu myths on the spiritual TV channel Star Utsar, yogic monk Joyantananda Saraswati tends to his students.

An enthusiastically yelled “Almost good!” is his reward for visitors who push their bodies further into an elaborate pose, or asana.

But that phrase could also describe business in this northern Indian town of Rishikesh, as the global financial crisis extends even to this remote area in the Himalayan foothills.

Last year, 250 visitors studied at Saraswati’s teeny ashram perched over a bend of the fast flowing Ganges River. In the first two months of 2009, only 10 have come.

The decline is even more noticeable at the 8th International Yoga Festival. This year, 325 students have paid the $400 for a week's tuition and board, a 35 percent drop from last year.

Mostly Americans canceled,  festival volunteer workers said. Apart from the financial crisis, a few e-mail cancellations specifically mentioned November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Festival participant Xi Zhuang is certain that deadly siege, which killed more than 170 people, affected tourists from China. “The flight here was so empty I could lie down and sleep,” she says of the Beijing-Delhi route she'd been warned would be packed.

Yet for those who have arrived in Rishikesh — 40 years after the Beatles penned large parts of the White Album in an ashram hidden in the nearby jungle — the focus is on the spiritual.

Asked about the financial woes at home, Toni Greene of Clinton, Maryland, quizzically cocks her turban-adorned head. “If there is a lion here, can we shoot it? Can we outrun it?” she asks. “No, we can only offer it to God.”

Clothed in a mixture of high-tech Western workout gear and colorful, local tourist garb, students flooded the marble clad bank of the Ganges one recent night to hear the ashram's spiritual head Swami Chidanand Saraswati sing before an open fire. Visitors from 35 countries sat next to the ashram's young disciples, robed in orange.

For the local economy, yoga tourism is very important, said I. Singh of the Uttarakhand’s Tourism Development Board, which helps promote the yoga festival here. More than 500,000 tourists visited Rishikesh last year, including foreigners and Indians.

Rahul Sharma, a pharmacy owner in the ashram-laden Swargashram area on the eastern river bank, estimates this year’s drop at 30 percent. “We depend on all these tourists,” he says.

The festival usually brings a 10 to 20 percent increase in his business, but Sharma also relies on tourists studying at other local ashrams, hiking in the jungle or white water rafting.

Bosnian-German yoga teacher Gabriella Bosic, who co-founded three studios in Munich, believes the tide will turn. “Americans are security orientated,’” she says of their lesser attendance this year.

Bosic brought a group of 25 students to Rishikesh, where she is teaching at the festival, and says the German yoga industry is doing well.

On recent trips to Hawaii and Los Angeles, Bosic noticed no decrease in the interest in yoga. “People may not be shopping in boutiques,” she says, “but they come to class.”

Sundari Ram, who owns and runs the Deep Yoga teaching school in San Diego with her husband, says some studios there have reported a slight decrease in attendance. She has seen one-on-one private consultations halve but enrollment in the cheaper workshops go up.

Yoga, of course, is big business. The U.S. yoga industry pulled in $5.7 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase since 2004, according to a survey commissioned by Yoga Journal magazine. Some 14 million were recommended yoga by a doctor or therapist.

Americans and other devotees may need the practice more, as the economic crisis continues. “Without downplaying that there are people suffering, this recession we see as an opportunity to reconnect with dharma, the right way," Ram says.

Like Bosic, Ram is optimistic about the future of yoga in the West. She was delighted to hear from a colleague, who met then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally, that the ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita figured among his favorite books.

But that's little comfort here in Rishikesh as the local yogis sit, meditate, and wait for more students.

Other GlobalPost dispatches from India:

Surfin' swamis

Monkey see, monkey don't

Slum Tours, Inc.

For more on the global economic crisis:Click here for the full report