India is a dream destination for many yogis, but with so many ashrams and courses, how do you choose wisely? From the hardcore to the boutique, we select 10 of the best places to practise yoga
hough this list includes some of the best ashrams, retreats and shalas India has to offer, there are three notable omissions: T BKS Iyengars school in Pune, Pattabhi Joiss in Mysore, and the pan-Indian Sivananda Centre, excluded on account of their existing popularity and fame. They are highly recommended nonetheless. Several other places were vetoed on account of various scandals and disputes, and I have also excluded luxurious and obscenely priced retreats.
As with many things in India today, yoga doesnt necessarily come cheap but all of these are very good value given the quality of teaching on offer. Be advised that customer service in India isnt always the best, and some of the more traditional places might prove hard to contact. But be patient, persevere, switch to Indian-time and, if you must, see it as the first step in letting go of your ego.
One last thing: while yoga in the west focuses almost exclusively on the physical postures and sequences (asana), in India, particularly in traditional ashrams, asana is only one aspect of a wider whole. In this case one can expect a greater emphasis on meditation, breathing and cleansing techniques, along with devotional practices such as mantra chanting, tuition in philosophy, and karma yoga (community service).
Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar
At the sprawling Bihar School, yoga is a lifestyle not a practice, and karma yoga is given precedence over asana. So alongside classes expect hours of seva (service) including gardening, kitchen work and toilet cleaning supplemented by cold showers and a simple diet.
It may sound daunting, but comforts loss is authenticitys gain, and former students attest to the life-altering qualities a stint in this ashram can give. Days begin at 4am, and end with twilight satsangs (discourses) or kirtans (mantra chanting) before lights out at 8pm. Many yoga styles are taught, including Hatha, Raja (mental discipline), Kriya (breathing, chanting and ritual gesture) and yoga therapy, as well as Yoga Nidra, a deep meditative technique lulling the mind into a state neither awake nor asleep, developed by the ashrams founder Swami Satyananda Saraswati.
Open to all (beginner to advanced), year round (though in May-July, temperatures can reach 45C). The four-month residential course in yogic studies starts every October, around 1,200 for international students including accommodation and all meals. biharyoga.net Purple Valley, Assagao, Goa
Photograph: Coni Hrler/Purple Valley Yoga
If youre a modern yogi craving India plus detox juices and fast Wi-Fi, with access to the worlds best Ashtanga teachers (John Scott, Petri Raisanen, Alexander Medin), Goas Purple Valley is your place. Despite its hardcore reputation, beginners are not only welcome but encouraged, making it a great place to kick-start your Ashtanga training, with Mysore-style self-practice in the morning and special classes in the afternoons, including philosophy, yogic living, kirtans and pranayama.
The retreat is spread over two Portuguese-style houses and landscaped gardens with a tropical forest feel. Two international and one Ayurvedic chef prepare buffet meals that include the likes of masala millet crepes and soy burgers. Consultations with Ayurvedic doctors and massage therapists are also offered. Once the preserve of foreign students, Purple Valley now has a growing Indian following.
Open from mid-October to late April. Full-board is 590/890 for one/two weeks in a shared room, or 750/1,100 in a single room. yogagoa.com Kaivalyadhama Ashram, Lonavala, Maharashtra
Set within 180 acres of parkland at Lonavala, a hill-station between Mumbai and Pune, this ashram, designed as a yogic research centre when it opened in 1924, is the kind of place you can spend days, months or even years immersed in its myriad programmes. The ashrams school offers diplomas and fully accredited degrees for yoga teachers, along with shorter courses for both beginners and advanced students, while the health centre where Gandhi was an early patient after a breakdown in 1927 has week-long packages that include yoga with a focus on either relaxation, naturopathy or Ayurveda. Youll stay within the leafy, old-fashioned campus, at the health centre or in the rooms of the main hall, some of which are air-conditioned. The diet throughout is organic Indian vegetarian.
Open all year. 42 a week for yoga with naturopathy, 115 a week for yoga with Ayurvedic treatment; accommodation starts at 67 a week for a shared room and goes up to 425 for a cottage. The year-long diploma in yoga therapy is 4,255, including accommodation and all meals. kdham.com Mysore Krishnamachar Yoga Shala, Mysore, Karnataka
Mysore, in the southern state of Karnataka, is one of Indias most popular yoga destinations. Photograph: David Pearson/Rex
BNS Iyengar, who has taught quietly in his Mysore shala for the last 38 years, was one of the original students of super-guru Krishnamacharya, the teacher of the famous BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, founders of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga respectively.
His classes include Ashtanga yoga asanas (the sequence differs from the main Ashtanga institutes, with a 55 minute primary series) pranayama (breathing), kriya (breathing, chanting, gesture), neti and dhauti (cleansing techniques), meditation and philosophy, all of which are taught as part of a teacher training course. BNS has a steady following despite or perhaps because of his brutal style.
Think of him as a cantankerous old kung-fu master whose tough love hides a deep-seated desire for his students to prosper. Students are required to register for a minimum of one month. Accommodation is provided nearby at extra cost, otherwise there are plenty of rooms to rent around this yoga-friendly city.
Open all year; next teacher training begins on 4 July 2016. 65 for a month of morning classes; 650 for a month-long teacher training course (excluding accommodation). bnsiyengar.net . Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre, Dharamkot, Himachal Pradesh & Arambol, Goa
Downward dog Arambol beach in northern Goa is wide quiet, perfect for practising yoga. Photograph: Ami Vitale/Getty Images
An old student of BKS Iyengar, Sharat Arora became well-known in yoga circles for his serious and dedicated approach to the tradition. His school, the Himalayan Iyengar
Yoga Centre (HIYC), spends summers in Dharamkot, a picturesque Himalayan village above the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mcleodganj, and winters in Arambol, the former hippy beach town in the far north of Goa.
All students, regardless of ability, must first complete the compulsory five-day course before progressing onto teacher training and specialised courses such as yoga therapy, yoga for Vipassana, and yoga with Ayurveda. Besides the respected teaching, the centres summer location, a mountain in the shadow of glaciers, set amid oak, rhododendron and pine forests not to mention the Dalai Lamas nearby residence is a real draw.
Dharamkot open mid-February to late October; Arambol from November to end of March. Five-day courses start at 42 (accommodation extra). hiyogacentre.com Phool Chatti, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand
Built beside an ancient pilgrimage route on the banks of the river Ganges, 5km upriver from Rishikeshs famous Laxman Jhula suspension bridge, the ashram taps into the holy towns spiritual vitality while eschewing its chaotic hustle.
Though the ashram is under the stewardship of Swami Dev Swarup Nanda, most classes are led by yoga director Sadhvi Lalitambay, who has lived here since she was 15. The seven-day yoga course includes meditation, mantra chanting, neti-pot cleansing (a nasal cleaning technique), pranayama, asana practice, prayer, kirtans and plenty of discussion around yoga philosophy. Meditative walks, hiking and river dips are also included.
The ashram itself is over 100 years old but the building was renovated recently, so rooms come with some modern comforts, including hot showers. Couples can share rooms. Outside treats are permitted, but the food prepared in-house is very good.
Open February-May & September-December. The seven-day course is 110, including accommodation in a shared room, all yoga classes and three meals. phoolchattiyoga.com Mysore Mandala, Mysore, Karnataka
With a tranquil, century-old house and charming cafe supplied by the owners organic farm, this is Mysores prettiest yoga space closer to a western style studio than a traditional ashram, but no less authentic for it. Ashtanga is the focus (this is Mysore after all) but theres a wide range of other classes to choose from, including hatha, shatkriya (cleansing), backbending and pranayama as well as instruction in Sanskrit and lessons in the yoga sutras. Teacher training is very highly regarded here; led by a team of nine teachers, it includes the aforementioned branches, alongside classes in anatomy and Ayurveda.
Daily drop-in is 6; 95 for a month of morning classes, 990 for the one-month teacher training, including food and accommodation. ashtanga.org Omkarananda Patanjali Yoga Kendra, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand
Swiss born Usha Devi is a strict adherent of BKS Iyengar and his famously precise but therapeutic style, and the ashram in which she teaches, on the banks of the Ganges just outside Rishikesh, is as functional and austere as her instruction is straight from the source. You wont find any teacher training or certifications here, only daily drop-in classes (for beginners and intermediate) for which no early registration is required, and a nine-day intensive course for which three years regular practice in Iyengar yoga is a prerequisite. Rooms are available on site, and the nearby town is teeming with guesthouses.
Classes run from October to May. One week (beginners) is 11; one week (general) 16; accommodation in the ashram from 6-9 per night. iyengaryoga.in International Center for Yoga Education and Research, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu
Walking the elephant to the temple in Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Photograph: Alamy
This coastal gurukul (guru centre) is arguably the most traditional and immersive on this list, teaching a classical style that embraces all eight limbs of yoga. Famous for their six-month teacher-training course which requires the completion of a year-long correspondence course before youre even eligible to apply, and to which only 10 students per year are accepted this is not for the casual yogi, but, for the bold, the rewards are abundant, with a depth and breadth of teaching thats remarkable.
Having said all that, they run a three-week course on Yantra, the science of number, name and form, alongside daily yoga and pranayama practice. All courses are residential, with a strict vegetarian diet, a no-alcohol, no-drugs policy, and very limited contact with the outside world.
The three-week Yantra course is held once a year in February and costs 625, including accommodation and all meals. icyer.com The Yoga House, Mumbai, Maharashtra & Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Morning prayers on the ghats of the river Ganges in Varanasi, that most holy of Indian cities. Photograph: Bhishma Choudhary
A modern, bright and welcoming space in the lively Mumbai neighbourhood of Bandra, which seeks to link traditional Indian knowledge and practice with a contemporary health-conscious lifestyle. If youre coming from, say, London or New York, or are desperate to discover the real India (whatever that might be) it could feel a little too close to home, but youd be foolish to dismiss this place. The Yoga House is a sanctuary, the teaching is first-rate, and the cafe food (both western and Indian vegetarian) is exceptional. Whats more, they recently opened a new shala and boutique hotel in Varanasi, that most holy of Indian cities. Styles (for beginner and advanced) include Hatha Vinyasa, Iyengar and Ashtanga. Daily drop-ins and monthly class passes are available. They also run retreats around the country.
In Mumbai, drop-in classes 7 or 42 for an eight-class pass; no accommodation. In Varanasi (open Oct-March), 5 for a yoga class; rooms 28-35 per night including breakfast. yogahouse.in