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It’s summer. Summer means obscene humidity, rooftop bars, and a sudden urge to spiritually cleanse oneself in every park imaginable. For many, however, a sun salutation is more than a recreational activity to enjoy between deliciously boozy beverages. Hundreds of thousands of eager yogis flock to cities like Rishikesh and Benares, spiritual nuclei nestled along the sacred Ganges River within the Indian state of Uttarakhand.
One response to the blossoming of spiritual tourism in the area is a growing concern for its environmental impact. The Ganges River is worshiped in Hinduism as the goddess Ganga and is revered by millions of Hindu followers. It’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
To be clear, yoga tourism is not the main source of pollution for the Ganges. Local manufacturing has ravaged the river and cities like Kanpur, with its 700 tanneries.
As Sonali Mittra of the Observer Research Foundation, a nonprofit that works to shape India’s environmental and economic policies, told Newsweek, “the poor and vulnerable river communities are often viewed as the major polluters but much research indicates that it is industries and urban centers who are more responsible.”
Nevertheless, yoga and wellness tourists by no means get a free pass to do whatever, whenever, in the name of spiritual wellbeing.
If there is no right, wrong, or true way to practice yoga perhaps the most environmentally and spiritually responsible thing to do is to abstain from pilgrimage.
While the main environmental villain is local industry, there are concerns inextricably tied to poor local infrastructure that is often ill-equipped to deal with the influx of pilgrims (both foreign and Indian).
The World Bank estimates that only a fraction of the 50 major cities along the Ganges River have adequate sewage treatment facilities. Rishikesh, one of the most popular destinations for foreign devotees, only has one sewage treatment plant. India’s Central Pollution Control Board has deemed it “insufficient” for the city’s population, let alone to accommodate the waste of pilgrims flocking to the Ganges for its sacred properties.
According to the Hindustan Times there are 1,500 hotels and ashrams dumping sewage directly into the Ganges near Rishikesh and other religiously significant cities.
It is true that there are some yoga festivals and centers that attempt to minimize their local environmental impact. Representatives from Parmarth Niketan, host of the immensely popular International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh, assured Vice that they make every effort to work with local officials to dispose of their waste properly instead of dumping it in the river.
But returning to that rather significant number of precisely one sewage treatment plant in the city… Yes, disposing of the trash from the festival in the proper dumping site is preferable to dumping it straight into the river. However, such efforts are nullified by the plant’s inability to accommodate it all.
The yoga you’re practicing isn’t authentic. None of it is, according to Professor Joseph S. Alter, a medical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying nature cure and yoga in India for several decades.
The image of yoga that is so familiar to American millennials, with bells and sun salutations, is but one tiny aspect of yoga, and a pretty recent one at that. Alter estimates you can trace it back to about 1920, ebbing and flowing in popularity to this day.
It’s not just that the form of yoga we recognize is recent, it’s that yoga as a whole is several thousand years old and has undergone a myriad of changes and cultural adaptations to the point that today, Alter tells BTRtoday, “yoga is no more any one thing than any form of belief in anything is.”
“There’s a lot of political investment in the idea that yoga is the essence of Indian tradition,” says Alter, but “the idea that there is some pure and authentic form of yoga that has to be preserved just doesn’t hold water.”
On the question of cultural appropriation, a common critique against westerners traveling to India for spiritual fulfillment, Alter does not think it’s as simple as accusing white people of cultural theft. He talks about the “spectrum” of opinion in India that ranges from those who are “very aware at the extent to which they are participating in a very contemporary cultural construction” with their yoga practice, yet “there are others who abide by the idea that what they are doing is a perfectly authentic form of something that is 2,000 years old.”
The moral of the story is that nobody can really say what yoga is or isn’t or how one should or shouldn’t practice it.
Furthermore, making a pilgrimage to the Ganges may not yield the spiritual epiphany that many in the U.S. seek. “Many yoga tourists come to India looking for something that they are not going to find–some sort of pristine, authentic form of ancient practice,” Alter explains. Because yoga as we know it is “very modern,” the pilgrimage can be “frustrating, alienating, and disappointing” when the search is for an ancient practice in a holy place.
If there is no correct way to practice, and if the path towards spiritual fulfillment via yoga has been twisted, curved, and utterly reshaped for hundreds, if not thousands of years, then there is no “need” to journey to Rishikesh, Benares, or other holy cities for pilgrimage.
Yes, the Ganges is sacred for many people who practice yoga, including those in the United States. But if there is any common thread between the many disparate forms of yoga it is a respect for the earth and its inhabitants. While trekking to these holy sites may be spiritually cleansing for some living in the United States, surely it would be equally if not more fulfilling to remain here and know that you will not negatively impact a sacred environment.