Yoga tourism is a rapidly growing trend, with yoga teachers everywhere taking their students on vacations designed to go deeper and relieve the stress of the modern working world.
Lately, yoga teachers who are also Krishna devotees have begun to offer their own uniquely spiritual version of yoga tourism.
One of these is Gopi Manjari Dasi (Gopi Kinnicutt), who is taking fourteen students on a twelve-day trip to the sacred places of Vrindavana, Haridwar, Dev Prayag and Rishikesh from April 7th to 18th this year.
Originally from the UK, Gopi grew up around devotees and was one of the first members of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s Pandava Sena youth group in the 1990s.
After years of living and serving at ISKCON ashrams, Gopi took up yoga to keep healthy. Then, when she moved to the United States with her American husband in 2002, she started up her own yoga studio, Yoga Mandali, in Saratoga Springs, upstate New York.
Today, she lives in Washington D.C. and teaches seven Vinyasa Flow yoga classes a week at three different yoga studios: The Flow Yoga Center, Hot Yoga USA, and Buddha B.
She weaves Krishna conscious elements into each class, teaching students about how to develop a relationship with the divine, and incorporating mantras such as the Hare Krishna mantra, Radhe Govinda, or Radhe Shyam along with breathing and asanas.
Meanwhile in her regular teacher training classes, Gopi has aspiring yoga teachers read the Bhagavad-gita and write an essay on how it personally applies to their lives.
In her Indian yoga retreats—which she has done once a year for the past five years—Gopi takes students even deeper, giving them the full spiritual India experience.
A yoga student with Sandipani Muni School students
“Often people feel like they need a vacation from their vacation,” she says. “I think yoga tourism is becoming so popular because people not only want to take time off work and go to a different place, but they also want an internal journey.”
During this year’s India Yoga Retreat, now underway, Gopi is taking students first to Vrindavana, the sacred town in Uttar Pradesh, North India, where Lord Krishna is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago.
They’ll spend the first day at Food For Life Vrindavana’s Sandipani Muni school, which provides free education, healthy meals and medical care for nearly 3,000 underprivileged children in three different campuses.
The yoga students will take a tour of the school, interact with the children, sponsor prasadam (sanctified food) distribution, and help distribute the prasadam throughout the day.
They’ll then visit the Samadhi Mandir of ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada, where Gopi Manjari will explain the importance of developing a relationship with a guru, before attending the 24-hour Kirtan at ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir.
Yoga students take a kirtan boat ride down the Yamuna
“For people to gain entrance to Vrindavana,” Gopi says, “They have to first serve the Brijbasis, perform service and receive the mercy of the guru.”
On the second day of the tour, those bravest among the students will rise at 4:00am for mangal arati, and participate in Vrindavana parikarama, a walking pilgrimage around the sacred town.
Then, in the afternoon, everyone will take an hour-long boat ride down the Yamuna, during which they will sing kirtan, meditate upon and talk about the sacred river. Docking at Keshi Ghat, they’ll experience the atmospheric Yamuna puja at 6pm, with its oversized ghee lamps and throngs of worshippers. Finally, they’ll take a guided tour of the temples of Gopisvara Mahadeva, Radha-Raman, and Radha Damodar.
“It’s a real experience for them, going into the heart of India,” Gopi says. “The puja and chanting of God’s names just penetrate into their very being. They don’t know what’s happening to them. But I do—I can see it!”
On the third day of the yoga retreat, some participants will do a walking pilgrimage of the sacred hill Govardhana. The entire group will then have a meditation and yoga practice at the lake Kusum Sarovara.
At the Taj Mahal with Sandipani Muni students
Next, the students will get a chance to do some typical tourist activities, staying in a five-star hotel in Agra and visiting the Taj Mahal. Then it’s on to Haridwar and Dev Prayag, where they’ll visit the temples of Manasi Ganga and Ranganath.
Finally, after the busy first leg of the trip, the final four or five days will be spent in relaxation in Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas.
“They’ll be staying in a beautiful hotel, getting spa treatments, going white water rafting and hiking,” says Gopi. “We’ll have nice sanga and kirtan and yoga, and they’ll have time to reflect and process their experiences.”
Of course, other parts of Gopi’s India Yoga Retreats are not this relaxing. The busier legs are quite different from the typical yoga retreat on a beach somewhere in the Bahamas. Newcomers to India can be overwhelmed by the country’s intensity and austerity.
But Gopi’s retreats truly change hearts, giving participants a higher taste—and that’s what she’s going for.
“Thank you for really showing us the heart of India,” students have told her time and time again.
Doing yoga in the Himalayas
After their first trip to India, many have returned for a second and third time. Many begin to visit the ISKCON D.C. temple for festivals and kirtans. Some start to chant Hare Krishna regularly and associate with devotees.
“They’re addicted,” Gopi says. “Of course, not everyone’s going to come to Krishna consciousness. But the seed has been planted.”
Gopi’s next plan is to expand her yoga tourism by taking groups to spiritual sites of other traditions as well. This September, she and kirtan artist Gaura Vani will host a retreat in Assissi, Italy, and explore the teachings of St. Francis, whom Srila Prabhupada described as having “first-class God consciousness.”
“Every year or two we want to go to a different spiritual place in the world, where we’ll excavate the teachings or the spirituality of that particular land and how it applies to our lives,” Gopi says.
She’ll also stick to her regular India retreat. In March next year, she plans to take a group of yoga students to Mayapur, the birthplace of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and Jagannath Puri, where its founder Chaitanya Mahaprabhu resided.
Gopi says she loves taking her yoga students on tour because she can give them ‘a fix’ of all five most potent devotional activities as described by Rupa Goswami—residing in a holy place, worshiping the Deity of the Lord, reciting the Srimad Bhagavatam, serving the devotees, and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra—in just two weeks.
Just as important, she feels, are the deep friendships that are established during the tours.
“I develop friendships with them, on a spiritual basis,” she says. “It’s a soul connection. And I think every human being is seeking that soul connection, based around Krishna, based around God.”