Rishikesh Uncovered – Part II: ‘Synthetic Cow’

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Inspired by a series of interviews with well-known Master Yogi Rajeev Maken


There are times when I have to bow my head in shame at the mess we’ve created on this beautiful planet. It seems my choice in which documentaries I have watched recently has had a huge impact on my awareness. Being a consumer and understanding what the word consumption means are two totally different things. As a yoga teacher I feel it is my duty to spread this knowledge to support a wider realization that many of us are too naïve or ignorant to confront.

The word consumer (shopper, purchaser or end user) is contradicted by such a negative term as consumption* which delves into our gluttonous greed and more negative terms like ingestion; feasting; feeding; eating; drinking; intake and worst of all depletion. Yes, slowly but surely we are running out of everything including time to reverse all the damage we are doing to our countries, our societies and closer to home our communities and families.

What is more important than the truth? THE TRUE COST a feature length documentary film that explores the impact of fashion on people and the planet left me bewildered, upset and ashamed. When Gandhi chose to wear khadi (handspun and hand-woven cloth from India) he was making a statement which should have had a much wider more global appeal. Khadi is not just a cloth it is a whole movement started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Khadi movement promoted an ideology, an idea that Indians could be self-reliant on cotton and be free from the high priced goods and clothes which the British were selling to them. Thus the spinning wheel became an iconic symbol in India representing the dynamism of a peaceful change.

20130609_094423As I walked the streets of Rishikesh I’m reminded of this* when I see the trash piles and the emaciated cows gorging on plastic bags and waste. It was my first chance encounter with Rajeev Maken and his one-word comment ‘substandard’, that confirmed my suspicions which were slowly uncovering Rishikesh and the business of yoga. Once shrouded in a spiritual veil the business of yoga, money and politics has brought a new dimension to the yoga capital. For me Rishikesh consists of two very different worlds, Ram Jhula signifying a more rural, local and spiritual energy whereas just a kilometre north Lakshman Jhula has become over inhabited with commercial business, guesthouses and all that is yoga. Ayurveda advertisements spill out into the streets offering Ayurvedic remedies, massages and cleansing treatments. The reality of yoga feels like an illusion as I have withdrawn over the weeks and become an observer, unfortunately doing almost no yoga due to battling general health, contradictory to what the signs have told me.

Aggressive advertising by yoga schools and ashrams deface natural and public areas along the Ganga River

My return to Rishikesh was bitter sweet from the onset, filled with mixed emotions and contradictions. So when my body began to reject the environment I was in I was forced to take a step back. This is when I became an observer and as the weeks progressed began to question the business of yoga, in this region specifically, its teachers and ‘gurus’.

One thing I will never be is an Indian or a Hindu, as alluring as the spiritual aspects and some family values are, to integrate into this culture would be to renounce everything and start one’s life over. Just trying to understand the layers of tradition is such a vast undertaking that I don’t have enough time for, and I don’t believe that is my purpose. However, that certainly doesn’t stop the niggling thoughts and prying questions that must be answered. This is after all my third trip to the country and a massive investment.

I’d like to think my intent for knowledge and understanding, as well as the hand of the Universe, had a lot to do with my first encounter with 46 year old Rajeev Maken. A rather lean and unsuspecting middle-aged man, confidently 16 years of age in his own eyes, with such a wealth of experience and knowledge in all aspects of yoga. I was later to do my own research and found out just who it was that I had stumbled upon…I couldn’t believe it! His excessive accomplishments are significant to his yoga journey throughout India and now globally as is his love for animals and his environment. His intention to prove and improve the importance of yoga is undeniable having won various medals at state championships. Rajeev represented India in the 2003 World Championships in Portugal and led the Indian Yoga Team with the title of Official Coach through various Yoga Championships at National and International Levels.

Rajeev Maken – Master Ashtanga Teacher

Here in India yoga teacher training is inaccessible to most ‘men on the street’ as prices will continue to climb annually and ashrams will continue to break away from the conventional, increasing their foreign student intakes and taking over guest houses and hotels to accommodate more students than professionally or ethically acceptable. Recent trends by the state to introduce yoga into schools will no doubt have a massive positive impact on the popularity of yoga with locals. “However”, says Maken, “to prepare the body and mind in one month to produce a competent teacher under the current 200 hour yoga teacher training regulations is not possible.”

Says Rajeev “One prerequisite as a yoga teacher should be the teacher’s complete honesty with his or her students”. I prefer to use the word transparency, and that certainly is not the case with many teachers here in Rishikesh. That also leads me to considering a long list of questions that every person anticipating studying here should be asking before they pay their hefty ‘in advance’ fee to the yoga school or ashram of choice. Please believe me when I tell you even our own teachers shifted classes and changed schedules; our Swami left the country on another endeavour and our anatomy teacher (an Indian doctor from California who had never done yoga before) left for an emergency in the second week never to return. Many students became severely ill throughout the course and some were so despondent they left early. Of course they still received their certificate. On a worse note stories of abuse and molestation arose during and after the course which involved private teachers and other ashrams in Rishikesh.

After reaffirming my ideas that most or all the yoga schools here in Rishikesh are substandard (a term Rajeev used with sincerity) I could not pass on the opportunity to dissect his brain for more information.


Unlike some of the teachers I have met Rajeev takes responsibility for guiding members through invigorating and encouraging yoga practices offering fitness counselling in conjunction with asanas. He has a dynamic ‘hacker’ approach to the subject with an intent on working beyond the boundaries of what the West has come to know as Yoga. Safety is of utmost importance and as he discusses the benefits of beginning a yoga practice with members he also safely guides groups through a series of revitalizing and rejuvenating asanas to prepare the body for a more rigorous Ashtanga workout. When you watch Rajeev’s expressions whilst talking about yoga and demonstrating poses his passion to reinvent the word is evident.

Rajeev manipulating a frozen shoulder injury during my yoga teacher training

This takes me back to the start of my 300 hour course and my views on my husband’s 200 hour course which ran in conjunction at the same ashram. After travelling for a month our bodies were tired and stiff, this said we had no idea what other students had experienced prior to their arrival in Rishikesh or how they were feeling. It was straight into an intensive routine from day one giving little thought to what ground work and restorative postures were needed to ‘open’ the body. By day two we were all in absolute agony and some had already pulled muscles, a bad start to a month of torture was all I could think of. I was very aware of the need for restorative training as well as the encouraging use of tools and equipment to help students. I was introduced to this Iyengar method during my 200 hour teacher training which took place in Rishikesh in 2013 in a very different yet more acceptable environment.

When perusing Rajeev’s profile and seeing how much emphasis was placed on safety through the use of proper equipment and accurate demonstration during class I realized I was speaking to a new level of teacher, one with dexterity. His attendance at training workshops to ensure current fitness training techniques and trends are recognized also means the right advice to individuals on the correct method of exercising with fitness equipment and a host of additional benefits for newbie teachers especially those who will teach beginners in the future. Perhaps many young and flexible new teachers will walk away from this environment into a professional studio expecting that all their students will know a pose as it is called out, but then that is not an honest approach and will hinder any growth in one’s teaching and own personal accomplishments, and it certainly won’t change anyone else’s life on a mind and spirit level.


On the 27th November 1969 Rajeev Maken was born into an average household in Rohdak, Hariyana, New Delhi. Under the guidance of his father he began learning yoga at the young age of five. In 1997 during his preparations for the Yoga Competition in Brazil Rajeev had an almost fatal accident which left him partially paralysed from the waist down and unable to move his toes. Rajeev was forced to leave years of prior training, competitions and teaching to rehabilitate himself through the use of yoga. He started a practice working 6 to 7 hours each day whilst his mother and father took turns massaging him with special oils mixed by Rajeev.

These efforts spanned over a six year period finally bringing Rajeev to win the national title despite continued pain from unhealed injuries. Excessive reading during these years and a keen interest in physics, anatomy and physiology introduced Rajeev to new dimensions of yoga including continued use of yoga as therapy and creative advanced new restorative training. Meeting Rajeev at this time rewarded me with many answers and a general acceptance of what is. It is Rajeev’s educated and sure approach that students should undergo a lengthier teacher training even benchmarking six months minimum. Says Rajeev, ‘We are always a student and this is a life process but Rishikesh is producing mushrooms not yoga teachers‘.

In 2005 during her short visit to Rishikesh Miss Korea too came across Rajeev Maken who escorted her back to her home to fulfil a two year teaching post as her personal trainer. Here he was able to learn to read and write the local language, but most importantly the opportunity gave him the time to perfect his teaching skills and design a unique and progressive yoga program incorporating various grading methods in standard, intermediate and advanced yoga. Nutrition became a very important part of the process and he has contradictory views on vegetarian and non-meat diets emphasizing the necessary intake of milk, dairy or meat as a vital source of protein, much needed in intensive yoga training. Rajeev found himself back home in New Delhi after a misunderstanding at a gym escalated into an incident where his arm was broken. Continued involvement with yoga centres and intervals of teaching opportunities over the years, including being responsible for the selection of the Delhi regional yoga team and continued personal efforts for his second rehabilitation, has brought Rajeev to the start of a new chapter of opportunities in his life.


I think it’s very important for us as yoga teachers to remember that what we have learnt here, perhaps for the first time in Rishikesh, is just an introduction to yoga and by no means confirms our capabilities as yoga teachers beyond the words on the freely given certifications. It’s a poor yet wealthy mess of contradictions which would take more experience on my part before I could tell that knowledge wisely.

IMAG6383I am speaking by observation and not biased opinion; in fact I’ve had my thoughts affirmed even though I hoped for the contrary. Rajeev Maken blatantly, in the most positive way, said it like it is. To some degree his history in the ‘sport’ has given him enough credibility to believe that even his opinion counts and the display of frames which fanned him on the floor were proof of that. It is his humble understanding that he is still learning every day from life and yoga which puts an honest spin into his encounter of the political turmoil the business of yoga presents. His academic achievements brings me to a third reason why I had to listen and could not discard that he has a unique advantage to being a yogi amplified by his attitude and unforeseen detachment from the yoga society in India. He too seemed to answer without opinion but rather unprompted and spontaneous remarks without much further thought, adamant that I include in this article how he has always indulged in alcohol and smoking.

So the nitty gritty is, yes, India is making money out of the West by turning out mushrooms instead of teachers. Let’s hope these teachers will in fact return to the source as one does when they involuntarily fall in love with India to explore and further their teaching with the understanding that even as teachers we will always be students.