At a recent yoga class in Rishikesh, India, the professed "world capital of yoga," a startling smattering of sounds bounced against the ashram walls: the chirp of a text message, the "swoosh" of an email sent, the ping of a Facebook update.
Digitally distracted yogis are to be expected in the pricey yoga studios of New York and LA, but this was Parmarth Niketan, the largest ashram in Rishikesh and one of many ashrams in the area that has long banked on promoting itself as a restorative retreat from the din of the West. What's more, this scene played out during the International Yoga Festival, a gathering of an estimated 1,200 yogis from around the world, many of them seeking a sense of self, and silence from their gadgets.
For decades, visitors to Parmarth Niketan stayed in spartan rooms, noshed on rice and vegetables, and rose at 4 AM for early kundalini yoga and chanting. Many by default relish in digital detoxing, leaving their phones and inboxes to collect dust and away from meditation halls.
That once included me. I was first drawn to the area two years ago, when I was reporting a story for The New York Times about the history of yoga. At the time, there was no Wi-Fi at Parmarth, and certainly no app, and leaders there told me they had drawn a line at including things like television sets and mini bars, but had added Western-style toilets and hot water.
But in recent years, Parmarth has added Wi-Fi to its grounds, in addition to cultivating a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This year, the Yoga Festival even had a smartphone app and a hashtag.
There were still some technical hiccups at Parmarth with the connection often cutting in and out, or not available throughout the grounds or overloading when many people tried to use it simultaneously. The quality of the connection will likely improve with time, however, as India pushes toward universal access.
This leaves organizers and yogis wondering: What is the right balance between using technology to spread the yoga gospel, without letting it clutter the mind?
Representatives from Parmarth did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
First class of the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh #iyf2016
A photo posted by Jules Febre (@hiphopasana) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24pm PST
Ashrams in Rishikesh and elsewhere have become big business as they and local tourism boards are hoping to entice more foreign tourists, with yoga's popularity in the West being a crucial draw. Meanwhile, India is trying expand broadband access to larger swaths of the 1.2 billion people who call the country home. In September, Google announced plans to install high-speed Wi-Fi access points at 400 rail stations in the country, part of Narendra Modi's Digital India Initiative. Most of India's internet users are under the age of 35, which has already helped create new jobs and educational opportunities for a new generation in the complex, often unwieldy developing country, particularly in rural communities and for women and children.
Still, the longtime sense of isolation of ashrams in towns like Rishikesh continues to be part of the original draw for Westerners, which has led to some debate in the yoga mecca.
"My intention was to come here and do yoga, not to work, not to surf the internet," Chuck Hipol, a yoga teacher in training from the Manila, Phillippines, said. In his first week in Rishikesh, he said he only checked his email twice, mostly to let loved ones know he was safe. But with internet available, "It's easy to get sucked in."
Others saw being able to digitally share their experiences at the ashram as a key part of the experience. Tao Tao, a yoga teacher from Beijing didn't take any chances. She bought her own local number and has been frequently checking the internet. She said she "couldn't live without it," particularly being able to send pictures and comments about her trip to her students back home.
"I need to let them know what it's like here," Tao said. "They think it's dirty, boring, but it's beautiful, so I'm posting pictures of things like flowers, things to show the energy of yoga." She also cited personal safety, as a woman traveling alone in India, as part of why she wanted to stay connected to friends and family.
There are some upsides to having internet, of course. Having better Wi-Fi may help yogis focus when not by their phones, some attendees said. "If the Wi-Fi was [at the ashram] and was better, people might be on it less," Chuck Doebler, a technical writer from State College in Pennsylvania. "Boom, boom, you'd be done and back to yoga. You have to set people's expectations appropriately."
Doebler said his travels will take him to Mumbai for work after Rishikesh and he's struggled to communicate and handle logistics, such as sending an image of his passport. "It's frustrating."
Even with her phone in hand, Linda Bottolfs, a teacher in sports science from Oslo, Norway, said she was trying to curb usage her first few days. "It's easy to get addicted to Facebook, all of that," she said. "It's both stressful and a relief to be away from that."
During her stay in Rishikesh, Bottolfs said her smartphone fell into a large metal bucket at the ashram's food hall containing dirty dishes and related food sludge, rendering her phone useless immediately after.
A power down and a few hours wait later, it eventually recovered. However, Bottolfs said she didn't feel the plunge wasn't a total accident, rather a reminder of trying to balance her life in and out of the ashram. Or, at least put the device on silent mode or off when she goes to yoga class.
"I took it as a sign," she said.