A Himalayan yoga adventure awakens a passion for giving.
Travel is not just an opportunity to get away from the every day and kick back for a while. For many of us – particularly the yoga practitioner – travel can also be an opportunity to grow as a person, to take our practice to a new level and to give back.
A New Zealand-based charity has created a unique adventure holiday for yoga students that combines yoga, spectacular scenery, an authentic cultural experience and the opportunity to help others through service – karma yoga or what the Bhagavad Gita calls “discipline of action”.
The first step
First Steps Himalaya (FSH) runs a range of “Great Adventure” holidays to support the organisation’s work in rural Nepal with children in disadvantaged communities. Established in 2008, FSH runs early childhood centres in 18 rural villages and has recently expanded its work to provide much-needed support to primary schools so that children continue to receive quality education as they progress through school. Hundreds of children have already benefitted from improved teaching and child friendly methods.
The Great Yoga Adventure takes lucky travellers truly “off the beaten track” – to hill villages, on spectacular treks and jungle safaris. Groups stay in accommodation that varies from village lodges to stylish hotels and resorts. But don’t expect to be pampered – these trips are designed for the adventurous type, while the colourful cultural experience is for those with an interest in learning about other cultures.
Durga Aran, Founding Director of FSH, personally plans and leads each Yoga Adventure. Durga’s amazing capacity to make everything run smoothly combined with his knowledge, passion for what he does and infectious smile make this tour unique for each traveller. His ability to cope with almost anything comes from a tough upbringing in rural Nepal. Facing numerous challenges as a child and young man, he now provides young Nepalis with the childhood and education that he missed out on.
Durga says that the concept of the Yoga Adventure came to him while he was chatting to a Kiwi yoga teacher. She immediately saw the opportunity to put karma yoga into practice and brought her students along to get involved in the charity’s projects.
Since then, yoga teachers and students from all over Australia and New Zealand have been getting involved and sharing the Yoga Adventure.
The journey begins…
The Yoga Adventure begins in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, where the group have the chance to get to know each other and practise yoga together at some of the city’s famous World Heritage site landmarks. One of the highlights on your first day is yoga on the ancient stupa at Boudhanath. Surrounded by prayer flags, Tibetan refugees circumnavigate, turning prayer wheels through clouds of burning incense to the sounds of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.
The original stupa dates back to 600AD when a Tibetan king married a Nepali princess. The mandala-shaped base of the stupa symbolises the earth, the dome symbolises water and the pinnacle represents the ether. With the Buddha’s eyes staring over you in four directions, this has to be one of the most spiritual places in the world to practise yoga!
Breakfast is served at a rooftop cafe looking down on the colourful cultural feast below, where you’ll have time to shop for prayer flags, Tibetan thangka paintings, singing bowls and prayer wheels. In the evening, you can take part in one of several group meals in a local Kathmandu restaurant (many of the meals are included in the trip price, but there are also ample opportunities to go off, explore and do your own thing while you’re in Kathmandu and Pokhara).
The trip then moves on to an outdoor adventure resort close to the Tibetan border. Getting to the retreat requires the crossing of a rather un-resort-like suspension bridge – strung across a 160 metre deep gorge!
People come here to bungy jump off the bridge but acrophobes can relax once they’ve crossed – there’s a tranquil side to the resort that offers space for yoga, relaxation and the opportunity to completely unwind – read a book in a hammock, take a dip in the plunge pool or enjoy a relaxing massage from the fully-trained, locally-employed village women.
You’ll get to spend two nights here, in a luxury tented camp set in lush gardens that you’ll share with huge butterflies and tropical plants. At night, the sound of cicadas humming and the rushing water of the Bhote Khosi river below will lull you to sleep…
The adventures continue
Another Adventure highlight you can opt for is a three-night jungle safari at Chitwan National Park – including a rare opportunity to try yoga on an elephant’s back. Between yoga sessions in the resort’s tropical garden, you’ll watch rhino wallowing in marshy ponds from the safety of your elephant as it gracefully meanders along jungle paths. If you’re lucky, an early morning canoe ride with a guide will be followed by a welcome cool-down as young elephants playfully spray trunkfuls of water over you.
But if you’re up for something more strenuous, you’re definitely in the right place – this is trekking country, after all. Yoga trekking is relatively new, but it’s becoming increasingly popular in Nepal. Every trek is tailor-made to suit each individual group – it can be anything from a five-night trek in the stunning Annapurna range with yoga on mountain tops to more serious treks for more experienced walkers.
Each day, trekking offers new physical challenges as well as stunning views of rice fields, rhododendron forests and panoramic mountain vistas. Along the way you’ll visit tea house lodges – many of which are run by ex-Gurkha soldiers – and at the end of each day’s trek, yoga and peaceful meditation are the perfect way to wind down.
Following the trek, there’s time to relax at a luxurious spa resort in Pokhara, which is set on a lake with a backdrop of some of the world’s highest mountains. Pokhara is the adventure sports capital of Nepal, and so there is something for everyone – paragliding and rafting, boating, cycling and day hikes. But if you prefer something more leisurely, you can just relax at one of the numerous lakeside cafes, shop for yoga clothes, have a massage or take a dip in the pool.
The “real” Nepal
While the scenery and activities on a Great Yoga Adventure are unique, it’s the experience of the trust’s project villages that is the real highlight for most. This is where deep and long-lasting connections are made. Durga leads each group on a trail across rice terraces to attractive, traditionally-built stone and mud lodges offering welcoming homestay accommodation. A wooden staircase leads to the simple earth floored bedrooms, your home for the next few days.
Here, you’ll experience the “real” Nepal with your friendly hosts, Surya and Gyan Tamang and their families. There is a western toilet and shower room outside, and FSH recently invested in a hot water system for guests. Hot water is a real luxury in this area. Food is hygienically prepared and there are large platefuls of traditional Nepali food, dal bhat tarkari (rice, mild vegetable curry and lentils).While the women of the house conduct Nepali cooking lessons over the open fire in their kitchens, their husbands hover over the dining table ensuring that everyone is happy and well fed. The locals here delight in sharing their culture with guests.
Originally from Tibet, the Tamang people migrated to Nepal hundreds of years ago and make up one of the largest ethnic groups. Buddhist prayer flags adorn village houses and babies hang in baskets as their mothers work in the fields. To save their backs, women wrap metres of cloth tightly round their waists as they bend for hours at a time.
Your group will work to transform yet another classroom in a once-neglected school.
At sunrise, while the villagers tend their goats and buffalo, you’ll start your day with yoga practice at the village school. After breakfast – eaten al fresco – Durga will take you to visit FSH project schools. Paint brushes are handed out and within a couple of hours, your group will have worked alongside the community to transform yet another classroom in a once-neglected school.
FSH staff train teachers and provide ongoing supervision and monitoring to facilitate child-friendly education. Trained school and pre-school teachers on the Adventure are invited to hold training workshops for local staff. Other guests help create outdoor play areas, teach English and make resources for classrooms.
The five-day Tihar festival of light and colour is celebrated at harvest time in October or November each year. Houses are repainted and decorated with lights and flowers. Brothers and sisters place a tikka (coloured powder) on each other’s foreheads and exchange gifts. Yoga Adventurers at this time of year get the chance to join the celebrations as guests of Durga’s family in his village, receiving tikka and garlands of yellow and orange marigolds.
The daily routine of waking up to watch the sun rise over the Jugal Himal mountains, doing yoga, meditating, talking to the locals and helping to make a real difference to the community’s children is hard to leave behind. The genuine warmth and hospitality offered by these villagers is truly touching, and many guests remain in contact with their host family after they return home.
Some adventurers go home to raise funds for the trust. One woman has raised over $5000 to set up and run two new projects at the school next to her homestay. She plans to return with more teachers to assist with further training. A Perth couple are returning to construct sail shades at pre-schools.
Everyone who has been on a Great Yoga Adventure goes away with a piece of the village in their heart. Expect many tears as your group says one final “Namaste” and you depart for Kathmandu and home.