Combining yoga, meditation, trekking and Nepal’s incredible mountain scenery could be just the thing to breathe new life into your practice.
By Rebecca Boteler
Om Mani Padme Hum—it’s a mantra in which I am totally immersed. Written on the countless colourful prayer flags strung up along mountain paths and chanted at night with my fellow trekkers, it is recited in my head with almost every step I take during a 10-day yoga trek through Nepal’s Annapurna region. Over almost 80 kilometres, that’s a lot of chanting.
The Tibetan mantra has endless definitions, but one interpretation is “hail to the jewel of the lotus”, and it’s meant to invoke the Buddha of Compassion, a helpful companion on this amazing adventure.
READY, SET, GO
My trek starts from the pretty town of Pokhara, where my trekking company Purna Yoga & Treks has its main office, as well as a cute lakeside yoga studio. The seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu is hair-raising, but provides great views. It is, however, the kind of journey I only want to experience once. On the way back, I opt for the 50-minute flight instead.
My group, including three other trekkers, a yoga teacher, a guide and four porters, is driven to the small town of Nayapul where we put our legs into action. The start of the trek is mostly along cobblestone alleyways, which wind their way up through picturesque villages, past restaurants, shops and schools. Village children and adults alike greet us with hands in prayer coupled with the call of “Namaste”.
The pace on the first day is slow and steady as we give our bodies the chance to adjust to the higher altitude. The scenery is spectacular; the cliff-side villages give way to mountain greenery, waterfalls and swinging bridges adorned with colourful prayer flags.
After we arrive at the teahouse, where we’ll spend the night, our group takes the opportunity to sunbake on the lawn and get to know each other. But the ease of the first day belies how tough some of the days ahead will be.
Reality certainly hits on day three of the trek (which we later humorously refer to as “The Unmentionable Day”). It starts at 4 a.m. in the freezing cold and pitch black as we climb up Poon Hill (elevation 3210 metres) for sunrise. Climbing at this altitude leaves me struggling for breath, but watching the sun slide up from behind the snow-capped mountains, bringing the world to life, makes the effort absolutely worth it. Unfortunately, it’s on the way down that I realise I’ve made a tactical error; I haven’t brought any walking sticks.
Anyone who’s done a lot of trekking will tell you it’s not going up that’s the hardest, it’s coming down. And on day three, there’s over 1000 metres of coming down. Add rain, then hail, on top of a painful knee and my limits are already being tested. But this is where my spiritual training is put into practice; it’s a case of mind over matter. I have to breathe deep, be patient and focus my mind on sending positive thoughts to my knees to get through a challenging 13 hours of trekking.
It’s a humbling experience; instead of taking my usual place at the front of the group, I find myself at the back, led along by our trainee yoga teacher, Samit. At one point I ask him if I’m the slowest person he’s trekked with and am happy when he says no, there was one other person who was slower. “What was she, 65 years old?” I quipped. “No, 82,” he answers with an earnest smile. The following day, I feel every bit 82. Luckily, Samit is also trained in Ayurvedic therapies and gives me a massage that soon gets my knees going again.
With walking sticks now in hand, we continue to move toward our goal of Annapurna Base Camp (elevation over 4100 metres). The greatest thing about this type of trekking is that the landscape is continually changing, from open plains to enchanting forests to snow-capped mountains. Around every bend is a new surprise.
We trek along riverbanks, through valleys and over rocky passes. Being out in nature, feeling part of the planet, makes time and the worries of life seem irrelevant. The trekking becomes a walking meditation; an exercise in the art of presence. And while on this occasion there is a goal, I’m only going to get there one step at a time.
On day six, Base Camp is in sight. We trek the final hours with snow crunching under our feet, but the sun warming our backs. Struggling up the last few steps, we are rewarded with spectacular 360-degree views of snow-covered mountains and a perfectly clear blue sky. The majesty of the surroundings is accompanied by the sound of avalanches rumbling in the distance, giving the whole experience an otherworldly feel.
After spending a cold night at Base Camp, the scenery on the trek down is just as impressive. The white-tipped mountains give way to dense forest and before we know it, we are back to seeing little villages dotting the hills. A soak in the hot springs right next to a river is just what we need after so many days of trekking (and very little showering). What we don’t really need, however, is the transport strike that greets us when we return to Nayapul, the place from which we had started from 10 days before. Somehow our guides manage to find a driver who will smuggle us back to Pokhara in the middle of the night; a very exciting way to end our trek!
BACK TO BASICS
Starting every day with a yoga practice is the perfect way to warm up muscles sore from taking thousands of steps the day before, as well as prepare us for what lies ahead. Our teacher, Maheswar, embodies many of the things I love about yoga. He’s calm, present, patient and spiritual; the perfect guide on this journey.
Every morning he takes us through meditation, wrapped in blankets to protect against the cool mountain air. As I sit on my yoga mat, I try not to be distracted by the spectacular views just over Maheswar’s shoulder.
Following the 20-minute meditation, Maheswar guides us through a joint-loosening sequence, which focuses on all the major joints in the body, before moving on to some simple asana. The practice is much slower than my usual vinyasa and Power Yoga classes, and it’s really good for me to get back to basics and focus on the breath.
In a two-hour session with Maheswar, we are likely to do no more than about eight poses. The practice always ends with some pranayama, including Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath) and Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing).
At the halfway point of each day’s trekking, Maheswar also takes us through a series of stretches, which I’m sure is what saves me from suffering too much muscle soreness during the trek. In the evenings, he guides us through sessions of Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation). Collecting in one room, snuggled under thick blankets, we go through relaxing all the muscles in the body, counting our breath back from 27 and visualising the scenes Maheswar is painting for us.
While it’s always a challenge not to fall asleep, on the one occasion when I do, my snoring brings me quickly back to consciousness. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Samit, who snores like a chainsaw all the way through a session. Lying next to him, it just adds an extra challenge to my Yoga Nidra—getting through it without bursting out laughing.
Before bed, Maheswar teaches us chants in Sanskrit. Om Mani Padme Hum is sung over and over, ensuring it sticks in my head during the days. He also teaches us the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, which is used to invoke healing, energy, power and immunity.
The Annapurna trail is dotted with hundreds of traditional teahouses. The rooms are simple, containing just a bed or two, with no soundproofing in between. There’s no heating, but the hosts always provide thick blankets at high altitudes. Most of the teahouses at lower altitudes have hot water which, after a hard day’s trekking, is very much appreciated.
The food is mostly traditional and delicious. Breakfast fare is plentiful, usually consisting of porridge and Nepalese bread with jam and eggs. Purna Yoga & Treks supplements our breakfast with fruit, nuts and cheese, which the porters carry with them up the mountain.
For other meals, I stick to dal bhat, a combination of lentil soup, vegetable curry, white rice and vegetables. An order of momos (dumplings filled with vegetables) and a cup of chai round off the meals perfectly. Some of the teahouses also attempt serving Western food with pizza and pasta on the menus.
This nourishing food sustains me all the way through the 10 days of trekking. It’s a challenging journey, but I get so much out of it; testing the body, mind and spirit. Being out in nature brings me back to myself and it’s impossible not to learn some life lessons along the way.
Rebecca Boteler is a freelance writer, who divides her time between Perth and Bali. She teaches hatha and vinyasa flow yoga.
Purna Yoga & Treks run treks from six to 21 days, ranging in cost depending on the type of trek and other considerations. It also offers tailored programs to groups of four or more. For information, visit www.nepalyogatrek.com.
GETTING THERE Thai Airways flies to Kathmandu with a stopover in Bangkok. Expect to pay $1200 to $1500. The Nepal 30-day Visa on Arrival costs USD$40 in cash only, and you’ll need a passport-sized photograph.
STAYING THERE For your days in Kathmandu, try Ting’s Tea Lounge Hotel, which has cute rooms starting at USD$20 a night; www.tingsblog.com.