After Everest I spent a few days in Kathmandu, chilling out, catching up on friend/family stuff, enjoying the sights (and the food!), and hanging out with my new trekking friends that were still here in town. Before I had arrived in Nepal, I had some some research into local Ashrams that were offering Yoga/Meditation courses. I thought that since I was here in the region where it all originated from, I should see what I could learn! This time off is about pushing the limits of my comfort zone and doing things that weren’t a part of my ‘normal life’ back home, focusing on physical and mental health- spending some time with a Guru at an Ashram for a Tantra Yoga training is about as far from playing beer pong and eating wings on the Upper West Side as gets!
I have to admit, I chose this specific retreat (in addition to the dates lining up) because of the ‘Tantra’ aspect. Which my limited understanding (from Sting and American Pie 2) had to do with increasing ones sexual energy. Turns out I was pretty far off on this one… Even my whole perspective on what was ‘Yoga’ would be completely reshaped over the course of the next 9 days.
The Shanti Yoga Ashram was situated about 45 minutes outside Kathmandu up in the foothills of the valley. I was attending a 30 day Teacher Training course- though I’d only be able to stay for 9 days as I had to head off to India. They said I was still welcome to join and learn what I could, and that it would give me a good foundation to build on, so I decided to give it a shot. I was keen to learn some new stuff and continue my attempt to become ‘good’ at Yoga (which is a misnomer I’ll revisit).
Arriving to the Ashram, I found a 4 story, very simple structure- the yoga studio was on the top floor, and the rest was about at minimalist as you can get. A gentleman in orange robes came out to greet me, introduce me to the school, and give me a little introduction to what was happening this month. I was going with the flow so took this all in stride, even though I was a bit disoriented… Here I was miles from the ‘civilization’ of Kathmandu, hanging with a Guru, while a bunch of little Nepalese kids ran around in the courtyard area (I later found they have a type of boarding school there)… He gave me the schedule, and said we’d reconvene at 3pm for ‘lecture’. As it was only 1pm, I had already eaten, AND as I was a little tired from hanging with the Everest gang last night, I decided a little nap was in order to recharge/catch my bearings.
At 3 I joined the few other people that were there for the month- there was a mother/daughter combo from Kazakhstan, a 30 yr old dude from Austria, and a 50 yr old Canadian guy, plus the Guru, his wife, and a guy that taught there. That was it (though we’d later be joined by 2 girls that had just completed the previous teacher training)… Everyone was quite friendly and keen to get started with the learning. We met outside and Guru just… kinda started talking… We all had notebooks out and tried to follow along with his lecture- but it was a little all over the place and I couldn’t really follow. I wrote a lot of stuff down, but had no real idea what it meant. We then ventured up to the little Shiva Temple on the property to learn our first bit of Sanskrit. We went through the vowels, some sounds, musical notes, etc- though interesting, this was not a language I’d be mastering anytime soon! The kids all joined us (for a visual we were sitting on a tarp on the ground in front of this small temple) as did 2 older people- Guru’s parents- for the evening Fire Ceremony. As everyone chanted mantras and sang songs in a language I couldn’t understand, while playing a weird accordion/piano, and waving candles around the statue of Shiva, I struggled to maintain focus and again began to wonder what I was doing here. This was going to be an interesting 9 days- WELL outside of my ‘normal life’ back before I started traveling.
If the accommodations were modest, the food was even simpler (if that was possible). I was served a bowl of Dal (lentil soup- but without many lentils), a scoop of boiled greens (I think it was mainly okra/zucchini) a scoop of rice, and a few homemade roti (the highlight). This would represent 90% of my meals at the Ashram. Not bad, but got old pretty fast. Me and Mike (Polish dude) did have one or two runs into the nearby village to grab a mini snickers bar… Kept it real for most of the time, but those were pretty nice treats! And that was pretty much the day! Every day… Dinner would end around 8 and people would head off to study, read, or go to bed- mornings came pretty early!
As I laid in bed that first night, I thought back to the Meditation/Yoga retreat I did back in Bali in October and how disoriented I felt there at the beginning too, and how wonderful it had turned out. I hoped this would be the same…
At 6am we’d begin our days by Neti Potting (flushing salt water through the sinuses for those unfamiliar) and then head up to the studio for Yoga/Meditation. OK, now I’m back in more familiar settings… This is what I was actually here for… or so I thought… pretty soon I’d realize how much I didn’t know about ‘yoga’, ‘tantra’, or pretty much anything I thought I did. These were long morning sessions- generally over 2 hours- consisting of chanting, bending, breathing, thinking, not thinking, and singing. The time generally flew by as we moved from one phase to the next and by the end my body felt both peaceful and alive at the same time- incredibly energized, and INCREDIBLY hungry! The last time I’d eaten was a small bit of green goo and rice 12 hours ago! Oh yeah, in addition to the no alcohol/tobacco/hash policy I’m sure isn’t a surprise, there was also zero caffeine (no coffee for me 😦 ), sugar, meat, fish, etc. So breakfast unfortunately wasn’t much more exciting than the other meals I’m afraid- kind of a grits/porridge combo with a few fruit slices added (sounds a lot better than it tasted) and a cup of tea.
After breakfast we’d then practice Karma Yoga-which from what I gathered earlier was a way to cool down the body/energy after a ‘yoga’ session. I could buy that as I was still pretty juiced from the morning’s practice. What I then actually realized was that ‘karma yoga’ was a dressed up way to say ‘chores’. We basically had to clean/work around the Ashram for 60-90 minutes… ok, I could buy this, clean a little bit, move some heavier stuff, etc… I wanted to be helpful- once again to combat the image I thought people might have had of me (see Thinking and Bending) as a guy who didn’t really belong here. I’ll get back to Karma Yoga in a minute as it became a much bigger deal throughout my time there and almost completely derailed my learning.
We’d then have another lecture of sorts, then lunch, afternoon lecture/activity, fire ceremony, dinner… and that was 24 hours in the Ashram. Most of the time was exactly like the last few paragraphs- save for a few schedule switches. So that’s the general atmosphere, now I’ll dig into a few of the specifics, as well as what I ultimately learned (and didn’t).
Let’s just start here. What I thought (and what I assume most of the western world thinks) is that Yoga=Bending/Poses. Sure there are different types (Vinyasa, Yin, Bikram, etc) but you go to a studio, bend for a bit, and you gain some flexibility and strength. Yes, there is a meditative aspect, but perhaps secondary to the actual exercise your body gets. What I learned here is that ‘Yoga’ is so much more, so so much more. I think the US has latched on to Yoga poses (Asana) and made the two pretty synonymous with each other.
Also, I think most everyone hears the word Tantra, and thinks ‘sex’. I 100% admit I did. Over time, I think it’s just what people came to associate with Tantra (which again is much, much more) as it’s kind of fun, can be glamorized in Pop Culture, and those are the things we like… Tantra- as I now understand it- is really just the highest level of Yoga practice. Yoga, itself, being a very complex and intricate discipline involving so much more than doing ‘downward dog’ and ‘tree pose’ for an hour before or after work.
(Disclaimer- This is what I gathered from my 9 days time there and deciphered from my cryptic notes from Guru’s lectures. Some of my impressions may not be entirely complete/accurate, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, it’s why I’m still studying)
We learned about 5 levels of Yoga, each building to the previous, on a journey to enlightenment- Hatha, Ashtanga, Mantra, Kundalini, and finally Tantra. Each represents a different level of knowledge/mastery which should be (has to be, really) completed before moving ahead to the next. Hatha= focus on Body, Ashtanga= Mind, Mantra= Power, Kundalini= Balance, Tantra= Union. The ‘Union’ at the Tantra level represents an internal understanding/joining of one’s OWN male/feminine halves- but is sometimes expressed with a partner (externally representing your inner feminine self)… This is where I think everyone decided to focus on and why Tantra seems to equal ‘Sex Yoga’ or the Kama Sutra to most you ask… but Tantra is so far away, so let’s back up to Hatha.
Hatha, the foundation (Body) level’ is where you are essentially getting your body right to be able to sit comfortably for long spells while meditating (which is the Ashtanga level… Mind). The yoga we all know and love is in here… but it isn’t even the first part! We learned that Hatha itself consists of 5 distinct parts (each of which contains it’s own whole practice/different parts). They are Shat Kriyas (Cleansing), Asana (Postures- here they are!), Pranayama (Breathing exercises), Mudra (Energy moving/locking) and Karma (cooling down). *Not going to get into specifics as this isn’t meant to be an essay on Yoga, just illustrating what I was learning.
Is your head starting to hurt yet? Mine sure was. It was amazing realizing how little I actually knew about this. Add in the Anatomical, Historical, Philosophical, and Religious aspects of all this and you have a LOT to learn. I suppose that’s why it takes people quite a long time to become Gurus, not just accepting but observing fundamental rules about how to live life and what type of example to set for others who are seeking the path as well (whether or not they themselves are even aware that they may be on it).
When I first saw this on the daily schedule, I was like ‘Sweet, some new yoga style I don’t know about!’… If only that were the case. As I mentioned earlier, it was meant to be a ‘cooling down’ phase of Hatha Yoga- doing good deeds to complete the morning’s practice. Here’s where things got a little sideways for me. The first day, we did some cleaning around the place, no big deal. But the rest of the time we were put to work! Straight manual labor. They are constructing another building at the ashram to (I think) house more students as they will be a part of a University studies program soon. So me, Steven, and Mike (in addition to the 2 or 3 other hired laborers) became the free workforce. One day we spent 2 hours digging a ditch for a water pipe, using old broken tools and unearthing/moving a million huge rocks, blistering the shit out of our hands in the process. Another 2 days we spent hauling many pounds of old bamboo as well as wooden wall segments (complete with rusty nails) from the front of the complex to a burn pile in the back. Again, no real functional tools per se (not even gloves) so this was accomplished by laying out a tarp and filling it with as much as we could carry btw two of us then carrying it through the construction area, past the school, and up to the back garden. Over and over for 2 days until it was all gone. (there was a lot…). There was brick carrying, long heavy pieces of bamboo moving, furniture carrying, all kinds of stuff…
I have to admit I let my emotions/annoyance get the best of me. Mike did as well. Steven had a generally cheery disposition and even though he had a pretty messed up hip carried on with the work. But I wasn’t happy. I felt a bit used/exploited. Generally if you are doing work for someone, the tradeoff is free room/board, food etc- but I was paying 50$ a night (which is a lot in Nepal) AND made to work around the place a few hours a day in the name of ‘Karma Yoga’. Not pleased…
I know I’m complaining. And I hate that I felt that way. But that’s the way it was. Maybe if we were better equipped, or had had more to eat, even a cup of coffee and I wouldn’t have been as annoyed- but I was tired and grumpy. Mike felt the same and our negative energy fed off each other’s, which didn’t make anything better. How could I get out of this negative downward spiral?
The interesting part was that after Karma Yoga (chores) we’d generally have our lunch- food makes everything better no matter how boring it might have been- and then lecture. And the lectures were so interesting (making the day’s emotional roller coaster start to head back up), and got more so over the course of the time I was there- things were starting to more sense to me. At first I just thought Guru was jumping around aimlessly as he seemed to be all over the place, but out of nowhere something sort of clicked. Two things actually.
One. During one of my internal complaining sessions, I looked over at Steven and thought, ‘here’s a guy in pain, but not complaining about shit’ (or if he is he’s keeping it to himself). Was like a slap in the face. I got his attention and said something to the effect of ‘I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit negative. Although this isn’t ideal, we’re in Kathmandu… This is still better than sitting behind a desk’. He smiled and agreed… And
Two. We started playing with the kids more (they were particularly fond of soccer and keep away’ which they simply referred to as ‘monkey’) At first glance I thought these kids were so unfortunate. They pretty much wore the same clothes most every day, all very used. They were kinda cooped up in this weird place, learning Yoga (actual Yoga) and Sanskrit, with no real connection to the outside world (though I think a couple of the older ones had Facebook accounts). But over the time I was there, we started playing with them more and I found them to be so happy, so content, so curious to hang out with us… They weren’t complaining about anything. How could I possibly gripe about a little work that would ultimately make their ‘home’ a little better and brighter… that was the end of my complaining.
Let them be Poor
Earlier Guru had said something about the children, as well as his own childhood. When people came in and took everything at first glance, they typically tried to change their lifestyle, give them things… stuff like that. He asked what was wrong with their/his lives. He simply said, ‘Let them be poor’. And then explained. He didn’t mean ‘poor’ as in let them live in poverty or without food/shelter etc. But more like, let them be them. They are happy. They don’t need an Xbox or an iPad. They didn’t have or need the superficial things that then lead most children to self-esteem issues, social hierarchy, confusion, sadness, etc. They just were… And why mess with that? These kids were genuinely free genuinely happy. Let them be poor indeed, actually they are richer than most.
THE KARATE KID
Around the time of all this stuff beginning to make sense, I decided that Guru was like Mr Miyagi and I was Daniel-San. I was a pissed off brat, not understanding why I was ‘waxing on and off’- carrying sticks, digging trenches, getting blistered and cut and dirty. Didn’t want to see another bowl of tasteless veggies. Couldn’t follow any of the lectures. Thought he was spending too much time on some things, and not enough on others. Changing up our routines and schedules… And then I had that moment. And all of a sudden I realized I knew Karate (metaphorically speaking of course). My annoyance went away and my appetite for learning surged forward. I actually laughed at myself. What an asshole I was. Here is a guy that has been studying this most of his life, who has dedicated himself to this practice and his teaching of it. He’s helped/inspired hundreds if not thousands of people along various parts of their lives’ paths. And I thought he was doing it wrong? Guru was just like Mr Miyagi, like Yoda- you don’t always know why he’s doing things the way he is, but trust me, there’s a reason. Thanks, Guru. Apologies for not getting it sooner, but I know that’s also just part of the process- ‘getting it’, whenever you do, is what’s important.
A TOWN CELEBRATION
Things are getting better. Mentally I’m happier. Physically I’m getting stronger. And on this day we’ve been invited to join the locals up at their temple for a celebration of sorts! We excitedly all headed up the road to attend the party, flowers/candles/food (offerings for Shiva) in hand. When we got there we were warmly greeted and ushered into a small house where people were dancing and playing music. Guillaume was asked to play Om Nama Shivaya on the Harmonium and Mike and I got tossed up on the drums! This was a pretty surreal experience, looking around, playing music while folks danced (and everyone was filming us) and laughed. It was quite amazing, just genuine happiness.
After the music we all went up to the temple where the festivities continued- more music, singing, dancing, and worshipping. The colors of the clothes were so beautiful, as were the people… This was a day that was good for the soul. On top of that, they invited us to eat with them! Added Bonus! They had some spicy potatoes and veggies, and this tapioca-like pudding with some cinnamon to add! It was the best day ever…
AMONG OTHER THINGS (and a few more random photos)
The rest of the time was filled with some fun things including: Learning how to play a few songs on the Harmonium (the ‘accordion piano’), Day hiking, more playing with the kiddos, chatting with each other, and of course doing lots of Yoga and learning everything I could while I was there. And that was that, those 9 days just flew by! Mike and I said our goodbyes and headed back down to the city. He was heading into the mountains and I was headed to India…
I honestly really enjoyed myself and missed it more than I thought I would once I was back in Kathmandu… though I’m not going to lie, coffee, ‘real food’, and a glass of wine were sights for sore eyes (and stomachs).
THE LIFESTYLE/FINAL THOUGHTS
The time at the Ashram reminded me of a conversation I had with a man a few years back in Vietnam. The guy was an older Australian that had moved up after his kids grew up and he and his wife had separated. He’d married a local woman and now managed a scooter trip company in Hoi An. While he was telling us his story he said a phrase I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I don’t have much, but I don’t need much… I’m happy’. And that was the Ashram. The place had none of the ‘creature comforts’ of life. Nobody had ‘stuff’. Everything was quite minimalistic- from the homes, to the furniture, to the clothes, to the food… And here were people that were genuinely ‘happy’. They don’t have much, but they don’t need much. Let them be ‘poor’… They are richer in spirit, in heart, and in life than 99% of the world.
Though I totally get it (or at least the 9 days worth of info I had poured into my head- and the other stuff I’ve since added reading his book) I don’t think I’m ready to commit to the lifestyle quite just yet. Maybe ever. It’s a scary thought. It sounds so nice, so simple… Maybe it’s because I grew up actually poor, and know the stress I had, my mom had. But shit, these guys have less than I had, MUCH less, and didn’t give a second thought about it. There’s something to it, absolutely…
On this journey I’ve already begun to realize what I actually ‘need’ in life and started to purge some of my ‘stuff’. I mean, I’ve only had access to one large backpack and one smaller one for the past 4 months. I know I can get by on very little. But I know I’m far away from fully committing. It’ll be a work in progress, one chapter, one level at a time. Kinda like the thought of climbing Everest (I’m still in Nepal after all)- maybe I’ll get there someday, maybe…
Once again, thank you Guru for your teachings. Although our time together was brief, I want you to know it DID make a very big impact on me and won’t be something I forget anytime soon. Hari Om and Namaste…
Just a guy on a hero's journey...