From Nepal with Love - A Yoga Journey (Updated 10/10/2017)
My Yoga journey in Nepal started with a 7 day Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga retreat at the Neydo Buddhist Monastery in Kathmandu. The retreat was organised by Mahalaya-Nepal.
Although familiar with most of the poses that make up the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, I was not familiar with the sequence itself. I had never done an Ashtanga Vinyasa class before despite the fact that Claire Berghorst teaches at Akram Yoga every friday morning. What makes this even more odd is that Claire is a student of John Scott. John Scott was leading the retreat. John Scott is one of the students of the late Patabhi Jois. I hadn't done Ashtanga before due to being overloaded with work on friday mornings, even though Claire threatens to drag me in kicking and screaming each week.
(Left) The monastery where we had our daily 8am practice. (Right) Posing as per usual outside the monastery.
The fact that I hadn't done Ashtanga before meant I was going to be in trouble. I was going to be a duck out of water. Totally lost and waddling through desperately trying to copy someone close to me. It sounds like a disaster. In many ways it was a disaster for me. I was completely out of my depth. I was a beginner. This was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. There was no peacock, no arm balances and no strength based poses I could hide behind. There was hamstring stretches, followed by hamstring stretches, followed by more hamstring stretches. I was a total mess by the end of the week. Physically and emotionally. But you know what? I absolutely loved it. I loved being a beginner and I loved being out of my comfort zone. The experience has helped me grow as an individual and has helped me become a more empathetic teacher.
You can see myself and Laura in the above image. The look on my face is an automatic response to my hundredth upward facing dog. My Laura looks marginally more composed than me. In the front row that is John Scott assisting someone with their back bend.
The teaching was exemplary. John Scott and his team made everyone of all ability levels feel welcome. There was no favouritism that I could see. Everyone was helped and adjusted without prejudice. Everyone was welcome and everyone was made to feel accepted. It didn't matter that you were male or female. If your practice was advanced or basic. If you where a muslim (as in my case) or a hindu. This was the beauty of the retreat. Universal acceptance. John Scott talked of acceptance during his workshops and backed this up wholeheartedly with his teaching. The experience was one I will never forget. I owe John and my fellow students much gratitude for such an overwhelming experience.
(From left to right) Julia, John, Me (minus some hair wax), Laura, Andy & Helen. John's teaching team.
Here is a link to my Instagram page where you can see a speeded up version of my first mysore self practice. I am in the middle somewhere looking lost and confused.
(Below) Karaoke with my fellow Ashtangi's at the Dalai-la Boutique Hotel.
Kathamandu itself was beautiful. The locals are the friendliest people I have ever met. I cannot recommend Nepal enough. I also made a friend in Nepal. The friend was one of the monks who lives at the monastery, his name is Karma. We first talked on a "meditative" walk where Karma squeezed my arms and said; "Can you teach me?". A few hours later we were in a small room at the monastery with no lights and just a barbell and a few hand made dumb bells. I then spent the next hour showing him the correct technique to lift weights. After we finished he got all emotional and said; "We are different religions. But we are all the same. Thank you my brother" (he said in Hindi). Then before I left he said; "how do I get a 6 pack?".
The meditative walk with Karma
Karma also told me his dream was to watch Lionel Messi play football. If that was never going to happen he wanted an official replica FC Barcelona jersey with Messi printed on the back. I promised him when I return to England I will send him one as a gift. My mum always echoed the traditional islamic saying that you have not really lived a day, unless you can do something for someone who can never repay you. It felt like my "farz" (duty or responsibility) to gift Karma something so meaningless and inexpensive for me, yet it was a dream for him.
Karma lifting weights in the make shift "weights room".
We stayed at the monastery hotel at first and then moved on to my friend Prem's hotel Da-laila Boutique. I cannot recommend this hotel enough for anyone who wishes to visit Nepal. First class.
After the Ashtanga retreat, myself and Laura went on a Sadhu hunt. We searched high and low for Sadhu's. Sadhu's are religious ascetic's who have renounced the worldly life in search of the supreme consciousness / universal bliss /god. I wanted to speak to them about yoga. What they believed yoga was and whether they did any asana at all.The first Sadhu we met was at a temple for Maa Kaali. Maa Kaali is a hindu goddess who is the destroyer of evil. Laura is a big fan of Kaali and dislikes the way she is portrayed in the west. That of being an evil incarnation of the great goddess. This of course is a big misconception and Laura feels like she is doing public relations for Kaali. She wants to change peoples mindset of how Kaali is viewed. So Laura was extremely excited about visiting her temple. On our way up we met a Sadhu who was actually leaving that day for another ashram. I spoke to him briefly about yoga. I asked the Sadhu what yoga was to him. His answer was that yoga is eternal union of man's will with God. The Sadhu added that the means to attain this unity was penance. He plans on spending the rest of his life performing penance to God so that one day he can experience this union. When I asked him if he did any asana he said yes. But his asana was limited to sitting down for hours at a time. He said this was all the asana he needed. Reflecting back on my own experience of sitting down for 30 minutes at a time listening to John Scott, I can only appreciate the physical and mental strength required to sit up with your back straight and folded legs for hours at a time. For some even days at a time. So my first conversation with a Sadhu (albeit brief) reinforced what I had already known, that asana plays little to no role in a Sadhu's life and that the goal of classical yoga is simply union with God.
The next few Sadhu's were not quite as insightful. However the conversation with one "Sadhu" that we met in Thamel at a temple for Shiva was rather unique. Instead of speaking about yoga and God, we ended up arguing over Bollywood movies! The "Sadhu" asked me how I learnt to speak Hindu. I explained that my mum speaks Punjabi which helps and the rest I learnt from Amitabh Bachchan's bollywood movies. Before I knew it, a few locals joined in the argument as we debated over Amitabh's best movie. This couldn't be further from the last Sadhu conversation but was still very fascinating. The "Sadhu" (and I use that term to describe him loosely), once I got him off the subject of Bollywood, said yoga is "losing yourself to God". I asked him to elaborate and he said he spends his days in a daze singing mantras to himself in the hope that one day "Bolenath" (another name for Shiva) will appear before him. This would end his cycle of birth, life and death (Hindu's believe in reincarnation). I realised at this point I had lost the group we arrived with so I had to leave the conversation. Amusingly to me, the "Sadhu" looked a lot like the comical Baba Ramdev from India. It made me laugh anyway.
(Above) Conversing with "Ramdev" and arguing over Amitabh Bachchan movies.
The next Sadhu was Yogi Dasa. I met him outside my friend Prem's Hotel. I asked Yogi Dasa about Yoga and he was happy to share. He took great joy in hearing that I learnt to speak Hindi so well from watching Amitabh Bachchan films too. Before I could ask him any questions, Yogi Dasa said; "With a pure heart, one day God will appear. Then there is ultimate peace. This for him was Yoga. When I asked him about God he first said "Bhagwan". He later simply referred to God or his destination as "Ishwar". He said he was very sad at the state of the world. How can Man argue over names? He said to me; "Aap ke allah aur mere Shiva ek hai". He said your Allah and my Shiva are the same to him. The same genderless and formless entity which governs the universe and is beyond our comprehension. Just the names are different. He said only idiots argue over different names. The truth is we have no idea. He said; "In any case, keep a pure heart and if you show love, mercy and compassion to all, whether it's Shiva or Narayan, or Allah or God. Whatever it is. Eternal peace will find you". I asked him if he truly believed God will appear before him. He replied; "zaroor ainge. Kyu nahi ainge?". He will come. Why won't he come? He said he must keep faith. If he doesn't believe God or peace will arrive, then he is just another mad man.
With Yogi Dasa outside Dalaila boutique hotel.
I then asked Yogi Dasa if he did any asana as part of his yoga. He smiled and replied I am doing asana now. For him, sitting down and upright was enough asana for him. If he loses the ability to sit, he may do asana to help his body but for now, seated asana (Lotus or seated with crossed legs) is enough. Yogi Dasa said that for most Sadhus, if you can sit upright without pain, your body doesn't need asana.
Conversing with a sadhu and with Laura outside the world famous Pashupatinath temple.
One afternoon we decided to visit the The Pashupatinath Temple which is a temple dedicated to Shiva. Paśupati meaning "Lord of all animals". Laura was not allowed into the temple itself as she wasnt a hindu. Well nor am I but they let me in happily. Maybe my Durga tattoo is more confusing than I thought. The temple itself was busy and I didn't want to leave Laura alone for long (even though it may have been the safest place in the world) so we decided to search once again for Sadhus. We met a few and one in particular was chatty. He spoke of coming to the temple as a pilgrimage so he could feel his atman (soul) getting closer to the universal atman of bolenath (another name for Shiva again). When I asked him about asana he just laughed and said he doesn't do asana. He is a "Bakht". Meaning his yoga is based on love and devotion towards Shiva. He did however point us to a cave of some sort where he said lived a "hatha yogi". So we hunted this cave down and found our yogi. We knocked on the cage doors and he somewhat uninterestingly allowed us in. We sat down and I begun to ask him questions about yoga. At first he seemed very indifferent and then when he asked how I learnt Hindi; "Aap hindi kaise bolte ho?" - I replied "Amitabh Bachchan movies", he suddenly brightened up and showed some life and character. Everyone it seems, even Sadhus, love Amitabh Bachchan. How can you not?
(Below) Amitabh Bachchan advert in Tamil. He really is the king.
(Above) With Laura inside Susila's cave / house. Check out the posture.
The Sadhu who's name was Susila spoke about Yoga and said the definition of the yoga he practices is "that what comes out, must go up". He elaborated by saying that prana is too easily expelled. Especially in the west. The purpose of the type of yoga that he practises is to control the descent of prana (life force / energy) and direct upwards towards the brain. Once the yogi can master this he experiences "roshanee". Loosely to mean illumination. Through this light/illumination, one experiences Shiva. He said he has no idea how this actually feels. Even his guru could not tell him how this feels. He said this cannot be described, only experienced. He then passed me a text book (written all in hindi) titled Pāśupata Yoga. I asked him what this form of yoga was. Susila explained that Pāśupata is another name for Shiva and that this form of yoga pre-dates any other form of yoga known to man. Pre-dates the Gita and pre-date the sutras (I assume he meant Patanjali's sutras). He said this form of yoga was practiced by the early Shaivites. "Shaiva" are those who follow the path of Shiva. Shaiva's say that their practise is the worlds oldest known religion. He explained the concept of Pāśupata yoga, but if I am totally honest, it went straight over my head. Anyone who has tried to understand earlier Shaiva work will vouch for how complicated this system is. I then questioned Susila on asana. Susila explained that asana plays little part of Pāśupata yoga but it does play an important part. One cannot be expected to sit upright and chant and meditate for days at a time if one cannot even sit upright. He then laughed at my seated posture. From the picture above you can see that it was pretty awful.
Susila explained that the asana system they follow is a specific system and sequence that was handed down by Shiva over the many thousands of years. I asked him if there was a text of some sort that could prove this. Susila just laughed at me and said "you lot" are always looking for proof. By you lot I imagine he meant westerners. He explained that the earliest tradition was oral and that these "secrets" where passed down from guru to student. When they where written down, they where often written by hand in text books with the most minimal detail (so not to fall into wrong hands). He said they had neither the finances nor the resources to have these hand written notes published or preserved. Most of the texts are now long gone as they rarely survive in the Indian or Nepalese heat. He then showed us the asana's in poster form which he had on his wall. He explained that the sequence itself was of utter importance. One must start by locking the Mūlādhāra (the root chakra) and then work upwards. He said the purpose is to not expel prana and ultimately preserve the bindhu. The bindu is the "nectar of immortality" and lies at the back of the head about five inches from the top of the skull. So the Paśupata asana system is sequenced so not to expel prana and by doing this you create a base level for awakening your kundalini. He then said if he had to describe yoga in the simplest way, he would say yoga is about awakening your kundalini energy (kundalini is your dormant energy imagined as a sleeping serpent at the base of your spine). Susila said that a yogi has to make this his goal. Awakening your kundalini from its slumber is the only way man is able to recognise his potential. His divinity. He said do what you have to, be it mantra, meditation or asana, but wake up your shakti (another name for kundalini).
Susila finished by saying that he was happy to teach this system to Laura and myself when we return from Pokhara. He didn't charge me for the text books as we left but I did give him some money towards his "bhojan" (food) as is customary. Unfortunately we where unable to return to him after Pokhara.
(Updated) Reflecting back on this sit down with Susila I can't believe I forgot to mention how I left his "cave". He said make sure you return on Tuesday and I will teach you the fundamentals of Pāśupata Yoga. I said "teek hai", meaning sure. I said; "What should I do? Shall I just come Tuesday evening and knock on your cage door like tonight? I would hate to disturb you especially if you are in the middle of a meditation or prayer." His reply... "Whatsap me." I said; "What????" He said "you have whatsap? Everyone has whatsap. Whatsap me before you arrive. You have whatsap right?" I said; "Yes I have whatsap but what on earth are you doing with whatsap?" He just chuckled like a hyena and said "See you on Tuesday". I guess being a Sadhu for this gentleman is a balance between east and west. But who am I to judge?
Something else I forgot to mention also was his "OMMMM". He said Mantra played a huge part of Pāśupata Yoga. Mid-sentence Susila broke out into a "Aaaaaaaaa-Uuuuuuuuuuuuuu-Mmmmmmmmmm" (The correct way to pronounce OM). The strange thing was, he started talking again before he had finished his OM but somehow the sound of "Mmmmmmmmmm" kept going. Laura and I just looked at each other. We didn't say anything but we both thought to ourselves "What the .........?" It was the most impressive Mantra I have ever heard.
From his lack of interest in meeting us, to his enthusiasm for Amitabh Bachchan movies, his amazing OM and then the comical whatsap finale, it certainly was eventful meeting Sadhu Susila. I wasn't there however to judge. I was just there to learn and observe. So I do have to extend my gratitude to Susila for giving up his time for us.
Our Sadhu journey didn't end there, we were to meet another Sadhu in Pokhara whom both of us became attached to. We bumped into him each of the three days we were in Pokhara. He did tell me his name but I forgot and out of respect I didn't ask again. He is in the images below, the top image is where I first met him in the streets of Pokhara and below Laura takes a picture with him when we met the next day for breakfast.
I met him firstly as we where looking for someplace to have breakfast. He was small, had a very obvious limp and had the sweetest smile. We spoke briefly about yoga and he said for him, yoga was about giving up his life in service to Bolenath (Shiva). I asked him if he did asana and he said only when bored. He laughed as he explained that other Sadhus at the ashram where he is staying do little asana but tend to do more when bored. He said the Sadhu life was tough and in order to not become too distracted by life, they do asana to stay on the right path.
We saw him again the next day and this time we invited him to have breakfast with us. He reluctantly agreed but didn't understand why we were showing him kindness. He said no-one had shown his this type of kindness in his 35 years as a wondering sadhu. Truth is he was such a sweet man it was hard to be anything but kind. He didn't eat breakfast, he just wanted some mango juice. I asked our Sadhu friend continuing on from my recent chats if one needed to believe in God to be a Yogi. In response to my question he laughed and replied in Hindi saying that one doesn't need to believe in God to be a Yogi. One needed to be a "sapane dekhane vaala". One must be a dreamer. He elaborated by saying that Yoga does ask for faith, but not necessarily faith in God. He continued by saying that only a dreamer reaches his ultimate destination. To reach the ultimate, one must be "mahattvaakaankshee". To mean ambitious or to aspire. To break through misery and to explore a new dimension one must dream. I said; "Everyone dreams." With his infectious smile 😀 he said; "yahi to me kehta hoo". Loosely meaning "exactly". If your goal is to be with God, or to be free, or for optimum health, or to do a headstand, or to be free from injuries and disease or whatever the reason is that you do yoga, one must be a dreamer. His wise words echoed those of the great philosopher Nietzsche. Nietzsche once said; "Man cannot live with the true: he needs dreams, he needs illusions to exist."
Our Sadhu friend explained that the road to the yogic goal is very, very unforgiving and near impossible for some. All yoga asks for he says, is for you to dream, and support this dream wholeheartedly. "Jaan se karo" he said. With your heart.
Echoing Charlie Chaplin he said; "Smile and dream and he or it, whatever you want. It will arrive. The key is "himmat, shakti" (strength / courage / will). This reminded me of the mystic Osho who once said "You come to the truth (or the destination of yoga) not through belief, but through your own experience. No belief is required, no faith is required, only courage and will to experience.
We spoke at length before I asked him about his limp. He said when he was young, 13-14, his parents asked him to become a Sadhu as was customary in their family. As the oldest son he agreed as he wanted to uphold his families tradition. After a year or so of seeing his friends enjoy life, he spoke once again to his parents and explained that he didn't think he could become a Sadhu. He wanted to marry one day and become a householder. His parents where not happy so they asked him to leave their house as he was dishonouring their tradition. So he left. On the same day he was involved in an accident. He got hit by a car whilst riding his bike. He then spent a year in hospital recovering from his injuries. I felt a deep connection to him at this point because as a teenager I was also involved in an accident which kept me in hospital for over 6 months and I was in and out for over a year (hence my back pain to this day). But my story was nothing like his. After a year the doctors said they could do no more for him and asked him to leave. He walked out with a limp and still limps some 30 years later. Upon leaving the hospital he visited a temple where he prayed and asked Shiva for Shakti (energy / strength etc). During this time it dawned on him that no father was going to give his daughter to a man who has been disowned by his family, has no money and now walks with a permanent and very obvious limp. He came to the conclusion that this was perhaps his karma. If he had listened to his parents and walked the life of an ascetic he wouldn't have ended up the way he has. So on that day at Shiva's temple, he decided to abandon life and its attachments and become a wondering Sadhu. He would have no attachment to material things and he would spend the rest of his life performing penance to Shiva asking for forgiveness for not agreeing to his parents wishes. He said his constant limp and the pain in his hip is a constant reminder of his karma. "yahi mera muqaddar hai" he said. This is my destiny.
The next day we bumped into him again. He said he heart has been full of joy since he has met us. He went on to say that for over 35 years he has avoided any type of attachment. Even his Sadhu brothers at the ashram move around frequently to avoid attachment to one another. For those who are unaware, in yogic philosophy, attachment can lead to suffering. The great Vivekanada says; "The Bhakta's (devotees) renunciation is that Vairâgya or non-attachment for all things that are not God which results from Anurâga or great attachment to God." With this philosophy in mind, a Sadhu spends his life trying to avoid this very kind of attachment. Worrying for him and his spiritual growth, he had become attached to us. He saw us as the children he never had. He didn't however feel guilty for this feeling of attachment, he felt joy. He said that since the dawn of time, devotion has been seen as the most important spiritual path, because it is the quickest and easiest. Remove likes and dislikes, attachment and aversion and one is on the path to experience the divine. But he was warned of its pitfalls. He only now understands what that warning means. Years of selfless devotion to God made him oblivious of love to his fellow man. Meeting us had opened his eyes and made him think that maybe all attachment isn't a roadblock. That maybe devotion should be universal and not exclusive towards his chosen deity. He realised that the journey he is on is even harder than he ever imagined.
After telling us how his heart was full of love, yet heavy, he said his goodbye. This was the point where Laura started to feel emotional. It was hard for her to hold back her tears as we said goodbye to our friend. As he saw Laura with tears in her eyes, he asked her not to cry. He said we will see each other again one day I am sure. He put his hand on Laura's shoulder and said "Iska dekhabhaal zaroor karana". Take good care of her. He said maybe your love for her will be a doorway to divine love. We shall see. Saying that he left us and continued his long daily walk towards his ashram. He certainly left us both with more of an impression than we could have possibly imagined.
(Above) Saying goodbye to our Sadhu.
(Below) Captures from Pokhara
(Above) Conversing with a local.
Two weeks in Nepal, two very different yoga traditions, the Ashtanga Vinyasa system & the ascetic Sadhu life. Both very different, both with different goals, but both called Yoga. It left me with a question. After speaking to these Sadhu's about yoga and their path towards Shiva, is Yoga a religion?
It certainly is a religion to the ascetics I met on my Nepal journey. When speaking to the Sadhus all of them spoke of "union" with God. Most referred to this God as "Shiva". Whilst conversing with some of the students at the Ashtanga retreat, not one of the students mentioned the concept of God as part of their yoga journey. The general goal at the Ashtanga retreat was to evolve spiritually or like me, search for optimum health.
So yoga IS a religion to some. Yoga is also NOT a religion to others. Just because yoga forms part of someone's religion, this doesn't make it a religion to all. All it means is that someone has chosen to use yoga as a means to reach divinity. To most, yoga is a practice to unite mind, body & soul leading to physical and emotional peace and/or freedom. The ascetics all refer to Shiva as God. This doesn't make him God to you and I. The Sadhus choose to believe in Shiva but nowhere in any text I have read does it say that a Yogi must accept Shiva as God. Yoga does not require belief in God. In the yogic culture, Shiva is adi-yogi. The first Yogi
Finally, is yoga Hindu? The mystic Osho Rajneesh once said; "Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is pure science just like mathematics, physics or chemistry. Physics is not Christian ✝️. It is just an accident that christians have come to discover the laws of physics. But physics remains just a science. Yoga is a science - it is pure mathematics of the inner being. A Muslim ☪️ can be a Yogi, a Christian ✝️ can be a Yogi and so can a Buddhist. Anyone can do Yogi because yoga is science".
A beautiful image captured by Laura that summarises our yoga journey in Nepal.