Nepal with Love - A Yoga Journey
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHES OCTOBER 2017
My Yoga journey in Nepal began with a 7-day Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga retreat at the Neydo Buddhist Monastery in Kathmandu, organized by Mahalaya-Nepal. While I was familiar with most poses in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, the sequence itself was new to me. I had never attended an Ashtanga Vinyasa class before, despite Claire Berghorst's Friday morning sessions at Akram Yoga. Interestingly, Claire, a student of John Scott who led the retreat, is also a disciple of the late Patabhi Jois, yet my Friday mornings were always overloaded with work, keeping me away despite Claire's playful threats to drag me in. Kicking and screaming.
(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. I observed no favoritism; everyone was helped and adjusted without prejudice. The retreat was characterized by its universal acceptance. It didn't matter whether you were male or female, whether your practice was advanced or basic, or whether you were a Muslim or a Hindu. This inclusive atmosphere was the beauty of the retreat. John Scott often spoke of acceptance during his workshops and wholeheartedly backed this up with his teaching. The experience was unforgettable, leaving me with deep gratitude towards John and my fellow students for such an enriching 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.
Kathmandu itself was beautiful. The locals are the friendliest people I have ever met, making Nepal a place I highly recommend. During my stay, I made a friend named Netan, a monk living at the monastery. Our first interaction was during a "meditative" walk, where he squeezed my arms and asked, "Can you teach me?" Later, in a dimly lit room at the monastery equipped with just a barbell and a few handmade dumbbells, I spent an hour teaching him the correct weightlifting techniques. After the session, Karma became emotional, reflecting, "We are of different religions, but we are all the same. Thank you, my brother," he said in Hindi. Before I left, he curiously inquired, "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 wasn't possible, he wished for an official replica FC Barcelona jersey with Messi's name on the back. I promised him that when I return to England, I would send him one as a gift. This gesture echoed the Sufi teachings saying: you haven't truly lived a day unless you do something for someone who can never repay you. It felt like my "farz" (duty or responsibility) to gift Karma something that, though meaningless and inexpensive to me, represented a dream come true 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, Laura and I went on a Sadhu hunt, searching high and low for Sadhus. Sadhus are religious ascetics who have renounced worldly life in pursuit of supreme consciousness, universal bliss, or God. I was eager to discuss yoga with them, to understand their beliefs about yoga and whether they practiced any asana (physical yoga poses). The first Sadhu we encountered was at a temple dedicated to Maa Kaali, a Hindu goddess known as the destroyer of evil. Laura, a great admirer of Kaali, is troubled by the deity's misrepresentation in the West as an evil entity, which is a significant misconception. Eager to reshape this narrative, Laura was thrilled to visit Kaali's temple.
There, we met a Sadhu who was leaving for another ashram that day. In our brief conversation, I asked him what yoga meant to him. He described yoga as the eternal union of man's will with God, attainable through penance. He intended to spend his life performing penance to achieve this union. When I inquired about his practice of asana, he affirmed its presence in his life, but explained that it was confined to prolonged sitting. This, he said, was all the asana he needed. Reflecting on my own experience of sitting for 30 minutes at a time during John Scott's sessions, I gained a deeper appreciation for the physical and mental fortitude required to maintain such a posture for extended periods. This encounter with the Sadhu, brief as it was, reaffirmed my understanding that asana plays a minimal role in a Sadhu's life, with the primary goal of classical yoga being union with God.
The next few Sadhus we met were not quite as insightful. However, our encounter with one "Sadhu" in Thamel at a temple dedicated to Shiva was rather unique. Instead of discussing yoga and God, we found ourselves debating over Bollywood movies! The "Sadhu" asked me how I learned to speak Hindi. I explained that my mother speaks Punjabi, which helped, and the rest I learned from Amitabh Bachchan's Bollywood movies. Soon, a few locals joined us, and we engaged in a lively debate over Amitabh's best films. This conversation was a stark contrast to my previous discussions with Sadhus but was nonetheless fascinating.
When the conversation eventually steered back from Bollywood, the "Sadhu" - a term I use loosely for him - shared his view that yoga is about "losing yourself to God." Upon my request for further explanation, he described how he spends his days in a trance, chanting mantras, hoping that one day "Bolenath" (another name for Shiva) will manifest before him, ending his cycle of birth, life, and death, as Hindus believe in reincarnation. At this point, I realized I had lost track of the group I had arrived with, so I had to leave the conversation.
(Above) Conversing with "Ramdev" and arguing over Amitabh Bachchan movies.
The next Sadhu I met was Yogi Dasa, outside my friend Prem's Hotel. Curious about his perspective on Yoga, I engaged him in conversation, and he was eager to share. Yogi Dasa expressed joy upon learning that I too had acquired my Hindi skills from watching Amitabh Bachchan films. Before I could delve into further questions, Yogi Dasa remarked, "With a pure heart, one day God will appear, bringing ultimate peace. This, to him, was the essence of Yoga."
When discussing the concept of God, he initially used the term "Bhagwan," then later referred to the divine as "Ishwar." He lamented the state of the world, questioning why people argue over the names of God. "Allah aur mere Shiva ek hai," he said, meaning "Allah and my Shiva are the same." To him, they represented the same genderless, formless entity that governs the universe, something beyond our comprehension. He believed that only fools argue over names, as the true nature of the divine is beyond our understanding. "Keep a pure heart," he advised, "and show love, mercy, and compassion to all, whether it's Shiva, Narayan, Allah, or God. Whatever it is, eternal peace will find you."
Curious, I asked if he truly believed God would manifest before him. His reply was confident: "Zaroor aayenge. Kyun nahi aayenge?" – "He will come. Why wouldn't he?" He stressed the importance of faith, stating that without belief in God or peace, one is no different from a madman.
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 Pashupatinath Temple, dedicated to Shiva. "Paśupati" means "Lord of all animals." Laura wasn't allowed into the temple as she wasn't Hindu. Nor am I, but they let me in without issue. Perhaps my Durga tattoo added to the confusion. The temple was bustling, and not wanting to leave Laura alone for too long, we resumed our search for Sadhus. We met several, one of whom was particularly talkative. He described his visit to the temple as a pilgrimage to bring his atman (soul) closer to the universal atman of Bolenath, another name for Shiva. When I inquired about his practice of asana, he simply laughed, explaining that he doesn't do asana; he is a "Bhakt," meaning his yoga is rooted in love and devotion to Shiva. However, he directed us to a cave where, he said, a "hatha yogi" lived.
Upon finding the cave, we knocked, and the yogi inside reluctantly let us in. Initially, he seemed indifferent, but his demeanor changed when I mentioned learning Hindi from Amitabh Bachchan movies. His reaction proved that even Sadhus have a fondness for Amitabh Bachchan. How could they 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, whose name was Susila, spoke about Yoga, defining the practice he follows as "what comes out, must go up." He elaborated that prana, or life force/energy, is too easily expelled, especially in the West. The aim of the yoga he practices is to control the descent of prana and direct it upwards towards the brain. Mastery of this leads to "roshanee," which loosely translates to illumination. Through this illumination, one experiences Shiva. He admitted to having no idea what this experience truly feels like, a sentiment shared by his guru. According to him, it's an experience that cannot be described, only felt.
Susila then handed me a textbook, written entirely in Hindi, titled "Pāśupata Yoga." When I inquired about this form of yoga, he explained that Pāśupata is another name for Shiva and that this form of yoga predates any other known to mankind, including the Gita and, presumably, Patanjali's sutras. Practiced by the early Shaivites – followers of the path of Shiva – Shaivism claims to be the world's oldest known religion. The concept of Pāśupata yoga, he explained, was complex and largely went over my head, as is often the case with early Shaiva texts.
Regarding asana, Susila clarified that while it plays a minor role in Pāśupata yoga, it is still important. He reasoned that one cannot be expected to sit upright for meditation and chanting for extended periods if they cannot maintain an upright posture. He even chuckled at my seated posture, which, as evident from the picture above, was quite poor.
Susila explained that their asana system is a specific sequence handed down by Shiva over thousands of years. When I asked if there was any text to substantiate this, Susila laughed and remarked that "you lot" are always seeking proof, presumably referring to Westerners. He clarified that the tradition was initially oral, with "secrets" passed down from guru to student. When eventually written, they were inscribed by hand in textbooks with minimal detail to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. He mentioned that due to lack of resources and the harsh Indian and Nepalese climates, most of these texts have not survived.
He then showed us the asanas displayed in poster form on his wall, emphasizing the importance of their sequence. The practice starts by engaging the Mūlādhāra (root chakra) and working upwards, with the aim of not expelling prana and preserving the bindu, the "nectar of immortality," located at the back of the head. This Paśupata asana system helps to awaken the kundalini, the dormant energy visualized as a sleeping serpent at the base of the spine. Susila stressed that awakening the kundalini is essential for realizing one's potential and divinity, whether through mantra, meditation, or asana.
Susila offered to teach this system to Laura and me upon our return from Pokhara. Though he didn't charge for the textbooks, I contributed towards his "bhojan" (food) as customary. Unfortunately, we couldn't return to him after Pokhara.
Reflecting on our meeting, I recall how Susila asked us to return on Tuesday for a lesson in Pāśupata Yoga. When I wondered about the logistics, he casually suggested, "Whatsapp me." Surprised, I confirmed that I had Whatsapp, to which he chuckled and set our meeting for Tuesday. His use of modern technology struck a balance between traditional and contemporary life.
Another remarkable moment was his chanting of "OMMMM." In the midst of conversation, Susila demonstrated the mantra, which plays a significant role in Pāśupata Yoga. He continued speaking even as the resonating sound of "Mmmmmmmmmm" lingered, leaving Laura and me in awe of his impressive mantra recitation.
From his initial indifference to his enthusiasm for Amitabh Bachchan movies, and the amusing Whatsapp finale, meeting Sadhu Susila was an eventful experience. However, my purpose there was not to judge but to learn and observe. I am grateful to Susila for sharing his time and knowledge with us.
Our Sadhu journey didn't end there; we went on to meet another Sadhu in Pokhara, to whom both of us grew quite attached. We bumped into him on each of the three days we were in Pokhara. He did tell me his name, but I forgot it and out of respect, 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 initially met him while we were looking for a place to have breakfast. He was small, had a very noticeable limp, and possessed the sweetest smile. We spoke briefly about yoga, and he said that for him, yoga was about giving up his life in service to Bolenath (Shiva). I asked if he practiced asana, and he replied that he did so only when bored. He explained with a laugh that other Sadhus at the ashram where he stayed did little asana but tended to do more when bored. He described the Sadhu life as tough, saying they practiced asana to stay focused and on the right path.
The following day, we invited him to join us for breakfast. He agreed, albeit reluctantly, seemingly puzzled by our act of kindness. He shared that no one had shown him this type of kindness in his 35 years as a wandering sadhu. He was such a gentle soul that it was hard not to be kind to him. For breakfast, he didn't eat but simply requested some mango juice. Continuing our previous conversations, I asked if belief in God was necessary to be a Yogi. He laughed and replied in Hindi that one doesn't need to believe in God to be a Yogi but needs to be a "sapane dekhane vaala," a dreamer. He elaborated that yoga asks for faith, but not necessarily in God. To reach the ultimate, one must be "mahattvaakaankshee," meaning ambitious or aspiring. To break through misery and explore new dimensions, one must dream. I remarked, "Everyone dreams," to which he responded with an infectious smile, "yahi to me kehta hoon," meaning "exactly." Whether your goal is to be with God, to be free, to achieve optimum health, to master a headstand, to be free from injuries and disease, or whatever your reason for practicing yoga, you must be a dreamer. His words echoed those of the great philosopher Nietzsche, who once said, "Man cannot live with the true; he needs dreams, he needs illusions to exist."
Our Sadhu friend explained that the path to the yogic goal is extremely challenging and nearly impossible for some. All yoga asks, he said, is for you to dream and wholeheartedly support this dream. "Jaan se karo," he said, meaning "Do it with your heart."
Echoing Charlie Chaplin, he remarked, "Smile and dream, and he or it, whatever you want, will arrive. The key is 'himmat, shakti' (strength, courage, will)."
We spoke at length before I inquired about his limp. He recounted that at 13-14, his parents wanted him to become a Sadhu, as was their family tradition. As the oldest son, he agreed to uphold the tradition. However, after a year of seeing his friends enjoy life, he doubted his path and expressed his desire to marry and become a householder instead. Displeased, his parents asked him to leave their house for dishonoring their tradition. On the same day he left, he was hit by a car while riding his bike. He spent a year in the hospital, where doctors eventually said they could do no more for him. Upon leaving, he visited a temple, prayed, and asked Shiva for strength. Realizing that no one would marry a man disowned by his family, impoverished, and with a permanent limp, he concluded this was his karma. Deciding to embrace asceticism, he became a wandering Sadhu, spending his life performing penance to Shiva, seeking forgiveness for not honoring his parents' wishes. His limp and hip pain constantly reminded him of his karma. "Yahi mera muqaddar hai," he said, meaning "This is my destiny."
The next day we bumped into him again. He shared that his heart had been full of joy since meeting us. For over 35 years, he had avoided any type of attachment, a practice even his Sadhu brothers at the ashram adhered to, frequently moving around to prevent attachments to one another. In yogic philosophy, as taught by the great Vivekananda, attachment can lead to suffering. He described the Bhakta's (devotees') renunciation as Vairagya, or non-attachment to all things not divine, stemming from Anuraga, or great attachment to God. With this philosophy, a Sadhu dedicates his life to avoiding such attachments. However, he had become attached to us, seeing us as the children he never had, and felt joy rather than guilt over this newfound attachment. He reflected that devotion, traditionally viewed as the most important spiritual path due to its simplicity and directness, can also have its pitfalls. His years of selfless devotion had made him somewhat oblivious to love for his fellow man, but meeting us had opened his eyes, leading him to consider that not all attachments are hindrances. Perhaps devotion should be universal rather than exclusive to one's chosen deity. He realized that his spiritual journey was more challenging than he had ever imagined.
After expressing these sentiments, he bid us farewell. At this moment, Laura became visibly emotional, struggling to hold back tears. He comforted her, assuring us that we would meet again one day. Placing his hand on Laura's shoulder, he urged me to take good care of her, suggesting that our love for each other might be a gateway to divine love. With those words, he left us and continued his long walk toward the ashram. His departure left a profound impression on us both, more than we could have ever anticipated.
(Above) Saying goodbye to our Sadhu.
(Below) Captures from Pokhara
(Above) Conversing with a local.
Two weeks in Nepal introduced me to two very different yoga traditions: the Ashtanga Vinyasa system and the ascetic Sadhu life. Though vastly different in nature and goals, both are recognized as Yoga. This experience left me pondering a question: Is Yoga a religion?
To the ascetics I met during my journey in Nepal, Yoga certainly seemed to be a religion. In conversations with the Sadhus, they all spoke of a "union" with God, most often referring to this deity as "Shiva." Meanwhile, amongst the students at the Ashtanga retreat, none mentioned the concept of God in their yoga practice. Their goal, similar to mine, was to evolve spiritually or to achieve optimum health.
Therefore, Yoga can be a religion for some but not for others. It becomes a religion when someone chooses to use it as a means to reach divinity. For most, however, yoga is a practice aimed at uniting the mind, body, and soul, leading to physical and emotional peace or freedom. While the ascetics refer to Shiva as God, this does not universally define him as such. The Sadhus may choose to believe in Shiva, but no text I have encountered dictates that a Yogi must accept Shiva as God. Yoga, in essence, does not require a belief in God. In yogic culture, Shiva is regarded as adi-yogi, the first Yogi.
Finally, regarding whether yoga is inherently Hindu, "Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is pure science, just like mathematics, physics, or chemistry. Physics is not Christian; it's merely a coincidence that Christians discovered its laws. Physics remains a science. Similarly, yoga is the pure mathematics of the inner being. A Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist – anyone can be a Yogi because yoga is a science." - Osho
A beautiful image captured by Laura that summarises our yoga journey in Nepal.