“It’s Neti Time!” — A Nepal Yoga Retreat

A dozen of us sit around an oval table, two candles offering the only light. In the main cities of Nepal, the electricity is out for around 12 hours a day. Load shedding (or rationing) it’s called, and the schedule varies day to day. Generators and solar power exist, but tonight, on the top level of the Sadhana Yoga and Meditation center, high above Lake Fewa, the candle flames set the perfect atmosphere for an impromptu concert.

A German guy has just returned from his trek, returned to this place where he’d previously spent a week, a place that feels like home. Those who know him hail his return with requests for songs on his portable traveler’s guitar. He opens with a narrative song about a monkey who yearns to fly only to realize he cannot land. Soon, I’m laughing harder than I have in weeks and singing along to a catchy chorus that goes, “Hey monkey, monkey… Hey monkey, monkey…”

On the far side of the lake are pinpricks of light from city of Pokhara, where every establishment caters to travelers — convenience stores that do your laundry, paragliding companies that will arrange your jungle safari, and too many restaurants misinformed about backpacker eating habits. I did not come to Nepal for white bread toast and spaghetti. Perhaps Lonely Planet can send a memo.

The scene in Pokhara is a more laidback version of Thamel, the backpacker neighborhood in Kathmandu, and a more uptempo version of the main town at Chitwan National Park — the other places I’ve been. Touts are significantly less annoying in Nepal than in other countries, but if like me, you don’t have a plan upon arrival, adventure-information overload is a danger. Whether you are ready or not, within a day almost any company can whisk you away to trek in mountains so high that altitude sickness is a reality. And I was not ready.

I came to Sadhana to rest my eyes from pinballing the storefronts, to find some likeminded and likehearted travelers, and to center myself before taking on the mountains, rivers, and as it would turn out, the sky.

The bell rings at 5:30 am, and we gather in the yoga hall for warm up exercises and morning meditation. The practice is centered around the repetition of mantras (“Om” and “So Hum”) externally and internally for concentration. My mind wanders as it always does during my own morning meditation, but I am surprised by lack of self-judgment, that in the past year it has become a tiny bit easier for me to sit still.

Following our morning herbal tea, Divyam rings the bell. “It’s Neti time!” he shouts from the balcony. When we are all gathered in the garden area, he begins, “Namaste and welcome to this nasal cleansing program.” All of the newcomers are nervous. Unlike me, they have never poured salty water into one nostril and watched it come out the other. Some people sound like they are choking or drowning, partially because they are laughing. The only appropriate way to end a group nasal cleansing is with a ridiculous physical exercises. Up and down we bounce, fingers tucked under our armpits in the chicken dance, forcefully blowing out excess water through our noses.

Our morning yoga session is led by the center founder, Asanga. He reminds me of a wizard and leads us in pranayama (breathing exercises) that I know but do not practice often enough. During the physical portion, we begin with pre-asanas that are like kindergarten calisthenics and then asanas (poses) that we hold for three minutes, timed by a stopwatch. It is one of my intentions to be open to a yoga style that is different from my regular vinyasa flow. I figure if I haven’t cut off friends in the States who practice Bikram the least I can do is be open to this branch of Hatha that extends back to India and the very roots of yoga. And while the method is very different, I have to admit that in this Himalayan land, “downward dog” looks a lot more like a “mountain pose” as it’s called here.

Every few days, we practice laughing yoga, a traditional (Buddhist) practice that has us squealing and cackling for no reason at all. At this time, Santo, a young guy who speaks little English and works in the background, runs up from wherever he is on the property, bursts into the room and breaks into a fit of hysterics that energizes us even more.

Usually, our morning walk is short and leisurely. We stroll past the “Great Compassion School,” or down to “Happy Village,” or kick around a soccer ball. The highlight of the day is breakfast, either because we’ve already been up for four-and-a-half hours, or because the banana lassi, lightly spiced like the masala tea, and the muesli with curd (yogurt) is amazing. One morning we count almost a dozen different items from coconut to apples to dried dates in our bowls. Because I am language inept, I learn only one Nepali phrase, but I practice it (and am corrected) at every meal. “Mitho cha!” Delicious!

The bulk of the midday is for hanging out. This means we sit on the veranda, watch the paragliders twirl above the lake, and engage in the typical backpacker banter. Q: How long are you staying? A: I don’t know, maybe 4 days, or 7 days, or maybe 10 days. Q: Where are you going next? A: I don’t know, maybe Thailand or Burma, or maybe I’ll just stay here? Q: Where is the best place you’ve been? A: India. Definitely India.

Surprisingly, I find myself looking forward to the noon meditation session. I’m headed into a Tibetan monastery for a Buddhism/meditation course soon, and I’d been afraid that I might OD on meditation. But the opposite occurs. I feel like I’m just warming up. As my larger trip begins to take on a shape of its own, it’s apparently unfolding around yoga and meditation. I seem to seek this out wherever I land, as if I’m taking a real world survey course in Eastern philosophy and practice.

And I’m a spiritual lightweight compared to the two girls who are finishing up their 21 days at Sadhana shortly before going into a hardcore Vipassana meditation course. I like them very much immediately, and in the couple days that our time overlaps, our connection feels effortless. I make friends while I am here, those I will catch up with when, on our own schedules, we all  re-enter civilization.

In the late afternoon, we practice karma yoga, thirty minutes of kitchen help, watering plants, cleaning the yoga space, or one time, shoveling rocks. I enjoy this tiny contribution to the upkeep of the community, but there is a deeper intention behind this practice. “Yoga is union of body and mind,” Durga (Asanga’s wife) says to me. “And in this karma yoga, the yoga of action, we unite our work with our body and mind in meditation.”

It is hard to practice this work-meditation if anyone begins jabbering away while we are peeling potatoes. But I observe it in Sunita, the cook who sings softly to herself behind us, and in Ganga, the workhorse and family elder who cleans, launders, and hauls firewood, always with a smile so deep and pure it appears ancient, as if she discovered joy in a time long ago, and only she knows the secret to maintain it. Karma yoga, perhaps.

And finally, the moment we all wait for. No, no, not the snack of masala tea and popcorn, but after. Chanting! “Now we will unite our beautiful voices in beautiful melodies and spread our beautiful energy,” Durga says, rolling her T’s. No matter how many times she says “beautiful,” it never gets old. Just like her smile, equal parts love and mischief. A leader of the village women’s group, Durga is strong and nurturing, exactly as her name suggests.

Every day, we pick three mantras/chants from the list, many that I recognize from home, but that Durga explains differently. While we sing, she plays the tambourine and her nephew, Kaushal, plays the drum. He often wears a Sid Vicious “Smoke the Herb” T-shirt, and sometimes in between sending text messages, he’ll casually and naturally fall into a few repetitions of “Om Namah Shivaya.” He is passionate about chanting, and he downloads a bunch of Nepali devotional music onto a thumb drive for me, an exciting surprise for when I get home.

Kaushal is my favorite. When he suggests I get up and dance at the end of one session, I climb over my own internal  resistance and rise in my spot. Prodded by the girls, and there are only girls, soon I’m in the center of the circle dancing alone to a chanting encore. I’m stepping outside of myself in this place, or maybe it is into myself. I am at ease in this environment, and I I soon notice that I am a resource for those who are new to yoga, meditation, and chanting.

Divyam leads evening yoga, which is always a mental challenge for me. Divyam is unadulterated sweetness, disciplined and dedicated, but he has a disciple’s demeanor and lacks the knowledge of Asanga. He passes on to us only what he recently learned and is unable to answer basic questions (asked often) like why we greet the morning with moon salutations and end the day with sun salutations. I’m not sure whether it is empathy, sympathy, or compassion but even as I’m regularly annoyed by stopwatch yoga, I alternate between these warm feelings toward Divyam, as well as myself for my own frustration and lack of focus.

After dinner, we do a quick candlelight meditation. When it’s over, Divyam places his palms together and ends this session in the same manner that he ends all of them. “This program is over. Thank you and Namaste.”

Seven days is a short time for me to experiment with a new form of yoga. Seven days is a long time for me to be away from booze, bud, internet, and especially coffee. This is probably the longest I’ve gone without those habits and substances since I was fifteen years old. I was so fearful about caffeine withdrawal that I brought a small bottle of emergency Nescafe that I never opened.

I felt at home the moment I arrived in Nepal, but it is only at the end of my week at Sadhana that I feel at home within myself. We practiced everything from extreme stillness to excessive laughter to stretching our eyeballs, and in the process, we received a lifelong foundation for yoga, or an addition to my existing foundation, something I’ll carry with me on the rest of my adventure. Some people travel to discover a new world, but I think I travel to discover myself in a new world, and it took a week of focus on my “sadhana” — my practice — to turn in before looking out.

One Response to “ “It’s Neti Time!” — A Nepal Yoga Retreat ”

  1. Sarah Lyons Says:

    Dear Nick,
    I’m writing this in an airport, on the way to my first yoga retreat ever. Excited, nervous, as full of surrender as I can be. Reading your words, as always, puts a smile on my face and brings some of that mental peace we practice for in the first place. I hope I get the chance to express how much you’ve been an inspiration to me. I wouldn’t be on this trip if it wasn’t for you! So, thank you friend. You have an incredible ability to help others uncover connection.
    With lovingkindness, Sarah

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