Yoga on Top of the World


By Kristin Barendsen  |  

I raise my arms above my head, saluting the off-kilter tower of Ama Dablam and the first beams of sunlight playing over its summit. The mist in the valley is beginning to burn off, revealing snowy peaks all around us. “Breathe in the fresh oxygen,” our yoga teacher Lianne Kershaw says. The air has a different quality at 12,500 feet—pure, effervescent. The wind blows my yoga mat against my legs, and I secure it at the corners with my hiking boots. I let my mind rest on the sound of the wind as we hang in a delicious Uttanasana. Feeling my hamstrings protest and surrender after four days of trekking, I think, it doesn’t get better than this.

As we raise our arms again to the sky, I understand like never before what it means to salute the sun. My body is a mountain in Downward Dog, the river as we flow through Chaturanga and Upward-Facing Dog. Folding inward and expanding, I give thanks for being part of this landscape.

I’ve joined 10 other Westerners for a “yoga trek” in the Khumbu region of Nepal, reign of the world’s highest mountain. Over the course of two weeks, we’ll hike from 9,000 to 18,000 feet and back, practicing yoga every day. Our studio is the Himalayan trail, whether sun or wind or fog.

Today we’re practicing in the yak pasture behind our lodge in Khumjung, the village that boasts the world’s highest bakery. Lianne instructs us to move to the stone wall that frames the pasture. “Finding a relatively dung-free area,” she says in her soothing British accent, “let’s open into Right Angle Pose.” I put my boots on loosely. Behind the wall, two children are watching us, giggling behind their hands. Although they look poor by American standards—dusty, snotty, barefoot—their easy laughter suggests that poverty has a different definition here.

I bend forward, focusing on the exhalation, but consider breaking out of the pose when I hear galloping hooves behind me. I turn to see two yak calves running at full clip, headed straight for us. I could jump the wall, but it’s just stacked rocks, too unstable for a good foothold. Do yaks charge? I wonder. At the last second, they veer away, missing us by 10 feet. The children squeal and run down the trail.

In just four days of yoga in the great outdoors, we’ve encountered dogs that run away with yoga straps, crowds of villagers who stare and spit, Japanese tourists who snap photos of us in Warrior I. Each session, it strikes me what a different experience it is to do yoga out in the world rather than within a studio’s four walls.

During our breakfast of omelets and Indian bread, Gyan, our guide, describes the trail we will take today. “Mostly up,” he says, giggling when he sees us grimace. We are headed to the Tengboche monastery, the most influential of some 260 Buddhist monasteries in the area. We’re hoping to see its Rinpoche, one of the highest-ranking lamas in Nepal.

First we must descend to the Dudh Kosi, a river that finds its source in Everest’s melting glacier. La Niòa has brought Nepal the hottest season on record, and the whole country is suffering a drought that has killed crops and dried the trail to layers of dust we kick up as we walk. It is late April, with the promise of monsoon rains two months away.

We pass porters dusty with days of dirt, towering loads stuffed inside baskets they hang behind them with nothing but a strap around their foreheads. Some look miserable and pass us silently; others greet us with bright smiles and “namaste.” Because there are no roads in the Khumbu, everything must be transported by human or animal: staple foods that don’t grow at high altitude, tourist goods like Snickers bars and bottled water, every brick for every house.

Ten porters from the Kathmandu trekking company EcoTrek guide us, carry our packs, and cook our food. None are actually Sherpas, the Tibetan Buddhist ethnic group that inhabits the area and is famous for guiding trekkers and climbers. Rather, they’re young Hindu men from a village outside Kathmandu. Some had walked for five days to meet us.

It strikes me that our porters are better-heeled than most. Kaji, who is carrying my pack, looks dapper in a bright flannel shirt and sturdy tennis shoes. Early this morning, Kaji greeted me with “Pack ready?” and I stuffed the remaining items in my pack as fast as I could. I showed him the pack’s features—waist belt, sternum strap, adjustable back panel—and he nodded and smiled but ignored all but the shoulder straps and dashed ahead to secure our lodging for the night. As I watched him disappear, I thought about how many hours and dollars I spent at the sporting goods store getting a pack fitted and buying Gore-Tex and fleece, while the average porter runs up and down the mountain wearing cotton and flip-flops, earning what to our exchange rate is $3 a day.

I walk alone, the rest of the group far ahead or behind me. Seeing a mother and daughter washing clothes together, I realize I left my laundered underwear in last night’s lodge, hanging on the curtain like a prayer flag. I debate whether, on the way back through here next week, I should embarrass myself by having a porter translate “underwear.” As I ponder, the trail winds to the side of the cliff, the river a foamy swirl framed by jagged boulders about 40 feet below. I hear bells clanging and look up to see a train of dzopkyo, a shaggy crossbreed of cow and yak. Bags of rice and cases of beer hang off their stout bodies as they amble sullenly along.

To make room for the yaks I move to the far edge of the trail. Too late, I notice I’m standing only about 8 inches from a sheer drop-off to the rocks and river. The first two yaks pass with enough clearance, but the third looks me in the eye and walks straight into me, shoving me hard toward the drop-off. I lean my full body weight into him and yell “Jesus Christ!” A herder hits him with a stick and he moves on, grunting. I stare over the cliff’s edge, picturing my body skewered on the rocks below. Would I have survived?

I speed along the trail, passing villagers and porters who look startled by my battle cry. My hands and legs are shaking. I need to tell someone. I catch JoDean and relate the story, then wait for others to catch up to me, and tell each group member who passes. I want someone to be a witness, but no one mirrors my alarm. This confuses me—shouldn’t a close call be alarming? I could have been food for the vultures, but instead I’m strolling along the trail. Maybe a close call isn’t close at all to a real disaster, just a slap on the cheek to wake up. When my head clears from its philosophical fog I see I’m surrounded by the bright blooms of pink rhododendron trees, and under them the fragile blue petals of lilies.

We cross the river on a swaying metal suspension bridge about 60 feet above the current. Our cook Deepak jumps up and down on the bridge, making us bounce. Ahead is a three-hour hill. The trail splits around a bank of mani stones—engraved rocks with Tibetan mantras such as Ohm mane padme hum, “hail to the jewel in the lotus.” All along the path are reminders of the region’s deep spirituality—prayer wheels, prayer flags, monuments to the dead. Following Buddhist protocol, we keep these to our right side as we walk by.

We pass the time by chatting. Our interaction has a fluid quality, like a cocktail party, as we each speed up or slow down. We are 10 women and one man, ages 31 to 55, hailing from the United States, Canada, and England. Nancy Craft, our leader, says that we’re the most harmonious group out of the dozens she’s led throughout Asia. There are no professional complainers, and Nancy and coleader Lianne keep things moving with a balance of decisiveness and flexibility.

We are clients of the Berkeley, California, tour company Cross-Cultural Encounters. Owner Devorah Thompson conceived of a yoga trek on her first visit to Nepal. “I thought, can you imagine doing Sun Salutations to these mountains? I want people to open up to what this country is spiritually. I want them to feel the power of the mountain gods. The yoga opens you and lets you experience things just a little bit more acutely.” Besides an intensive yoga retreat in the Khumbu this spring, Cross-Cultural Encounters also plans yoga treks in Peru’s Machu Picchu region and around the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I daydream about trekking in these places and more, making my life a never-ending hike through the mountains.

About two hours up the hill, I hear raucous whoops and clapping, then the rhythms of the tabla drum. Our porters have stopped at a clearing by cliffside and are singing their favorite song. Their sound is distinctly Asian, their voices warbling from tone to tone. Each takes a turn improvising the first two lines of a verse, then the rest join in for the refrain.

As his friends sing, Kaji struts in a circle, moving his hips and arms with feminine grace. Then the singing stops for a drum solo and he bounces into a squat, kicking each leg up effortlessly. I remember hearing that he had lost all but one toe to frostbite while climbing a nearby peak. I watch from the side, swaying a little to the music. Kaji runs up and with “Please come!” takes my hand and leads me into the clearing. I try to copy his hip movements, then when the music signals it we both bounce down and kick. The squat-kicks are athletic and I’m quickly winded, but I keep going and we all laugh with delight. This moment shimmers, and I know I will remember it: celebrating the boyish exuberance of the music, squandering the resources I need to make it up the hill, expressing our flirtatious energy in the safe container of dance. The porters sing lines that translate as, “life, which lasts for just two days…no one knows what will happen next.”

When the drumming stops I’m out of breath. “You’ll have to carry me,” I say to Kaji, who with “get on!” hoists me onto his sweaty back as I shriek. Just as quickly, he lets me down, and we continue up the hill.

I walk with Lianne, our yoga teacher. Tall and loose-limbed, she bounds along the trail like a gazelle. She tells me, “Since we’ve been in the mountains you’ve really started to glow. You’re like a bloom of a flower, getting bigger and bigger.” I do feel different, though I hadn’t realized it showed. I thrive on the simplicity of trekking, with nothing to do but walk among Himalayan peaks, practice yoga, talk to interesting people, dance. I feel full of energy, high on the altitude.

At the top of the hill is the Tengboche monastery, whose meditation hall is in its third incarnation, having been destroyed by earthquake in 1934 and fire in 1989. It’s a huge building of whitewashed stone.

A red-robed monk manning the doorway to the main hall invites us to take our boots off and “see the monks praying.” I’m looking forward to seeing real Tibetan monks sitting in meditation. Instead, the door opens to an eerie cacophony of low-voiced chanting and the blare of 10-foot horns. A monk strides around the floor, giving offerings to a huge golden Buddha at the altar. Bewildered, I take a seat with the other Western tourists who line the walls.

To my delight we are granted a private audience with the Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Khumbu region. First we must purchase white silk scarves called katas; we are to wrap a donation in our kata and present it to the Rinpoche, who will accept the donation and bless the scarf. As he touches my scarf, I notice his glowing brown skin and bored smile. We take seats across the room and ask questions that Gyan translates, such as “How old are you? Have you ever been to America?” His replies are concise, unembellished. I rack my brain for a question that will launch him into a Dharma talk about the Sherpas’ embrace of simple living or the problems with American society. I want spiritual revelations from this holy man on the mountain. But I can’t find words that are profound but not pretentious, and so I just drink the sweet tea a monk serves.

We descend to Deboche, where we are to stay in a lodge that offers hot showers, a rare commodity. Every cell in my body craves a shower, and after hearing me fantasize aloud about this, my tripmates are kind enough to let me go first. The shower must be ordered a half hour in advance, so the lodge owner can heat the water on a wood stove, carry it to the second floor, and pour it into a large metal can attached to a hose that flows into a shed out back. As the warm trickle runs over my skin, I think about all the effort that went into bringing this water to me. I feel guilty about each drop, but enjoy it all the more.

I dry my hair by the wood stove in the dining hall and talk to Rabi. He is Gyan’s second in command, 21, sweet and educated. When he comments that the Khumbu is the wealthiest region in Nepal, I’m surprised. After all, almost no villagers have electricity or running water, and in their lifetimes might never see a telephone or car. But they aren’t starving. “Tourism has uplifted the condition of the Sherpas,” Rabi says. “But it’s disrupted their self-dependence. People are abandoning their villages and settling by the trekking routes for their business. Some settlements have hotels, cine-theaters, and bakeries—but no schools.”

It’s true that walking this route is far from bushwacking in wilderness. We pass several, even dozens, of lodges each day, as well as herds of Western tourists. But a mile off the trail in any direction, you would find the untouristic Nepal.

As we chat, Deepak emerges from the kitchen singing “hot lemone…” and serves warm, sweet lemonade with a dramatic bow. Dinner is yak cheese pizza, boardlike but delicious. I sit on my left hand to avoid touching my food with it, since Nepalis consider doing so offensive. Nepalis eat only with the right hand—no silverware—and use the left hand on those occasions when we would use toilet paper. The staff eats apart from us, also according to custom.

After dinner the porters rev up the band, and Kaji dances with everybody in the room, including a group of reticent Brits and a dozen enthusiastic Mexicans who add their own percussion instruments to the mix.

My roommate JoDean and I are both reading Into Thin Air (Anchor Books, 1998), Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest climb that claimed the lives of five people. The book is strangely comforting to me, since it makes what we’re doing feel like a Caribbean cruise. As I read by headlamp, I become aware that I can feel the altitude, now 12,500 feet. My breathing is a little faster than usual; my heart beats audibly in the stillness. My throat and lungs hurt from breathing dust and smoke. I can’t get comfortable on the miniature, thin mattress, and the door to the latrine creaks all night. I sleep for maybe two hours and dream I have a crush on a Nepali boy about 13 years old. We are friends, but he guesses my feelings and says they’re inappropriate, and in the meantime I miss two dentist appointments.


The next day we are to gain 2,000 feet of altitude before lunch, on our way to Dingboche. Vegetation becomes sparse as we climb above the tree line. The sun is fierce and the sky clear, affording us our clearest view yet of the Khumbu’s startling peaks. There is Lhotse, pointed and dramatic. To its left is the jagged ridge of Nuptse, and rising above Nuptse is a mound that is the highest piece of rock on Earth: the summit of Everest. Where it scrapes the sky it leaves a plume of snowy wind in its wake. From our vantage point about 10 horizontal and 3 vertical miles from the top, Everest actually looks shorter than the closer Lhotse. We debate about which is which, and call Gyan over to settle the matter. Though it seems a bit anti-climactic that Everest doesn’t look tallest, this only adds to its mystery.

I take several photographs and lag behind, wondering if I danced too much yesterday. My lungs feel hot and constricted; I try to keep the dust out by breathing through a bandana. Gyan walks behind me, bringing up the rear. I start feeling like I can’t get enough air, and a wave of nausea sweeps over me and I stop. Gyan asks if I’m okay. “You sometimes go fast, passing people,” he says. “Then you lose breath. Keep the same pace, slowly, slowly.” He takes my day pack and tells me to drink, though I can’t stomach the warm, iodized, orange-flavored water. I try to focus just on the task of bringing one foot up and forward, then the other. Every few yards I stop to calm my rising gorge and speeding heart. I try to make it a walking meditation, one step for every breath. “Now,” I whisper, “now.”

Our lunch stop is an empty stone building on a desolate, windy ridge at about 14,500 feet. When Gyan and I finally reach it, Nancy hugs me and asks what I need. I suddenly have to choke back tears—I’m afraid I won’t be able to go on, that I’ll hold the group up or have to descend. I feel stupid to crap out at 14,500 feet while climbers summit a mountain twice that high not 10 miles away. I tell Nancy I want to lie down in the shade, and I curl up on a bench inside the building. It feels good to be cool and still, but my body temperature soon plummets, and Nancy covers me with blankets. I start coughing and can’t stop. While everyone else practices yoga in the yak pasture outside, a strange feeling wells up in me and I cry a little—not exactly out of sadness but out of the intensity of it all, feeling moved by the kindness of Gyan and Nancy and helpless in the face of my own physical limitations, the sun, the wind, the lack of oxygen. And there is a quality to the feeling that comes from outside my emotions, the altitude pushing tears out of me. Gyan’s observation of my pace—speeding up and passing people, then losing breath—echoes my life back home. I tend to push myself hard to reach some goal, working beyond fatigue. Sometimes this leads to accomplishment, sometimes to burnout.

Tomorrow we are to hike to the top of Chhukhung-Ri, an 18,000-foot peak. It will be the highest point of our trek and a challenging day at nine hours of hiking and a 3,500-foot altitude gain. I’ve been waiting for this chance to test my limits, to stand on the top of a Himalayan peak. But given my condition, would I be rising to the challenge, or punishing my body?

The more immediate question is whether I can walk on to our lodge in Dingboche. It’s still an hour away for a healthy trekker. But descending to a lower altitude would likely mean walking with a porter another three or four hours back to Dingboche, and this seems a far worse and lonelier option.

When the group returns from yoga, I tell Nancy and Gyan I want to go on, and they don’t argue. The air is cooler, the trail thankfully a downhill slope to the Dudh Kosi, looking more glacial by the mile. Gyan repeats “slowly, slowly” and makes me stop every few minutes to drink water. I feel a little better and take comfort in moving with such deliberation. We pass one of the women from the Mexican group we met in Deboche, her Sherpa guide waiting with her as she pukes behind a rock. She says it’s food poisoning. By the river is the turnoff to Everest Base Camp, another day’s walk. When we reach the lodge at Dingboche, I thank Gyan for his kind patience and he looks moved, though he replies that he’s just doing his job.

At dinner Rabi serves me “garlic soup—good for sickness,” and watches me like a mother hen to make sure I eat it. I have no appetite, but eat to please him.

Hannah, who had been coughing for a couple of days, tonight is almost delirious with fever, though she had looked fine on the trail today. We debate about whether she might have pulmonary edema, but Hannah insists she’s allergic to the dust. “If you’re coughing up junk,” Nancy says, looking at Hannah and me, “it’s not dust. I think you both should take antibiotics.” I retrieve two Zithromax from my room and throw them down the hatch.

This sparks a conversation about who is taking which antibiotics. A good half of us have gastrointestinal or respiratory illnesses; Nancy has both. She says her greatest challenge leading groups in Nepal is staying healthy so she can take care of the group, and pressing on even when she isn’t healthy. As the lodge owner builds an acrid fire with dried yak dung, it dawns on me that we’ve been breathing this stuff for days. I christen our illness “yak dung fever.”

Hannah and I share a room to quarantine ourselves. Hannah starts doing Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire) to clear her lungs, and I follow, and we cough horrifically, purging out the yak dung. Then Hannah stands up and exhales into a forward bend over and over, her red hair swinging. I hang over the bed in a backbend. We do twists, chest openers, more Pranayama. Each exhalation sends us into coughing fits, but after awhile my lungs are clear.

Despite my exhaustion I cannot sleep—my breathing is still too fast, and nausea comes with waves of chill and anxiety. I’m still debating about whether to attempt Chhukhung-Ri tomorrow. My brain and ego want to go, and I don’t want to ask my body because I won’t like its answer. At dawn I admit that my body is right, and I will stay.

I rise with the group and bid them well. I head alone up the hill behind the lodge, making my way slowly over the dirt and low shrubs. After a half hour I come to a ridge lined with chortens, stone monuments to the dead. It reveals an expanse of mountains in all directions. To the east is the sun cresting over the river valley, turning the water to a silver ribbon. To the south are snowy mountains half in shadow, half in brilliant sun. Westward, reddish peaks rise clawlike from desert rock. Northward, chortens lead up the ridge toward dark spires. The gods and goddesses are visible in the rocky faces of the mountains, listening, about to speak.

I reach the first chorten and begin to prostrate to the four directions—to the wind, the sun, the river, and this incredible land that is the expression of all the heavens. Spinning slowly in a circle I pray for all the people in my life, my parents and brother and friends, and for myself, for the expansion of my heart, and the ability to take this home with me.

I want to take home the serendipity and surrender of travel, to let time flow free and untamed. I want to leave behind my overscheduled life and follow a new trail through mountains, new countries, more rugged terrain. This is the real yoga of the trip, I realize. The yoga of breathing with each step, of spontaneous pranayama, of prayers spoken directly to the heavens.

Then suddenly I feel sick and need to find a bathroom. The bushes are too low to hide me, and I don’t want to desecrate a chorten. So I scurry down the ridge and by the time I reach the lodge I am running. “Kanche didi!” Lali calls out. “Kasto chha?” This means, “Youngest of the older sisters, how are you?” I’ve taken to calling Lali “hasne bahaai,” or smiling younger brother, for his infectious grin. But now isn’t the time to chat. “Hi, I’m okay,” I answer, booking to the outhouse and slamming the door. And as slow, aggressive flies swirl around me, I think, the sublime and the absurd—this is exactly how I imagined Nepal would be.

Hannah has also stayed behind. We share lunch of soup and chapati, coughing and taking turns holding a hot water bottle to our chests. We speculate about where the group is, whether they feel the altitude. “Their challenge was to go, ours was to stay,” Hannah says. We chat all afternoon, agreeing that we’ve had a lovely day anyway.

But I have to struggle to hold on to that perception when the others return at sunset high on their achievement. Debating over four different map readings and three conversion factors, they calculate their highest altitude—18,000 feet. They have stories about how they struggled for breath and energy, how they couldn’t have gone on except that Kaji was by their side. But they all made it to the top, where they could see Lhotse Star and Makalu. I feel intensely jealous and wish for another day up here. Maybe I could do it if I had a second chance. But tomorrow we are to head back to Deboche.

The next morning we hike up to the building I had huddled in just two days before. This time I join the yoga session in the pasture. Madhu, the most faithful and flexible yogi of us all, sports a purple leisure suit and matching baseball cap on backwards, and uses a branch for a yoga strap. When we press against a stone wall in Right Angle Pose, the wall gives way beneath our hands, sending stones tumbling down the slope. After class we navigate the slope to gather the stones and rebuild the wall.

“We’re used to the peace of the studio, to blocking out the outside world,” Lianne says. “On the trail you have it all, whether it’s bemused villagers, scoundrel dogs, or stampeding yak calves.” She chooses to talk over the distractions, rather than calling attention to them or trying to control them. Teaching along the trail brings unusual challenges, she says, such as finding relatively flat, stone-free locations and keeping poses within the confines of the mat to avoid the ubiquitous yak dung.

“You just have to be more creative, keep it as simple as possible.” She strives for gentleness and a sense of ritual in her classes, to let the less experienced members know what to expect and help us rejuvenate from the rigors of hiking.

The last five days we retrace our steps, heading back to Lukla. I feel acutely aware of how short our time is here. I try to remind myself that I’m in the Himalayas, and stop to savor the views. Usually that means I lag behind and force Gyan to wait for me. For the first time, traveling in a group is getting to me, and I long for the communion of the Dingboche ridge.

At the same time, I don’t want to leave these people. We’re a community of 20 that will never come together again. I find it wrenching to be so intensely with people, to develop ties and then disperse to various corners of the globe. When we reach our lodge in Lukla, shouts of joy echo down the halls: Showers! Toilets! It all seems unimaginably luxurious.

For our last night I’m longing for some kind of closure, a grand celebration. Kaji heats up the dance floor, bumping our butts, ricocheting from Nancy to Lianne to me. It’s over all too quickly, and the porters pack in the drum for the last time. Everyone files off to bed.

In my room I stare at the ceiling, thinking, I want this trip to end in magic, not in ordinary life. But then I realize how much magic has been part of ordinary life here, how even the difficult moments have had an unusual beauty. Experiences like these can’t be tied up in neat packages, and somehow knowing that gives me the peace to sleep, dreaming of a Sun Salutation that turns into flight above the valley.

Resources

Visit Eco-Trek International at ecotreknepal.com.