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Yoga on Top of the World

On a yoga trek in Nepal, the author discovers that reaching the summit isn't the ultimate reward.

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 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.

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