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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

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 pPranayama. 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.


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