Hatha in the hills: Pokhara, Nepal Pokhara, in the shadow of the Himalayas, is becoming Nepal’s new epicentre for yoga and natural healing

Published on July 4, 2010   ·   No Comments

Breathing clearly lifts the mind and spirit,” says Amar Puri, a wiry man in a sweat-stained T-shirt, as he crouches on a patch of lawn and pours saltwater in one nostril with a neti pot. He snorts and sneezes, as the morning mist hovers just above the lead-grey surface of Phewa Lake, reflecting the Himalayas. “And now, I am ready for yoga.”

A class of 12 students at Sadhana Yoga, a humble retreat perched on a hillside, grab their own neti pots and giggle nervously at one another. For a moment, they seem to realise how far they are from home, practising yoga in the blue shadow of the highest mountains on earth.

Pokhara is an odd place to feel saltwater stinging your senses. About 880 metres above sea level and 1,600 kilometres from the nearest ocean, it’s a city of 200,000 smack in the middle of Nepal. It has a busy downtown strip where, for years, trekkers and thrifty backpackers have come, many to pick up supplies before heading out on the Annapurna Range.

But these days, it’s the silence that is calling. About a dozen back-to-basics yoga retreats have opened in and around Pokhara in recent years – transforming this one-time party hub into what might be Nepal’s top yoga destination.

Puri, like other would-be yoga gurus, was drawn by the space and a steady supply of young, soul-searching Westerners. After teaching yoga at a series of rented spaces in downtown Pokhara, he opened his own studio, Sadhana Yoga, about three kilometres north of Pokhara, in a secluded village of cascading rice fields known as Sedi Bagar.

“I wanted a quiet place to meditate, away from the crowds of downtown,” he says.

The centre includes a four-storey building painted fluorescent orange with lime-green balconies. The nine guest rooms, which can sleep a total of 17 people, have paper-thin carpets and candy-coloured walls. Nature creeps in through every corner: birds flutter through the kitchen, and a baby leopard was seen roaming the hallways.

The day starts with a 6am meditation, followed by a morning hike, nasal cleansing, then an hour of hatha yoga, which emphasises mental and physical purification – and that’s all before breakfast. All meals are vegetarian, including curries and fresh fruit, and no caffeine or alcohol is allowed on the premises.

Students seem to relish the monastic life.

“This is the first time I’ve actually really done yoga,” says Matt Smith, a park ranger in his 30s from Kennicott, Alaska, seated at a communal table with a dozen other guests hailing from Chile, Russia, Finland and Australia. “I like it. But the schedule is pretty intense.”

Little else about Pokhara seems intense. Until the late 60s, few Westerners attempted the arduous footpath to get here. Those who did compared it to a real-life Shangri-La. That changed around 1970 with the completion of the Siddhartha highway, which connected Pokhara to the outside world. Cheap food and lodging – not to mention a bounty of marijuana – allowed many free-spirited travellers to stay a while longer. They did, and told their friends. By the 80s the Central Lakeside District in the centre of town was cluttered with modern hotels, bars and tour operators.

Despite the rush to modernity, Pokhara still feels isolated. The Maoist strikes that engulfed the capital of Kathmandu earlier this year barely registered in Pokhara, says Puri, adding, “We are a world away up here.”

And it’s a dusty hike away to get to Rishi Yoga, one of the newest yoga centres in town. On a foothill overlooking Phewa Lake, Rishi is identified by the bright-red “Kilroy was here”-style graffiti letters that spell Yoga on a cinderblock wall, just off the main Lakeside Road. Classes are held behind a vegetable garden, in a tiny studio in a dilapidated thatched house.

“I had a dream two years ago that I should come here and teach yoga,” says Rishav Pokhrel, sitting in a half-lotus pose against a lime-green wall. Pokhrel taught yoga in India for 16 years before his epiphany. “I wanted to bring the spirituality of India to Nepal.” His studio, which opened in February, has room for barely six students. The interior is basic verging on shabby, with linoleum tiles covering a concrete floor and a few cobwebs in the corner. Pokhrel gives intensive two-hour classes that mix hatha yoga with some excruciating stretches, hands-on instruction and rock-bottom prices. A 10-day yoga retreat costs 6,500 rupees (HK$1,080).

Where there is yoga, natural healing is never far behind. Farther south in central Pokhara are placards and billboards offering cure-alls including reiki, a kind of a healing therapy done with the palms, and pranayama breathing. Some, like Om Family, a meditation and yoga centre in downtown Pokhara, offer kinesiology, craniosacral therapy and other so-called natural healing techniques you’d have a hard time explaining to your parents.

While most yoga centres around Pokhara are bare-bones, a few are now catering to more discerning yogis. A 30-minute rowboat ride across Begnas Lake – about 11 kilometres south of central Pokhara – is the Begnas Lake Resort, bordered by thick forests, flowering plants and more than 150 species of birds.

The resort’s 30 wooden cottages look more like Swiss ski lodges than traditional Newari huts, but the focus is on the views of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Ranges. The mountains are also a backdrop to the morning yoga, which is held in the red-tiled outdoor pavilion.

Eight svelte women from Austria, Germany and elsewhere in black stretch pants and sweat-proof make-up are splayed under the pavilion. An instructor patiently leads them through rudimentary poses and breathing exercises. Gabriele Halwachs, a web designer from Austria who looks to be in her early 40s, yawns and rolls her eyes. She didn’t travel halfway around the world to do “downward dogs”.

But just as it is all feeling too routine, the instructor asks the class to face east and watch as the sun rises over the snow-covered Himalayas. It is enough to take your breath away.
The New York Times

Getting there
From Kathmandu, Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines offer frequent flights to Pokhara starting at about US$90.
Begnas Lake Resort (Sundari Danda; www.begnaslakeresort.com) has 28 rooms, four safari-style tents and two luxury suites starting at US$80. Morning yoga is free.
Garden Yiga Chozin Buddhist Meditation Centre (footpath from Lakeside Road; www.pokharabuddhistcentre.com) offers free daily meditation classes, dharma talks and hatha yoga instruction (donation based). A three-day introductory retreat costs 3,300 rupees (HK$336).
Om Family (Lakeside Road; www.omfamily.org) has daily drop-in yoga and meditation sessions, and holistic treatments, from 500 rupees.
Rishi Yoga (in North Lakeside behind Chetri Sisters Guesthouse; rishavpokhrel@yahoo.co.in) holds 10-day intensive retreats with four hours of daily yoga instruction for 6,500 rupees. Per session drop-ins are 300 rupees. No room or meals.
Sadhana Yoga (in Sedi Bagar, a 15-minute walk from Baidam-Pame Road; www.sadhana-asanga-yoga.com) offers yoga classes, vegetarian meals and basic lodging from 2,400 rupees.

Write to us If you have just returned from holiday, please tell us about your trip. Your views about railways, airlines, hotels and travel services are welcome at features@scmp.com

Read More : http://www.nepal-news.org/2010/news-archives/nepal-news-archive-for-09-june-2010

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