Breathing clearly lifts the mind and spirit, “said Amar Puri, a wiry man in a sweat-stained T-shirt, as he crouched on a patch of lawn and poured saltwater in one nostril with a neti pot. He snorted and sneezed, as the morning mist hovered just above the lead-gray 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 hillside, grabbed their own neti pots and giggled nervously at one another. For a moment, they seemed to realize how far they were from home, practicing yoga in the blue shadow of the highest mountains on earth.
Pokhara is an odd place to feel saltwater stinging your senses. About 880 meters 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 in the hills that is calling. About a dozen back-to-basics yoga retreats have opened in and around Pokhara in recent years – transforming this once-partying hub into what might be Nepal’s top yoga destination.
Puri, like other would-be yoga gurus, was drawn by the ample 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 3.2 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 said.
The centre includes a four-story 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-colour 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 6 a.m. meditation, followed by a morning hike, nasal cleansing, then an hour of hatha yoga, which emphasizes mental and physical purification – and that’s all before breakfast. All meals are vegetarian, including curries and fresh fruit, and there is no caffeine or alcohol allowed on the premises.
Students seem to relish the monastic life.
”This is the first time I’ve actually really done yoga,“ said Matt Smith, a park ranger in his 30s from Kennicott, Alaska, who was 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. Up until the late 1960s 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 1980s 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 Katmandu earlier this year barely registered in Pokhara, said 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 pocket-size studio of a dilapidated thatch-roof house.
”I had a dream two years ago that I should come here and teach yoga,“ said Rishav Pokhrel, sitting cross-legged 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, Rishi Yoga, 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. In there, Pokhrel gives intensive two-hour classes that mix hatha yoga with some excruciating stretches, hand-on instruction and rock-bottom prices. A 10-day yoga retreat is 6,500 rupees, about $93 at 70 rupees to the dollar.
”All of my classes are usually full,“ he said.
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 and other so-called natural healing techniques you’ll have a hard time explaining to your parents.
While most of the yoga centres around Pokhara are bare-bones, a few are now catering to more discerning yogis. A 30-minute rowboat ride across Begnas Lake – a glimmering lake about 11 kilometres south of central Pokhara – is the Begnas Lake Resort, bordered by thick forests, flowering plants and over 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.
On a recent morning in March, eight svelte women from Austria, Germany and elsewhere in black stretch pants and sweat-proof makeup were splayed under the pavilion. An instructor patiently led them through rudimentary poses and breathing exercises. Gabriele Halwachs, a Web designer from Austria who looked to be in her early 40s, yawned and rolled her eyes. She didn’t travel halfway around the world to do downward dogs.
But just as it was all feeling too routine, the instructor asked the class to face east and watch as the sun rose over the snow-covered Himalayas. It was enough to take your breath away.