This story was originally printed in the Australian Yoga Journal.
Om Mani Padme Hum. It’s a mantra I am totally immersed in; written on the countless colourful prayer flags strung up along the mountain paths, chanted at night with my fellow trekkers and recited in my head with almost every step I take during the 10 day yoga trek through Nepal’s Annapurna region. And considering we trek almost 80 kilometres, that’s a lot of chanting! The Tibetan mantra has endless definitions, but one interpretation is ‘hail to the jewel of the lotus’ and it’s meant to invoke the Buddha of Compassion, a helpful companion on this amazing adventure.
My trek starts from the pretty town of Pokhara, where my trekking company Purna Yoga and Treks has its main office as well as a yoga retreat centre. The 7 hour bus ride from Kathmandu is hair-raising but gives some great views along the way. However, it’s the kind of thing I only want to experience once, so on the way back, I opt for the 50 minute flight instead.
My group, including three other trekkers, a yoga teacher, a guide and four porters, is driven to the small town of Naya Pull where we put our legs into action. The start of the trek is mostly along cobblestone alleys which wind their way up through pretty villages, past restaurants, shops and schools. Village children and adults alike greet us with hands in prayer coupled with the call of ‘Namaste!’
The pace on the first day is slow and steady as we give our bodies the chance to adjust to the higher altitude. The scenery is spectacular; the cliff side villages give way to mountain greenery, waterfalls and swinging bridges covered in colourful prayer flags. After we arrive at the tea house where we’ll spend the night, our group takes the opportunity to sunbake on the lawn and get to know each other. But the ease of the first day gives me a false sense of security....I have no idea how tough some of the days are to come.
Reality certainly hits on day 3 of the trek (which later we laughingly refer to as The Unmentionable Day). It starts at 4am in the freezing cold and pitch black as we climb up Poon Hill (elevation 3210m) for sunrise. Climbing at this altitude leaves me struggling for breath, but watching the sun slide up from behind the snow capped mountains, bringing the world to life, makes the climb absolutely worth it. Unfortunately, it’s on the way down again that I realise I’ve made a tactical error; I haven’t brought any walking sticks.
Anyone who’s done a lot of trekking will tell you; it’s not going up that’s the hardest, it’s coming down. And on day 3, there’s a lot of coming down. In fact, there’s over 1,000 metres of coming down. Add rain, then hail, on top of knee pain and my limits are being tested. But this is where my spiritual training is put into practice; it’s a case of mind over matter. I have to breathe deep, be patient and focus my mind on sending positive thoughts to my knees to get through a challenging 13 hours of trekking. It’s a humbling experience; instead of taking my usual place at the front of the group, I find myself at the back, led along by our trainee yoga teacher Sumit. At one point I ask him if I’m the slowest person he’s trekked with and am happy when he says no, there was one other person slower. “What was she, 65 years old?” I quip. “No, 82,” he answers with an earnest smile. The following day, I feel every bit 82. Luckily, Sumit is also trained in ayurvedic therapies and gives me a massage which soon gets my knees going again.
With walking sticks now in hand, we continue to move toward our goal of Annapurna Base Camp (elevation over 4,100m). The greatest thing about this type of trekking is that the landscape is continually changing; from open plains, to enchanting forests, to snow capped mountains. Around every bend is a new surprise. We trek along river banks, through valleys and over rocky passes. Being out in nature, feeling part of the planet makes time and the worries of life seem irrelevant. The trekking becomes a walking meditation; an exercise in the art of presence. And while on this occasion there is a goal, I’m only going to get there one step at a time.
On day 6, Base Camp is in sight. We trek the final hours with snow crunching under our feet, but the sun warming our backs. Struggling up the last few steps, we are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of snow capped mountains and a perfectly clear blue sky. The majesty of the surroundings is accompanied by the sound of avalanches rumbling in the distance, giving the whole experience an other-worldly feel.
After spending a cold night at base camp, the scenery on the trek down is just as impressive. The snow capped mountains give way to dense forest and before we know it, we are back to seeing little villages dotting the hills. A soak in the hot springs right next to a river is just what we need after so many days of trekking (and very little showering). What we don’t really need, however, is the transport strike that greets us when we reach Naya Pull, the place we’d started from 10 days before. But somehow our guides manage to find a driver who will smuggle us back to Pokhara in the middle of the night, a very exciting way to end our trek!
The Yoga & Meditation
Starting every day with a yoga practice is the perfect way to warm up muscles sore from taking thousands of steps the day before, as well as prepare us for what is ahead. Our teacher, Mahesh, embodies many of the things I love about yoga. Calm, present, patient and spiritual, he is the perfect guide on this journey. Every morning he takes us through meditation, wrapped in blankets to protect against the cool mountain air. As I sit on my yoga mat, I try not to be distracted by the spectacular views just over Mahesh’ shoulder.
Following the 20 minute meditation, Mahesh guides us through a joint loosening sequence, which includes all the major joints in the body, before moving on to some simple asana. The practice is much slower than my usual vinyasa and power yoga classes and it’s really good for me to get back to basics and focus on the breath. In a two hour session with Mahesh, we are likely to do no more than about 8 poses. The practice always ends with some pranayama, including Kapalbhati (Breath of Fire) and Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing).
At the half way point of each day’s trekking, Mahesh also takes us through a series of stretches, which I’m sure is what saves me from suffering too much muscle soreness during the trek. In the evenings, he guides us through sessions of yoga nidra (guided relaxation). Collecting in one room, snuggled under thick blankets, we go through relaxing all the muscles in the body, counting our breath back from 27 and visualising the scenes Mahesh is painting for us. While it’s always a challenge not to fall asleep, on the one occasion when I do, my own snoring brings me quickly back to consciousness. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Sumit, who snores like a chain saw all the way through a session. Lying next to him, it just adds an extra challenge to my yoga nidra; getting through it without bursting out laughing.
Before bed, Mahesh teaches us chants in Sanskrit. Om Mani Padme Hum is sung over and over, ensuring it sticks in my head during the days. He also teaches us the Mahamritunjaya Mantra (Great Death-Conquering Mantra), which is used to invoke healing, energy, power and immunity.
The Accommodation and Food:
The Annapurna trail is dotted with hundreds of traditional tea houses. The rooms are basic, containing just a bed or two, with no soundproofing in between. There’s no heating, but the hosts always provide thick blankets at high altitudes. Most of the tea houses at lower altitudes have hot water, which after a hard day trekking, is very much appreciated, but it's a luxury that disappears the higher you go.
The food is mostly traditional and delicious. I stick to Dahl Baht, which is a combination plate of lentil soup, vegetable curry, white rice and vegetables. An order of momo’s (dumplings filled with vegetables) and a cup of Chai round off the meals perfectly. Some of the tea houses also try their hands at Western food and have pizza, pasta and even deep fried Mars bars on the menus! Breakfasts are also plentiful, usually consisting of porridge, Nepalese bread with jam and eggs. Purna Yoga and Treks also supplements our breakfast with fruit, nuts and cheese which the porters carry with them up the mountain.
This nourishing food sustains me all the way through the 10 days of trekking. It’s a challenging journey, but I get so much out of it, testing the body, mind and spirit. Being out in nature brings me back to myself and it’s impossible not to learn some life lessons along the way.
Check out www.nepalyogatrek.com. My trek was in May, which is not considered peak trekking season, however Annapurna Base Camp was covered in snow at that time of year, so I thought it was perfect.
Note: Purna’s trekking schedule has not been affected by the earthquakes in April 2015.