The mountains are calling and I must go
I’m sitting on my couch in the United States, nestled in the aroma of candles and strong incense with a background of gentle drums and singing bowls that wail deeply and resolutely through my speakers. If I close my eyes long enough, I can place myself back in Nepal.
It’s been a week since I’ve returned home. Nepal was such an overwhelming inspiration, that I was sure I would begin to write about it immediately. However, that proved otherwise. I couldn’t write about it for a while, and I think it’s because there aren’t enough words in my vocabulary or expression with which to capture the essence of Nepal and my experience there. That’s why I didn’t want to just simply write. I didn’t want to create a review of the country that would fall to a laundry list of what to eat and where to sleep. If you’re searching for that kind of write-up, this isn’t it. Rather, this post is about what Nepal taught me. After all, that’s why I joined a group of eight perfect strangers in a country I knew nothing about for 14 days.
The trek I joined was aptly named – “Transformation Trek.” It is my belief now that no one leaves Nepal in the same way they came. Whether you’re seeking it or not, transformation finds you there, in the thick of mountain air. The vastness of simple living and the crux of spiritual teaching and inward focus – pratyahara – come upon you somewhere on some hilltop in the middle of your hike, and take you by surprise. I’ve often found myself in those moments, where nothing else existed but the mountains and me, void of any worry for what’s to come or what has already been. It was the present moment, just like that.
I hiked and practiced yoga with a group of men and women for 14 days. Each morning began with a gentle practice and a meditation, often outside in the break of a cold mountain day. If we stepped on our mat with grassy feet, it was to symbolically step into our life without reservation that it was always going to be comfortable. Each and every class, a gift of surrender. Before we rested for the night, an evening practice took us out of the element of hiking rough terrain and back into our bodies. Nine tired souls, grounded down on dirty mats in the heartbeat of the Himalayas, moving stiff joints with breath, grunting, and laughs – the kind you do when you’re prying tight hamstrings open in the middle of a busy courtyard of other, non-yogi onlookers. We became “the yoga people” on the trek, our public practice creating a reputation that far outwalked us. We didn’t mind. It’s what we were there to do – bring the practice we’d cultivated in toasty studios out into the kind of environment where the practice really counts. Nepal became the backdrop of our collective intentions, as we moved with breath that coupled with the mountain air we were truly meeting for the first time, so vastly different from the kind we’re used to in our busy, dusty city streets. Our hikes, pushing us to exert our last drop of energy and strength as we climbed higher in altitude and stairs, reminded us of our fire – tapas. A mantra quickly developed, so much stronger in silence – we are so much stronger than we can even imagine. Hauling bags and our own body, and watching our porters do twice that, in awe, became just as symbolic as our grassy feet on our yoga mats: what do we carry in life that is really worth the climb? Through the hike, we would listen to the sounds of water, either trickling down the many waterfalls, cascading from the highest mountain top down to the lowest pool, or gushing in to merge with the Dudh Kosi river, which is almost white in appearance, thus named “Milky River.” You can’t escape it. Through every hiking route or rest stop, it’s there, sounding its presence and giving the mountains its flow. In those moments of stillness and contemplation, where the air and the wind became the heartbeat of the mountain, water became its life force – prana. Now you may think, reading this, that yoga in the cold mountains in wet grass after long hours of exhausting hiking is daunting in and of itself. Maybe for some, it is. And while many mornings and nights held their special magic in how we each experienced the class, one night in particular was especially divine. It was our first night in Phakding, the first tea house we stopped in to rest for the night. It was also the first night we experienced the evening chill, so far removed from the stark contrast of Kathmandu’s heat. Bundled up, we unfurled our mats in the courtyard right outside, and as the Universe would have it, the lights went out and we were left to move in the dark. I don’t think I was ever more thankful for lack of electricity than in that moment, because what I saw laying in Savasana that practice will forever remain a memory to tell my grandkids one day. A million and one stars. I counted. Behind us, a full moon nestled between two mountain peaks. In the light breeze, the countless strings of Buddhist prayer flags dancing in the wind, their frayed ends swirling and tangling, the mantras on their faces being sent out into the world, for the world. Om Mani Padme Hum. Each of the five flags is an element – fire, water, air, earth, ether. In repetition, they carry on and wave, and they’re everywhere. Just like the river. They serve as reminders that as we come from these five elements, we are deeply connected to Nature and her ways, from the soles our grounding roots to the heavens of our ethereal rays. I can’t speak for my fellow yogis, but I never felt more at peace with myself than in Savasana that starry night.
Each day and hike made us stronger and weaker at the same time. Stronger in that it pushed us to meet our bodies’ ability; weaker in that it allowed us space to release the real weight we carried – fear, rejection, hesitation, past hurt. We opened up to each other as we climbed higher, realizing that there was a pattern:
Each one of us was there for something. It wasn’t because we wanted a vacation. It wasn’t because we had nowhere else to go but to Nepal. We each came to the trek with a chapter that needed to be turned, and with a past that was perhaps a breaking of sorts. We were people with injuries, pain, endings, heartbreak, and loss, and each step we took on and off our mats was a re-direction towards an inner strength. One we maybe didn’t even know we had.
Over the span of 14 days, we created a community, one that is rooted in the mountains of Nepal, but that stretches so much further than geography. That’s what I was trying to attain on this trip, for myself personally. It wasn’t about what I could see or hear, but what I could learn. Nepal taught me how to receive. It took away all of the mundane tasks of living that I’m used to, and stuck me so deeply in the present moment that I had no other choice than to receive – receive stillness, pause, blessings, love, support, accountability, and most importantly, healing. Our last hiking day was walked in silence. Sacred Silence. Four hours of putting one foot in front of the other and being totally and irrevocably aware of doing so. Some people say that being alone with your thoughts for too long is dangerous. I think being alone with your thoughts is the most profound experience you can have, while still being alive. As I passed fellow trekkers who would nod their heads or say Hello, I found myself at peace at not being able to answer them back. Little Nepalese kids, with their bright red cheeks and beaming smiles, waving and squealing Namaste my way – I took it all in. In my silent intention of not speaking back, I felt like all I could do was receive their good blessings. And for the first time, that felt good! It felt wholesome to not feel burdened by needing to reciprocate every single gesture, and from that single observation, an entire new mentality formed that I later wrote about on a rock looking out over Ama Dablam. I am worthy of what I receive. We are given so much in this world – compliments, support, love, attention, affection. Even simple little gestures like smiles from beautiful kids are a gift. Do we really receive it, or do we often push it aside because we’re so intent on immediately giving that gift back?
The mountains heal. They take away what you don’t need by giving you very little, and that’s mostly time to worry about shit you can’t control anyway. When I stood on the many ledges upon our walks, and looked out to see Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Lhotse, and Everest, I knew that what I was receiving was a gift. One that I didn’t need to give back. One that was truly for me – and that’s perspective. Just like the mountains, we are expansive. Our dreams, goals, intentions are beyond measure. I think the mountains bring out those insane dreams on a full scale, and somewhere in the midst of it, you have to wonder – am I going to play it safe? or can I risk it all?
The truth is, I know what it’s like to fail – in relationships, in jobs, in reckless and impulsive temptations and addictions. I don’t know, however, what it’s like to succeed. And there’s the biggest fear of all. What if I actually make it?
In the end, this is really what Nepal teaches. Travel brings out something deep within us that is both fascinating and terrifying. It’s stepping out into the farthest corners of our comfort zone, and traveling to a country that is truly a blend of spirituality and mysticism and chaos and simplicity. It’s stepping off of the plane at Kathmandu, into the dusty frenzy of motorbikes and tikas, and being enveloped into deities and Hinduism and your own place within it, should you chose; and at the same time, it’s not being able to sleep a wink because you know you’re going into the mountains tomorrow, where everything changes. And it’s both your salvation and your biggest moment.
I’m sitting on my couch in the United States, nestled in the aroma of a burned-out candle and the leftover crumbs of strong incense. The gentle drums and singing bowls have long ceased, but if I close my eyes long enough, I can hear the prayer flags in the wind, calling me home.