Solitude rings in the far regions of Sikkim, and the further one travels off the beaten track, the thicker the silence and more breathtaking the natural beauty. Within hours one can move from the subtropical heat of the lower valleys to the cold of rugged mountain slopes amassed with perpetual snow. In many ways, Sikkim is the last Shangri-La, with glimpses into a way of life in the Himalayas that may soon be only memory. A life of simplicity, hard work, and commitment to faith. Abhyasa and vairagya in the purest form--commitment to work with the greatest effort, with no attachment to the outcome. This is part of why I am dragging the group on a precarious journey up the Hims.
A few years ago, it was in Lachen, North Sikkim that I left my heart in this Himalayan range. The skeletal transport system, road construction, and annual landslides makes it difficult to get there. And even more difficult to get back! There is something in the raw adventure of it all that makes me crazy enough to make the journey.
I remember years ago when I proposed this part of the journey to India Supera, who runs Feathered Pipe Ranch, and Raj, our Indian tour operator--they both, along with everyone in their offices, tried to persuade me out of the journey. It was the one part of the trip that I could not give up, as it is a wee little window into what life really is in the "hinter Hims," a place remote enough to leave the world behind.
It's a place that lives in and on its own time. Isolated by snow and roads and lifestyle; this is really where my heart began to soften into the experience of living in the sacred mountains. I have since learned that taking people on long and arduous journeys through the highest mountain passes in the world, to arrive at guest houses with no toilets, doesn't make for happy travelers! This year may be my last foray with a group into this magical place. Sadly I acquiesce to the needs of my students, and am left with the Kanchendzonga range deeply, quietly, and forever etched into the memory of my heart mind.
As in any spiritual journey, there are moments when you think you can't quite make the last bit. Much like a particularly active or difficult practice, when that last standing pose, backbend or Chaturanga seems out of reach, yet you take the last bit of energy you have and get through it. You're then rewarded with a feeling, an energy that is spectacular and profound. Abhyasa and vairagya. Working with great effort and letting go of the outcome. The journey of a yogi. The path of Arjuna, the great Karma yogi on the battlefield. Confused, and contemplative. Asking for guidance from the Divine spirit within us all.
This year, we journey to Lachung, a remote village of 1,200 people, only 8 km from the Indo-Tibet border. Our five cars are loaded with the members of the group, propped up with sleeping bags, disposable bath towels, and yoga gear. I know our guides and host are trying to anticipate needs and requests.
Yogis on the road, looking for adventure and connection to the vanishing hill tribes of the Himalayas. Hima means snow, and alaya is abode, home. This is a place that exudes the Hims, remote, barren, unknown and untouched by the extravagance of "civilized" life. And my heart seeks refuge here every time.
We arrive after an arduous and exceptionally long journey. We bypass some of the sites, given the monsoon-rutted roads and slow pace we are traveling across these mountains. After another "4-14 hours" of bumpy jeep rides, we arrive in the village of Lachung-pa. It has an exceptionally strong military presence; machine-gun wielding young men watching the border for any sign of Tibetan refugees trying to cross into India for asylum. The site of so much military is disconcerting to say the least, and Modern Residency, our home for three nights, is charming, but intrinsically basic. And cold.
At least I didn't make the group lug sleeping bags, thermal liners, and a ton of fleece and goose down for no reason! We ask for a fire in the wood stove to warm our bodies and spirits. The hotel is serviced by native Lachungpa people along with various Tibetan and Nepali heritage tribes. Our eating hall becomes our practice area, and is adorned with brightly colored Tibetan furniture amidst in the 8 Auspicious Symbols and images of dragons, garudas, and lotus.
Here's a picture of Collete Hoglund swathed in mystical Himlayan light on a misty morning. As we turn our bellies to the eastern ranges of Tibet and China, a wee bit of our heart mind is left here in these remote mountain passes.
Morning brings us another "short" journey up to rhododendron forests and the remote Yumthung Valley, land of nomadic yak herders and prayer flags fluttering to ward off evil spirits and welcome abundant harvests. We are all tired, yet exhilarated at being up 12,000 feet in the mist and clouds. Even though we can't see the mountains, we know they are there.
As we practice and move to stay warm, we know we are blessed to come to these places, and enjoy a few moments of connection to ourselves and to our bodies. We do Sun Salutations and know that our hearts and spirits will be warmed by the memory of these moments, despite the difficulty of our travels. Isn't that the warmth of this yoga practice? A place of warmth, of connection, and of refuge for body, mind and spirit? Savasana is possible with the use of hot water bottles as sandbags, and memory-making images lull us into the sweet surrender of the pose.
Some in our group decide to head out to "Zero Point" the next morning. It is where the road ends, and is up at almost 17,000 feet with spectacular views of the Himalayan range. Duggan, our Blackfeet elder, is in search of a local yaktail broom; Linda, the resident photographer; Sue and Oscar, wild, adventurous hunters of local produce and medicines; and Tina, well-travelled in these ranges, head out in search of the elusive mountain views. The rest of us stay behind. We're tired, yet awake in ways that will only be processed much later at home.
The journey back is worse than anticipated. Roads are closed. One of the jeeps actually gets stuck, and WinterSong and her crew get out to push the jeep through the mountain impasse!
Eight hours later, the sight of the Norkhill hotel in Gangtok welcomes us back, like an old friend. I know the group needs rest now, and I am grateful for the comfort of a freshly laundered bed, and a place to lay my weary body.
This is the practice of yoga. Working with great effort and nonattachment to the outcome. What did we see up there? Only mist and mystery, yet we knew that the mountains that lay beneath are physical and spiritual reminders to carry our practice forth. To listen inwardly, and find ourselves. Sometimes we just want that which we know and are comfortable with. As yogis, we push forward, and something happens. The unexpected, the unknown.
These memories will linger like a delicious fragrance after we go home. Isn't yoga the true home for us? Returning to our practice every day, getting on the mat, even when we don't want to. Especially when we don't want to!
Keep on keeping on, and "Be gentle on my curves," as the signs remind us. Inconvenience regretted, as yoga transforms!
photos courtesy of Tina Kauffmann and Cinzia Columbo