Year Ender 2016: The Journey WithinWith a wave of new-age spiritualism sweeping across the globe, Pokhara can emerge as a major spiritual tourism hub
Looking across his yoga retreat, spread over 68 ropanis on Lovely Hill in Pokhara, Siroj Vijaya Koirala admits that his wishes have come true in a roundabout way.
Koirala, who spent many years of his youth pursuing an ascetic life in the ghats and holy places of the sub-continent, now is at the forefront of a spiritual tourism boom quietly afoot in the Lake City. A global wave of new-age spiritualism has meant that Eastern traditions like yoga, meditation and energy healings are once again finding their place in popular discourse, their practice becoming increasingly mainstream—in both the East and the West.
Koirala’s transformation from a spiritual seeker into a tourism (and spiritual tourism) entrepreneur is in itself fascinating.
Describing himself as an “odd-ball” from his college days, he remembers waking up at 4 in the morning and meditating after a cold shower even during winters, before leaving home with an ash-tika on his forehead.
He was heavily bearded, something uncommon at that time, and barely made any friends, as he used to be perpetually immersed in thoughts or talk about ‘weird’ stuffs for people of his age, like attaining a higher spiritual state and freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.
“Maybe I was a socially awkward back then, I just couldn’t adjust with most of my classmates,” recalls Koirala, now 40.
A resident of the western Nepali city of Pokhara, Koirala had moved to Kathmandu circa 1998 and joined Campion College to pursue Bachelor’s in English Literature—although he hardly attended classes.
“My aim at that time was not to attain academic degree but to engage in spiritual practice to achieve moksha,” says Koirala matter-of-factly.
This quest for freedom from “the mortal world of ordinary experience” led him to set an ambition of becoming a sadhu. This meant he was willing to renounce affiliation with his kin, detach himself from luxuries of the world and live a life of a wandering ascetic.
His family members, who were well-off, probably would have been devastated had they known what he was up to. But they were living 200 km away from Kathmandu and were not aware of his daily routine.
This distance gave him ample space to nurture his thoughts; and as they began taking a concrete shape, he started frequenting Hindu sites in India—such as Banaras (Varanasi), Gangotri, Tapovan, Kanyakumari and Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu and Kashmir. There, he eventually pursued tantricism, even spending 11 days with aghori sadhus at Manikarnika Ghat, a crematorium, in Banaras, performing rituals and meditating.
Leading a life of a sadhu is not easy, especially for a boy who grew up in the city, as one is barred from wearing normal clothes, and has to survive off alms and sleep in odd places, including crematoriums. “But I was determined to make the sacrifice. So, those things didn’t bother me,” says Koirala.
In spite of all of this, one thing that he had not stopped doing was visiting family members from time to time.
One incident, he says, he would probably never forget is an odd encounter with his father at the front gate of their residence.
“It was early in the morning. And my father was about to leave home. But despite seeing me, he walked right past me,” says Koirala. “I was pretty surprised. So, I called him, and he turned around, but gave me a blank look as if I were a stranger.”
His dad, in fact, had not recognised him, as he had grown thin and pale. His hair and beard were also long and he was wearing a black aghori robe.
“That day my father did not talk to anyone for a long time,” Koirala reminisces.
Later that evening, his father and mother called him. He had imagined the meeting to be one filled with lectures of “not being a sane adult” or “being careless about the future”. But it was not that bad. And as days passed by his parents gave him the permission to do whatever pleased him.
“My dad and mom were always supportive. That’s why I have so much respect for them,” says Koirala. “But my decision to become a sadhu had somehow hurt them. And I felt so guilty.”
He then realised he couldn’t live happily by making family members unhappy. That moment of truth helped him to stay back at home and lead a normal life.
Koirala doesn’t really know whether this was the takeaway of the spiritual journey that he took, or enlightenment. But this self-realisation helped him to find a balance, which changed the course of his life.
Since then he has married his girlfriend, who waited for him for around eight years, completed Master’s in English Literature from Tribhuvan University and turned into a full-fledged businessman.
Today, he is the father of two sons—a 5-year- and a 20-month-old—owns two bars at Phewa Lakeside, drives a Nissan pickup truck and occasionally takes a sip or two of exotic whiskey and vodka.
He has also recently acquired the franchise of Anta, a Chinese sportswear brand, and opened a brand new store at Lakeside, and is building a mall in New Road, Pokhara.
Yet memories of the spiritual journey, and the desire to share his experiences with seekers like himself, led him to establish Brahma Yoga Peeth on his ancestral land on Lovely Hill two-and-a-half years ago. The Peeth, a retreat for those who want to meditate and practice yoga, has accommodation facilities, including an isolated house for those who want to meditate for a longer period.
The Peeth, one of the biggest meditation and yoga retreats in Pokhara, serves organic dishes made out of seasonal vegetables and cereal grains grown in its own premises. The property also has orchards, where mangos, litchis, pomegranates, avocados and jackfruits are grown. It also has 10 cows, an herb garden, Raj Briksh, Rudraksha and Bodhichitta trees.
Perched on a hill overlooking Pokhara, with the stone houses and a panoramic view of mountains above and the Lake City below, the peeth offers free lodging and board for those who want to meditate and practice yoga. Also, two instructors have been provided for free who run meditation and yoga classes everyday in the morning and evening. In return for these zero-cost services, those staying at the Peeth must work as volunteers on the organic farm or the areas where new rooms are being built.
“I’m adding new rooms, because the number of volunteers is growing,” says Koirala, whose core clients are tourists, especially from the US, France and the UK.
If things go according to plan, the Peeth, which can currently accommodate 8 people, will have a 20-bed dormitory and four additional rooms with attached bathrooms. Koirala is also planning to build huts, so as to carve out his own small village in the area.
Once the expansion phase is over, Koirala intends to charge people, who wish to meditate and practice yoga without engaging in voluntary works.
“I’m also planning to build a healing temple and run Bachelor’s level courses on meditation, yoga and ayurveda by affiliating with a Nepali or Indian university,” says Koirala, who currently gets around 200 volunteers per year not only from the West but also from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and India.
Over the years, many tourists have started visiting Nepal for the purpose of practicing meditation and yoga. This is because many in the West and even in Asia have realised that adventure and exploration is not only about the outward—hiking, mountaineering, paragliding, bungee jumping or rafting. Sometimes it is also about sitting quietly, eyes closed, and taking a journey within and listening deeply to the inner voice.
“Spirituality is so non-existent in the West.... So, when foreigners come here and see people engaged in practices that help them better manage their chaotic and stressful lives, they get intrigued,” says Drolkar Maree, an Australian who has been volunteering as a meditation teacher for three years at Ganden Yiga Chozin Buddhist Meditation and Retreat Centre at Kahare, Lakeside.
The Buddhist retreat centre, a branch of Kathmandu-based Kopan Monastary, offers two-and-a-half-day introductory course on Buddhist philosophy, meditation and yoga every weekend for Rs 7,000, which includes accommodation and food.
“The classes are packed with travellers during the tourist season and we sometimes have to rent rooms at hotels outside to accommodate people who want to take the course,” says 40-something Drolkar, a Catholic, who converted to Buddhism 20 years ago.
Although meditation and yoga have been practiced in Nepal for centuries, the country became popular as a spiritual “shangrila” during the hippie 60s and 70s. Today, however, these once-esoteric practices are no longer just a hippie-thing. The Buddhist retreat centre, for instance, receives all sorts of tourists from merchant bankers, doctors and psychologists to professors, students and even political advisors, all ranging from 18 to 40 years in age.
These tourists, according to Drolkar, just want to ease the stress created by a fast life and cut-throat competition, free themselves from the guilt of the past, discover their true self or gain true happiness. “Hippies, on the other hand, are probably more interested in their dope,” quips Drolkar, who took a five-plus-year course on Buddhism in Queensland.
With meditation and yoga becoming the ‘in thing’, attempts are gradually being made to change the status quo and introduce innovative packages to stay relevant to clients.
One such product is the yoga trek, formally launched by Manohar Shrestha, a yoga instructor.
Although the product was launched in 2008, it started getting traction a few years ago, with around 200 foreigners signing up for 3-day to 16-day yoga trek programmes every year.
Buoyed by this, his family set up Purna Yoga Retreat, a yoga studio, at the hilltop of Sedi Bagar.
This retreat centre, unlike the one being operated by Koirala, is commercial, and the cheapest package costs $75 per person, which includes two-night course on meditation and yoga, food and accommodation.
Today, at least six such commercial yoga and meditation retreat centres are operating in Pokhara.
“The scope of this business is getting bigger because many have shed the misconception that yoga is a physical exercise that includes sitting in different positions,” says Shrestha. “It is good that many have gradually started understanding that yoga is a union of mind, body and spirit, and one who cannot discover the spiritual part will never truly benefit from it.”
Going forward, Shrestha, who hails from Kathmandu, hopes to operate a certified yoga courses for trainers.
Today a 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified course for trainers costs $1,200 abroad, according to Shrestha. “If we can offer those courses at half or two-third of that price, more tourists would visit Nepal.”
He also wishes to see more Nepalis customers visiting meditation and yoga retreat centres, especially because they go empty once the tourist seasons—which stretch from March to June and September to November—are over.
“Many Nepalis, who spend lavishly during vacations, probably shun these types of places because we don’t serve alcohol and meat,” says Shrestha. “But a journey within, in a serene tourist destination like Pokhara, can be even more thrilling than adventure sports and the sundry touristy indulgence.”