Nepal has a multitude of traditional and progressive disciplines, and though the country can seem something of a spiritual supermarket, its tolerant atmosphere makes it a great place to challenge your assumptions and study other systems of thought.
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The past 25 years have seen an explosion of outfits teaching yoga and meditation to both foreigners and locals. The allied health fields of ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine are also an attraction for many travellers to Nepal. Many programmes don’t require a lengthy commitment, although any residential courses are worth booking well in advance.
Yoga is more than just exercises – it’s a system of spiritual, mental and physical self-discipline, designed to unify the individual’s consciousness with the universe. Techniques include Karma yoga (basically altruism), Bhakti yoga (devotion, recognizable by the chanting) and Jnana yoga (deep meditation, best practised only after mastering one of the other kinds).
What most westerners would recognize as yoga springs from Raja yoga, probably formulated around 600 BC. It has eight astanga, or limbs (not to be confused with the yoga style with the same name), each a step to realization. Three of these have a physical emphasis, and it is from this root that yoga’s reputation for pretzel poses and headstands comes. Whatever the name of a particular variation, be it Bikram, Kundalini, or Ashtanga, all types of yoga that use asanas (or positions) as an aid to developing the self are generally referred to as hatha yoga.
Most practices also include Pranayam – breathing exercises. You’ll find several kinds in Nepal, including the Sivanand school (a slow style with asanas and lots of spiritual guidance), Iyengar (a very exacting school that uses some props and focuses on alignment) and practices that follow particular gurus from India, usually including elements of Raja, Bhakti and Karma yoga.
Buddhist meditation and study
Meditation is closely related to yoga, and the two often overlap: much of yoga involves meditation, and Buddhist meditation draws on many Hindu yogic practices. However, meditation centres in Nepal generally follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Buddhist meditation is a science of mind. To Buddhists, mind is the cause of confusion and ego, and the aim of meditation is to transcend these. Vipassana (“insight”) is the kernel of all forms of Buddhist meditation; related to hatha yoga, it emphasizes the minute observation of physical sensations and mental processes to achieve a clear understanding of mind. Another basic practice common to most schools of Buddhism, shamatha (“calm abiding”) attunes and sharpens the mind by means of coming back again and again to a meditative discipline. Several centres in the Kathmandu Valley run rigorous residential courses in this practice.
Tibetan Buddhist centres start students out with vipassana and shamatha as the foundation for a large armoury of meditation practices. An “adept” (novice) will cultivate Buddha-like qualities through visualization techniques – meditating on the deity that manifests a particular quality, while chanting the mantra and performing the mudra (hand gesture) associated with that deity. The Tibetan Buddhist path also involves numerous rituals, such as prayer, offerings, circumambulation and other meritorious acts; committed followers will take vows, too. Kathmandu has several centres offering introductory courses.
A big part of Tibetan Buddhism is the teacher-disciple relationship. More advanced students of the dharma will want to study under one of the lamas at Boudha, some of whom give discourses in English.
Ayurveda (often spelled “ayurved”) is the oldest school of medicine still practised. It is a holistic system that assumes the fundamental sameness of self and nature. Unlike the allopathic medicine of the West, which identifies what ails you and then kills it, ayurveda looks at the whole patient: disease is regarded as a symptom of imbalance, so it’s the imbalance that’s treated, not the disease.
To diagnose an imbalance, the ayurvedic doctor investigates the physical complaint but also family background, daily habits and emotional traits. Treatment is typically with inexpensive herbal remedies designed to alter whichever of the three forces is out of whack. In addition, the doctor may prescribe some yogic cleansing to rid the body of waste substances.
You’ll find ayurvedic doctors and clinics throughout the Hindu parts of Nepal, but those who are able to deal with foreigners are confined mainly to Kathmandu.
Medicine is one of the traditional branches of study for Tibetan Buddhist monks. Like ayurveda, from which it derives, Tibetan medicine promotes health by maintaining the correct balance of three humours: beken, phlegm, which when out of balance is responsible for disorders of the upper body; tiba, heat or bile, associated with intestinal diseases; and lung, meaning wind, which may produce nervousness or depression.
Massage and therapies
Nepali massage is a deep treatment that works mainly on the joints. It’s not all that relaxing, but it can be just the job after a trek. Nepalis themselves rarely receive massages after the age of about three, but numerous masseurs ply their services to foreigners. Many practitioners also offer shiatsu, Swedish or Thai massage, reflexology and so on. Others, especially in Thamel, are actually (or additionally) offering sexual services; the best advice is that if it looks or feels dodgy, it probably is.