Healing in the Himalayan Foothills
I'm sitting at a cafe called Paul Patisserie in the Dubai airport. The air is cold and filled with sounds of tinny music, tapping metal construction and voices of travelers from around the world. Sitting in front of me are two Asian women wearing their face masks down on their chins as they eat a fruit cup from the cafe, look at their phones and discuss the new currency in their wallet with wonder and laughter. There is a little Indian girl sitting near us singing a sweet song. People of all colors, ages and sizes wander in front of me. Here I sit on my MacAir, a chamomile tea beside me, trying to stay off of Facebook to write this blog post.
Here I am in transit, again. Going from here to there, again. Why do I keep moving? Why is this Healing Journey so mobile? The reasons are many. Running away is not one of them. Of this I am certain. I am not running away from responsibility, community, intimacy, or anything I would experience if I 'settled down'. I am not running away from those things, and neither am I ready for them in the form they come with a more settled down lifestyle.
Waking my body up from paralysis takes movement. And it feels like the type of movement and newness I experience in travel is more effective movement in this process of waking up. The most beautiful aspect of this experience lies in how holistic it is. As I work doggedly to wake my body up, my entire being is along for this ride of 'waking up'. My heart has never been more open. My mind has never been so ready to listen and learn.
My current transition is from India to Greece. I just wrapped up six amazing and healing weeks in the Dharamshala region of northern India. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to go. With no research about the place, I went. I went because I was hired to teach at a yoga teacher training. When I got out of my taxi on the first day six weeks ago, I was taken aback. A hillside village in the foothills of the Himalayas is a steep and rocky place to be - duh. I wanted to laugh at myself for not realizing it would be so steep and rocky, but in that moment I was too frightened and overwhelmed to laugh. My strength and balance had come far by that point, but I didn't feel at all certain I was ready for that level of challenge.
My first few days were some of the most challenging I've experienced on this Healing Journey. In addition to constant fear and uncertainty in basic daily getting around, the people who had hired me, unequivocally un-hired me when they saw my movement limitations that result from the spinal cord injury. I was in a state of imbalance and upheaval both emotionally and physically. I was hurt, frightened and alone.
Somehow, I met that state head on. I didn't run or hide, I stepped fully into it. It was an incredible realization of how far I have come over the past year and a half, of how much I have learned and grown. The spinal cord injury and subsequent Healing Journey has taught me that I can face anything and everything that happens in my life. Even an experience is unpleasant and uncomfortable, it is something to be experienced and lived through. It is something to be felt fully and learned from.
There I was, in a place where every step terrified me and had experienced my first feeling of disability discrimination. What to do? I was staying in a tiny room of a guesthouse in a hillside tourist village called Bhagsu. I could either hide in my room and cry, or I could go out and explore. I chose the latter.
Everyday, I expanded my circle of exploration. The first few days I would just walk out to one of the many nearby restaurants and cafes. Picking a cafe further up the hill each day. The tourist or traveler village of Bhagsu is a colorful conglomeration of restaurants, shops and guest houses run by local entrepreneurs and filled with travelers from all over the world, including other areas of India. So I would sit and enjoy eating creative continental fare designed to amuse foreigners taste buds, sip tea and watch the lively scene unfold. Each day I got more comfortable.
A few days of that and I was ready to go further. I walked 'all the way down the hill' to take an auto-rickshaw to the Dalai Lama's temple. An autorickshaw is a cross between a moped and a cab and is a great budget way to get around. The 15 minute ride to Mcleod Gang was bumpy and full of amazing views. The route between the tourist village and nearby town that is home to the exiled Tibetan community, allows for expansive views of the valleys and neighboring mountains. As we arrived in town I became a part of the boisterous and richly colorful street scene of bustling tourists, monks, Tibetans and Indians. I made my way to the temple and was filled with a sense of gratitude for sacred space and the opportunity to be in and experience it. It was that day that I knew, even though my trip to Dharamsala was not going to be what I expected, it was going to be perfect.
The next day I walked even further, This time I walked down one hill, through a valley and up another hill to get to the Himalayan School of Iyengar Yoga. I didn't yet have a walking stick and it was insanely difficult. At one point I nearly burst into tears when I had to ask a stranger for help because I was scared of a big step with some gravel. But I persevered and made it to the yoga center. The manager warmly welcomed me and offered chai as we sat on stone slab benches in the lovely garden area they created for the yoga center. We talked about how the style of yoga could be an interesting exploration for me, but there was uncertainty of making that hike everyday. Could I do that and then 3 hours of yoga? I really wasn't sure. That evening I bought a mop handle for a walking stick, and two days later walked back to pay for the following weeks morning yoga sessions.
That week I also learned of a month long Sanskrit intensive. Sanskrit is the ancient language used for most Yoga and Hindu texts and also many Buddhist texts. I have been chanting and studying some of these texts through transliteration and translation for a few years. I've been interested in learning the original script and language, and my opportunity finally arrived. It was an evening class in Mcleod Ganj which worked perfectly for me. And unfolded my dreamlike month long Healing Journey daily schedule.
Each morning I woke between 5-6am, depending on how tired I was. I did my morning meditation and chanting practice, dressed and walked to yoga. The first week of yoga it took me 40-45 minutes to do the walk that involved both a steep rocky road descent and a long mountainside stone stair ascent. By the end of the month I was doing it in under 30 minutes some days. The yoga practice was a very different practice. I have been practicing Ashtanga Yoga Mysore style for almost 4 years, and these classes were Iyengar style. The poses are far fewer and the focus is on using props and close attention to cultivate awareness and alignment as you hold them for extended time periods.. As the days progressed I knew this was not my new practice, rather just a short break for some research into finer points of alignment in asana. I missed my flowing movement and strength based practice, but it also felt right to take this short break of learning some nuance in my body. Especially because I was walking 5 kilometers (3 miles) of steep terrain a day.
After the three-hour yoga practice each day, I would go to a mountain side cafe for an extended brunch. During those brunches I ate amazing food, breathed fresh mountain air, talked to lovely people and studied Sanskrit. My early to mid-afternoon I walked a few kilometers, mostly downhill, to Mcleod Ganj where my Sanskrit class was held. Those classes met for two intense hours, five days a week. It was a steep learning curve for me, as the other five people in my class were monks and scholars with previous experience. I loved the new challenge. I have been working so hard with my body-mind connection, but I hadn't much stretched my pure brainpower muscles in a while. It was a welcome effort, that paid off. By the end of the class I can now speak, write and recognize all of the characters and am well on my way to being able to read and chant in the ancient language.
The first week I only walked a portion of the way home and took an auto-rickshaw the rest of the way. By week two my stamina had increased enough that I started walking all the way home. I would pretty much fall into bed exhausted with a huge smile on my face. I was completely satisfied with the adventure, effort and learning of each day. There were bumps for sure.
The Friday of the first or second week, I was so exhausted that I had a kind of major break down. I skipped Sanskrit class and stayed home to cry instead. Not realizing I was just tired. I was hit with a feeling of not wanting to be paralyzed anymore. Tired of making so much effort to live a meaningful life. I rested for two days and then I went on an epic long mountain hike that restored my faith in both my ability to endure and the worthiness of that effort.
Ok, while I have more to write about my magical hiking experiences in the foothills of the Himalayas, I am running out of writing steam. I will write a part two to this post soon. Thank you for being with me on this journey. I feel your love and support everyday from wherever you send it.
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Lizandra Vidal is a poet, writer, and wellness expert. In 2015 she suffered a spinal cord injury and this blog is a space where she shares the story of her experience.