Stephanie Brookes delves deeply into her yoga practice while falling in love with Bhutan, a spiritual Buddhist nation widely known as ‘the land of happiness’.
BHUTAN IS A SECLUDED PLACE. A TINY KINGDOM THAT SITS NESTLED BETWEEN CHINA AND INDIA, IT IS SHADOWED BY PEAKS AS HIGH AS 7554 METRES. YOU DISCOVER A CALM SPIRITUAL ESSENCE AS YOU TRAVEL THROUGH ITS SMALL TOWNS, HIGH PASSES AND TRADITIONAL VILLAGES AND VISIT ITS MAGNIFICENT DZONGS (FORTRESS MONASTERIES). TO HELP PRESERVE LOCAL CULTURE AND TRADITIONS AND TO AVOID PUTTING TOO MUCH PRESSURE ON LIMITED TOURIST FACILITIES, THE GOVERNMENT HAS OPTED FOR HIGH-VALUE, LOW-IMPACT TOURISM. IN FACT, BHUTAN WAS ONLY OPENED TO THE WORLD IN 1974, AND VISITOR NUMBERS WERE INITIALLY LOW BECAUSE YOU COULD ONLY ENTER THE TINY KINGDOM BY ROAD. NOW, YOU CAN FLY IN.
MOVING SLOWLY AROUND around the giant prayer wheel at the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, I was aware I was spinning and releasing more than one million prayers written on tiny scrolls inside. This sacred place is open for prayer at 3.00am. My guide, Tashi, explained, “This stupa has become a social place. People come here and walk for hours with their prayer beads and devote time to silence and spin the wheel. After, people of all ages sit chatting with one another in the surrounding grounds. Many practice their yoga asanas here and now, since 1982 when the airport was built, we have been seeing more and more foreigners at the wheel.”
Historically, the country has shared strong cultural links with Tibetan Buddhism and was part of the Silk Road linking China with the Indian subcontinent. It was an absolute monarchy until 2008. Bhutan is now a democratic country and operates as a constitutional monarchy with the king as the head of the state and prime minister as head of the government.
The king, who is known as Druk Gyalpo, meaning Thunder Dragon King, is revered and consulted on important matters. It was the previous king who introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness to the kingdom in the 1970s. More recently, an index and national survey of its citizens have been introduced to measure it. Bhutan is now known worldwide as the “land of happiness”, largely because of this novel concept and survey. As a tourist, you even fill out a happiness survey when you leave the country.
The people are happy as they receive services such as free education and healthcare. They are also consulted on significant matters concerning their lives. Even the animals are happy, as there is no slaughterhouse in the country. All meat served in restaurants and hotels is imported from India.
Buddhism values hold strong and influence everything, including, for example,environmental goals. These dictate that 60% of Bhutan must stay covered in forest and that only clean, renewable, sustainable energy is to power the country. Currently hydro runs profitably and the excess is sold to India. Clean and green – what a role model for the world.
Tashi explained the National Happiness Index to me, “Every two years, we have to fill in the Gross National Happiness Index and answer all the questions about our happiness and thoughts on certain matters.” With a warm smile he said, “It’s mainly about happiness. We only have 750,000 people in the whole country, so what we write does get read, actioned and delivered back to the people via amended laws and policy, if enough other people support it. Unlike the West, we do not have multiple layers and levels of administration – it goes straight to the officials and they act. You can effect change in a country when you have small numbers,” he said knowingly. “For example, the government discourages mining, as it destroys the environment and does not provide clean energy. It detracts from happiness.”
It is indeed true there are no orphans, no homeless, and no elderly in homes in Bhutan. On the Happiness Index, free education and free welfare always get support from the people. So how do they achieve this financially? Well, we can help a little, as all tourists entering Bhutan must pay a $330 daily fee. Of this fee, $85 is nominated as the Daily Government Royalty and the fees go directly to education, health and welfare. The balance is appropriated to pay your pre-booked hotels, tours, transport and meals. Everything is paid in advance through a registered travel agent before you arrive and you use vouchers when you travel. A great system. You can travel pretty much cashless in Bhutan and be happy at the same time knowing you are contributing to the wellness of a whole nation.
“When I caught sight of thousands of prayer flags stretching across the chasm, spanning from the trail to the monastery, it literally took my breath away.”
You are what you wear. Right? Well, the national pride shows through on the streets. Bhutanese people wear the national dress almost every day, not just on special occasions. Men wear the traditional gho and women, the kira when they go to work, the temple or school. They like it. They voted to retain it via the Index survey, and so it stays. It is fine to wear Western clothes at home or when just going to town, but largely you see all Bhutanese people in traditional dress. The dress code is actually written in the constitution.
So, will Bhutan evermodernise? Tashi suggested, “Only in consultation with the people. For example, television was not allowed in Bhutan for a long time. The people did not want it. I remember the day it came to Bhutan. It was June 2, 1999 when we got television.” Yes, Bhutan will modernise, but selectively, on its own terms and in its own time.
What better way to get away from television than join a specialised yoga program. I found out about the COMO Uma Paro’s six-day yoga program, high in the hills above the town of Paro. For me, a journey into Bhutan meant seeking an experience that would fulfill me spiritually and emotionally. I wanted to really live with my head above the clouds, considering I was geographically located in a prime position – the rooftop of the world.
Yoga, High in the Himalayas
I was in very good hands at the COMO Uma Paro. The resident yoga instructor, Dr Nikhil, has eight years of formal training in Hatha, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power and Bikram yoga techniques. He is from India and specialises in natural medicine and Ayurveda. Before you start the program you have a consultation with Dr Nikhil about your general health, covering your prakruti (constitution) and vikruti (current state) based on ancient Ayurvedic science. A personal Ayurvedic program is then set for you and includes therapies, a health promoting diet and recommended lifestyle changes. In addition to the Yoga Program, there is also a Wellness Program. This involves a general medical and therapeutic consultation to cover all areas of health and common pathology such as heart problems, diabetes, back pain, sluggish digestion and weight management. I felt spoilt for choice here, having difficulty deciding which to do.
Stress Management is yet another program on offer, and is another aspect of healing. This program starts with a consultation with the doctor, and incorporates yoga, meditation and implementing Ayurvedic lifestyle principles.
For me, Bhutan provided the opportunity to delve more deeply into yoga. I chose the five-night/six-day yoga package. This blended one to two daily yoga sessions with picnic lunches, and guided day excursions to temples, monasteries and small villages with lots of walking. Time for myself and exploring the local environment seemed to me a perfect combination and I got to spend every day discovering another aspect of Bhutanese culture. I was smitten. I had fallen in love with this unique, peaceful Buddhist nation. However, the highlight came at the end of my stay with the walk to the Tiger’s Nest.
Tiger’s Nest Hike
It’s no walk in the park following the trail to Taktsang, the sacred Tiger’s Nest, a monastery hugging the side of a rocky cliff rising 3000 feet above the Paro valley. The path is well maintained but it’s a steep climb. The walk has to be taken at a slow pace, so you can acclimatise to the high elevation. It’s a great accomplishment to reach the top. I had to climb more than a thousand steps, but the freshness of the cool mountain air and the special atmosphere surrounding this sacred climb made every single step well worth it.
Seeing the cafeteria about halfway along the path was like seeing a vision from heaven, and I rested for a while before I continued on. Every step of the way I was aware I was on a pilgrimage walk, as the trail takes you to the holiest site in Bhutan. It is the place where Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, materialised some 1300 years ago. It is said he appeared on the back of a flying tigress. He meditated in a series of caves for three years and then set out to convert the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery commemorates this beginning of Buddhist Bhutan. It was built in the 1600s, although the original monastery has been replaced several times. The last reconstruction, as a result of a major fire, was completed in 2005.
When I caught sight of thousands of prayer flags stretching across the chasm, spanning from the trail to the monastery, it literally took my breath away. As I made my way past the 60-metre waterfall, more prayer flags flew above me, taking the words of the prayers, written on the chakra-coded small pieces of cloth, away in the wind. There is power in those prayers, perhaps released in whispers across the Himalayas. A universal wisdom permeating the ether – I felt it at that moment.
The final part of the climb was over a bridge. As I edged past the sheer rock face wall, I could see many remnants of many tsa-tsas, tiny cone-like offerings which contained the ashes of the dead. One last flight of steps and I had arrived at the monastery.
We had to leave our camera, phones and shoes at the gates. With an air of humility and reverence, we then entered the chambers, which were adorned with Buddhist icons and rows of butter lamps. I could feel the warmth of the divine light inside the temple and was overwhelmed with a deep sense of connection, which one feels when visiting a truly holy place.
One of the monastery chambers had a monk chanting, so we bypassed that. However, the next chamber was empty and our guide invited us to sit quietly and led us in a meditation. The feeling of being above the clouds in this isolated cliff-hanging temple was a special moment. It is very common for people to experience spiritual awakenings and have profound experiences at the Tiger’s Nest, my guide told us.
Bhutan is a place of profound, pious Buddhist principles. A happy place, layered with prayers and flags and positive messages of peace and beauty, carried in the Himalayan wind over its mountainous exquisite landscape.