A glimpse into the Bhutan Yoga Adventure

 

 

Last April, 12 people joined me for the Yoga Adventure in Bhutan to visit the mystical land of the Thunder Dragon. The tiny Himalayan kingdom ruled by a Buddhist monarchy is, indeed, a divine pure realm and lives up to its reputation of being the land of Gross National Happiness. It was the first time in 14 years of taking people on yoga retreats that everyone experienced santosha (contentment) and was truly happy.

 

April is the perfect time to be here, when all the flowering trees are in bloom. Jacaranda, Bougainville, prickly pear cactus. The place is an architectural wonder.

 

How could we not be happy when the days were filled with yoga and meditation, hanging prayer flags at a 4,000m pass, wandering through ancient rhododendron forests to a cliff monastery, full moon glamping at a dakini cave, and the magical descent to Taksang (or the infamous Tiger’s Nest), where Padmasambhava flew on the back of a pregnant tigress? Bhutan is a land of magic and mystery.

 

Essential dharma items like a kata, prayer flags, mala, Wild Earth yogi soap, journal and a dharma bag to carry everything

I was in Boudhanath in Nepal, prior to arriving in Bhutan and seized the opportunity to put together a gift bag for my students. Boudha which is a great place for Dharma things. I gave them essential ‘tools of tantra,’ like a Kata (a silk scarf to offer a Rinpoche), prayer flags and mala. I also give them some organic, Wild Earth yogi soap made from Himalayan herbs, a journal and a dharma bag to carry everything.

 

Soaring above crystal clear views of the Himalayas on the flight from Nepal to Bhutan.

We flew with Druk Air from Kathmandu to Paro. I was sitting on the left side of the plane and caught a crystal clear view of the Himalayas. Absolutely jaw-droppingly, epic. An auspicious start to the Yoga Adventure in Bhutan.

 

Night scape in BhutanThe opening ceremony on ht e 2019 Bhutan Yoga Adventure with Elton Yoga.

We landed in Paro and drove to Bhutan’s largest city, Thimpu, where we attended a late afternoon puja and the Zilukha Nunnery and visited the Royal Textile Museum to get an idea of the history of the kingdom through its textiles. We gathered for an Opening Ceremony in garden outside the hotel in Thimpu. It was a fairy tale setting with the Thimpu Dzong beautifully lit up in the background. We had a fantastic group of people from Mexico, UK, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Greece, Croatia and Oman. A couple of students who were students 12 years ago joined me for this special Bhutan Advenuture. It was so great to see them again.

 

Picnic by the Paro river in Bhutan. Students on the Bhutan Yoga adventure fill their plates with colourful vegetables, rice and sauces.White waters in the Paro river.Picnic by the Paro river in Bhutan. Students on the Bhutan Yoga adventure fill their plates with colourful vegetables, rice and sauces.

Day 2 began with an early morning yoga class and a hearty Bhutanese breakfast, before a lecture on the role of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) in Bhutan by Dr. Lopen Karma Phuntso, an accomplished scholar who has a PhD from Oxford and written several books. I thought this would help to familiarise students with the famous yogi, especially since we were visiting some of his important sites.

Then we trekked to the 15th C.E. Tango Monastery, a university of Buddhist Studies, and had a lovely picnic lunch beside a sparkling river. Bhutanese cuisine is my new favourite food and the vegetarian meals are very tasty. I love the chill cheese sauce. We ended the day with a Bhutanese Kunney massage at a salon in Thimpu. Everyone was stunned by the pristine beauty of this pure land and the ancient Buddhist history.

 

Students on the Elton Yoga Bhutan Yoga Adventure doing prostrations before the Buddha Dordenma.Buddha Dordenma

Day 3 on the Yoga Adventure in Bhutan began at Buddha Point in Thimphu, a spectacular location with a 51m Buddha Dordenma. We had the place to ourselves and sat in meditation. I taught them how to do prostrations. Sun Salutations with a Buddhist twist. We visited the temple encircled with Dakinis before heading to a stylish restaurant for breakfast and then up to Dochula Pass (10142ft / 3091m) with panoramic views of the snow-covered peaks of the Eastern Himalayan mountain ranges, the 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang memorial chortens, before the descent to Punkaka.

 

A bhutanese man holds a wang, an oversized sculpture of a phallus used for giving fertility blessings.

 

  • Phalius painting on buildings surrounding Chimi Lhakhang in Bhutan.
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Thousands pilgrimage to The Fertility Temple in the hopes of having a child, as well as receiving a wang, blessing, from the saint with the ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom.’

 

In the afternoon we wandered through paddy fields and a village where the houses are adorned with phalluses on the way to Chimi Lhakhang. The temple was constructed in 1499 C.E. by the “Divine Madman,” the eccentric Yogi and saint Drukpa Kunley, who blessed the entire grounds. The monastery is renowned throughout Bhutan as a fertility inducing magnet, pledging that all who wish to conceive will find guidance at the temple. Thousands pilgrimage to The Fertility Temple in the hopes of having a child, as well as receiving a wang, blessing, from the saint with the ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom.’

 

View across the river to Chimi Lakhang

“Bhutan is truly the last mystical frontier! I have never before witnessed such a beautiful country. The Bhutanese people shine with the energy coming from the nature all around them. 10 days with Heather was a fantastic way to experience this nature, cultural heritage and religion, with clear perception from practicing yoga and meditation all the way. Only one problem! It was so good gotta go back.” – Pete Lausberg

 

 

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The final act on Day 3 was a visit to the Punakha Dzong, the palace of great happiness and bliss. It’s the perfect time to be here as all the flowering trees are in bloom. Jacaranda, Bougainvilla, prickly pear cactus. The place is an architectural wonder. I never knew that such a place could exist. Constructed by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, in 1637–38 C.E., it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. The dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Rangjung Kasarpani and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and the tertön Pema Lingpa. We arrived at our hotel in a state of awe, living in a dream, too tired to do yoga.

 

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Day 4 in the magical kingdom took us deeper into pure nature and the Buddhist experience. The day began with a yoga class at our hotel followed by a slow meandering trek up a mountain to a tantric Buddhist. It was the most pleasant trek on a path through a Ponderosa pine forest and paddy fields with babbling brooks. The light was a soft and gentle and the journey was peaceful. The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Choeten is an unbelievable temple. I’m still aghast by what I saw in there. In fact, I’m Nepal temples if this kind are only open to those who’ve had Tantric Vajrayana initiations. In Bhutan, it doesn’t seem to matter, yet all the Mahakala temples are off limits to everyone but monks. And photography is not allowed inside any temples in Bhutan.

After our visit we opted to raft the river to our picnic spot rather than jump back on the bus. It was a thrilling ride through rapids that left us thoroughly soaked and one yogi diving in for a swim. It took the best part of an hour and what at pleasure to be floating with the water spirits. Our picnic was regal and I can’t get enough of the fiddleheads, asparagus, and chilli cheese salsas.

 

Guru RinpocheA Milarepa Nakpa yogi teaches Heather Elton proper mala technique.

 

After lunch a few people opted for a nap at the hotel. Others came back to the Punakha Dzong for a second visit. I’m in love with the Guru Rinpoche in there and needed to soak up his gaze. On the way out I met a Milarepa Nakpa yogi who corrected me on proper mala technique. He checked my mantras and did a couple of healing sessions for a few of us with ailments. A late afternoon yoga class of a more restorative nature ended the day. Mind blown over and over. All preconceptions dissolve. Bhutan is without a doubt is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The combination of nature and dharma is absolute. Om Vajra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.

 

Morning yoga on the 2019 Elton Yoga, Bhutan Yoga Adventure.

 

After a morning yoga and meditation session we drove through spectacular landscapes to the picturesque Haa Valley where we stayed at the charming Soednam Zingkha Heritage Lodge, a restored traditional farmhouse.

 

Students on the Elton Yoga Bhutan Yoga Adventure touring Bhutan by bus.

 

Day 5, we practiced yoga and meditation in a beautiful shrine room, ate a traditional breakfast of buckwheat pancakes and red rice salty porridge. Then we went on a leisurely 3-hour hike through a pine forests to Junidrak Hermitage temple (2950m), the home to Machig Lobdron, an 11th century Tibetan yogini whose teachings and practice of Chod (literally “severance” or “cutting through”) have profoundly influenced all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. She was unique in being both a woman and Tibetan, diverging from the traditional norm of male, Indian Buddhist masters. Late afternoon we were treated to a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath.

 

  • Students hiking on the Elton Yoga Bhutan Yoga Adventure.
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I’ve had ultimate spa treatments in exotic destinations, Native America sweat lodges, hot springs in the middle of Douglas Fir forests, but the Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath is one of the most memorable. Baths have been an important part of Bhutanese family life and traditional medicine for centuries. The bath tub is typically made of wood and constructed in the ground. Medium-sized river rocks are set into a roaring fire and left to heat for hours. After filling the bath with clean mountain water, local Artemisia is added on top. Then the red hot rocks are dropped one by one into a cornered-off section on the tub. And so the bath begins. The heat of the water, the minerals released from the rocks, and the local herbs produce health benefits for joint pain, hypertension, stomach disorders and arthritis.

 

Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath. The bath tub is made of wood and constructed in the groundRed hot rocks are dropped one by one into the cornered off section on the tub of a Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath.Red hot rocks are dropped one by one into the cornered off section on the tub of a Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath.

 

Mind blown over and over. All preconceptions dissolve. Bhutan is without a doubt is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The combination of nature and dharma is absolute.

 

May 17th is my birthday and this particular one remains etched in my mind as one of the most special days of my life. We ascended to the 4000 m (about 13,000 feet) Chela La Pass to hang prayer flags. It was a ceremony that took everyone into deep reflection and gratitude. We wrote names on all our flags sending love to our family and friends and all sentient beings, climbed to the highest point, tied all our flags together. They fluttered in the wind and our prayers were carried down the valley.

 

Students on the Bhutan Yoga adventure hanging prayer flags at 4000 m (about 13,000 feet) above Chela La PassStudents on the Bhutan Yoga adventure hanging prayer flags at 4000 m (about 13,000 feet) above Chela La PassStudents on the Bhutan Yoga adventure hanging prayer flags at 4000 m (about 13,000 feet) above Chela La Pass

 

Our descent from Chelela pass took us through an ancient forest with rhododendrons in full bloom to the Kila Nunnery where the nuns did a Long Life puja for me. I was blessed. The enchanted forest was the most magical place. Pure nature. We sat in silence forest bathing and soaking up the Prana from the magnificent trees and pungent earth. We had another fantastic Bhutanese picnic with a variety of greens (asparagus, ferns, beans, spinach), chilli cheese and red rice beside a stupa with exquisite views of the Haa Valley. I love wandering through the temple of nature and then sitting in a monastery built high up into the edge of a cliff. It was a perfect day filled with magic and wonder. I feel so lucky to experience nature, yoga and Buddhist dharma in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

 

Elton Yoga students in contemplation on a forest hike in Bhutan.Elton Yoga students in contemplation on a forest hike in Bhutan.Elton Yoga students on a forest hike in Bhutan.

 

The ultimate experience on the Yoga Adventure in Bhutan was the Bumdra Trek. It was a fantastic journey over two days that involved a steep climb up a ridge, through an ancient forest, glamping 🏕 under the full moon 🌕 in an open meadow below the 100,000 Dakini cave, making a Riwo Sancho smoke offering with Amchi Sherab, a Bhutanese yogi and healer, before the descent to Guru Rinpoche’s famous meditation spot, Tigers’s Nest, where he flew on the on the back of a pregnant Tigress and did a Vajrakilya practice.

 

Bumdra Trek

  • On the hike to Bumdra
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In the morning, we had a glimpse of the high Himalayan peaks, visited the cave of Machig Labdron before reaching the gardens of Zangtopelri (Heaven on Earth) for a picnic lunch. Amchi Sherab treated us to some Tibetan yoga pranayama techniques. Soon we arrived at the ultimate Buddhist site – Guru Rinpoche’s Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest – perched on the edge of a sheer cliff, rising 1000 meters from the valley floor. The trail then meandered down through a blue pine forest, past fluttering prayer flags and hydro-powered spinning prayer wheels, to our awaiting bus that took us to Naksel Boutique Hotel & Spa.

 

monk in meditation

 

  • Meditation and pranayama practice in the gardens of Zangtopelri (Heaven on Earth) on the Elton Yoga Bhutan Yoga Adventure 2019.
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Everyone was delighted to be at the luxurious Naksel Boutique Hotel & Spa for rest and restorative yoga. The beautiful yoga shala has clouds painted on the ceiling and a floor to ceiling windows with a view back to Tiger’s Nest. The shala has few props and so I improvised with available furniture to make sure everyone was a comfortable as possible so they could get deep into a state of relaxation.

 

Student on the Bhutan Yoga Adventure in a restorative Supta virasana.

 

  • Students on the Bhutan Yoga Adventure in a restorative Supta Baddha Konasana.
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Our yoga and dharma tour finished at Kyichu Lakhang, the monastery and residence of the late Dilgo Khentsye, one the greatest yogis who ever lived. I wanted to leave on a note of contemporary Buddhist practice and someone as eminent as Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche, who was the teacher of my own Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang Khentsye. I’m 😶 left without words to describe this 7th C.E. place of compassion, except to say it has the most exquisite murals and deities, and the energy took everyone into a deep place of stillness, compassion bursting from our hearts. Magically, the room with Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha, with the most beautiful Boddhisattvas and other deities was opened up to us. We entered the beyul and were bonked on the head with a Phurba and given a protection thread. Stunned. Deep, deep gratitude. The Memorial Residence of Dilgo Khentsye was a museum of his personal artefacts, bedroom and reception rooms. A life size photo if his enormous person was there as well as other great images, his dark crystal sunglasses, mala, robes and famous yellow meditation cloak.

 

Group photo of the 2019 Bhytan Yoga Adventure at Kyichu Lakhang, the monastery and residence of the late Dilgo Khentsye, one the greatest yogis who ever lived.Spinning prayer wheels at Kyichu Lakhang, the monastery and residence of the late Dilgo Khentsye, one the greatest yogis who ever lived.Spinning prayer wheels at Kyichu Lakhang, the monastery and residence of the late Dilgo Khentsye, one the greatest yogis who ever lived.

 

“The Yoga Adventure in Bhutan with Heather was the ultimate life experience! I felt fully immersed and it sunk deep into my heart to take back home with me. This is for anyone who loves Buddhist culture, history and yoga. Heather and Sacred Himalayan Travel put on the most memorable visits and incredible picnic lunches fit for kings wherever we happened to be trekking. Bhutan is an exceptionally beautiful and unspoiled country, and Heather’s knowledge and passion brings out the best it has to offer, as well as guiding you into a deeper practice of yoga, meditation and Buddhism. Thank you from the bottom of my heart Heather for organising such a magical and memorable trip.” – Varvara Dranidis-Morgan

 

Heather standing with Jigme the guide on the Bhutan Yoga Adventure and Dorje their driver.

 

Big thanks to these great men. 😍 Jigme our guide and Dorje our driver extraordinaire who took such excellent care of us. Gentle men with fierce power. Incredible patience and support. It was true pleasure to travel with them through their country that they love so much. Everyday in Bhutan was filled with magic and wonder. I feel so lucky to experience nature, yoga and Buddhist dharma in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. A big thanks to Sacred Himalayan Travel for making it all possible. 🙏

 

The next Yoga Adventure in Bhutan will be March 29 – April 9, 2020. Click here for more details and to apply.

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