Lessons from Nepal 2: Body Consciousness

Living in Nepal requires an entirely new mind-body relationship. The way I move in space, the way and amount in think about my body, and the way I present my body are so different from the way I lived in the West. While I certainly had to change how I dressed and even the amount I touched other people while working in jails in Virginia and then living in Jerusalem, in Nepal I have found myself relating to my own body both more often and more profoundly. I’m sure that over the next few months some of the issues I have just barely started to notice, like modesty standards and physical contact with others, will come up again here. So, for now, I want to start with three seemingly banal bodily concerns that currently occupy a major part of my consciousness.

The first relates to the physical body as a whole, and in particular ways it hurts from sitting on the ground for more than 10 hours a day for the past 2 weeks. Furniture is not common in Nepal, and everything is done seated on the ground, including eating, attending classes, and even going to the bathroom (“Western” toilets exist in some tourist areas, but the Nepali toilet is of the squatting variety). While I wish I could say that I was always a good yogini, sitting up straight with my shoulders pulled down my back and my core engaged, the reality is that after a few hours I start to slump just like everyone else, finding any possible way to fold myself up against a wall (or the person sitting next to me). My lower back and buttocks are so sore from two weeks this abuse—I clearly need to find a more effective way of sitting if I am to survive the next four months.

If my back and bottom are sore from trying to adjust to doing everything on the floor, my taste buds are at least as sore from trying to adjust to new cuisine. Those who know me know that I am quite a picky eater; I like to say that I don’t like any spice that begins with “c” except cinnamon and cocoa (eg: cumin, coriander, curry, cayenne…). I’m also extremely sensitive to spicy foods, and I often find things picante when no one else notices the spice. We eat dal bhaat, rice with lentil sauce/soup and curried vegetables, for lunch every day (In Nepali: Ma sadhai dal bhaat diusomaa khanne). I’m pleased to announce that white rice tastes the same the world round, and the dal, lentils, taste like lentil soup that I would make myself. The curried vegetables and assortment of other spicy foods and sauces that sometimes accompany the dal bhaat are more of a struggle. Sometimes I manage to eat a little of the curry vegetables, for now mostly potatoes and cauliflower, smothered in yogurt to reduce the spiciness, but overall eating enough to feel full at each meal is a struggle. Food is no longer a luxury but a means of sustaining my body, and I constantly need to battle between eating enough to not feel hungry while not forcing myself to eat too much of something I really do not like.

And, once I have managed to eat, there is the constant fear of getting sick. Water in Nepal is not just unfiltered but can often carry deadly diseases, or at the very least pesky bugs that will not hesitate to send you running to the bathroom.  Sanitary drinking water in Nepal is hard to come by, and must be bought in plastic bottles. Even so, it is impossible to avoid getting sick or simply feeling some unsettled stomach. So far, I am feeling fine, but there is always a nagging fear at the back of my mind whether what I am about to put in my mouth will make me sick. My housemates and I are always focused on our bodies and how we are feeling, wondering if today is the day that my luck will run out. (I will resist the urge to insert a disgusting pun here).

To cope with these various physical challenges, I have increasingly turned to my favorite physical release: yoga. I teach every morning for an hour to my housemates, and I have also been waking up at 5:15am in order to have an hour to practice by myself before I teach. I am willing to sacrifice my sleep in order to have the time to go through the familiar poses and work muscles that spend all day seeping in to the ground. There is something incredibly comforting about the fact that yoga feels the same no matter where you do it. I got a bright pink mat in Thamel, the tourist district, just like I have in the United States. Unrolling my mat and going through a few sun salutations or warrior series while focusing on my breath reminds me that I am still myself. Though I may think about my body infinitely more than I did before coming Nepal, my body still holds my same soul and my same self, and it too will adjust to the new surroundings.

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