When I read an article this week which opened “If you think about Nepal today, you may be contemplating a yoga course in a hilltop nunnery” I took note. Because if you are contemplating a yoga course in a hilltop nunnery (or monastery), then it’s very possible that you’re thinking to do it with Mahalaya. This article is speaking to my peeps, I thought. What does it have to say?
Having read what it has to say, I’d like to say something back.
Among the excellent points it makes – and there are many – there are some less skillful observations. I haven’t met the author. I wish I had: she has done extraordinary work in Nepal, has achieved formidably, and has been involved in the country for a long time – not nearly as long as yoga has, but she can’t be blamed for not being 5,000 years old. So I understand her sniffiness about upstarts like me and our Himalayan sunset meditations.
Still, I would have liked her to ask me about the assumptions she has about yoga tourism in Nepal. I would have told her this:
As you say, tourism may only be 5% of the country’s economy (4.3% actually, because if we’re going to debate let’s do it accurately). But for the suppliers we use, tourism is 100% of their income. Having survived the earthquake itself, and then crippled by a five-month trade embargo, these talented, hard-working Nepalis watched their businesses and jobs disappear.
In 2014 that 4.3% was worth $785m directly. Indirectly – which includes the wider impact on the economy – tourism was worth $1.6bn. Regardless of its relative value, this income is a major livelihood for a huge number of people, and that matters.
There are no easy solutions to the difficulties that Nepal faces. There weren’t even any ideas for solutions in your article, and I get that: sometimes all I can do is tear my hair out too. But alongside awareness-raising, it’s also good to do something.
My tiny contribution is to try to run an ethical business that brings to Nepal some of the intelligent, considerate, responsible people that Mahalaya attracts, to learn about the incredible spiritual traditions of this country. India, Thailand and Bali are the region’s leaders in wellness tourism, which was worth $439 billion in 2013. Nepal attracts so little of this, yet has SO much to offer. It is a major part of Yoga’s history and yet the challenges of working here means it is barely benefiting from the global interest in the very traditions it fostered. I want to change that, but I can’t do that if people are made to feel guilty about coming.
“Both modest and luxury hotels have abundant water” the article goes on, “and provide backup generators. They ensure visitors have 24-hour showers and flushing toilets on demand, power for their gadgets, and unlimited restaurant delights.”
I know, so hedonistic – so extravagantly unnecessary for attracting tourists.
But do you know how? Jobs, local suppliers, and incredible hard work from everyone to overcome the very infrastructure restraints that the article highlights. The people we work with – all of whom (including me) live with loadshedding and shortages as our daily reality – should be extremely proud of what they’re able to achieve in this resource-poor environment. Meanwhile, those NGOs rather scathingly treated in the article are working towards solutions alongside government, communities and businesses for better management of resources.
Of course, there is unacceptable wastage among tourists who are complacent about the resource scarcity of Nepal. These are not our tourists. Our hilltop monastery runs its guesthouse as a social enterprise: all of its profits go to fund a quality education for 200 novice monks – young boys from poor parts of Nepal. Its hot water is solar powered. Its team are local. It buys locally. It is more comfortable than expected for a monastery guesthouse, but that enables it to charge a higher profit margin and thus raise far more for the monastery’s work.
I think this is genius and deserves shouting about, not shouting down.
For us, it means the venue is much more expensive than we could get from a venue not offering hot water, clean sheets or safe food, or moreover somewhere that’s not a social enterprise. That makes us a little uncompetitive. But that’s ok. Like most yoga people, I want to believe in the choices we make.
Yet we brief all our participants about the resource scarcity. And they respect it, because yoga holds us to account to live as ethically as we can in community. As tourists go, this is a fantastic bunch to welcome in.
In fact, not just as tourists go: as people go, since “isolation from reality” is far from a visitor-only privilege. Nepal is not simply a hopeless case of “poverty and despair” full of shoeless youngsters. It has a vibrant, innovative, entrepreneurial and growing middle class who are helping to boost the economy – and who live a very different lifestyle than the country’s poor, complete with flushing toilets and back-up electricity, and in far greater numbers than the tourists.
I know that yoga was an aside in the larger point the article is making, and I do thank you for adding to the conversation about the criminal mismanagement of utilities in Nepal. Perhaps I took it a little too much to heart. But you see: this IS my heart. I have put all my heart into it, and I get heart out of it – very little money, but sheer love and passion. It’s that passion that motivates me to write.
Nepal is one of the hardest places in the world to try to run a business at the best of times, and then it became a disaster zone. And then the borders closed for five months. Many Nepalis are choosing to get out to take their business ideas and skills elsewhere; few foreigners can manage the challenges of investing here, and those who do rarely last.
So be a little kinder to folks like us. Trust me, there are far, far easier options. Behind the scenes of those Himalayan sunset meditations, is an unbelievable amount of hard work, personal loss, trial and error, and grateful resilient optimistic love.
And I took it to heart because very few organisations run yoga retreats in the hills of Nepal, because it is just so damn difficult, and so unwittingly your article is speaking about me and my students. My name is Annie Seymour. I run Mahalaya Nepal. It isn’t easy, but it is the best thing I have done with my life. You should just see what we do.
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