What Kathmandu taught me about happiness

At 6.30am the house is still asleep. I hear the neighbours rooster greeting the rising sun as I step on my yoga mat and place my hands in prayer.


I sing the opening mantra but my thoughts are like cyclones. They trace back to the streets of Kathmandu, to it’s people, to every friendly namaste with a smile. There is this piercing sadness inside yet at the same time an overwhelming warmth that holds my heart when I think of Nepal.

We were in Kathmandu when the April 25th earthquake moved the city for about 4 meters killing thousands of people. Experiencing that has left me looking at my life in a different way and rediscovering the “normal” daily life will maybe always be in process.

The time in Nepal we spent a week and a half before the earthquake seems like a whole other trip to me. I really love Kathmandu and this being the second time for me there, I was excited to return after 7 years had passed from my first trip.

Kathmandu was, of course, same but different. This time there were many new shops and brands, cafes with croissants and Wi-Fi, bars and clubs with live music and expensive beer. But in the middle of all this modern and new, the culture and ambience have remained the same. You can walk the narrow streets from one bazaar to another and see thousands of years old statues, beautiful shrines, hear the people ring the temple bells in gratitude for the gods.

Everyone smiles, from their heart.

The people in Nepal are the kindest, most polite and grateful that I know. The more you spend time with and get to know them, you can’t help but notice, they have happiness in their hearts, freedom from everything what’s considered to cause suffering and unhappiness from a western point of view. With that I mean things that we(Finnish people) often only read from the news and do not need to worry about such as lack of sanitation and medical care, poverty, hunger, lack of education or a corrupt and shaky government. Nepal is one of the poorest countries there is and Kathmandu sits in one of the most seismically hazardous regions on the planet.

I couldn’t make sense out of it all, with all these conditions ruling their lives, how can the people here be so content, how can they feel so free?

Pointing out that list steered me into thinking. Maybe it was me who lacked the freedom.


Wandering the streets in and around the city, almost every day I would see a symbol of two gold fish either in the colourful prayer flags, Buddhist temples or even in the T-shirts and jewellery they sold at the markets.

After a bit of googling and asking around I learned that the sea in Tibetan Buddhism is associated with the world of suffering, the endless cycle of samsara. The Golden Fish, one of the Eight Auspicious Signs of Buddhism, signify fearlessness and happiness as they swim freely through the oceans without drowning. The two fish symbolise happiness, for they have complete freedom in the water.

Samsara is a familiar word to me from ashtanga yoga. The opening mantra starts every ashtanga practice and the fourth line of it goes:

    Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai..

Translated, the verse means that we are going round and round in the cycle of unconscious patterns that cause suffering, we swim unaware and blind in the sea on Samsara. Halahala is the poison that creates the delusion(Moha) rather than peace(Shanti).

It took me a while to understand what my sweating and twisting on the yoga mat has anything to do with this. How me struggling to get my legs behind my head could make me feel happy in life?

Believing in Samsara or that the world is a delusion is not the point.

Self-realisation is.

That’s what happens on the yoga mat. Very often the practice is hard and challenging, I have felt like my body doesn’t agree with me, I’m out of balance, feeling stiff and tired, and that leg just won’t go where I want it to no matter what. I have been angry and frustrated, feeling like I’m just gonna quit and walk away, enough of this.

This is when yoga gives an opportunity to stay in the challenging moment and to work through it to learn how to make peace with that situation.

Over time this model and way of reacting to what ever comes during the practice has taught me to try and make peace with difficult situations also outside the yoga mat. What I’m trying to say is that freedom is a state of mind that needs a lot of work to attain. But even if you haven’t reached this ultimate state of freedom from all suffering, what you can do is make peace with where you are in life, in what ever situation you have.

“You do these three things. You do posture, you do looking, you do breathing..many years..then shanti is coming. No problem!” Shri K. Pattabhi Jois

I believe the outside world is a reflection of my choices. When things don’t go as I planned or when unexpected difficulties arise, instead of trying to escape it or let it do harm I can try and turn it into something I can learn from. The way I react to each situation in life is a choice. And that can either set me free from suffering or keep me blindly swimming in the ocean of Samsara. Easier said that done, right? But when I think of the light I felt in the people of Nepal, I know I can grow stronger each day with practice.

I force my focus from Kathmandu back to my breath. With a deep inhalation I begin my first Sun Salutation. And I smile.


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