Yoga Experience in Charismatic Chitral
By Titania Veda
In May, I set out to Hindu Kush, an 800-km mountain range stretching from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan, for a yoga retreat led by Aisha Chapra, a renowned Pakistani teacher. Many say it is an unusual choice for a yoga retreat but I’ve had a 15-year love affair with Pakistan and jumped at the chance to see the northern regions. While parts of the northern areas have security issues, both the government and locals endeavor to safeguard visitors. It is a perfectly safe place to visit if you take basic precautions and have a local guide. Aisha’s annual retreat which first started in 2012 has been attended by French, German, Romanian and American yoga lovers already living in Pakistan. But, according to Aisha, I was the first foreigner to visit Pakistan exclusively for her yoga retreat.
Aisha Chapra is a Yoga Alliance certified teacher with over six years of experience and trained at the Yandara Yoga Institute in Mexico and the Sivananda Yoga Institute in India. With an eclectic mix of traditional Hatha yoga and gentle Vinyasa, Aisha combines body awareness and the energy arts of qi gong and tai chi into her practice to build core strength, flexibility and balance. This is wonderful for both people new to yoga and for experienced practitioners who want to explore their bodies in a kind and loving way to create healing and wholeness.
Capped at only eight participants to ensure a customizable and intimate experience, group members hailed from Karachi and Islamabad, comprising of a good mix of ages, backgrounds and yoga experience.
Asma Khalid, an economist with the Central Bank of Pakistan, is a newbie. “I never did yoga in my life and was totally fascinated by it. More than that was the location, which inspired me this retreat,” said Asma.
Aisha holds around three summer retreats a year in various locations in northern Pakistan, many accessible only during the summer months. For locals, the mountains are a wonderful respite from the torrid summer temperatures of the lowland cities which can reach up to the high 40s.
After a short 45-minute flight from the capital Islamabad, we arrived in Chitral, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the NorthWest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The town rests at the foot of Tirich Mir mountain, the highest peak of the Hindu Kush range at 7,708 m. The alternative to flying would have been a scenic 12 hour ride through the Swat Valley, which was notorious as a Taliban stronghold. However, in the last few years Swat saw an influx of tourists after locals and law enforcement agencies successfully drove out the militants.
For the first two nights, we stayed at Hindu Kush Heights, a sprawling boutique hotel with a 180 degree mountain views. Opened in 1997, the 24room hotel is run by Siraj ul Mulk, a descendant of the Chitral royal family and his wife Ghazala.
The days were languid. We filled them with daily walks around the villages, peaceful twiceaday outdoor yoga sessions facing snowcapped mountains, and tea in gardens scented with wild lavender and roses.
For the rest of the retreat, we traveled to Mastuj Fort, four hours drive north of Chitral. On our road journeys, sights were filled with the scenic beauty of Pakistan’s countryside from its arid mountains to its alluring tributaries. The roads were peppered with caramel skinned children walking each other to school, women in their traditional shalwar kameez harvesting crops and men doing business wearing the ubiquitous pakol, a beretlike hat made out of wool.
Upon reaching Mastuj Fort, we were greeted by cozy wooden chalets and sprawling gardens flanked by majestic mountains. The fort is part of a farm owned by the Siraj ul Mulk family where meat, poultry and organic vegetables are harvested for the Hindukush Heights restaurant and those staying in the fort.
At Mastuj, we experienced al fresco yoga at its best. Under the open skies Aisha would guide us through her energetic morning flows and quiet mindful evening sessions. During sunset meditations facing the mountains, her soothing voice both grounded and elevated us.
“My main intent is that I want to give my students the one capacity to believe they can do and move in a way that’s good for them. Yoga should be accessible. You should be able to do it your whole life and adapt it to your abilities,” said Aisha.
Whenever we were not practicing yoga, there was something to cater to every traveler’s interest. The Hindukush Heights, which collaborate with Aisha on these retreats, provide sturdy fourwheel drives and knowledgeable local guides for this very purpose.
Those keen on culture headed to the Kalash Valley, which comprises of the three valleys of Rumbur, Bunboret and Bibir, located near the Afghanistan border. The Kalash people, an ancient tribe with a unique culture and religion of their own, claim to be the longlost descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies, which invaded this region in the 4th Century B.C. As pagans, they are the smallest non-Muslim minority in Pakistan. Kalash is famous for their festivals and we were fortunate to attend the Joshi in May which celebrates the arrival of spring with dances in vibrant coloured dresses and pots of intoxicating mulberry wine.
The yoga retreat program also included walking through local villages and popping into the classrooms of the numerous schools present in the area due to the work of the Aga Khan Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to provide longterm solutions for health and education issues in Asia, Middle East and Africa. Guests looking for some gentler outings were welcome to spend the day reading in the gardens, exploring the 300-year-old fort or visiting the Siraj ul Mulk family members, who live beside the fort, to buy some of their delicious home grown fresh walnuts and honeycomb
Nature lovers went for a trek and a picnic to Birmoghlasht also known as the “Summer Palace” where the Chitrali royal family would spend their summers to escape the lowland heat and is also a famous spot for paragliders. Another option for guests was Shandur Top, located in the Khyber Pakhtun Khwa province. With its impressive elevation of 12,200 feet above sea level, Shandur is a plateau also dubbed the “Roof of the World”. It features the breathtaking Shandur Lake which reflects the encircling snowy peaks and is also the highest polo ground in the world with tournaments held annually in July since 1936 between local teams.
Guests looking for some gentler outings were welcome to spend the day reading in the gardens, exploring the 300yearold fort or visiting the Siraj ul Mulk family members who lives beside the fort to buy some of their delicious home-grown fresh cashews and honeycomb.
Throughout our stay, we were regaled with a feast of locally sourced food fit for kings. Food as fresh as the country air was served in an openair tent in front of the cabins. The asparagus and mushrooms picked just hours before from the Siraj ul Mulk farm, the fish plucked from the river still battling for life. On our final evening, we had a goat so freshly killed it took the cooks hours to barbecue the meat while we serenaded each other with Urdu and Hindi melodies by the bonfire.
The next morning we had one last spirited yoga session before saying our goodbyes to the wonderful staff of Mastuj fort. For my local friends, the retreat was an adventure to be cherished.
Samir Sadrudin, an architect at the Aga Khan University, said “I never knew a place like this existed in Pakistan. It was fabulous and nothing I expected. The yoga was really great but it’s where we did it that made it so special.”
Driving back to Chitral, we stopped by the Kunar River and caught a glimpse of the elusive Markhor, a large species of wild goat native to the region, grazing by the riverside. A magical ending to our enchanting journey.
In a country many uninformed outsiders associate with bloodshed and violence, I experienced only gentleness and wonder. If there was any danger for me during my time in Pakistan, it was the danger of being overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the kindness and hospitality of its people.
Tavel info and cost:
- Private 75 to 90minute yoga sessions are priced from 1000 PKR per person for a group or 4500 PKR for a private class.
Overview of the Holiday: 90,000 PKR all-inclusive for 8 days, except for local flights
- The flight from Islamabad to Chitral for Pakistan/NIC holders is approx 15000 PKR. For foreigners it is approximately 25000 PKR
- Hindukush Heights: 9000 PKR for double occupancy plus 4000 PKR per day for 3 meals
Photos provided by author.
Titania Veda is a journalist and communications designer who has worked extensively in the arts, media, nonprofit and social enterprise sectors across US, Europe and Asia. She can be reached at @titaniaveda