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  • John Leupold


Updated: Jan 5, 2020

No sooner had I arrived in Bhutan for a 3-month stay, my friend Junu told me I had to come to her exercise class. Usually I join local gym and lift weights with Bhutanese friends, take morning hikes, this suffices as my exercise routine. Junu insisted I would love this exercise class, about 20 people and a young instructor named Tshenlek whose 90-minute class involved calisthenics, weight exercises using ones body weight and yoga. She repeated several times “you’ll love it.” She added it takes place at the YDF, Youth Development Fund center and has a lot of nice people. “I’ll come tomorrow,” I promised. I had recently been taking Zumba classes in Mexico, in addition to my gym workouts so I figured I was ready for this class in Bhutan.

Next day we piled into Rigsom’s car to head up to the YDF, ready for class at 5:30. This time of day is very pleasant in Bhutan in the summer, the only problem is that with the inexpensive car loans now available in Bhutan, Bhutan for the first time has rush hour and a traffic problem, and we arrived just as class starting, not earlyas intended to meet the teacher and register. Bhutan one soon learns does not operate with a lot of rules in place, so my status as an unregistered new arrival was unremarkable. I fell in place between Junu, Jigme and Rigsom and watched the others for my cue as to what to do. Glancing around I was the only chilip (foreigner) in the class, which weighed more heavily towards women than men. The instructor Tshenlek a tall muscular and handsome young Bhutanese man looked like he came from Central Casting, but then Bhutanese in general seem to be a handsome group, and looking around the room, I noted most all of the class seemed quite good looking, lean and fit. Quite unlike my Zumba class, where most were out of shape and most certainly not from Central Casting.

Ten minutes into the class, a different picture emerged. I was now covered with a film of sweat (as were many others, though they had brought towels to wipe off the sweat). And I was attempting to hide the fact that I was gasping for breath. The only thing I wanted to know was ‘how much longer?’ Each time I looked at Junu, she gave me an infuriating smile, which seemed to say, “Isn’t this great?” It was not great. Another 10 minutes passed, and I felt I was either going to pass out, vomit or both. And I seriously considered leaving the class. The walk of shame seemed preferable to loosing my lunch on the gym floor. Only my stubborn pride kept me there, and looking around the room the looks of happiness on the faces of the others.  The fact that I’m in Bhutan, the happiest place on earth, and I’m miserable, but surrounded by smiling Bhutanese annoyed me as it never has. I’d have welcomed some grimaces to accompany my own misery. I think the smiles were meant to be encouraging, instead I was only irritated.

Tshenlek played his workout music loud, good music I’d have enjoyed more if I was not in so much distress, and kept hollering out commands. He had a loud deep voice, just what you’d expect from someone so handsomely masculine, and his harangues for all to work harder were good natured, but I could not help feeling peeved that anyone could be so cheerful while subjecting my body to so much anguish.

After 30 minutes the pace changed, and we ceased doing the endless fast paced repetions of calisthenics. We now partnered up, in groups of 3 or 4 and each had a set of weight bearing exercises to perform. Hold your partners hands and do deep squats (the first 2 easy, the next 3 less easy, the final 5, not at all easy). He assigned variations of pull-ups, all of which seemed diabolically demanding. Dips between 2 bars to work triceps, except he wanted us to hold the dip until it burned. Ropes attached to the wall were used to hold out weight steady in some cases, other times he wanted us to pull ourselves up using the ropes. Each exercise looked deceptively simple, and usually was for the first couple of repetitions, but soon became an ordeal. My pride was suffering, as I think I know my way around a gym very well, and can do more than most my age. I was hating this class, when finally it was almost over, the final 20 minutes just devoted to yoga and stretching. This the only tolerable part, after over an hour of unpleasantness.

I’m not a quitter, and told myself I was going to have to return, if for no other reason to not look like a failure, in front of these much younger people, who I’d likely be seeing over the next few months (Bhutan is so small and there are few secrets and I feared getting the reputation as the weak chilip). Soon as class ended, Tshenlek came up to welcome me to class, and said, “man you did very well, and not everyone manages to stay for their entire first class.” The vindication was sweet, and I savored his words. Many of the rest of the class came up to introduce themselves, and told me I did really well for my first class.  As my breathing returned to normal, my ego began to swell with these compliments.

In the coming months I saw my stamina increase, what was so unpleasant the first classes became easier as the weeks progressed. Tshenlek often used me as an example, his good-natured yelling to the class, “look everyone, if John can do this and he is older than any of you, I expect you all to keep up.” This is the kind of example I am happy to be made into.


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