The Other Reason to Go on Yoga RetreatsSep 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Terry Repak
Yoga class in Nicaragua
Lying on a yoga mat in a treehouse studio with windows open on three sides, I found it easy to time my breath with the rhythmic pulsing of waves breaking outside. It’s experiences like this that make me look forward to week-long yoga retreats—to have ample time to clear my mind and open my heart as a dozen other yogis practice around me.
Retreats allow us to disconnect from the noisy world for days instead of an hour or two, and they can help us take our meditation practice to deeper levels. We also get to meet like-minded people who are seeking a break from their busy lives. For example, at one retreat, three women in our group were going through life changes after a divorce or separation, and they were eager to step out of their routines and connect with others.
Last winter, after two years of travel restrictions due to the COVID pandemic, I chose to go on a yoga retreat in Mexico with Marti Yura of Decatur’s Vista Yoga. The bay sheltering the hotel and retreat center was a world away from Puerto Vallarta, where our flight had landed. Located in the remote village of Chacala, Mexico, Mar de Jade had been the dreamchild of Laura del Valle, a doctor from Mexico City, who started a clinic there in 1982. A Zen practitioner, she built the retreat center near her clinic and started a farming co-op and a Montessori school for village children.
After completing yoga and meditation in the mornings, we would walk along the beach into town and chat with vendors that sold wood carvings, jewelry, pineapples and coconuts. The bay was ideal for swimming since there were no Jet Skis or throngs of tourists like there were at the beaches further south. One day, we toured the Montessori school, an organic farm and a small factory owned by Mar de Jade, where mango jam and peanut butter were made from products grown on the farm.
Excursions are a big draw for yoga students like me who look for retreats in other countries. A group of us hiked up a volcano near the retreat center on a hot January day to gaze down on Chacala’s serene bay, a thousand feet below us. “I used to swim in the caldera when I was young,” the guide told us, directing our eyes to a grassy depression behind us. “But the lake dried up years ago, and now people picnic inside it.”
For me, one of the hidden benefits of these kinds of retreats is the chance to interact with people of other cultures and learn about village life. As our guide led us down the far side of the volcano along a path lined with eucalyptus trees, he told us he’d worked in the U.S. for a few years before returning to live in the quiet coastal town. We ended our trek at a remote beach that sat between jagged cliffs, where a boat picked us up to return us to the bay at Chacala. En route, we had a close encounter with a humpback whale and her calf as they frolicked a stone’s throw away from us.
A yoga retreat to Cuba in 2019 was even more enlightening. Most Americans find it difficult to travel beyond the usual tourist sites in Cuba, but because we were part of an educational or “spiritual” group, we were able to interact with people in the towns we visited. The retreat organizer happened to be my niece, and she’d led several yoga retreats in Cuba and had close local contacts there. Each morning, we’d practice yoga for an hour and a half at a retreat house outside Havana, and in the evening, we’d walk to the beach to stretch in the sand.
One day, my niece arranged for a fleet of 1950s Chevies to take us into the city for a guided tour of old Havana. Another day, she chartered a bus to drive us far into the interior, to the mountain town of Vinales, where we spent the night. At dawn, we hiked to a mesa overlooking a winding valley and did sun salutations as the sun peeked over the top of a volcano. Later that day, we rode horses to a tobacco farm, where the owner showed us how cigars were made.
On the long bus ride from Vinales, I sat next to our retreat guide, who spoke about his life with a frankness that surprised me. He told me that many of his friends had left the country after finishing college to find jobs in Canada, the U.S. and European countries. He chose to remain in Cuba because of his family and because he still believed in the socialist principles the country has stood for since its revolution in 1960. He was grateful to have received free schooling from kindergarten through college and to have free medical care for his entire family.
My niece arranged for an older man—dubbed “the father of yoga in Cuba”—to lead a couple of our classes. He talked about the hardships of managing his business in the 1970s and ’80s when the government suspected yoga teachers of being religious brainwashers. In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union split up, it no longer supplied Cuba with essential goods, and the Cuban people suffered from severe shortages of food and medical supplies due to U.S. sanctions. Yoga was encouraged then because it gave people hope.
I chatted with a hotel valet who told me he’d trained to be a mechanical engineer and had worked on ships for two decades, yet he opted to work as a valet because he could make more money in tips than he did on salary with a state-run company. An attendant in a restaurant washroom told me she made a decent living on tips by working 12-hour days. At 72, she had no plans to retire.
It surprised me to learn that medical equipment and machines were still in short supply due to ongoing U.S. sanctions, even though other countries—including China, Russia, and EU members—traded with Cuba. I left Cuba with a newfound admiration for its people. They were extremely adept at making ends meet by remaining resilient under shifting political circumstances.
A yoga retreat in Nicaragua also allowed me to see parts of the country I wouldn’t be able to visit on my own. The retreat was based in a coastal town at an inn run by an Australian expat. One day, a group of us followed a guide to the top of a volcano where we could look down on an oval lake. Another day, we drove to the neighboring town of Chinandega to volunteer at a soup kitchen run by a community group.
The chance to participate in community service projects is another big bonus that yoga retreats sometimes offer. A local staff person from our inn arranged for us to tour a nearby school, and we had the opportunity to read with children who were learning English. Such visits gave us intimate views of village life in a Central American country.
At the end of the week-long retreat, we spent a night in the scenic town of Granada on the edge of Nicaragua’s largest lake. It was the highlight of our visit to a country that, at that time, was considered politically unstable and dangerous. After seeing towns where desperately poor people struggled to make a living, I could understand why so many were eager to leave and ended up on the U.S. border.
Traveling in countries that have a much lower GDP than the U.S., I’m acutely aware of my privileged position as an American tourist. It’s a small consolation to know that our stay in these places might benefit the local economy, and showing an interest in people’s lives can foster understanding and connections. There’s also value in bearing witness when you see how people live in other countries.
Such settings allow us to blend inner work—such as the deepening of our yoga and meditation practice—with outer work through interactions with people of other cultures. Yoga retreats are a safe way to experience new places and meet people who are unlike us, especially if we travel with an open curiosity and leave expectations and judgments behind. ❧
A freelance writer, Terry Repak has been practicing yoga for 34 years. Her forthcoming book, Circling Home: What I Learned by Living Elsewhere, chronicles the years she spent living in Africa and Europe. More at TerryRepak.com.