The Poetry of Retreat

Wake up well before dawn.

Set an alarm, just in case. I don’t want to miss a moment of the five a.m. sadhana.

Under the veil of darkness, stroll along the starlit, lapping lake to the candlelit temple where White Tara beams down upon us all every day and night.

Location: Sumaya, which means “a long awaited dream come true”; a.k.a. paradise found.

Akasha shares his personal practice with us, in such a down-to-earth, accessible and friendly way. Casually imparts the wisdom of years and decades of practice. So humbly, with the authenticity of actions and the nebulous precision of words. The time flies by.

Breathing, chanting, moving, holding, listening. Paying attention.

Sun rises, pastels paint the sky. We invite the morning light. The lake’s daily awakening. All the sounds, the water, the boat motors, voices, birdsong.

And now, a series of seven-minute chants. I read from the sheet and marvel at all the people in the room who has these long strings of Sanskrit syllables memorized.

Mid-morning Ashtanga practice. Powerful. Right effort. Knowing boundaries, challenging limits. Mountain men and women gaining strength, vitality. Soaking up inspiration from our teacher and his teacher’s teachers.

Just one week, and yet we go so deep, transforming energy on all levels. Strangers swiftly become sangha, friendships are forged over meals and spirit animal tarot cards.

Healing circle, full moon, New Year’s Eve evening; glowing hearts, positive energy, splendid synergy. Giving and receiving.

Inner transformation, outward evolution. Deep bow of gratitude, dream come true. The closing of one chapter leads to the opening of the next.

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Thank you. I love you. Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Namaste.

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Summer 2017 Weekend Retreats @ Lake Atitlan

Retreat at Lake Atitlan, one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, surrounded by lush flora and fauna, colorful Mayan villages and three volcanoes.

Here are eight great reasons for us to create the time and space in our lives for retreat, whether it be a single morning of silence in our own backyard or a week of yoga in Guatemala:

  1. Unplug from devices and reconnect with the simple perfection of this one wild and precious life, right here and now
  2. Deepen our formal and informal practices of yoga and meditation
  3. Connect with the glory of nature and the elements of earth, fire, water, sky and space
  4. Be empowered by group energy to cultivate with greater discipline and focus
  5. Do our own inner work for the benefit of all beings without exception
  6. Learn more about our mind’s habit-patterns and escapes
  7. Forge bonds with new spiritual friends through laughter, tears, sharing stories
  8. Devote our time, money and energy to holistic healing and self-love

I’m thrilled to announce the following group retreats for the 2017 rainy season —

 

SUMMER 2017

3-Day/2-Night Weekend Retreats
June 3-5 ~ Wellness Weekend @ La K’zona (Saturday to Monday)
June 23-25 ~ Seven Sacred Directions @ Villa Sumaya
July 7-9 ~ Writing Down the Chakras @ Villa Sumaya
July 21-23 ~ The Path of Beauty @ Villa Sumaya
August 5-7 ~ Seven Sacred Directions @ La K’zona (Saturday to Monday)
August 18-20 ~ Writing Down the Chakras @ Villa Sumaya
September 1-3 ~ Seven Sacred Directions @ Villa Sumaya

Themes

Wellness Weekend: Chakra Yoga, Art & Cooking ~ 

Workshops will cover mindful eating, walking meditation, chakra basics, creative practice (writing, visual art, music, etc), incorporating seeds, nuts, ferments, preparing easy, minimally-processed, highly-nutritious and delicious dishes, making sprouts, growing greens/radishes & making delicious green smoothies.

Seven Sacred Directions: Yoga, Ceremony & Celebration ~

We’ll be practicing yoga with a focus on the 7 chakras and 7 sacred directions, celebrating and reflecting with a cacao ceremony and a fire ceremony.

Writing Down the Chakras: Yoga, Meditation & Journaling ~

This will be a weekend to practice conscious being, breathing, moving, relating, expressing, and creating. We will share in the group practices of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, writing and also allow plenty of time for reflection and integration.

General Schedule

Friday arrive & settle in / 4:30 opening circle / 6:30 dinner

Saturday 7:30 tea & fruit / 8am yoga / 9:30 breakfast / 11:00 workshop or ceremony / 1:00 lunch, free time / 4:30 learning circle and practice / 6:30 dinner

Sunday 7:30 tea & fruit / 8:00 closing circle & fire ceremony / 10:30 brunch

To get more info or join one of these sacred circles, please write to Michelle via yogafreedom at gmail dot com!

Namaste~

Perhaps You Need a Little Feminist Poetry

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Women, liberals, reasonable people. Our collective heart is broken. When we look at the world, the nation and our society as a whole, it is obviously broken. What can be done?

How can we take action at the personal, family and neighborhood levels in order to cultivate awareness, compassion, understanding, and ultimately, peace?

I don’t know. Maybe poetry. Poetry so good, it can make us tear up when we read it aloud.

Poetry, as in beautiful, terrible, intense, calming beads of words strung together that somehow make sense of life.

Poetry, as in yoga—as in love.

Last week, the day after the Trump inauguration, which I chose not to watch or read about, I began day one of giving my first week-long retreat ever. I’ve led or co-facilitated lots of weekend retreats over the past six years, all of which have been wonderful and three days long. This one was eight days. We dove deep within.

In the safe space created by our intimate circle of brave women, we practiced heart-mindfulness, asana, breathing and looking at our lives—at Life—, through the lens of the chakras. And we read poetry. Mostly, I read to them while they were in a yin pose or savasana.

I read Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros. Their words welled up in me and stirred emotion, awe, gratitude, solidarity.

Women, powerful women, soul sisters: por favor, read these poems aloud in their entirety. Often. Some of my favorite excerpts follow. Viva la revolucion!

Keep reading

 

A Long-Awaited Dream Come True

villa-sumaya_daniel-lopez-perez197Eight summers ago, when I was packing up my life and readying to move to Guatemala, sight unseen, a dear Austin yoga teacher colleague, Charles MacInerney, wrote me a nice letter recommending that I visit Villa Sumaya, a yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlan where he’d taught several yoga retreats.

Up until then, I’d never heard of this majestic lake.

I moved to Guatemala City in August, 2009. My first trip to the lake was for the American Thanksgiving weekend. I stayed with a bunch of teacher friends at a colorful chalet outside Panajachel, on the road to Santa Catarina. I would, four years later, find myself passing that house daily, when my family lived twenty minutes outside Pana.

My second trip to the lake was in January 2010 with my teaching buddy Kat. We escaped the city on the chicken bus, found our way to Pana, and then crossed the lake to Santiago. We stayed only one or two nights at the lush Posada de Santiago, but it felt like a joyful eternity, a portal into an alternate universe, light years from the dirty, loud, dangerous capital city where we lived and worked. We swung in hammocks, soaked in the hot tub, sweated in the sauna and dove into the cold lake. In less than 48 hours, we were transformed. I began my ongoing love affair with Santiago Atitlan, though life has led me to live in Pasajcap, on the north shore instead of the southern one, 20 minutes walk outside the hippie haven of San Marcos La Laguna. Nowadays, I journey over to Santiago about once a week, to teach yoga in the same gardens at the same Posada and to take my daughter to the most adorable preschool on the planet.

Along with my friend, Ash Fletcher, the wild woman who spurred me to start leading weekend yoga retreats, because we led them together, I toured Villa Sumaya, sometime in mid-2010. I remember being very impressed by its beauty and in awe of the idea of bringing retreat groups there. Villa Sumaya is luxurious, especially by lake standards, and its prices are set to U.S. standards, meaning most people who live here in Guatemala can’t afford it. We stuck to teaching our two and three night retreats at more budget locales, lovely in themselves, such as La Paz in San Marcos and Earth Lodge outside of Antigua. I’ve been doing it ever since, several times a year. Always weekends. Always amazing.

A few months after leaving my decade-long career in education/school teaching in early 2015, I spotted a flier for a job at Villa Sumaya. Long story short, I got the job and have been working as the retreat and reservations coordinator there ever since. I currently work on site two days of the week and from home the rest of the time. It’s a good job, and I am grateful for it. I can’t say I love managing the logistical details of retreats as much as I love teaching yoga and facilitating retreats, but now these two skill sets are coming together and enabling me to do both at the same time.

Today, a long-awaited dream of mine is coming true. I am going to be leading a week-long yoga retreat, at Villa Sumaya no less! It’s a very small group of women coming together, but it is happening. This week will be a model for potential future weeks. This retreat, for me, is a personal revolution and very much a full circle moment.

There is always stress in life, always struggles and challenges to deal with. I do not want to imply that by realizing this dream, I am enlightened or my life is perfect.

At the same time, ever since I set foot in Guatemala, I have chosen and am continuing to choose the path of beauty. The choices have led to this path, for me, at this magical lake, in this mystical Mayan heartland. To stay on the path, wherever it leads us, we must renew our vows to do so, day by day, moment to moment.

Namaste, 2017!

Life is ever brimming with challenges, sadness, joy, surprises, togetherness, alone-time, emotion, work, play, love and learning. Comedy, tragedy and everything overlapping in between.

Walking the path of beauty means making the choice to live in a way that fulfills you…. the deepest, truest, clearest version of you. When we embody the best version of ourselves, we transmit our happiness, fulfillment and light to those around us.

In reflecting on my past life in the States — working overtime, eating packaged foods, fighting traffic, perpetually stressed and seeking contentment in all the wrong places — that lifestyle seems like it was already many lifetimes ago, when really only eight years have passed.

Over the course of the years, I’ve had moments where I sense that my long-ago, seemingly impossible dreams (to live in an exotic Latin American culture, to teach yoga and meditation, to write, to create a family with a wonderful partner) have become reality.

This month, I’ll be collaborating with some fabulous friends to give a weekend retreat at La KzonA Atitlan, and I will be leading my first week-long retreat — at Villa Sumaya!

p.s. There are still spots left for both; if you are feeling inspired to join either of these learning circles, I encourage you to take the leap!

I am filled with gratitude for these opportunities to share the powerful practices of chakra yoga, yin yoga, heartfulness and creative writing!

Here’s to living the dream, day by day, moment to moment.

May you live your dream.

May you be you.

May all beings be happy!

monkeys, spiders and signs

“The only zen you find on tops of mountains is the zen you bring there.” ~Robert M. Pirsig

India. Birthplace of Buddha. The live yoga capital of the world. After many years of daydreaming and longing, I booked myself a pilgrimage to north India. It was the summer of 2008.  The goal: study authentic yoga. I entertained notions of romanticized spiritualism pervading the very air of the country. Yet I knew meditation was not magical. It’s practice.

I arrived in Delhi; my huge red backpack did not.

I filled out the stupid paperwork and was assured that my bag would be delivered to me in Rishikesh in 24 hours (YEAH. Right!) …and amazingly it did get there, though it took a few days. I went through customs and was thrust out into the maddening crowd. There in the distance, a travel agent stood holding a card that said my name. This was the one thing I had arranged in advance for this trip. He drove me to the YWCA Guest House, my first of many experiences with the insane Indian traffic system. They drive on the left like in the UK. There are rickshaws, bikes, buses, cars, pedestrians, dogs, cows and monkeys to contend with. Cars veer into other lanes to pass slow-movers, and three vehicles have no problem squeezing into one lane. I am generally a calm and easygoing person, but it’s hard to relax when there’s a double decker bus aiming at you head on.

I went to an ashram that had been recommended by a friend of a friend for its quality food, plus it was purely donation-based. It was a lovely place, but I did not belong there. I wasn’t Hindu enough. (Or at all.)

Still, I liked to stand at the edge of the ashram overlooking the rapidly flowing Ganges.

I stood there watching the river flow. I was living “the dream”! I was in India, where I’d always wanted to be. But I was wallowing in negativity, lamenting my loneliness and isolation. I had come seeking “authentic yoga,” hadn’t I? Perhaps this was too “authentic” for me? Who was I fooling?

As I was strolling back to my room, I crossed paths with three Indian men. One of them engaged me in conversation. He was a self-proclaimed part-time astrologer and a full-time meditator named Jeehvan. When he inquired about the style of meditation I practice, I said Vipassana. He then invited me to come along with them to a 10-day silent course.

The next day, annoyed by the incessant honking of horns in Rishikesh, I realized I wanted to find a quieter, smaller village. I was walking along, hot and sweaty, when I came to a bend in the road. I spotted a macaque monkey. A perfect photo op: a mama with a cute little baby attached to its front. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple shots. I couldn’t get the ideal photograph, apparently. More and more of the herd appeared.

Suddenly, they were surrounding me in a semi-circle of monkey intimidation.

I backed away slowly. Then, the biggest one started chasing me, at which point I ran down the road screaming. He kept following me, making a terrible noise. I was afraid he’d bite me and I’d get rabies. I almost threw my big plastic water bottle at him. He finally stopped. One of the ubiquitous blue rickshaw cabs pulled over and picked me up. In it were two teenage boys and the driver. We all laughed at me. I was panting and giggling in utter relief and minor humiliation. The monkey had literally chased me out of Rishikesh.

I decided to journey with my new friends to the silent meditation course, despite Jeehvan’s greasy and periodically shady nature (at one point, when we went to a temple and sat and meditated on the cool marble floor, he declared that my second chakra was blocked. The remedy? Sex, preferably with him. I declined).

The meditation course was absolutely no easier the second time around. I had taken my first Vipassana course in north Texas the summer prior. I had cheated during my first course, breaking the rules by reading (a book on Buddhism, so shoot me!) and writing (a daily journal entry). I even snuck to my car in the dark of night after about seven days and furtively texted my friends and boyfriend. But in India, I followed the rules. No reading. No writing. Until day five when I snuck away to my room and scrawled this on the back of a receipt from my wallet:

“No escape… spiders everywhere.

A HUGE red one kept me up half the night. I was sure it was plotting to kill me in my sleep. It rains every day. Lemon water for dinner… I hope I’m losing weight. I am supposed to be meditating in my pagoda cell right now. Am rebelling. I keep looking forward. What’s next? Lunch? Shower? Fill up my water bottle? Must be present. I can only take so much f-ing meditation! Hence, I am here writing on the back of an ATM receipt. I miss home.”

Day 9, I slipped and cut my knee on the sidewalk. It didn’t hurt but I started sobbing silently as the gruff Indian lady helper scuttled away to the kitchen. She brought back a handful of turmeric powder and threw it on my scraped skin. It was a poetic moment, the blood seeping through the saffron colored powder. I survived the cut, and the course… patiently and persistently, with perfect equanimity.

 

I met many wonderful people on the tenth day when we got to start talking again and hearing everyone’s stories. I decided to travel to a city called Leh in a remote Himalayan region called Ladakh with three women from the meditation retreat. We took an overnight bus ride to Manali, a small city from which we would depart on the reprehensible journey to Leh.

We left at one a.m. We were told the trip would take 16 hours.

The jeep was crammed with ten people. Four in the very back — young Indian guys smoking pot incessantly. Four in the middle seat where there should have been three. The driver, an unwieldy stick shift, and two more in the front seat. The roads? Hideous is an understatement. Unpaved, rocky, sandy, wet, bumpy, awful. Our driver went sooo slow, partly because the jeep was old and just wouldn’t accelerate that much, partly because he was being cautious. By 6 p.m., our estimated time of arrival, we were only halfway there!

Eighteen hours into the trip, I threw up out the window of the jeep, overcome by the combination of altitude, rocky road and possibly some bad roadside food. We had to stop for the night. Our “hotel” was a large, white plastic tent with dozens of futon beds. I fell asleep covered in warm blankets by the Tibetan ladies who worked there. In the morning, I drank plain tea and ate cookies and immediately threw up. I was so dehydrated but couldn’t hold anything down. It was torturous. The rest of the jeep trip was rough but the roads got better.

The sights were breathtaking.

And yet I was so miserably sick that I couldn’t enjoy them properly. Our jeep driver played Bollywood music on cassette which was sometimes annoying, sometimes strangely soothing. I began to feel better. I started looking at roadside signs as entertainment. Some of my favorites:

“After drinking whiskey, driving is risky.” It rhymes. Cute.

“Enjoy the scenery, protect the greenery.”  So much more polite than my home state’s all-CAPS slogan, DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS. India has much better manners than Texas.

“Safety on the road means ‘safe tea’ at home.” Punny.

“If you love her, divorce speed” is strangely hilarious.

And last but not least, “Darling, I like you, but not so fast.” Subtle.