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.

Right Livelihood: What Makes Work Worthwhile?

You do your best work if you do a job that makes you happy. ~Bob Ross

{part five of eightfold path series}

Work. Careers. Jobs. Money. Making a living. These aspects of life are the concern of the fifth aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path—right livelihood.

This can be a sticky, troublesome part of life for many of us. I struggled a ton with (or rather, against) my career in my early twenties. I was an ambitious 18-year-old, and landed an internship at an advertising agency as a freshman in college.

After interning, I started working part-time for pay as a Media Planner and later an Account Coordinator. After I graduated in 2002, I got a job offer from the agency for $32,500 per year, which I happily accepted. This meant I no longer had menial responsibilities like proofreading PowerPoint presentations, brewing coffee for meetings, or covering for the receptionist. I was free to produce piles and piles of words. I was a member of the Creative Department now. They gave me a box of business cards that proclaimed me:

Michelle Fajkus

I was a professional copywriter. I wrote for a living. I was paid to write headlines that hook, taglines that reverberate in consumers’ minds, words that sell. I was a natural. Witty, well-read, poetic, resourceful. Before, my days at work were cluttered with pesky client meetings, manipulating schedules and estimating billings. As a Writer, I was paid to think and to present my expensive ideas in sleek conference rooms where coffee and assorted cookies were served on silver platters.

One day, I found myself sitting at my desk staring at the computer screen, hating my life, hating my job, feeling guilty for doing a bad job and feeling cowardly for not quitting. But on the other hand, I’d think, “It’s a good job.” (And it was.) Everything began overwhelming me. I couldn’t think of any creative ideas. I didn’t like anything I was writing–at work or at home, nothing! I felt utterly lame and blocked. I looked out into the future and saw my whole adult life stretching before me and…freaked out. I had alternating bouts of depression and anxiety. It was my quarter-life crisis.

I read Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. It’s all about visualizing your goals as if they’ve already happened, really connecting with the emotions you’d feel. And then releasing it. It involves affirmations and visualizations and stuff. My affirmation was: “I, Michelle, am now thriving in the San Francisco Bay Area, making a successful living by teaching hatha yoga.” I bought Think and Grow Rich!, in which Napoleon Hill makes frequent use of ALL CAPS, announcing: “Thoughts are things,” and “ALL IMPULSES OF THOUGHT HAVE A TENDENCY TO CLOTHE THEMSELVES IN THEIR PHYSICAL EQUIVALENT,” therefore, we must develop a “white heat of DESIRE for money.”

I wrote this in my journal in 2003: “Stuff is falling into place. I am manifesting my life. The Universe is listening.”

And I did move to California and taught yoga and adored it for a while, until…to reduce a very long story to seven words…I came back to Texas feeling defeated.

Now, I’m a school teacher finishing up my sixth year of teaching. I came to the field of education after my brief, uninspiring career in advertising and my failed attempt at full-time yoga teaching. I’ve loved teaching ever since I started subbing in 2004. So far in my career, I’ve already had the opportunity to teach elementary, middle and high school students. I find it rewarding and challenging to teach kids reading, writing and the other subjects as well as to help them develop traits such as cooperation, openmindedness, creativity and responsibility. I believe all students can learn and flourish in an environment of honesty, respect and equality. As a teacher, I love providing daily opportunities for my students to learn and grow with mindfulness.

The Buddha said, “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

I feel so blessed to have found peace and joy in my career, as a teacher of both yoga and school. Even in the midst of transition and the stress of a big life change, I am full of gratitude for my career in education. I have been working for a private bilingual school in Guatemala City for the past three years, and I’ll be completing my contract there in June. I have decided to relocate my life to Lake Atitlán, right here in Guatemala. Will I teach elementary school? Or, will I coordinate community outreach programs and work with local nonprofit organizations? I will know soon. Will I teach yoga? Definitely!

And you? “What do you do?” What makes your work worthwhile?

According to TheBigView.com, right livelihood means:

one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

Inspiring Quotes on Work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. ~Plato

Work while it is called today, for you know not how much you will be hindered tomorrow. One today is worth two tomorrow’s; never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today. ~Benjamin Franklin

Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that right thoughts and right efforts will inevitably bring about right results. ~James Allen

It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life. ~Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A professional is one who does his best work when he feels the least like working. ~Frank Lloyd Wright

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker. ~Helen Keller

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. ~Kahlil Gibran

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. ~J.M. Barrie

My work is a game, a very serious game. ~M.C. Escher

Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined. ~Johnny Carson

You’ve got to find what you love and that is as true for work as it is for lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you’ve found it. ~Steve Jobs

Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. ~Theodore Roosevelt

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. ~Stephen King

Previous Elephant Journal Posts in this Series

Right View: Elationship.

Right Intention: Surrender & Be Kind.

Right Speech: May Your Voice Be Full of Truth, Gentleness & Purpose.

Wise Action: Anything Could Happen Next.

me + the volcano

Reverb10 – December 25 – Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you.

Me, teaching yoga and mindfulness at our Gratitude Yoga Retreat at Earth Lodge near Antigua, Guatemala.

This place is about an hour from where I live in Guatemala City. It has a view of three volcanoes, including the magnificent one in the background of this snapshot. My teaching partner, Ash, took the photo during the Sunday morning workshop on metta (lovingkindness). It was Sunday, November 14, 2010. We are excited to be offering yoga retreat weekends there in March and April 2011!

I like this photograph because, in it, I am sitting up straight and tall without even thinking about it.

I feel like I am doing what I’m meant to be doing when I am sharing the practices of yoga and meditation.

How getting fired from Google drastically improved my life.

{This is an excerpt from Michelle’s new memoir/manifesto, Yoga Schmoga}

I am sitting in front of a volcano. I look at the lake. It’s early in the morning. The loves of my life—my husband, baby girl and cat—are all still sleeping angelically in our cozy bed.

I can never get enough of this volcano and this lake, no matter how long or how frequently I look.

We live in a tiny house. I work as an elementary school teacher and teach yoga twice a week. I co-teach a third grade class of sixteen kids at a charming place called Life School.

I could not be more fulfilled than in my current roles as Mother, Partner, Writer, Friend and Teacher. It sure was a long, strange trip to arrive at this place of perennial satisfaction. How did I get here? It all started with a simple question…

**What do you want to be when you grow up?**

My Aunt Margaret tells the story of when she asked the eight-year-old me that classic crystal-ball question. She swears my answer was: “I don’t know, but I just want to make a lot of money.”

I remember wanting to be a doctor, until I found out that they have to dissect a human cadaver in gross anatomy class. Gross! I remember wanting to be a lawyer for no good reason other than that Clare Huxtable was one. I never dreamed of working in advertising or education.


My first job was at Putt Putt Golf ‘n’ Games in Round Rock, Texas. My duties included handing out miniature golf clubs; serving radioactive hot dogs and stale nachos with unnaturally yellow cheese sauce; and supervising suburban brats’ single-digit birthday parties. For this, I earned $4.25 an hour.


My first industry job was at an ad agency I’ll call Martini Advertising, where I started interning in the media department as an overachieving college freshman. I remember being humiliated by having to wear a sandwich board with a martini on it and passing out fliers at the inaugural SXSW Interactive tradeshow.

After a few months as an unpaid intern, I was hired as a part-time Account Coordinator. I adored my job. I felt glamorous and special to be the youngest employee on staff. They granted me a leave of absence when I went to London for the fall semester of ’99.


When I came back, the agency had tripled in size, and I was suddenly surrounded by a bevy of fun, good-looking, Gen X colleagues. Plenty of alcoholic beverages of all sorts were consumed by the crew at Martini’s weekly happy hours. Work was fun and flirtatious.

I applied and was accepted into the prestigious Creative Advertising program at UT. As a result, I was promoted to Junior Copywriter at Martini. I shared a first-floor, corner office with two Senior Writers. It had a red Ikea couch and walls of windows with a view of the knotty, ancient Live Oak trees outside.


I graduated from UT and started working at Martini full time. I was now an official member of the illustrious Creative Department!

I was assigned to concept headlines that hook, taglines that reverberate in consumers’ minds and body copy to increase profits. In other words, words that sell.

Before, my workdays had been cluttered with pesky client meetings, schedules and estimates. As a *Writer*, I was paid to *think* and to present my expensive concepts in our sleek conference room where coffee and assorted cookies were served on faux silver platters. For a little while, it was great.

Then, I started to suffer from cognitive dissonance; as I got more and more into yoga and mindfulness, I saw advertising as the evil source of our consumerist culture and felt guilty that I was doing nothing to make the world a better place. I frequently found myself staring blankly at the white screen, not thinking of words to write but rather despising my life, hating my job and feeling like a coward for not quitting.

I started spending most of my time looking out into the future, and I didn’t like what I saw: my whole boring, lonely adult life stretching before me. Also, I was dismayed by the prospect of only two weeks of vacation per year. Two out of fifty two did not seem like a good ratio to me.



Although I’d dreamt of becoming a full-time yoga teacher in the Golden State, I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight.

Within a week of my West Coast arrival, I scored a job, at Google of all places. They offered decent starting pay, all the free lunches I could swallow, healthcare, and hammocks and babbling brooks in the landscaped lawn surrounding its office complex. For a short while I convinced myself that it was corporate heaven on earth. How could I say no to a job with the world’s most popular search engine?

After a few days of training, each morning, I’d settle in and begin my only task: reviewing those tiny text ads that come up on the right hand column of any Google search. My fellow mouse-clicking monkeys and I reviewed those ads and their corresponding links against dozens of policies on everything from grammar to guns to porn.

Our managers emphasized “quality over quantity,” but it came down to a sheer numbers game. How many ads could you correctly review in the mind-numbing forty hour work week?

Many of my coworkers lived in constant fear of being laid off; I was invincible though. I had four years of advertising agency experience under my belt. They’d be crazy to let *me* go. Because the task was so boring and repetitive, I began to treat it like a game. How fast could I go? I was warned to slow down. I didn’t. Yet I was blindsided when the manager asked me if I had a minute, led me to a secluded conference room and lowered the guillotine.

I was shaken by the immediate shock of rejection. I’d been hired and fired by Google within a month. My ego was bruised, my root chakra punctured.

I went back to Julie and Vanessa’s apartment where my “bedroom” was an air mattress in the living room. The moment I found an uninhabited space, I shut the door behind me and broke down in tears. But when I woke up the next morning, I was genuinely relieved not to have to go to a job I despised.

Being released from my duties at Google was the best thing that could have happened to my yoga teaching career. I blanketed Silicon Valley with my yoga resume and immediately got a few subbing gigs at gyms and yoga studios and before long I would be teaching a dozen classes a week.


I found lots of part-time jobs of varying degrees of oddity to pay the bills. I temped in data entry at Stanford Hospital and cashiered at Stanford Bookstore. I valet parked shiny sports cars on crazy San Francisco hills, wrecked a limo in Fremont, and manned a chintzy Halloween store at a mall in Cupertino. I also became a substitute teacher for the San Jose public school district, which planted the seed that would later grow into my career in education.

I came full-circle when I began posting my own Google AdWords ads for my fledgling business, Yoga Freedom. I clicked ‘submit’ and sent a little vibe of compassion to the poor peon who would be reviewing my ad at the other end.

I subconsciously sabotaged my advertising career on multiple occasions. In my annual review at Martini Advertising, I admitted that I didn’t see myself in the advertising field long-term. At Google, I didn’t take my work seriously. Later, in marketing again in Austin, I would smoke pot on the drive to work in a futile attempt to spice up my life, which consisted of a forty hour work week, plus commuting an hour each day, to a gray cubicle in a gray building.

Getting fired from Google drastically improved my life, because it pushed me to become an yogantrepreneur. Running my own yoga business at age 23 gave me confidence, and even though it eventually failed, the whole endeavor was an incredibly valuable experience.

**2005 and beyond**

In one sense, getting fired from Google definitely sucked: it led to my financial downfall. Fortunately, that tumble was followed by picking myself up and starting over again.

Getting fired from Google drastically improved my life, because it (in a roundabout way) led to me becoming a teacher. Education is the ideal career for me. I enjoy teaching; I feel empowered by empowering others – namely, my third grade students – to read, write, speak and understand English, but above all, to be passionate about learning and creating. I strive to teach them how to think rather than what to think.

Back in Austin, at the height of my teaching career, I would work long days at school, and nights grading papers or planning lessons at home, growing more and more frustrated with all the standardized tests I had to administer to my students. I also taught yoga a few times a week and had oodles of social commitments and other obligations that I didn’t necessarily want in my life.

Five years later, here at Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, life has slowed down. It’s far from perfect, since there’s no such thing as perfect, but I savor each day. I meditate on the volcanoes and the lake. I wake to write at dawn; I bike to school to teach in the mornings; I laugh and play with my precious Jade in the afternoons; and I currently teach yoga twice a week in the evenings.

In my book, that’s one drastically improved life.