Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in a yoga retreat organized by IDASH of Cancun, Instituto para el Desarrollo Armónico del Ser Humano – roughly translated, “the institute of harmonic being”. The three-and-a-half day retreat was at Akalki centro holistico on beautiful Lake Bacalar located about 3 hours south of Akumal. It is in the southern part of Quintana Roo and is known as the Lake of the Seven Colors a reference to its legendary seven shades of blue water. I had never been to a yoga retreat so I was nervous. I am not very experienced in yoga and I was under the impression we would be doing yoga from sun up to sun down and eating only vegetarian dishes. My preconceived notions about yoga retreats were dispelled.
Akalki is a tranquil, eco-friendly cabaña resort with most of its bungalows right on the lake – a real piece of paradise. All of the cabanas have private bathrooms and solar heated water. The resort includes a nice restaurant on the water, a masseuse and a pleasant staff all operated by Luis Antunes formerly of Mexico City. Luis gave us an initial welcome and some basics about the facility. One of the house rules was no food allowed in the bungalows, so as not to entice bugs into the rooms. Little did he know, Jen from Turtle Bay Cafe in Akumal, came loaded with goodies from the bakery which we had squirreled away in our rooms. Once discovered, Jen shared her carrot cake with some of his staff and for the remainder of the weekend our “infraction” was over looked. As a matter of fact, it was not uncommon for one of our fellow yogis to stop by our bungalow in the evening looking to score some of our sinful treats.
Our first afternoon we began with an orientation followed by a yoga session led by Michael Stewart and Todd Tesen. Our two-and-a half hour session started with one of the easiest of yoga exercises: breathing. It may sound silly but we never really think about breathing. When you stop and think “I am breathing in…… I am breathing out” it helps bring focus and calmness to the mind and body. Correct breathing helps one to get through some of the challenging aspects of yoga and its poses. With the rhythm of the breath, we added a few simple yoga movements and poses to warm up. This set the tempo for our weekend together.
Yoga in the Western world is mostly associated with the practice of asanas (postures) practiced for mental and physical health. Our morning yoga practices started at 7am. The people attending the retreat were of all levels ranging from inexperienced to one who had just returned from studying in India. Michael and Todd are very good teachers. During all our sessions they would move among the students, working with everyone at their own level and allowing them to learn at their own pace. Some people had physical issues. Whether it was a bad knee, a weak lower back, lack of flexibility, etc., Michael and Todd showed alternate methods to compensate for disabilities and strengthen those weaknesses.
After yoga each morning we ate breakfast and then had the majority of the day free to do whatever we liked. Activities at Akalki include bird watching, reading, sleeping, laying in the sun or a hammock, kayaking, swimming in the lagoon, going to the ruins, getting a massage and even having a warm mud treatment.
Our lunches included fresh fish, chicken, vegetables and dessert. This was our big meal of the day. Afterwards, a “siesta” or nap was enjoyed by most everyone before starting our late afternoon yoga session. Everyone progresses at their own pace in an atmosphere of learning and friendship
Luis knows a special place in Lake Bacalar where he goes to excavate a special clay. It takes a day to prepare it for use. He applies it to the body, allows it to dry making the mudded one look like a native straight out of National Geographic. Then it is rinsed off in the lake leaving the skin smooth and refreshed.
The afternoon classes ran into twilight time. After everyone had a good understanding of the basic poses, Todd began to refine them by correcting nuances of posture and fluid motion as we transitioned from one pose to another. The key to perfection goes beyond basic positioning. Even simple poses have subtleties which can challenge a persons’ balance, muscles and tendons (especially those of us accustom to sitting behind a computer screen 60 hours a week, like me). For example, a forward bend sounds simple, but to do it correctly you must think about whether your knees are straight or bent. Is your bottom high in the air? Are you breathing correctly? Is your weight balanced evenly on both feet? So each yoga session we would expand our abilities and work on our weaknesses to improve them. Once darkness fell we would sit breathing calmly and mindfully, then end the session for the day.
When looking at some the photos it is hard to imagine we were in the tropics doing yoga. A cold front came in late one afternoon bringing with it clouds, rain, gusty winds and a chill in the air. Suddenly, all of us accustom to the warm tropical air found ourselves bundled up in layers of shirts just to stay comfortable.
Exercising in the cooler air was invigorating in the mornings but one afternoon was so cold we had to move to an indoor location. We piled into one of the unoccupied cabanas and began to chant. Chanting is one of those aspects of yoga that intimidates people who are not familiar with yoga. Chanting is simply the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds. “Song sheets” were passed out and what we sang were not songs per se but are referred to as “mantras”. A mantra is a mystical syllable or poem, typically from the Sanskrit language. They are sounds and vibrations that are most effective when emphasis is put on correct pronunciation. Mantras are intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra. As we sang you could feel the collective energy in the room. Everyone chanted the same rhythmic verse in unison. The feeling was very inspirational.
Evenings we all dined together. One night we gathered around a big bonfire that Luis built for us. Michael and Todd drummed while we chanted. I felt like we were at adult summer camp (and we actually did sing Kumbya!). A few people just sat in lounge chairs on the patio of their bungalow and gazed at the stars, relaxing to the rhythm of the drums.
Each person took away with them something different from the weekend. For some it was the accomplishment of a hand stand or a pose they had been struggling with earlier. For others, it may have been making new friends while enjoying the comradery of old friends. Perhaps for people new to the area it was the simple discovery of Lake Bacalar and its amazing beauty. For me, it was being a person without responsibility, even for just a little while. I was in a relaxing environment where there was no one to answer to. I could do whatever I wanted. I was just me in the most basic form and I loved it!
I can understand why people would be intimidated by yoga but much of their hesitation may come from not trying it, or believing it to be all incense and chanting, or posing endlessly for hours. With an open mind, you can discover the physical and mental benefits of yoga. If you are seeking it, you may be able to touch the spirituality of it.
Michael Stewart is a Hatha Yoga teacher with a varied background. He is known internationally as a Movement facilitator, African Drumming teacher, Choreographer and Theatre director. Michael’s yoga journey has taken him from the Jivamukti studio in New York City to studying with Iyengar teachers Sharat Arora and Rajiv Chenchani in India. His teaching is inspired by the spirituality of Swami Sivananda and the deep insight of Patanjali. Michael’s philosophy on teaching is: “In order to be a good teacher one must be a good student”.
Todd Tesen is a certified Anusara instructor. He hails from Los Angeles, Ca. where he began his intensive yoga practice 15 years ago studying Hatha yoga, Ashtanga Yoga and then finding Anusara Yoga in 2001. Since this discovery, he has studied extensively with Anusara founder John Friend and Dr. Douglas Brooks, who is among the world’s leading scholars of Hindu tantrism. Through their guidance, he has become an excellent example that anything is possible. Having taught in the USA and in Mexico, he has also traversed Europe, teaching in the UK, Germany, and Greece. His teaching is playful and uplifting, creating a sacred space for his students to risk, to play and to discover their full empowerment. Todd was also featured in the Greek Yoga World magazine issues May/June and July/August 2007.