Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Keep Joy, Leave Sadness. My first Un-Belizeable International Yoga Teaching Retreat

Around October of 2014 my friend and fellow yoga instructor Erin asked me if I’d be interested in hosting a yoga retreat with her. She wanted to go someplace international and saw I had success with my Telluride Hiking + Yoga Retreat so she thought we’d work well together. To be honest, I hesitated. Not because I didn’t want to work with Erin or travel to another country to teach yoga. I had my doubts that I was a “good enough” teacher to pull students in to fill a retreat. We each had to put a large deposit down to reserve our spot and I was worried we’d lose our money. Initially we had lots of interest from our various friends but when it came down to putting it out there no one signed up. We were working with a company called Belize Yoga and were a little late to the party as most of their teachers look into promoting 18 months to a year out. Erin and I weren’t meeting bench marks and deadlines and at one point I wasn’t even going to be able to attend because it wouldn’t make sense financially.

But, we believed (or should I say BeLIZED).

We believed, we hoped and Brad and Jessie from Belize yoga bent and pardoned every rule they had so we could make it work. We worried, we texted each other a lot and ultimately we decided we had no control. If the retreat was meant to happen it would happen. I clearly remember Erin telling me, “well will we regret it more if we don’t take the chance than if we do?”

I’m thrilled to say after a week in paradise we have no regrets.

When I look back on my 8 days with Belize Yoga, with Erin and with the 11 yogis who attended with us all I can think is that I used up every moment. We met most of our group in Dallas where we connected to Belize City. I caught a stomach bug the day we departed so I was not in the greatest of moods that day. My daughter had also broken her tibia and fibula and had to get a leg cast put on the day before I left so needless to say I was a hot mess. Stepping off the plane in Belize we met Brad from Belize Yoga who would become our guide, our coordinator, our timekeeper, our listening ear and our friend by the end of the retreat. Black Rock Lodge, where we spent our time in the jungle picked us up that first day and we also got to know our drivers who were also our retreat leaders and expedition guides. They pointed out wildlife to us, guided us through caves in canoes and just in general made our experience that much better.

Retreats always start out as awkward. Those who come together tend to group up and those who come solo tend to either hang back or attempt to put themselves out there in hopes of being accepted. As one of the co-hosts I made it my job to get to know everyone and bring the group together. I’m an extrovert by nature, and as my husband says I don’t ever feel awkward. I just don’t play into the energy that tells other people to back off. I made it my mission to sit by someone different at every meal, to ask questions, to listen, to connect with more than just my yoga. We had several excursions from the Mayan Ruins to cave tours, zip line and hikes so I put my stomach issues aside and put a smile on my face and forged ahead. I knew not everyone would gel together instantly but my hope was that by the end of the retreat we’d all be sad to say good-bye to one another.

It’s impossible not to bond when you are in a foreign country trying new experiences with one another. There wasn’t a lot of down time so we spent a lot of time as a group eating lunches, learning about sacrifices in caves, jumping off rocks, tubing down rivers and watching toucans in the trees. We sailed to a private fisherman’s island, we had a beach bbq on a protected beach, we learned how to spear fish and stand up paddle board, we snorkeled and played amongst fish and turtles and rays and sharks. The yoga mat is where we’d begin and end each day and that was the time for us to stretch, connect and flow together. Yoga is a place where people feel vulnerable anyways so it’s a great truth serum. People shared more with each other than they probably ever have with their own families on this retreat. There was no judgment among our group – you could skip yoga or an excursion or show up to yoga with a cocktail and nobody batted an eye. We were all there for ourselves and yet bonded together as well. I never felt any tension among the group or the feeling that anyone didn’t like someone else. We came from all over the country yet we were all there as one.

The highlight of the retreat came to me in the unexpected moments, the ones that weren’t on the itinerary. The moments of fear before jumping off a cliff into the water, watching the sting rays in the water by the yoga dock before bed and the drum circle dance party. I’ll remember the conversations I had and the one-liners that made me laugh as well as the attempts to spear fish. The last night together I led us all in a chant, something I’ve never done before and it was so powerful and beautiful it made me cry from happiness. I’ve never been one to lead an Om or chant and to see these people open their hearts to us made me want to open my heart to them. I left Belize feeling happy, full and grateful.

I learned a lot about myself on the retreat as well. I learned I AM enough. I learned to be mostly happy by living in the now. I learned how to disconnect from social media and what dragged me down. I came to the retreat with thoughts and demons and bad memories in my head that disappeared. I learned to let go of stress and just be me. In Belize I wasn’t a wife or a mother. I was just Natalie the yoga instructor who made people laugh and cry because I connected with them. I stayed present and looked people in the eye and listened and didn’t hurry or rush. I learned to slow down…a lot. I learned to sit in silence, to watch the sun rise and set over the ocean without any place else to be. I learned to let go of bad habits and to enjoy the company of myself. I never in a million years thought I’d be able to do something like this and I sat in gratitude each day that not only was this my life but that I helped make this happen. I was enough.

I know I’ll be back to Belize with Belize Yoga although it will never be the same retreat. You can’t recreate an experience like what we had. I think about how if we hadn’t decided to run with the idea how I never would have met 8 of those people (three I already knew from classes at QiFlow). It makes me realize that some of the best moments of my life, haven’t even happened yet and I have so much more to live for. If it weren’t for yoga, for taking the teacher training and finding QiFlow I would have never have met Erin or had the courage to travel internationally to do what we did. Life is all about challenging yourself and I’m thankful for those who believed in me and knew I could pull this off even if the prospect was intimidating.

I’m walking away from my experience with Belize Yoga so thankful for all their help and guidance and ease at which we were able to host this retreat. I can only speak for myself but I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t get to do or a detail that was left out. Everything from the food, to the tours, the travel, the staff, the drink and the activities (hermit crab racing anyone?) was so well thought out that it couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I know I can’t take everyone home with me as I’d like to do, but I left feeling like I had made so many new friends who I’ll always treasure and that’s worth its weight in gold to me.

On our last day I had everyone go around and share what they were leaving behind and what they were taking with them in one word. Each person’s story was everyone’s story and I think we all were making it a point to leave behind fear, worry, stress, self-doubt and burdens. While we were each there for different reasons I believe the common denominator which we all took home with us was Joy. I can’t think of a better feeling to take home than Joy or Love. It was hard not to be tearful when we were saying good-bye but as our guide Rasta reminded us, “Keep Joy and Leave Sadness.”

So here’s to what’s ahead and to the people I’ve yet to meet out there. There’s so much life and yoga left to live and spread and I intend on making it my life’s work to connect others. I’ll definitely remind myself to keep the joy and leave the sadness.

Because if you’re mostly happy…you’re living in the now.