Sunday, July 17, 2005

Lesson of the Hurricane Yogis

Many times, I’ve heard yoga teachers speak of being the “eye of the storm”, achieving inner calm in the face of adversity. This summer in Mexico our yoga retreat group faced hurricane Emily with strength and serenity, thanks to our yoga practice.

Perhaps my judgment was clouded by my need for the retreat; as a mother of two and a yoga instructor, I was desperate to receive some nurturing myself. I felt sure some rain would be the worst we’d encounter. But weather reports said the storm was headed directly toward our Tulum resort. The night the hurricane was to hit, we were rerouted to a hurricane-proof Cancun hotel. We were still hopeful this was only a temporary setback, and that we would be sipping tropical drinks by the turquoise waters of Tulum within a day or so. We were trained in yoga, and were ready to receive anything... right?

Our "refugio anticiclon" roughly resembled a three-story cinderblock prison; a resemblance enhanced when the power and water went out shortly after 7 pm. This was my low point; I desperately clung to the idea that this was only temporary, but could feel myself sliding into a somewhat familiar pool of negativity. And then, an amazing thing happened.

We all began sharing what little we had; candles, flashlights, laptop-provided music, and yoga. We came together to eat, drink, entertain, comfort and heal, even though some of us had never met. We stayed awake as long as we could, listening to the rain and wind. It felt like a scene from The Three Little Pigs, with a wolf named Emily huffing and puffing outside. At the worst of it, I laid flat on my back and breathed deeply into my belly, trying to keep my imagination in check.

The hotel withstood 70-80 miles per hour winds, with some damage to the outside of the building. Tulum received the brunt of the storm, including 160 miles per hour winds! Unlike many tourists, sheltered in less-hurricane-proof structures with hundreds of strangers, we were privileged to have the hotel almost entirely to ourselves. We contacted the Tulum resort, which estimated a week to restore power, water and clean up. In the meantime, a seasoned traveler in our group suggested we travel to Chichen Itza to visit the famous Mayan ruins. Moving inland was a wise choice; all the coastal towns were without power and water. We piled ourselves, and our luggage, into a rented mini-van for the two-hour trip. Although it was cramped and uncomfortable, no one complained. We joked how blessed we were that three people had cancelled their retreat plans, as they wouldn’t have fit!

We recharged at Chichen Itza, appreciating all the wonderful little things; power, running water, air conditioning, good food and a space for yoga (albeit one shared with the local insect population). Both the instructor and I led classes during our three days there, and our group found a rhythm. Still, we longed for the beach and our original plans. We packed up the mini-van and headed back to Playa del Carmen. We were light-hearted, and our hopes were high.

As we neared the beach town, we were again reminded of how fortunate we were. Signs of the hurricane’s wrath were everywhere; fallen power poles, broken windows and doors, thinned thatched roofs, and streets strewn with debris. We quickly claimed our hotel’s roof as our very own yoga studio. As I practiced, now without the company of mosquitoes and with a cool breeze, I felt my energy come back and my anxiety subside.

The relief was only temporary. The next morning the skies opened up and poured two inches of water onto our rooftop “studio”! Of course, this happened on my morning to teach. I was again impressed at the undaunted attitude of these yogis. Some collected towels or changed into bathing suits; others swept the flooded areas free of water and debris. It seemed no accident that these eight people were here together, being together.

My morning’s teaching plans distilled down to one thought: Sun Salutation. As we moved through the poses, I silently prayed to Surya to return to us, or to at least delay the rain long enough for us to practice. The rain did abate for much of our practice, but returned with more force as the students rested in Savasana. What else was there to do? I guided the group through a “laughing Savasana”; I asked them to picture some funny moments from our trip. Playing charades by flashlight, stuffing an undersized mini-van with bodies and baggage in the pouring rain, chasing caterpillars away from our mats... It had the desired effect. We giggled and washed away our tensions.

That afternoon, we traded rain on the rooftop for the sound of a jackhammer at our new space. As our teacher shouted brief instructions over the din, the lesson of this trip came through to me, loud and clear. This is the yoga of life! Most people practice being the eye of the storm in the calm space of a yoga studio, but it can be very difficult to find that same inner peace in life, with all its noisy, damp, itchy distractions. In that moment, we hurricane yogis did.