February 2, 2011

Fiji Retreat: Discovering the Heart of Yoga in the South Pacific.

Photo by Deborah Bassett

In December of 2010, world-renowned teacher Mark Whitwell led an epic yoga retreat at Daku Resort on the small island of Savusavu, Fiji. A group of 18 international students, from novice to teacher, attended the week long workshop where Mark initiated daily asana and pranyama practice—in that order of course. The attendees were an eclectic mix—a German Microsoft executive, an LA hand bag designer, a family of Aussie volunteers and a vacationing couple from Finland who dropped in on a class and decided to stay a while—and more resembled a meeting of the United Nations than the stereotypical new age scenario that often comes to mind at the mention of  “yoga retreat”. While each individual had his or her personal reason for traveling to Fiji to participate, the one common denominator that united us all (besides yoga) was perhaps the overall desire for clarity and peace of mind.

Upon my arrival to Fiji, I knew intuitively that I was in the right place at the right time. Of course we always are in theory, but this was one of those moments when the internal self-realization barometer, or the third eye, had shifted into overdrive. I knew on a core level that this was exactly where I needed to be and I felt confident that my $19.95 investment to Ekhart Tolle in years past was finally about to pay off. Cheers to positive manifestation!

As soon as our relic of a plane touched down to the tiny airport, or rather airstrip of Savusavu, I tucked away my hand written boarding pass and did a quick scan of the handful of people awaiting our plane’s arrival. Convinced that soon I would see Mr. Rourke and Tattoo rounding the corner with a flower lei and coconut in hand, I was no less enchanted when instead of Ricardo Montavan I was greeted by the effervescent and enthusiastic JJ, one of our retreat hosts and co-owner of Daku Resort. He quickly whisked us away down the lush winding road to the tropical oasis that would soon become our relaxing home-away-from-home for the next seven transformational days.

After settling into my charming bure, a typical Fjian style cottage, I decided to head off on a lazy photo mission. I didn’t get far before the first Fijian-Indian family to spot me wandering down the seaside road stopped me, quite literally in my tracks, and insisted that I join them for a cup of chai tea and some traditional eats.  Overruling the annoying LA-based skeptic that has been known to take up residency in my brain from time to time, I cordially accepted the offer.

It turned out to be a lovely and genuine cultural exchange and served as a humbling reminder of what it feels like to be on the other side of the lens for a change. The Hindu family, which included a Grandma, Grandpa and in-laws, seemed rather intrigued by this light haired lady. In a mildly awkward attempt to find some tangible common ground, I broke into my best singing interpretation of the Gayatri mantra, which immediately led to sporadic accompaniment and infectious giggling by the previously bashful little ones and removed any further hint of uneasiness in the situation or other silly self-imposed preoccupations of the mind.  After enjoying my delicious mystery dish and sharing a few more smiles, I politely excused myself and continued along my way, my heart a little lighter knowing that the language of laughter remains a universal method of communication. Later that evening I was quite surprised to learn that almost 40% of the population of the 300+ island chain is made up of Indian-Fijiians, due in part to the faithful process known as British colonization that took place back in the late 19th century, making the re-appearance of yoga education and practice in Fiji a seemingly natural fit.

The following days were spent getting to know fellow yogis and yoginis and our lovely British ex pat hosts—Delia, JJ and their son Charlie—between snorkeling trips to world famous reefs and beaches, a mini excursion to a traditional Fijian village for singing with the local choir, a visit to the local pearl farm and day trips to the bustling one-horse town of Savusavu and its classic island style marketplace.

By the second day, my initial haziness from a combination of mild jet lag, tropical fruit overload and my crash course in Culture 101 started to finally wear off just in time for the evening’s welcome ceremony, which included the traditional drinking of the kava kava root. While Mother Nature’s aesthetically pleasing landscape and the serene feng shui of the place was in itself soothing to the soul, the indigenous plant found throughout Polynesia is used primarily for its calming and stress relieving effects. The offering ceremony is one that is taken quite seriously by the Fijian people, as was evidenced by the time and acute attention to detail taken by our gracious host family in its preparation. Equally impressive was the way in which the staff, all of which were related to each other, worked together so seamlessly day in and day out and seemed to genuinely enjoy our company as much as they did their own. I could not help but wonder if a similar scenario would be possible in North America. It was both refreshing and inspiring to be embraced by such open hearts throughout our stay.

As the days continued, we shifted into our daily routine of morning, afternoon and sunset yoga sessions from the rustic open aired yoga shala that overlooked the picturesque turquoise backdrop.  Almost every class began with Mark’s steadfast insistence upon each individual’s intimate understanding of the fundamental principle of yoga as “your direct participation with a nurturing source.”  Uninterested in our ability to intellectually grasp the concept, he was more focused upon how the statement actually and naturally translated into our personal and authentic practice—authentic being the key word in that statement. “Following a guru is a great way to lose yourself,” he warned us. Quoting, or perhaps channeling, his own teacher and close friend J Krishnamurti, he added, “You can cheat the body with the mind but you can’t cheat the breath.” In essence he was conveying the message to us that breath is the guru.

“Are you the extreme intelligence of life showing up right here and now in this given reality?” was another typical session opener that Mark liked to address to just about every single student before even considering the start of an asana practice. He remained reluctant to do so without a unanimous consensus from the entire class that this was in fact the case.

Yoga is the commitment to the participation in that which you are. There is no seeking involved as it’s not a search for some future reality, but rather direct participation and utter intimacy with given reality.

He repeated this until we were all convinced that we were pretty damn special just being in this natural union with life as life. One of the attendees, a former dancer who had taken less than a handful of yoga classes in her life prior to the retreat, even confessed that she found herself feeling more emotional than usual during the week and that for the first time in ages she could feel “the flower blooming inside of herself.”  Needless to say, she got it.

Perhaps one of Mark’s most charming qualities is his ability to cut through all the “nonsense,” as he puts it, that has infiltrated the yoga world, particularly that which has been transported to the West. Mark seems to have a highly attuned bullshit detector and doesn’t shy away from speaking his truth.  It’s a quality that stems from a long lineage of wisdom brought forth by his own teachers, including Krishnamacharya, known as the “teacher of teachers”, with whom he devoted an ample amount of his life learning from, primarily in India.

The idea of yoga as the pathway to enlightenment is nonsense and the goal of realization is absurd. Looking for God automatically implies that you don’t know what you are looking for.

This rendered my bookcase full of self-help and spirituality guides null and void. With the popularization of yoga in the West, he posited,

Krishnamacharya has been ignored as the source scholar—the one who brought forth the method of how yoga is practiced successfully by each individual according to their unique personal attributes. When practiced that way, yoga becomes directly intimate with the given reality that is nothing but nurturing abundance and healing. There is no linear process in it—it is direct.

While Fiji marked his 28th country visited in 2010, traveling the world on a full time basis has become second nature to Mark, who remains clearly committed to making this ancient knowledge and practice accessible and approachable for every single individual. According to him,

Yoga teaches us that we are not separate and cannot be separate from nature, which sustains us in a vast interdependence with everything. This union is our natural state—this union is Yoga. When you experience this connection to the fullness of creation, of nurturing source, you are doing your Yoga. Yoga is your direct participation in nurturing source.

Through Mark’s example and seemingly innate ability to clearly explain and demonstrate this wisdom, he was able to successfully provide the entire group with a very real and tangible understanding of how to embrace a yoga practice that is suitable for everyone based on his or her individual needs. “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” He even introduced us to his latest work, The Promise, which outlines the benefits and provides the necessary tools to create a personal yoga practice starting with as little as seven minutes a day, which basically translates to “no excuses” for not making the commitment.

Mark and Deborah.

A personally pivotal moment came one evening while listening to the waves and feeling the gentle ocean breeze sweep across the wooden shala floor during sivasana. I had an overwhelming feeling of utter contentedness and could feel my smile radiating from inward out like the petals of the lotus flower. Without any attachments or wandering of the mind, I basked in the pure bliss of being completely present in the here and now and appreciating that nature as part of myself. As Mark would say, “Intimacy with the ordinary reveals the source.”

For more info on attending an up coming retreat in Fiji, visit: yogainfiji.com.

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