A Rude Awakening
The first morning, something happens that sets the tone for my next two weeks in Guatemala. I’ve been here before, several times; but this trip seems beyond tourism. I’m teaching yoga, in Spanish, to impoverished women and children.
The setting is a small village known as El Remate, on the East end of clean, clear Lake Petén. With Tikal National Park just 30 minutes away, this place is as beautiful and spiritual as any in Guatemala. My work is strictly seva (Sanskrit for service) and in conjunction with the Ix-Canaan Project, a Canadian-based Non Government Organization (NGO). In Mayan, Ix-Canaan means “guardians of the rainforest” and I am about to become one of them. Eva, a yoga teacher from Barcelona, Spain, is assisting me.
As I hike through the forest on my way to the Project’s women’s center, I am reminded that in the lowlands of Guatemala, what may look like a hill is actually an ancient Mayan building concealed with foliage. You can feel the residual energy of the ancient Maya who lived here, especially early in the morning when the village is quiet. It is hard not to imagine how life there used to be, millennia ago.
The women’s center has a prime location atop one of these hills. Their large, open-air thatched hut is used for a variety of activities, but this morning it will be our yoga room. I bring mats, blocks and belts from the States and have a broom in hand, eager to prepare the space. One of the sawed-off tree stumps, used for spectator seating, needs to be moved out of the way. I walk over and give it a shove, when instantly hundreds of plump red ants burst across the floor, out from under the stump where they’ve been living for who knows how long. Fervently, nervously, I begin sweeping them away, efforts hampered by my dancing feet and fear that these critters will craw up my legs, or worse, bite me!
In a few seconds I catch myself, and so does Eva, observing the hilarity of this moment. Oh, Guatemala! How is it that just when we begin lifting off into the spirit realm you manage to plop us right back into the physical? Welcome, gringas, to real life in the jungle.
The Women, Young and Old
Luckily my wits are gathered when eight women arrive for our first morning class. They are noticeably prompt and hesitantly shy – like typical beginner yogis. Most of them are accompanied by their children and share mats. They’re giggling as they approach each pose and curious as they discover their breath. The tensions release, allowing the peace that defines yoga to come to them. As I hold the space around our final pose, savasana, I detect that what they are feeling may be unprecedented for them. Yoga is for everyone, and I am both tickled and honored to be the one delivering it here, in the jungle, to these lovely people who may otherwise be left out.
(Life is hard, here. Its toughness is evidenced in their bodies, rock solid with muscle and armored tight with emotional fatigue. One of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, the division of wealth in Guatemala is extreme, obscenely so. Machismo rules. Basic needs and rights such as medical care and education are barely met. The “civil war” that pitted families, neighbors and subcultures against each other for two generations leaves unimaginable scars, not to mention the five centuries of repression of the Maya. The sages of the East teach us that karma is unfathomable, and life here in the West takes that notion to the deepest of levels.)
Also scheduled every day is an 11:00 am class on the other edge of town, on the brand-new porch of a woman named Angelica, a real “go-getter.” Her home is more up-scale than most, with a few appliances and concrete floors, but still has outdoor plumbing and cooking fire. The metal roof is held down by the weight of used truck tires.
Angelica is one of the great role models in the community. She leverages the resources provided by Project Ix-Canaan’s and other organization’s empowerment programs. She has learned how to weave beautiful baskets made from corn husks, supplementing her income and self-esteem. She augments her family’s meager diet by tending to the raised-bed vegetable garden she built with help from organizers at Ix-Canaan. I learn from her group that a growing number of women wear birth control implants in their upper arm, just below the bicep muscle. When we discover that this device is problematic in yoga poses where the arms bear weight, we make adjustments, as usual.
Word about yoga spreads through the village and Henri, the high school PE teacher, extends an invitation to teach yoga to his three afternoon classes, 25 kids per class. I jump at the chance. We will use the cement platform outside the classrooms as a practice space. It is a small matter that we must work around the motorcycle proudly parked there, and the messy snack table next to it. We have no equipment so the kids use towels, sheets and shawls as makeshift mats. Several of them use those large, plasticized burlap bags that are used to store and transport corn, beans and rice. The operating principle of abject poverty, get it done with whatever works, continues to impress me.
Working with los jovenes (the young) gives testament to their inherent willingness, ability and enthusiasm. There is zero obesity, they try anything and do almost everything. Several are innately able to take the pose to the next level, without being cued. Though none of them know the meaning of terms such as “right angle” or “parallel” they align perfectly, naturally. Their balance is superb. We use the poles that support the roof for viparita karani, legs up the wall pose. In fact, we can get three or four kids around one post.
The Crown Jewel, Yoga Nidra
I use the guided, deep relaxation practice of 61 Points-Yoga Nidra as a key component in our practices. The influence of this practice has been extensively researched and I am curious to see how it affects them. I am so interested that I create CDs of the practice for them to listen to after I leave. Over the course of two weeks, every student is able to experience it at least once, and they love it.
It’s Friday, the last day of my teaching stint. The lake is glistening, the sun is getting hot and the teens are winding up for the weekend. I begin to wonder if Yoga Nidra will work on them today. To close out our somewhat boisterous asana practice, I forge ahead, guiding them through the points, from top to bottom: al centro de la cabeza (center of the head), la garganta (throat), el hombro derecho (right shoulder), etc., and they are still wiggling and giggling. I keep at it, directing their attention to the parts of the body: el codo derecho (elbow), la muñeca (wrist), and by the time we reached the right hand, they were out, gone, motionless on their mats. The simplistic power of 61-Points Yoga Nidra es para todos (is for everyone).
I finish the remaining points and allow them to remain in easy pose for five additional minutes of profound relaxation (relajando profundo). A breeze comes up and I think “oh, how nice, this will cool us off.” Then I notice how this lovely little waft of fresh air happens to be blowing litter, in the form of plastic wrappers, bags, bottles and other junk, directly across the schoolyard and all over our sacred yoga space. Now our mats and bodies are covered with debris, and it doesn’t bother them one speck.
And me? Chuckling, witnessing my Western-based worldview crumble in light of another reality. Guatemalans are famous for not picking up their trash. After all, trash bins cost money that they do not have. I realize that my experience here has connected me more intimately with poverty and its consequences than ever before in my life. What so many may pretend not to see, is front and center, no longer incomprehensible. The core of their existence, enormous smiles and endearing hearts, overshadows any revulsion.
Before I left the States on this “mission” a friend asked me what in the world did I think I could teach them? I knew I had to be very clear about this, for their benefit as well as my own. I replied, “Breath in the body. That’s it. That’s all, and if they feel the peace of mind that comes from this experience, then my intention is fulfilled. ” It was, and then some.
¡Yoga Para Todos! is an initiative originally conceived during Rod Stryker’s “Yoga Fulfillment” workshop two years ago, cultivated by Andrew Harvey’s views on sacred activism and crystalized after a 10-day Vipassana sit last fall.
Eva and several others are now sharing the dream with me. Eva picked up the women’s classes when I departed and two more teachers from California follow her. I will return as much as possible.
The only requirements for a teacher to step into the queue are:
1.) the desire for this type of seva,
2.) a remedial amount of Spanish,
3.) willingness to cover your personal travel expenses (Note: My two weeks of travel and living expenses, including advance-purchase airfare, did not exceed $1000.)
Barbara (BJ) Sadtler MA, RYT, is dedicated to the inner journey through yoga, meditation and the ancient wisdom of the Maya. Besides teaching, traveling and writing, she guides others to discover their soul’s purpose, as seen on her website www.mayancross.com. Her services are provided on a donation basis, with proceeds going back to the under-privileged. The latest initiative, recruiting other like-minded teachers for ¡Yoga Para Todos! can be found on Facebook.
~Editor: Jeannie Page