The desert seems to stretch for miles here. It’s so dry and dead it seems like it would be impossible for life to exist. I have never been to a place quite like it, where the driest of deserts comes down to meet the wild pacific ocean. The days are long and hot, the skies are completely clear of clouds. Buzzards hover in circles dotted around the sky and the noise of crickets and leaves rustling as lizards scuttle over them is constant. Cacti seems to be the common weed here with some growing to be larger than pick up trucks. The nights are cool and crisp, revealing the same breath taking sky every time, with stars I haven’t seen since my days camping as a child on Clare Island on the west coast of Ireland. Yandara is like an oasis, something you dream of if you were stuck in the desert searching for water or food. Tall palm trees sprouting high into the sky, sand covered garden paths leading through the property where tents are hidden behind blossoming bushes, eventually opening out onto the vast golden beach.
From day 1-3 I had spent the majority of my time exploring these areas and at one point I even crossed under the main motor way which leads all the way to Oaxaca City, through the desert heading East, in search of a giant fig tree I had heard about. After an hour aimlessly searching for this damn tree I finally gave up and sat beneath shade, when I looked up and sure enough, I was beneath the fig tree. I had gone off the path down towards what I thought was a stream as trees were growing out of nowhere, and there she was, tall and brilliant, blowing in the wind with a few perfectly purple little figs dangling in temptation. It’s the biggest fig tree I have ever seen.
There is a Bhakti yoga class which starts at 7.30am and led by a woman named Mercy. I’m guessing Mercy is around 65. She has long grey hair that she twists and rests over her shoulder. She wears linen layers of white and cream clothes wrapped around her small frame and has delicate little silver rings on her fingers which accentuate her sun kissed freckly skin. She has grey blue eyes which have a warmth and kindness to them and speaks with a soft Californian accent. Her and her husband now live in Santa Cruz and have been coming to Yandara to teach for over 10 years. After this month they will go to Hawaii where there is another Bhakti yoga course, then Sweden, Bali and back to Santa Cruz. I started to attend this morning class because Mercy interested me deeply.
The beautiful Mercy during the bonfire ceremony
She tells us all about Bhakti yoga and it’s history in great depth, all of it being totally new to me. ‘Bhakti is a flow of devotion like the flow of a river,’ she once said. It is a form of yoga which is a spiritual path based on the Bhava, “the conscious cultivation of the feeling,’ of love and devotion. It’s a practice motivated by the sincere desire to simply love the Divine. The Divine is basically the wheel of energy that circles the earth and we are in the centre. The Divine is everything and nothing at the same time, its our family, its our God if we have one, it’s love, it’s happiness, it is something that is greater than us.
Practicing Bhakti gives you a deep inner feeling of connection to yourself and to others around you.
People who hit a wall with themselves often turn to Bhakti. It was after this first Bhakti class when I decided to make the most of my time here.
Before I made that conscious decision it wasn’t until after my third day here. I was feeling fed up and ready to leave. I felt unsociable, tired and lonely. I immediately separated myself from the group as they are here to get their 200 hours of yoga or get their certificate in life coaching, I am not. I didn’t think we would have much to talk about and to be quite frank, I really didn’t want to hear all about these different yoga retreats they had all done, which practices they loved, how they found yoga or worse; how it found them. I wasn’t into the constant ‘I love you’ which they all seemed to whisper to one another each morning as easy as letting out a fart, the non stop smiling, the hugging, the touching, the over sharing of emotions that should be buried deep within ones soul only to be revealed to someone who has 4 hours of your time and perhaps a bottle of wine. It all seemed too intense for me, I didn’t like it and didn’t feel willing to give it a try.
It wasn’t until after those three rather lonely days that I realised everyone here is rather like me; leading a semi normal life, going through semi normal things, ups and downs and that they are just here for a bit of guidance, clearing of the mind, time to think. It’s rather like the Camino, everyones walls are down and they are willing to share and listen. Yandara is an incredibly non judgmental space, where you can very easily find yourself spilling your most secret of beans, I was just too uptight and stubborn to see that from the beginning.
Diane is a 64 year old British woman from a small village somewhere in-between Brighton and Bristol. She is now semi retired and lives in Malaga, Spain by herself. Di is small, wears rounded glasses and has wispy grey hair which ties together on the top of her head with a bright red hair scrunchy. She has a squeaky cheery little voice and has a shrew-esqu nature about her. The love of her life and the father to her three children, Nick, died two years ago in her arms from a heart attack. He had a heart disease which he had been aware of for a number of years but hadn’t told her of.
‘He was a man who tried his best to give me everything I ever wanted. And he always protected me, right up until the end,’ she told me with an adoring smile as she filled up her flask with hot water.
‘He was a naughty boy but a lovely boy, and I still love him with all of my heart.’
Di has been in Yandara for nearly a month and she leaves on the 10th, when I do, to go back to Spain and resume normal life, without Nick. She wears a silver heart locket around her neck with some of Nick’s ashes inside.
The last part of her course out here is life coaching and as part of her practice, I had a 30 minute session with her. When our session commenced she asked me what I wanted to discuss, I didn’t really know what to begin with. I didn’t think about preparing for it and sort of thought it would just flow naturally. But after a minute or so, I felt the warmth and kindness oozing from her and quickly found myself confessing. I told her that I had been feeling emotional at the beginning of my time here and that I was forced to think of things that I perhaps didn’t want to, purely for the fact that I spent hours on end during the day walking around the desert alone while everyone was in class. I told her that I wanted to really be happy and content and sure about the person I was, that I wanted to really love myself.
‘I didn’t realise I didn’t love myself until I was 38 and it took me 15 years to get there, it’s a long process, but now I can confidently say that I do love myself, I’m rather cool Tash,’ she says with a squeak. I have great admiration for Di, she is nothing short of pure joy and love and without a single bad bone in her body.
Diane and I after our life coaching session
Last night I skipped the evening ceremony to try and get some writing done and ended up being joined by a nymph like woman I had barely spoken to. Her name is Katherine and I call her a nymph because she has tiny little features and pointy little ears, a neat cut blond fringe which sits ahead of a neatly tied back bun. I can tell almost instantly that she is an intelligent woman, successful and driven. Shortly after a brief and casual chat, I ask her the inevitable question of ‘why are you here?’
‘Meh, I’m here to get some space. Im stuck in an office all day ordering around people that at the best of times are a bunch of dummies, you know?’
‘I don’t know that feeling no, but I know the feeling of needing your space.’
She looked at me dissatisfied and I was sure there was more to her answer than what she had said.
‘How old are you?’ She asked me.
‘I just turned..25?’ Still wanting to say 24.
‘You know what I used to do? I used to be a forest fire fighter, I got dropped down from helicopters into fires in the bushes of California, the forests of Washington and Colorado, the flat land in Ohio, Nevada. It was go go go. Weeks on end fighting these damn fires, working non stop for 6 months, then go off travelling for 6 months,’ her face was alive and full of happiness as she reminisced of times gone past.
‘Now I’m in a financially better position, supervising the forest fire missions, directing the fighters, watching park security, all that kind of stuff, which is actually really cool. But I’m 38 now, single and with no children. I live in this small town in the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio where everyone knows everyone and the one guy I thought I had some kind of a chance with has slept with my sister and then I have all my girlfriends popping babies out like tic-taks and I feel like screaming!’ It pours out of her like toothpaste from the tube, out there in the open and unable to get back in. She exhales.
‘So become a fire fighter again,’ I suggest. At first she looks at me as though to say ‘it’s not that easy,’ but she lets it sink in.
‘If you miss the adrenaline and freedom of that, go back to it. Either that or find away to enjoy your new position, think how you could make that office somewhere you want to go. As for the partner and kid stuff, just stop thinking about it, because that’s one thing that is out of your control.’
We talked into the early night, said goodbye and I slipped away down the garden path to my little tent and lay there in bed. Bed time here is so much sweeter, it feels so deserved and sacred. Im constantly on my feet walking as far down one end of the beach as possible, or as far back into the desert as I can possibly go so by 9pm my legs are like jelly.
We eat three vegan meals a day (once a week there is fish), all made with fresh organic ingredients. Breakfast which is at 9am is a spread which consists of hard boiled eggs, granola, papaya, banana and oatmeal. Lunch at 12 and dinner at 6 can vary from tacos, couscous, salad, enchiladas, soup, curry, grape salad, rice and beans. The beautiful women in the kitchen spend all day making everything from scratch and I have found comfort in talking to them throughout the day when everyone is in class, practicing my Spanish and getting them to show me how they make these simple dishes. The key is in the salad dressings and their use of lime and olive oil. The only thing we have access to 24:7 is water and herbal teas, apples, prunes and oranges. There is no music, wifi or television here. I sleep from 9.30pm until 6am every night and wake up feeling extremely alive. My skin is tanning and my feet have had a good 6 day sand pedicure. This is one of the reasons I love living in these countries, you feel great and you look great.
The beautiful girls preparing lunch
After doing a considerable amount of reading from a past students left over Yandara Bhakti yoga manual, I went into class today ready to choose a god from one of the yoga dieties so that I could properly begin my path into meditation.
‘Today we are going to learn about the mala and how to use your mala,’ Mercy began after our morning Om. To you and I, a mala is a set of yogi rosary beads with a little tassel which hangs in the middle, and I hate to break it to all the Christians out there but the mala is older than the rosary bead. Mala means ‘heavenly garland,’ and is used to keep track of japa (a form of meditation which involves chanting a mantra in whisper, in song or in your mind.) They usually have 108 beads with one extra bead which is called the guru bead. In doing japa, 100 repetitions are counted as complete, the last 8 are an offering to the Divine and to the guru. It sounds like a lot, chanting a mantra 108 times, but it can easily be done in 15 minutes in the morning or at night.
‘For those of you that do not have a mala, I have some here that my friend made in Bali and are a little more special,’ Mercy says as she rolls out this carpet to reveal 30 different malas, all with different stones to represent different gods. I knew instantly which one I wanted. It was long and had brown seeds used to make the majority of the necklace, with 20 rose quartz stones leading down to the red tassel in the centre. My mala is from Anahata, the god of love, and I chose this mala based on what I have learned from Di.
That night I read about Ganesha, the bringer of good fortune, Mercy had mentioned him briefly and I was interested.
Ganesha, or otherwise known as Ganapati, is the symbol of one who has discovered the divinity within them self, he represents the ability to move through obstacles with the power of our inner conviction. His story goes as follows;
One day goddess Parvati was at home on Mt. Kailash preparing for a bath. She didn’t want to be disturbed so she told Nandi, her husband Shiva’s bull, to guard the door and let no one pass. Nandi faithfully took his post but when Parvati’s husband came home, Nandi naturally allowed him inside seeing as his loyalty is first and foremost with Shiva. Parvati was furious, mostly because she didn’t have anyone as loyal to her as Nandi was to Shiva. So, taking the turmeric paste for bathing from her body and breathing life into it, she created Ganesha, declaring him to be her loyal son.
The next time Parvati was bathing she posted Ganesha outside the door and asked him to keep guard. Shiva came home only to find this strange boy forbidding access into his own home, so naturally he was furious and commanded he be killed. But when all the guards failed to kill Ganesha, Shiva took it upon himself and used all his power and severed the young boys head.
When Parvati heard what had happened she was devastated and decided to destroy the entire creation, however this upset Brahma, the Creator. He tried to discourage Parvati and she agreed only on the terms that Ganesha be brought back to life and worshipped before all the other gods.
Shiva, having cooled down by this point respected his wife and realised his mistakes and sent Brahma out to bring back the head of the first dead animal he found which was facing North. Brahma returned with the head of a strong and powerful elephant and it was placed onto Ganesha’s body. Shiva breathed new life into Ganesha and declared him the son of both Parvati and himself.
At first glance this story seems like something you would read to a child, however its true meaning is veiled and deep within the story. Mercy spent a night explaining it all to me and the story really came to life for me.
So I am now on day 8 here and I feel I have learnt far more than I anticipated, once I opened up and just went with it.
There are broken, lost, hurt and mourning people out here. There are happy and confident and sure of themselves people out here too. But they’re all here for the same thing; to find some kind of peace or clarity or connection with something or the other, perhaps acceptance. A lot of people here are trying to find peace with a divorce that came out of the blue, one lady is mourning the unexpected death of her son, some are stuck in bad jobs and some don’t have jobs. Yes, most of them are yoga teachers with studios and this time here will benefit their practice, but there is something more than that that has lead them here, for some it is even their second and third time here. But Yandara certainly is not about who can best touch their toes or drink the most green tea, it’s about sharing, learning, cleansing and release.
A big red happy face from the reflection of the most incredible sunset!