Just after returning from the Sedona Yoga Festival, I found out that my first Hot Yoga teacher in Arizona, Deborah Joya, was hosting a retreat in Aravaipa Canyon. I had not heard much about this Aravaipa, but my husband the outdoors enthusiast, insisted that this place was going to be epic. I contacted Deborah and luckily she said she needed some help on this retreat and that I should come along. I was thrilled. Two yoga adventures in one month! Not too shabby!
I knew we would be staying at a ranch house in a canyon. I packed up two pairs of yoga pants my mats and camera. For the second time this month, I was off on my own to meet a new group of people and put myself out there in unfamiliar territory. I am always hearing how yoga can change your life in indirect ways even off the mat. Sure, it has the ability to make you feel healthier, stronger, more flexible, and even more focused, but I have also seen subtle improvements in my confidence, self assurance, and social anxiety due to a steady yoga practice.
Driving into the canyon was an adventure in and of itself. 6 miles of off-road driving makes anyone feel like they have arrived to the middle of no where! There were sky high red cliffs on my left, blue skies, and huge cottonwood trees lining the creek to my right.
As I pulled a right after the steel bridge at the base of Brandenburg Mountain, I got out to let myself in through the gate. I realized this yoga retreat is located on a beautiful horse ranch.
Driving through the creek was the next leg of the adventure. I think I made it out to be much scarier than it really was.
The ponies, puppies, and kitty were next. They all happily greeted me as I pulled up to the ranch. I had arrived.
I showed up to a house full of busy bee yogis starting dinner. Social anxiety kicked in. Then I saw a face that I knew, Deborah!!! Her last name JOYa is more than appropriately fitting for all the joy she brings to those that are lucky enough to know her and have her as a guide.
That first night we cooked a healthy gluten free dinner consisting of sweet potato burgers and sauteed veggies on a big bed of lettuce. I was in charge of the tapioca for desert, lets just say this didn’t go to well! Luckily, I was with an understanding group that helped me resurrect the badly burned situation.
That night we built a fire, had some wine, and I had maybe too much fun in my night time photography class. Although I am a total novice, I love photographing anything and everything. From asanas to sunsets to smiles, you rarely find me without my camera. Joanne West is a local professional photographer and I have always admired her work. When I would see Joanne’s photos, her perspective and her unique way of capturing all the beauty these landscapes have to offer, made me feel as if I knew her already. Weather I saw it hanging in a coffee shop or in the local magazines, I always felt like I would meet her one day. As fate would have it, Joanne was our photography teacher for the night. She was just as wonderful as I thought she would be, vivacious and full of life. It was everything I could want out of a workshop and more. Joanne helped me with composition and technical skills and most importantly, we had fun! We played with different colored flashlights, learned how to paint trees with light, and twirled like angels under the moonlight. We dabbled in capturing star trails and how to photograph the north star so that it creates perfect circles. I went to sleep that night completely forgetting about my tapioca fiasco with nothing but nature, yoga, and meditation to look forward to in the morning.
I woke up to the smell of pancakes and fresh maple syrup. Janet, a yoga teacher who traveled all the way from Pennsylvania, was gracious enough to make breakfast and brought the best pure maple syrup with her all the way from home. Everyone gathered around the large farm table with warm tea and coffee and admired the bowls of fresh raspberries waiting to be consumed with warm fluffy pancakes.
Yoga was outside on the grass lawn. We started with sun breath just as the sun crept up over the hill, warming our bodies and our hearts. We moved into more flow and heated our bodies inside and out. I have been doing Bikrams yoga for months, and getting back into a downward dog and doing sun salutations was a welcome change. I miss Pigeon pose! By the end of class, the sun was fully upon us as we laid still in Savasana. There are savasanas and there are savasanas. This was one where you feel like you are literally melting into the earth. I didn’t want to get up…ever.
Following Yoga, we reconvened indoors for a guided meditation with Deborah. Meditation is new for me and still an adjustment. Being open enough for the experience is always challenging. This coming from me can be somewhat surprising as I am always the one to advocate about the importance of healing – whether it be yoga, therapy, meditation, or exercise, I could talk for hours about it. However, I still have a lot of wounds that I am working through and while I trust the mechanics behind yoga and therapy, meditation is still unfamiliar territory. I never know what door it might open up.
Deborah led us through a colorful visualization that helps cleanse your mind of any negative emotions and wash it away with love and intention. We also experienced something new, a blessing given by Miguel Lopez and Joanne West. The blessing was simple yet powerful. The intent was for them to ask the powers that be, whatever that means to you, to allow your inner strength and inner divinity to awaken and bring you whatever you may need in that moment. Some people laugh, some people cry, some people feel nothing at all. It is a personal experience. After the meditation and blessing, we opened the room up for discussion to share our experiences. Some saw colors of purple and orange, some cried, some felt as if they had broken down emotional barriers within themselves. One woman particularly touched me as she was able to open up and share with us that she had lost her son unexpectedly. She expressed that the meditation and blessing were profoundly healing for her and she felt her son’s love all around her. For me personally, the meditation and the blessing were also powerful. The blessing was tension releasing somehow while the meditation opened up negative emotions, but successfully brought the mind back to a positive place. This is processing – it may be uncomfortable at first – but at the end of the day everyone needs to find some way to “go there”. Having negativity inside you from trauma, bad childhood, a bad relationship, whatever it may be, is comparable to walking around with a cancer inside of you. Surgery may be scary, but you have to try to open yourself up and get it out if you can. Otherwise, it will eat you up inside.
Our next activity following mediation was Jai Bolo lead by Miguel Lopez – another new experience for me. This is a form of manifestation prayer in which you ask the powers that be in Sanskrit for anything you desire. You say the prayer along with your desire 7 times. The group helps support you by saying your specific prayer and desire along with you. The fun in this exercise is that you can be completely selfish and ask for whatever it is you want. You want a ferrari? Ask for it. You want world peace? Ask for it. You want to find your car keys? Ask for it. You have everyone’s support and there is no judgement. The chanting becomes fun and by the end everyone is dancing and singing together. The other piece of this prize is a release of tensions. Wants and needs can weigh heavy on you. When you ask a higher energy, again whatever that means to you, to help meet your desires, you are inherently releasing some control and therefore some of the mental weight of that desire. You walk away feeling grateful and empowered.
After all of these heart opening activities, it was time for a break. I went for an hour hike to take some pictures and have some one on one time with the creek. I spotted a red cardinal amid some thick curling tree branches. I have only seen a few of these bright red birds, but they always seem like a sign. I don’t know if I believe in signs, but there is something special about being in the right spot at the right time. I did some more yoga in the creek and headed back as the day’s light grew dim.
That night we had a full spread! Tacos with all of the fixings. Deborah was even kind enough to set out candles, and build a beautiful fire in the living room, to create a more intimate atmosphere.
We followed the delicious dinner with a self expression class led by Erik Fisher. He discussed the constantly shifting dynamics of experience. When you express an idea to an audience, that act of expression is not only a new experience for you but it also leaves an impression on each member of your audience. We discussed the power and depth of this insight and then we were each asked to express our own truths. One memorable quote from a member in the group, “My truth is in flux.” I feel that this phrase rings true for everyone throughout much of our lives. We are constantly changing yet constantly scared to embrace change – a beautiful idiosyncrasy of the human condition that keeps life interesting, challenging, and meaningful.
While the rest of the group went out to enjoy singing and dancing outside at the fire circle, my roommates Anna and Cathy and I decided to get some sleep. Usually falling asleep can be incredibly difficult for me, but after a day like this I was so relaxed that I knew an amazing night of rest awaited me. I couldn’t even get through a full journal entry before I was fast asleep.
I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and before I even ate, I went out onto the over-sized balcony and snapped some shots of Brandenburg Mountain. I headed downstairs to enjoy overnight oats and some hot tea before Chi Gong and Yoga.
Chi Gong or QiGong is a practice of aligning body, breath, and mind for health, meditation, and martial arts training. Deborah guided us through a mashup of QiGong and Yoga for a super powerful and rejuvenating morning class. Just like the previous morning, the sun popped up just as we started class and warmed us up from the inside out. I don’t know if Deborah planned this or not but it made for an exceptional experience both days.
After Yoga, Dr. Traci Mosher, DO discussed our health and how to maintain it in today’s confusing world between the media’s mixed nutritional messages and a jaded health care system. She described the challenges within her realm of work including having to keep patients healthy while only having 15 minutes a session to cover hours worth of information. We went over today’s leading diseases, and how knowing nutrition can help us avoid most if not all of them. Her main message was to identify the “why’s” in your life. If you know you should be drinking more water then why aren’t you. If you know you should be exercising and eating healthier then why don’t you. Whether it is your schedule, kids, health, or maybe a deep emotional component that affects your relationship with food and exercise, it is important to find the root cause so you can start to find solutions. Solutions are the “how”. Once you know the “why” you can work on “how” you can incorporate healthy attitudes and habits back into your life. After 90 days these habits start to become your new routines, and you are on your way to a healthier you. What I really took away was the need to own our health. We should not desire health because our doctors tell us to, but because we love ourselves enough to want the emotional and physical freedom that comes from a healthy life.
We were all touched by Traci. Her insights left our perfect weekend on a high note. The day was still beautiful with bright blue skies and I heard the trails calling my name. I packed up my things and said my goodbyes to all my new yogi friends.
Off I went, down the long tree lined driveway and back through the creek, saying goodbye the beautiful ranch house and to all my new animal friends as I headed out.
I thought it was a great sign that as I was officially closing up the gate and leaving the property, a little Gila Monster crossed my path. These are rare to see in Arizona, and my first wild sighting in the 4 years I have lived here.
Traveling up the dirt road towards the Aravaipa Wilderness I stopped to get out whenever something caught my eye. I would do yoga, or take pictures, or play in the creek. The cottonwood seedlings drifted in the air and the wind blew softly through the trees.
I even crossed paths with this 5 foot bull snake on my way out!
Looking back now, the whole weekend feels more like a dream. But it was real. There is magic in the world, and I found a piece of it in Aravaipa.