by Mary Paffard
In January 2010, colleague Patty Hirota Cohen and I continued our 12-year connection with the Cuban yoga community and took a group of 15 Spanish speaking American yoga teachers on a research journey with Global Exchange to Habana. This group worked with a group of teachers there to complete an experimental teacher training program that has been in process for over three years: !Yoga Va! We have never taken an American group before, so, this coming together of two countries in a teacher training intensive was full of anecdote and delight. As Gladys, one of the participants, commented: “That was quite a trip, I have no words to describe it!”
Well, I have tried to find a few.
Coinciding with this newsletter, we will have two one-hour practices in (simple) Spanish available to download for a donation to LYRI-CA , our Latino research organization. If you are financially unable to make a donation at this time, please make one later and/or pass on this work to underserved students in the Latino community.
Practica El Parque – Jorge Avila, the main Havana coordinator of the Yoga Va! Program and me teaching an Earth celebration practice in exquisite surroundings.
Practica El Corazon – Class during our course taught in Habana by Roinel Martinez, the Holguin Coordinator of the ¡Yoga Va! program based on exploring the feeling tone of the poses and observing the friend/enemy relationship.
We wish to thank Kirk Fuller of Fuller Digital Media for the preliminary filming that he volunteered to do on the trip. This little video section is a very rough collection from the participants phones and a few digital cameras. We would love to refine and edit this material further, along with the practice pieces, but we need your support to do that.
“Si no hay, inventamos…” If we don’t have it, we invent it. This is a very important word in Cuba. Most Cubans earn less than $15 a month and although basic food supplies, health care, and education are to a large extent covered, there is not a lot left to go on exotic yoga workshops or buy the latest and greatest yoga DVDs and Prana pants. And yet, their yoga hums with passion, creativity, and humor.
Most of the more experienced teachers have had a wonderful foundation with well-known teacher Eduardo Pimentel, President of the Cuban Yoga Association. However they have had to rely tremendously on their own practice and have had limited access to materials and international teachers besides occasional oddballs like me and some of my colleagues. One wonders if this is a disadvantage as one looks in awe at the $6 billion yoga industry in this country and ponders if it has helped us find the unity in mind-body that most of us seek? Watching senior teacher Odorico Dieguez work with his elderly students in restoratives, he skillfully uses any kind of material that we would normally find in a junk yard to help support students and bring them that ease. He may have a mat or two brought by internationals but bolsters? blankets? Only those things that he can invent with bits of wood and discarded pieces of foam. And the results are extraordinary. He cannot keep up with the demand for classes of this type.
As Carol McClain, a participant in the latest LYRI-Ca trip to Cuba in January, comments:I sense that the Cuban yogis seem to practice on a deeper level than a lot of American yogis do. My take is, they practice yoga as many of us practice meditation or Vipassana. Or as I like to say... their yoga is more interior while ours tends to be more exterior. Maybe it's because they aren't exposed to the beautiful bodies featured in Yoga Journal, private studios with bamboo floors...or exposure to star-quality teachers. Luxuries that really have nothing to do with the practice of yoga and everything to do with the American marketing paradigm.
Linda, a Californian lawyer, put it this way:Mary and the Cuban yoga teachers inspired me to practice yoga under any circumstance, anywhere, anytime, not to await "ideal" conditions. To have integrity of practice, even with an injury. To find a way. To have the confidence and passion to go for it and to make time decisions that support the practice. I have since practiced outside, in an abandoned office cubicle, with restoratives through bronchitis and also in front of a mountain of dirty laundry.
These are the reasons that Patty Hirota Cohen, an Oakland teacher, and I continue to go back year after year and meet each obstacle that comes in the way of these extraordinary exchanges with as much alegria and inventiveness as we can.
For me as a teacher-trainer, it is very rare to work with a group of teachers that has so much connection to meditation and to the inner body. Where in the US can I find people who have done so many Vipassna retreats and have a sense of their inner wellbeing? In Cuba, in a world where its hard to find a moment of silence with the traffic, music, busyness of life, one perhaps is forced inwards to cultivate this.Juan Carlos, an enthusiastic student and potential teacher, talks about the silence that permeates his practice: In yoga I have begun to find silence, to listen to myself, not only in meditation but during the asana practice and little by little I have carried this into my daily life…in moments when I am walking, talking with someone, I am aware of the sensations in my body, I begin to truly feel “awake”. Maybe all our yoga paraphernalia helps more to deaden us than bring us to life. We also don’t have a culture that is so rich with the arts. Cubans are very well educated and the literacy rate is phenomenal. The emphasis placed on the creative arts seems to grow rather than diminish with economic hardship—the opposite of what happens in the US. Many of the participants in these workshops are artists, musicians, singers, writers and, who doesn’t dance in Cuba?! When music wafted up from the street in the middle of our recent teacher training project, I turned around to see the lovely Felicia, a Habana yoga teacher, doing ustrasana salsasana and leading all of us into a series of undulating backbends. None could resist!
One doesn’t need to over-romanticize the Cuban reality--life is tough. Made doubly tough by the embargo. Not only can they not afford to travel, the US government prevents US folk going down there unless they are on a legally restricted research project like ours. And yet in January, the group of 15 Americans found ourselves, despite material and logistical obstacles encountered, deeply touched by the way the Cubans supported this exchange as it has evolved over the 12 years. Sofi Milani expressed it this way: It is really difficult to put accurately into words what this trip meant. In one word: transformative. Practicing yoga with the Cubanos made all the difference, so much more of a connection to them, the country of Cuba and to yoga. Friendships were formed that were different from other retreats/yoga trips that I have experienced. I actually was depressed upon returning home, missing people and Cuba. Yes, I think international trips like this one should continue.
Roynel Martinez, teacher in Puerto Padre and one of our main program coordinators, agrees and values this thread that we have all cultivated over the years:An exchange of this magnitude and quality is without doubt super necessary. It helps us understand each other’s differences and allows us to merge in that which unites us all. This is no mere exchange of knowledge or experiences in yoga teaching or an entry-point to some particular style/school of yoga. The word “exchange” or intercambio in Spanish says it all. “Inter” meaning inner and “cambio meaning the transmutation of something old into something new. This exchange transforms from inside, from the soul to form a more genuine family beyond culture and frontiers. We cant really explain all that we have been through in these first steps their personal and collective story….we have so many people to thank and so much to offer everyone. This is one of the realizations of our meetings. And so now the most important intention in my yoga practice, is that the roots of it lie deeper and deeper in the heart, each time ever more so.
Yornel, a young artist and serious practitioner, the one in elbow balance pictured here, asks an important question of us all:I don’t want to talk about these days that we spent together as if it was all over...I am absolutely sure that I am living in a continuing sense of presence. I know that these exchanges/intercambios are important for the yoga in Cuba and can widen our understanding and personal connection around the yoga practice and create an atmosphere to share who each of us is....something that is sometimes missing in yoga classes. The mechanical practice of an asana can kill the spontaneity. And this environment of togetherness that we experienced is Yoga where there are no differences of race, or belief systems, or borders. It goes farther than any ideology. To be one and to cultivate love towards all beings. I believe it is possible to evolve a warm-hearted yoga that is inclusive of our tropical climate and psychology, a natural practice that can evolve and adapt with the needs of our time and place. I would like you to send me suggestions about how we can evolve with grace here and avoid so many errors*
*I believe from previous conversations that Yornel is talking about the crass materialism and the divisions between yoga factions that the Cubans witness from places in the West where yoga has had this rapid recent development.
So we will continue the dialogue, constantly learning from each other and looking for the union between people that transcends boundaries of all sorts.
We have a good deal of video material we would like to edit and share with everyone; including a couple of practice sessions in Spanish with me and Cuban teachers. We hope people who download these practices will make donations to the project to make more editing and distribution possible. We also need financial help with the process of completing the experimental teachers program (Yoga Va! – see web site) with the materials and even with the sister projects that are evolving in Spanish locally through Yoga Mendocino. In the future when the legal situation opens up on the US side, and with financial sponsorship, we want to bring Cuban teachers here and bring them to projects in Mexico and Costa Rica. For this we need help. Please read our web site, try out these little practices and be inspired by the Cuban energy and their love of yoga.
a post script to this article……
I wrote some of this on a flight from Chicago to Nashville where United managed to lose my suitcase. And now I get to practice what I preach as I head off to teach in Chatanooga without my prana pants and my poetry books, my Yoga Mendocino T-shirts. Who am I without these attachments?? o well, no hay pero inventare. I just hope I can buy a toothbrush and some knickers along the way.
wishing you well and much passionate, creative yoga!