What's it really like on a surf & yoga retreat?
A Rookie Journalist’s First “On Assignment”.
This is a guest post by the wonderful Amy Waeschle - author of 'Going Over the Falls' and 'Chasing Waves'. Amy is an author, professional editor, and wilderness medicine instructor for the Wilderness Medicine Institute. Thank you so much Amy for this honest post. You can follow Amy on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.
I woke to the pleasant chirping and fluttering of birds outside my window. Inspired by their industriousness, I got up and tiptoed out to the patio for a dawn-lit peek at the bare arroyo and caramel-colored beach. Baja’s cool morning air drifted through the quiet house. In the distance, waves folded gently against the cobbled point, sounding their lovely swish as they combed the sand.
I surveyed the patio where in a few hours I would be practicing yoga, feeling a little intimidated. I mostly used yoga for a good stretch after a bike ride or to get ready for a surf trip. Hopefully I would be able to keep up with the pace of the retreat’s classes, intended for true fanatics.
In search of coffee and breakfast, I stepped inside and found Shani Cranston, the mastermind behind Milagro Retreats, already buzzing happily in the kitchen. While preparing what would turn out to be one of my favorite pre-yoga treats (fresh almond milk smoothies with locally grown papaya and bananas), sleepy guests began to emerge from their rooms, yawning, with yoga mats in hand. Yogini Marne Semick sprang into the kitchen, glowing with excitement about leading our first practice. “Shall we do this thing?” she crooned after downing her smoothie.
We started with asanas, specific breathing practices that enhance the effect of yoga’s meditative gifts. I tried to copy Marne’s belly-rolling uddhiyana bandha, but failed miserably. I felt better after Marne told me she had only mastered it after practicing for six months straight! Next, Marne led us in a flow of Vinyasa poses, which I love because of the repetition and the vigorous, cardiovascular pump. Then, after a series of poses meant to connect us more deeply to our work, we moved into balancing. My favorite is the handstand, even though I need a lot of help. Marne called it, “flying” and that’s what it felt like. From downward dog, I kicked up into a handstand position, elbows locked, against Marne’s braced frame. Marne held me gently as I breathed, trying to deepen the pose by reaching my tailbone towards the clouds and pulling my hips in-line with my shoulders. It reminded me of when I was a little kid in gymnastics class and my coach helped me complete my very first handspring. “Wow!” I exclaimed to Marne after I came down. “Can I do it again?”
SEE ALSO: How to overcome solo travel anxiety
My mind refused to calm during savasana. I was still rattled by my rocky arrival to the retreat the day before. I’d missed my ride because my bus from Cabo to Todos Santos had been hours late due to a rainstorm. I had called the emergency number in my paperwork to discover that the house was ten kilometers south and had no phone, and that I should just hitchhike. “Noooo problem,” he said. Instead, I had tried to walk there but my travel backpack carries like a bag of rocks, and my surf board bag swung sideways in the wind, setting my arms on fire after about 10 minutes, so I’d given up and had actually hitchhiked, wondering if I would end up in someone’s basement for 20 years. Luckily, a nice guy from California had picked me up and delivered me to the big pink house at the far end of an arroyo—recently ravaged by a hurricane—where I was given a warm welcome, a delicious vegan dinner with a big glass of red wine, and a soft bed. Shani had said, “We figured you’d be fine on your own. You’re a journalist!”
Attending this retreat was my first “lead” after deciding a year and half ago to follow my heart and become a writer. Shani’s words sunk in slowly during that first yoga session, and at the end of savasana, my travel fog had lifted and my journalistic impulses were humming. I listened to the birds calling from the hibiscus, I inhaled the sweet desert air, I tapped into the collective calm of the other guests all blissing out around me.
Inside, Shani had laid out a breakfast feast fit for the gods: toasted barley muesli with fresh local papaya, pineapple, melon, and strawberries, tart-sweet homemade yogurt and hearty bread. I ate like a starved wolf. Afterwards, over coffee and green tea and with happy, full bellies, the other guests and I relaxed and shared our enthusiasm for surfing the warm-water waves that afternoon during our first surf lesson.
Louise Rogers, our surf instructor and seasoned Baja traveler, knew right where to take us for good waves. For this I felt grateful; Baja’s roads are bumpy, rutted, and besides the occasional mile marker, offer no signs. Los Cerritos turned out to be a perfect spot for the beginners, not too crowded, and protected from the NW winds. Louise first instructed the group on wave behavior, safety tips, and the gear. After demonstrating a “pop-up,” the move a surfer makes to spring from belly-down on the board to upright, the group practiced while Louise supervised. After the short tutorial, the group plunged into the ocean, with Louise helping the gaggle of eager newbies catch waves. The scene was so unlike my first surf lesson, a frustrating how-to from a boyfriend with minimal patience. I was envious of these beginners; their learning experience would be remembered as nurturing and supportive.
When Louise finished getting the beginners on track, she spent some time with me, deeper into the wave sets. I received some excellent pointers and spent the rest of our session working to “drop in” with more commitment and looking down the line (instead of at the tip of my board, whoops). The water was pleasantly warm, with big, puffy clouds haunting the sky above. As I practiced, I felt my surfboard respond. I was going down the line! I'm improving!
Later that evening, as the sun dipped low over our beach, we gathered on the patio for our Lunar Practice with Marne. Our group was bubbling with energy and excitement from our surfing experiences. Marne reeled us in, helping us focus and relax. I enjoyed the flickering candlelight while she led us in a practice that felt quiet and meaningful, with deep stretches and ending in a long meditation. I could feel a hush settle over us, a sign that our adventure-addled minds were calming. I had a flicker of empty-mind joy right in the middle of it but it quickly flashed back to images of my adventurous day. That night I dreamed powerful, glorious dreams.
The next few days passed in a similar pattern, with exhilarating yoga and surfing and eating amazing food all mixing together so that my memories of the days all blur together. Each night, I was exhausted and my body was contentedly buzzing, my mind was calm and open. For someone with a constant case of “flighty brain” it was the most relaxed I’d felt in a long time. My arms, from countless Vinyasas, felt stronger, and from so much yoga I felt like I was standing up straight for the first time in my life. We didn’t get to surf as much as I would have liked, but the hurricane had changed the wave located in front of the house too much for it to be safe for an intermediate surfer like me. So we returned to Cerritos and tried a few other spots, but the swell grew each day as a big swell approached, putting a hold on our sessions. On the last day of my trip, I was able to watch a group of expert surfers ride the monstrous waves exploding against the cobbled point at Pedritos—a real treat.
I had been eager to come to Baja to satisfy my curiosity about yoga and surf in warm water. But by the time the trip was over, I had learned to love the way my body felt doing yoga every day. How would I survive without Marne’s guidance? I was savoring my early morning walks on the beach, my feet padding over the cool, soft sand. I was disappointed about the surfing, but I had picked up two really good gems from Louise that I still revisit. As I sat in the airport, not ready to go home, I decided that I would just have to come back to Baja, whether it was for yoga or surfing or both. I also pledged to make yoga a permanent part of my life. I’m proud to say that, so far, I’ve made it happen.
And I did manage to land a story, one of my very first, in a yoga publication serving South Florida. I’m pretty sure my mom read it, and maybe a handful of others. No, it wasn’t Outside or Yoga Journal, but it was a great start. My hometown yoga studio is offering a yoga and writing retreat near Puerto Vallarta this fall. I’m seriously considering going. Working my body every day like I had in Baja had transformed me in positive ways. This upcoming retreat sounds like a perfect tune-up. And who knows, maybe there’s waves nearby—no hitchhiking required (why didn’t I just rent a car?) Even better, with extra time to write, maybe I’ll finally score that big name magazine byline.