#yoga

Yoga on the Osa

Muchacha Ananda Costa Rica

Just before I left for a yoga retreat in Costa Rica earlier this year, a British friend said to me, “You’re living the life of Riley, aren’t you?!”

It’d been a while since I’d heard that expression and I had to stop and think for a minute who Riley was. I didn’t actually know, and decided to google him. It turns out he was a “Paddy” archetype from the Irish-American community during the First World War –of someone who was living “an easy and pleasant life” –a life of luxury.

In some ways, for sure; it’s true. My life these days is often more pleasant than not. Much of the time it’s hugely enjoyable, and I would even go so far as to say, deeply fulfilling. But easy? No, definitely not. As one wise teacher let the cat out of the bag recently, “Life doesn’t get easier. It just gets more compelling."

This is what I’m contemplating on the day after my return to New York City from the depths of the jungle, where nature is a teeming, writhing, seething, raucous feast for the senses.

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>>

Every color on the spectrum of green–
Splashes of red, blue, orange and yellow–
Cacophonies of squawking, chirping, whistling and roaring creatures–
A delicate breeze brushing the skin–
Warm Pacific waves–
The searing of too much tropical sun–
Fluttering blue butterflies–
The incessant itch of insect bites–
The smell of ripe bananas–
The bashing of stones against ankles in the thrashing surf–
A scorpion racing across the wooden floor.

>> 

Here in the city, the trees are yet to bloom, the skyline is a mass of grey and terra-cotta, it’s raining, our car has been written off as totaled, and I am deaf in one ear. If it weren’t for yoga, in all of its many forms, the residue of big nature, and the support of beloved friends and family, I would likely be a blithering mess right now.

Getting to the retreat, located in a remote part of the Costa Rican Osa peninsula, was no small feat.

The initial decision was easy; it was a birthday trip with my friend Wendy who lives in San Francisco, and who also celebrates her birthday around the same time. We’d done two retreats together before, one to Tulum in Mexico and another to Playa Madera in Nicaragua (during which I decided that was the place to purchase land for the Abide+Retreat+Explore project).

The first four steps were nothing short of arduous. I was beginning to doubt my once-famous capacity for travel.

Step one:

Extricate myself from a fleet of responsibilities (especially, the smashed-up car, the business, the school lunches, the dog). 

Step two:

Prepare the home front for a week without me (i.e. ensure there’s enough clean underwear for everyone and that my 12-year-old knows how and when to order food on Seamless).

Step three:

Pack (that includes a trip to “the dungeon” for that box of summer clothes).

Step four: 

Get myself to Laguardia airport at 4:30am.

 

Eventually the travel begins to take on the taste of freedom and excitement, tinged with a hint nervousness and a mild shot of exhaustion.

 

Step five:

Fly to Orlando, Florida.

Step six:

Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica.

By the time I arrive in San Jose and walk out of the airport into the midday heat to find the obscure Santas Airlines terminal (effectively a small hangar), I am beginning to loosen up. Delightful tropical bird sounds compete with the roar of jet planes.

I am definitely somewhere other than a wintry New York City.

 


Step seven:

Take a small twelve-seater plane with eleven others (mostly female yogis) to Puerto Jiminez in Gulfito– through choppy clouds, over great swaths of nature reserve jungle and a glinting metallic sea.

Step eight:

Take a bone-shaking 4-wheel-drive ride on a dusty and bumpy road to the retreat location, El Tumbo de las Olas (The Tossing-about of the Waves, or something along those lines), Playa Pan Dulce, at the tip of the Osa peninsula. 

 

Day 0.

Evening of arrival.

I walk into El Tumbo and am wowed by the architecture. It’s completely open. No windows, and no glass, anywhere. A framework of black steel channel beams supports the roof (made from corrugated galvanized steel), and the entire structure. The bedrooms attached to the main building are cordoned off by heavy cream-colored curtains on steel rails. The aesthetic is simple; minimal, natural, with a hint of local flavor.  Close to our bedroom is a wide wooden deck with views out through the jungle to the surf of Playa Pan Dulce. 

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A duo of locals (“Ticos") are beavering away in the kitchen downstairs, clearly cooking up a storm. The head chef has tattooed leopard skin prints on the front of her legs. The food is a fresh, healthy take on local cuisine; tangy guacamole, salsa picante, beans, rice, deep-fried thinly-sliced root vegetables, watermelon gazpacho. Ottolenghi’s cookbook, “Jerusalem” is casually lying around the kitchen.

I can barely contain my excitement, and relief (for someone with ulcerative colitis, diet is crucial), and yes, it’s true; I don’t need to lift a knife, a spatula, or a plate (other than to fill it with food I want to eat). Riley is in the lap of luxury here for sure. 

 

The group begins to gather and meet, to connect and relax, and wait for those still showing up. There are twelve of us, including the instructor, Julie Dohrman. Before this I knew Julie somewhat through attending some of her classes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including an advanced class at Twisted Trunk (a yoga studio in Soho).

I first saw Julie when she introduced the scholar and teacher, Paul Muller-Ortega at a Abhaya in DUMBO. I had read Paul’s book, The Triadic Heart of Siva and was intrigued. His teachings come primarily out of the Kashmiri Shaivist tradition, one that I began studying around four years ago and continue to enjoy (though most of my studies and practice are currently in the Srividya and Rajanaka realm I can dive in and drink the soma from a number of Tantric traditions – they’re all fascinating to me and I’m curious about where they overlap and diverge).

Julie had captured my attention with a series of classes she did in Gowanus last year on a goddess theme. She’s a tiny packet of pure energy, a “bija of shakti” with a radiant smile and the capacity to seamlessly weave Tantric philosophy into her rich asana classes.

Aside from Wendy and Julie, a couple of the women look familiar to me, likely from Julie’s classes, but otherwise I don't know anyone. There are no men. Four are yoga teachers. Four are mothers. Two are sisters from a family of six kids; one a dietician, the other a physical therapist. Every woman is uber healthy, fit, and confident. There’s a pilates instructor with an exquisite lithe, long body. A Stanford law grad who set up a successful non-profit supporting women’s rights. An ex dancer and wannabe full-time yoga teacher who works as a manager in a global ad-tech company. There’s the only yoga teacher in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, recuperating from a gnarly toboggan accident involving many torn knee ligaments. A psychologist who works in Manhattan, originally from a tribe in Montana. A software engineer. An artist.

And me. 

 

Day 1.

First: simply open. Pause. Breathe. Release.

I can barely move. My ankles are aching. My hips are aching. After the day’s second yoga session all I can do is crawl to a hammock and drown my mind in a few paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s, The Enchantress of Florence, while my body fills the hammock’s cocoon and swings like a soothed baby. Tidbits of yogic thought, memories of the practice float through my mind, especially Julie talking about "core power" and getting into the "ground of your being."

“There’s nothing you have to get rid of, and there’s nothing you have to take on, you simply need to drop into it; it’s always there.” She mentions the Sanskrit word tejase and I recall it from a recently-popular yet timeless invocation; it means "illuminative being” or “radiating luminosity." It’s the shining light at the core of your being. I know about this. I feel it in my daily meditation (sadhana) practice, and at plenty of other times too. But there’s something so effective about hearing it when you’re in the midst of asana, going deep into a the fire (tapas) of a pose. 

"How did that last pose wake up certain avenues in this pose? Can you find the opening that lies somewhere between sweetness and tapas (fire)?"

Two yoga classes in a single day definitely kicks my ass. But so did that gargantuan swim I did between yoga sessions when I was trying out a “hand plane” made by some friends in Hawaii.

I swam the entire length of the beach to get out to the point break. By the time I got there I was exhausted. Every time I tried to catch a wave I had to kick fiercely to get to the right point as the lip was beginning to peel. They were not tiny waves –around 4-5 foot, and breaking at a rocky point.

It was exhilarating, terrifying and exhausting.  

 

 

Day 2.

A black dog named Dragon follows us everywhere and guards us from possible intruders and too-precocious howler monkeys. He follows me in the early morning to the far end of the beach and further around the corner, where I thought I could find some similitude of solitude to chant my heart out.

There is nothing solitary about this place.

Hundreds of hermit crabs scuttle around us on the umber sand. A pelican glides along the surface of the water where the surf is breaking. Dragon pants thirstily until I give him some water from my bottle, via my hand.

Nothing solitary, and nothing serene. Quiet this place is not. Nature here is highly vocal: the monstrous growl of howler monkeys at dawn, the piercing sonorous buzz of cicadas at dusk, the squawks of macaws or toucans, the crashing of the surf most of the time.

 

Later in the day, resistance surfaces.

My legs feel like lumps of wood. Lethargy from the heat. Bucketloads of sweat, making some poses almost impossible with such slippery skin. Swimmer’s ear (I can only hear out of one ear now). Insects; the usual small biting ones (fortunately not too prolific), and the freaky ones that are probably harmless but scare you with their abnormalities. Thoughts of the boa constrictor that ate the manager’s daughter’s kitten recently (not that we saw it, but the mere knowledge they live around here is enough to make you squirm). The large scorpion that raced across the yoga studio floor and hung out on the edge, pincers at the ready, before I brushed it gently onto the jungle floor with a stick.

How do you awaken the core of your self through this dense matter of flesh and bone amidst all these niggling challenges? 

But I do know how.

I do this often enough, in bite-sized chunks, throughout my daily life and now I have the opportunity to run with it and really go deep, to find and ride that midway point between sweetness and fire. 

Yoga is a lot about going to your edge, to a place of intensity that’s both energizing and delicious. Only you know where your edge is, and everyone’s edge is different. Each asana (pose) works differently for every individual, depending on their body type, experience, mood, and immediate environment. Your edge is not necessarily your neighbor’s edge. In fact it’s almost impossible to find a bunch of yogis who can do a whole sequence of poses identically. 

 

Day 3. 

“Yoga is a state of being. When you visit the ground of your being and start to know it, then you begin to recognize your conditioned mind. When you’re in the ground of your being you have the sense, “I feel stable. I got this. I feel whole.""

Today, after morning yoga and brunch; an adventure.

Three of us decide to go paddle-boarding. Felipe, the male half of the management team and a well-built and experienced paddle-boarder and surfer, takes us out. He gives us some solid instruction first; point the board into the waves as you’re going out, kneel until you get out beyond the waves and then stand by getting up like this (he proceeds to show us how by placing the paddle across the board and getting up, one leg at a time).

"If you fall off, get back on like this," (he clambers on at an angle). "When you’re paddling, you’re using your core. Not like this," (he shows us the awkward stance of not using your core), "but like this." (erect, strong in the center, balanced).

We head out one at a time between sets of waves around four foot high. The adrenalin flows thick and fast getting out past the surf. Once out behind the break the wind picks up and starts blowing across the bay. Wendy catches up with me next, Sarah and Felipe still coming out through the surf. Wendy and I start paddling into the wind to avoid getting blown away from Pan Dulce. There’s a big swell and the surface of the water is getting choppier. I fall on my butt twice and land sitting up canoe-style and decide to carry on paddling this way.

I replay Felipe’s instructions about using your “core" to paddle, and effectively go into yoga mode; keeping an eye on my centrifugal energy, my balance, and my breathing. It definitely feels easier to be on my toosh and just working my stomach muscles than trying to balance standing up with all this chop on the water making it feel so unsteady. I get ahead of Wendy and assume she’ll catch up. I can see the trajectory; if we go into the wind for long enoughwe can simply catch the wind back into the beach (note that this works even without a sail).

Then I see that Felipe and Sarah have caught up with Wendy. Felipe paddles over to me and says he’s going to stay with them. We agree that paddling into the wind further will enable us to get back to the beach easier. I stay on course and, as the Kiwis would say, “keep charging” (think rugby union). I don’t look back too often because it throws me of course, but when I do I see the three of them getting smaller, and sometimes hidden altogether by the swell. I can’t tell whether they’ve been blown off course or are heading back to the beach at an angle against the wind. I can see a couple of fishing boats ahead of me, off the coast, directly into the wind. Perhaps I can reach them. If the others are stuck they’d be able to rescue them.

I keep paddling with all my strength directly in the wind, passing the beach known as Backwash and towards Matapulo. I’m a long way from the shore. I can see surfers catching waves at a couple of point breaks. They look like small playful dolls. Just about when I reach the point where I can catch the wind back into Playa Pan Dulce using my body as a sail, I turn back to see the others are getting closer to the beach. Phew! No need to hail a rescue operation from one of the fishing boats. I turn the board and point it towards Pan Dulce then stand up and paddle gently to steer course while the wind pushes against my back and I glide over the surface of the water, rising up and falling down on big swells that feels like moving mountains beneath me. Felipe paddles out to meet me. He was clearly relieved. 

“You were a long way out there! I was worried about you.” I assured him I was as worried about them and relieved they’d made it back. We glided towards the shore, chatting about New Zealand and Nicaragua and life in Costa Rica, as if nothing much had just happened; as if the roaring surf against the point break nearby were insignificant, as if the heaving ocean beneath us was gently carrying us to the shore like some delicate and divine hand carrying us to the land.

 

Day 4. 

Silence is golden, especially in the mornings before 8am as it turns out. Let nature do the talking. This rule was laid down upon our arrival and assiduously adhered to until this morning. I slept in and awoke to the raucous cackle and chatter of a bunch of yoginis preparing to depart on an expedition to an animal sanctuary. A few of us decided not to take the bone-shaking drive and ferry trip to the island where the sanctuary was and instead stay behind and chill.

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It was an excellent decision for Wendy and myself. We went for a short hike through the jungle along the coast towards a surf beach called Matapulo. On the way we saw a pair of scarlet macaws (apparently they hook up and stay together for life) in a beautiful big tree and we found a somewhat hidden spot at the end of the beach among the rocks, pulled out our drawing and painting gear and got to work; dissolving into the lines of horizon and tree and coast, into ink and pencil and pain on paper. The colors of cobalt turquoise and cerulean blues, ochre, and sap green. The shapes of ocean and rock, waves and sand, tropical trees. 

I still can’t hear properly but I’m not in pain. It’s just weird, and somewhat unbalancing.

Yoga is all about balance.

Every asana pose is done twice, once for each side. Much of the philosophy is about finding the “midline” or “middle way” between extremes. Only being able to hear in one ear is the epitome of asymmetry and unbalance, and I’m reminded of the deity Ardanarishwara, who is split in half; on the right (the side that is currently silent for me), is the male principle of Siva or Purusha, who is passive, still, vast consciousness. On the left (the side through which all sound funnels to me) is the feminine principle of Shakti or Prakriti; active, vibrant energy.

 

Day 5. 

Despite the deafness, I am flourishing.

I feel lighter, more energetic, and at a deeper level; serene, curious, open. I am in constant awe of the nature surrounding us and excited to be spending time with a bunch of seriously empowered women, each a yogini in her own right doing amazing things with her body, her mind, and her life. And I feel fit, flexible, and brave enough to try poses I’ve never done before. With a little help from Julie I manage to flip back from a headstand into a backbend with my feet on the floor.

“When one of the senses is impaired, use it as a gateway to the infinite,” instructs the Vijñanabairava Tantra. 

Whether by deprivation, injury, or age,
Obstruction of the senses
Invites awareness of Soul.
The mind can no longer take the world for granted.
Attention spirals inward,
And touches the glistening emptiness–
The reality behind appearance.
~ The Radiance Sutras, #66, Lorin Roche, PhD

Being partially deaf has its benefits. For instance, when the howler monkeys are doing their ferocious growl at 5am, I can simply lie on my hearing ear and shut them out. Or when someone is vomiting during the night and there’s no sound-proofing? Nada.

But otherwise it’s undoubtedly challenging, and being in one of the most remote parts of Costa Rica means there’s no way of fixing it any time soon (I’ve already tried all kinds of ear drops, various yoga poses and other creative methods). The only thing left to do is find a way into not letting it bother me.

Enter: yoga.

And by yoga I don’t just mean the asana (the physical poses), though that is a part of it, especially if you’re practicing four hours a day. I mean the philosophy, the psychology, the get-into-your-being-and-figure-it-out kind of thing. The raison d’être of yoga from a spiritual perspective is intimacy, connection, union, with the [ insert here whatever your idea of god, grace, or the divine might be; some might call it The Self, or the sum total; The Universe ].

For the most part that’s a deeply internal process. People may have similar experiences but ultimately everyone’s experience of this process is unique.

Today Julie tells us a Hanuman myth (the one about the monkey god who goes to Sri Lanka to try to rescue Parvati). It’s one I’ve heard before but every retelling and every teacher’s take on it is slightly different. With this one I understand the energy of Hanuman as a kind of elastic bridge between Siva and Shakti; between the energies of expansive awareness and manifestation; between stillness and activity; between masculine and feminine.

As I become more and more elastic in my body my mind follows suit and I can feel the connection, the bridge, more and more easily. I feel myself stretch and dissolve into the intensity of each pose.

 

Before the last session Wendy and Sarah and I hike to a nearby waterfall. There’s a young couple sitting on a rock in front of the waterfall, reading. They are exquisitely attractive, like a manifestation of Siva and Shakti in the flesh. The fresh-water pool is delicious after the hike and we revel in the splashing water like children.

 

Day 6.

Today is our last day.

I decide to go on the tree-climbing-and-jumping adventure. Three of us set out with a local guide –a biologist from California who’s been here nigh on 20 years– into the lush jungle, teeming with life.

We hike across and alongside a lightly-gushing stream. He tells us about the trees that bleed antiseptic and anti-alcoholic blood, and about the pregnant woman who slipped on thegreen algae that’s not slippery when wet, only when exposed to the air. The story of her death lingers with me –the apparent randomness of it, the danger of being alone in some situations, the tragedy of two lives lost so swiftly.

We hike onwards and upwards and into the jungle towards an enormous strangler fig tree that each of us climbs and then jumps from with a rope assist.

Terrifying and exhilarating, again.

Never-not-broken-ness. 

Julie reminds us about Akhilandeshvari, the goddess who is never-not-broken. Our human condition is such that we are always “broken” –or in pieces– in some way.

I am currently physically “broken” by my loss of hearing, and even to some degree, by my aging body. I have been “in pieces” emotionally and psychologically many times in the past, and will likely be so many more times in the future; whether by grief or trauma, even my own death. And those pieces are constantly shifting, moving, and stretching in different directions.

But it’s how we work with that brokenness; how we harness those pieces and get them working together that can make us feel whole, and present, and powerful.

 

Worship does not mean offering flowers.
It means offering your heart
To the vast mystery
Of the universe.
It means letting your heart pulse
With the life of the universe,
Without thought and without reservation.

It means being so in love
That you are
Willing to dissove
And be recreated in every moment.

pūja nāma na puṣpadyair yā matiḥ kriyate drḍhā
nirvikalpe mahā vyomni sā pujā hy ādarāl layah

~Yukti verse #147, Vijñanabhairava tantra, via Loren Roche, Ph

 

[ Namaste. ]


Footnotes:

| Find out more about traveling to the Osa Peninsula here |

| Do a yoga retreat  to the Osa with Julie Dohrman |

| Stay at El Tumbo de las Olas |

| See more of my nature photography from the trip here |

| See more of my yoga photography from the trip here |


[  Yes, it’s true. I guess I am living the life of Riley in some ways, but I’m determined to live life to brimming full, because you never know when your last day is tomorrow. Why squander today? I’m also a big believer in karma. I work my butt off in so many ways, and have done for as long as I can remember. Good things come from giving and serving, in any way you can, and even better; in the most effective way you can. Rather than simply burning up good karma by indulging in luxury with no outcome, a yoga retreat has the opposite effect. When done well it’s like a recipe for alchemical transformation into more –better health, deeper insights, and a stronger capacity to love and serve. If you can do it, go do it –for yourself, and for all those you serve. ]

 [ The hearing issue began in my mid twenties when I was traveling in India many years ago and some “ rofessional" ear cleaner person in the middle of Delhi convinced me he could give me super powers of hearing –by cleaning out my ears. And so he did, but since then my ears have taken to overproducing ear wax (I know, it’s gross), and every time I go somewhere tropical I end up with a war in my ears between the wax and the water. I’ve finally found a good high-tech otaryngologist in Hoboken which helps (no more old-school water-boarding of the ears!).]


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Women and Wolves

Wild Women and Wolves [ + Part 3 of 7 Therapies ]

I arrived at Annabelle’s school on the west side of Manhattan in the Theater District wearing hiking shoes, sweat pants and a t-shirt, and a giant pack filled with camping gear for the two of us. (Some of the finest adventures of my life have begun with wearing a pack, somewhat overburdened but prepared for anything). I managed to convince the school administration staff that I was sane and simply wanted to take my daughter out of school to go on a camping trip. I wasn’t sure I should mention the part about the wolves, or wild women, so I didn’t.

We got the green light, left the school and made our way through the thousands of tourists on 8th Avenue to the subway and hopped on a train towards Grand Central Station (it’s grand, and it’s central). 

From Grand Central we caught a MetroNorth train to Katonah, an hour-and-a-bit north of the city, very close to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Westchester County where we were going to be “on retreat” for 24 hours in the very near proximity of a number of wild, and some not-so-wild, wolves.

We take a taxi at Katonah station with a sprightly young Colombian guy and drive through wooded areas, past a few well-maintained ranches, then turn off the main road, wind our way through some gorgeous forest and arrive at the conservation center, close to the top of a hill.

I hadn’t fully done my research on the wolves before we arrived and had somehow imagined that we could camp within the enclosure among them, like that time in Zimbabwe when I camped with my kiwi friends Kath and Pete among the elephants and hyenas (and lions, hippos, snakes and water buffalo) in Mana Pools National Park. 

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (as it turns out, in many respects, I really am still a “kiwi” – “gung ho" to the point of foolishness sometimes, resourceful and resilient enough to get myself out of most challenging situations, and completely inexperienced with wild animals).

I guess I'd thought that sleeping among the wolves would be some kind of test of our ability to overcome fear; an essential component to reconnecting with one’s inner wild woman. In my fog of ignorance, I had no idea that wolves really were that potentially dangerous. But like most wild animals who could take you out with a single lunge at the throat, when left to their own devices, and not provoked in any way, they are not such a threat. In fact wolf attacks in the U.S. are pretty scarce, but clearly a high-fenced enclosure is going to prevent any potential mishaps at all (except those from fingers poked through the fence).

So we hike up to the campsite and empty our gear into the tent we’re sharing between the two of us, located second along in a very neat row of seven tents around twenty feet from the perimeter of the fence between us and the wolves. Then we head to the outdoor lounge and fire-pit area where freshly-brewed herbal infusions and women’s care concoctions await and we begin to get to know some of our fellow wild women while awaiting the arrival of others.

There were ten women in total, including Annabelle (the verging-on-woman girl), and three of us were mother-daughter duos (though the other daughters were much older than Annabelle). One mother-daughter duo had flown up from Asheville in North Carolina. Another had driven from Philadelphia. One woman, who was British, had flown from the Cayman Islands (where she lives). Two other women were more local (Poughkeepsie and NJ). 

Then there was the retreat leader, a quintessential “wild” woman; herbalist, ex professional boxer and wolf conservation activist, Vanessa Chakour. With a confident and calming presence Vanessa introduced herself and the nature of the retreat and then she brought out a carved jade bear; a gift that belonged to a teacher of hers and was symbolic of her path as a herbalist. We passed the jade bear around and each said a little something about ourselves and why we were there. I couldn’t help but mention my brother Matt’s recent death death and that I imagined this experience would help with my grieving process –somehow, that I felt so happy to be out in nature on an escape-retreat with my daughter, and that I was very curious about the wolves. Annabelle expressed her curiosity about the wolves too. After all, she had been an equal motivator in getting us there; making sure we made the booking and had it in our calendar.

Vanessa’s more practical agenda was to help facilitate us into feeling comfortable in the vicinity of wolves, teach us a little about native herbalism and also some basics of a physical self defense practice she calls “sacred warrior boxing.”

You can well imagine how reticent I was about the boxing component after Matt’s recent departure following a single punch to the head. But I had sensed that, given her capacities with the wolves and herbalism there was likely something I could learn from this process, at exactly the time I needed to. So I decided to be brave and open my mind to the experience and through that I discovered and realized some interesting facts (see postscript below about that).

Meanwhile, back to the wolves, wild women, mothers and daughters, and herbs.

So the wolves were inside an enclosure, and we were camping very close to it –and them. And we’d arrived at the campsite and done our introductions and sharing and had imbibed our herbal concoctions –infusions of different mixes of local healing plants such as nettle, red clover, oat straw and red raspberry.

Then, without further ado Vanessa invites us, with a cheeky and happy smile, to stand up, and howl. All ten of us stand up, look up towards the gently-dimming sky, and howl together. We do this, initially with a little trepidation, and then gradually with full abandon.

Then we stop. 

Just the almost-silence of an inhabited forest just north of one of the world’s biggest cities. Until it began.

The reply. 

Soul-searing, illuminative, primordial, luscious, and deeply healing; the sound of a wolf’s howl. 

Howling is like the primordial OM (minus the “m”). There’s something so undeniably primal about the experience of howling; something quite intangible and yet somehow so naturally therapeutic. I’d done it often enough with people in various situations, but I’ve never howled with wolves before and it was indeed everything I imagined it to be, and more. 

It was more insofar as I didn’t expect the “conversation” of the wolves howling together to be so diverse; so many different “voices” and styles of howling once they got going, and yes; they got going. After our initial howl with them they continued to howl more around sunset, during the night twice, then again at 5:30am and around 7:00am.

So the different styles of howling are due to the different species, different degrees of domestication, different ages and different genders, but also each wolf also clearly has its own personality, which comes through in its voice.

Just like us.

[ Interlude from the retreat experience for Part Three of Seven Therapies: Sound and Voice. ]

Sound –in the form of nature, voice, music and mantra– is one of the most powerful forms of healing that exists. I could write for hours on this but plenty of people already have so I don’t need to (see footnote below). For now, suffice to say that in my own experience, the healing –and general psycho-spiritual development– that comes through the experience of sound, and the use of our voice, is truly amazing. I know it has something to do with vibrations, physics, biology and subtle body mechanics, and that one day science and medicine will “catch up” on this. Until then, please take my word for it: both the experience of listening, and the experience of actually making sounds (like howling and mantras and singing) works wonders.

Meanwhile, back at camp. After we initially connected with the wolves through howling, we went to meet them and spend some time with them. 

There are two main groups of wolves in separate enclosures. The “wild” wolves –Mexican gray and red wolves– are fed once or twice weekly with deer carcasses from road kills. The Mexican gray wolves are the most endangered mammal in all of North America and the objective here is to nurture them from a semi-domesticated state back into wildness. These wolves are clearly more evasive. In fact we didn’t see them at all (though we did hear them a lot). Only one of the women saw some of the red wolves at 5:30am. Wild wolves tend to steer clear of humans and are only a danger if provoked or semi-domesticated (so if you meet a wolf in the wild, don’t go doing anything silly like taking it’s food from it or if it’s a mother, photographing its puppies). 

In the other enclosure are the “ambassador” wolves, which are somewhat socialized and are used to educate the public about the need for wolf conservation. They’re fed on donations of large red meat steaks from WholeFoods. They're much more social, and used to human interaction, but that doesn’t mean you can get too close. In fact there is only one woman, curator of the center, Rebecca Bose, who is able to get into the enclosure with one of the ambassadors, the elderly alpha Arctic wolf, Atka, who was brought up by her German Shepherd. 

The way those wolves “wolf” down those T-bone WholeFoods donations, you wouldn’t want to risk putting your finger through the fence. Instead we traded blow-kisses with Atka. He was cool, calm, and powerful, sauntering around like he owned the place (because he did), but he’d return every now and then to our blow-kisses, poke his tongue through the fence and was clearly longing for touch. That feeling was reciprocated; it was hard to restrain ourselves but obviously not worth the risk.

Atka has his own enclosure (being the alpha, he needs his space). In the other ambassador enclosure were three younger more vibrant and rascally wolves, the siblings: Alawa, Zephyr and Nikai, who are a mix of several gray wolf subspecies, but primarily Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray.

After an evening of hanging out with the wolves, practicing sacred warrior boxing and imbibing nature’s medicines (this time a variety of mugwort tinctures known to induce lucid dreaming), we shared a scrumptious and healthy dinner then sat around the fire sharing stories under the almost-full moon.

One of the wonderful things about a group of women like this getting together is that they tend to be non-judgmental and very supportive. Everyone’s been through some trauma or another and is open to supporting their fellow sisters through whatever it is they’re working with. I could’ve stayed up all night listening to everyone’s stories but Annabelle had fallen asleep on me, my eyelids were drooping and I was beginning to feel numb from her weight and being positioned just slightly too far from the fire. We sloped off to bed filled with stories and high on wolves and mugwort. 

The temperature had dropped a lot and I made sure Annabelle was bundled up warm but alas the sleeping bag I had was more for mid summer climes and I spent the night snuggling up to her in a bid to stay warm. It seemed like I never quite fell into a deep sleep. I also discovered that I have arthritic hips in extreme cold. But the upside was hearing almost every howl-fest the wolves put on during the night. (I even recorded them and will put those on SoundCloud so you can hear for yourself). 

I also had the most exquisite lucid dreams full of brilliant turquoise and delightful surprises.

In the morning we warmed up with a deliciously hearty and healthy breakfast, coffee and more time with the wolves. We also spent time picking wild plants and listening to Vanessa teach us about their medicinal benefits. Aside from the mugwort, there was wild violet, dandelion, plantain, rose, raspberry, mullein and chickweed. And I should’ve taken notes but I was too busy taking photographs. 

In any case this mother-daughter duo were thoroughly stoked with the joys of a brief escape from the city; a close encounter with wolves, and the camaraderie of being among a bunch of brave yet gentle and supportive women who know exactly what “wild” means for them.


Thanks to Vanessa and the Wolf Conservation Center, to all the wonderful wild women on retreat with us, and to my precious and adventurous daughter. There was not a drop of fear flowing with a giant fence between us and those gorgeous yet potentially ferocious creatures and was it ever amazing to spend time with them up close. If you like dogs, the sound of howling, learning about nature’s bountiful medicines, moving your body, sitting around an open fire, camping and getting close to nature and wilderness, you’ll love this. 


Find out more about the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Westchester County here.


See all of my photography from the experience here.


Find out more about Vanessa Chakour and Sacred Warrior: wolf and nature retreats, herbalism, boxing here

Upcoming retreats:
‘Reclaiming the Wild Woman' June retreat
August retreat for men and women


FOOTNOTES:

 

WHAT’S THAT STUFF ON ANNABELLE’S FACE?

She had a dinosaur tattoo there and we had some trouble getting it off.

 

BOXING:

1) Vanessa taught us that you are most powerful as you are falling, not as you are pushing. It’s your own body weight that provides the power in those situations and I understand that now also through the experience of doing handstands; you really feel the weight of your body being pulled by gravity when you do a handstand. Falling forward with your fists covering your face has a lot to do with gravity too.

2) My random observations: I haven’t heard too much about women killing people in single-punch deaths (except for the woman who killed a friend during a party-stunt-gone-wrong moment in 2011 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/woman-trial-killing-rapper-punch/story?id=13724992 ). Women are much more inclined to talk and negotiate their way out of threatening situations, rather than throw a fist, so if a woman did ever throw a fist outside of the ring, you know that 99.9% of the time it would be from a place of self defense (agree, women friends?). 

 

SOUND AS A FORM OF HEALING:

“All music, in one way or another, is therapeutic because it can heal. Behind this healing are the principles of Nada Yoga –that sound is holy, and therefore capable of restoring wholeness. Around the world, from Greece to Egypt to India, cultures have used music to restore and health and harmony in a system out of balance … My hope is that melody and mantra will be included in future medical research and healing."

~p. 125, The Yoga of Sound, Russell Paul.

 

"The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought… Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognizing."

How Music Helps us Grieve, BrainPickings.org:

 

WHERE ARE PARTS ONE, TWO, FOUR, FIVE AND SEVEN OF THE SEVEN THERAPIES?

I’ve posted parts one and two on my Facebook page and will elaborate on them further here at some point. I’m working on parts four through seven.